Cartoon of a computer with a webcam icon on it. Wording "Webcam On or Off? The potential impact on learning.

Webcam On or Off? The potential impact on learning.


Navigating the workplace can be daunting for anyone but it is often heightened for People of Color (POC), LGBTQIA+, and neurodivergent folks.  For some, the remote work option created an even playing field and allowed many who were discriminated against in the past a place in the workforce.  However, there are MANY considerations when preparing for inclusive virtual training to ensure the safety, equity, respect, and inclusion of those involved.  

Why should we care? As instructional designers, our job is to ensure knowledge acquisition across all learners, not specific groups.  Creating environments with only one population in mind can lead to reduced retention, impact the safety of a classroom, and above all is harmful to certain individuals.  Rothwell states, “adults must feel psychologically safe to learn” (Rothwell, pg. 1716) and as learning designers, we have to ensure not only is the content accessible and inclusive but the environmental conditions are as well.  

Computer screen with a zoom call, six faces and all their cameras are turned on.One of these environmental conditions is webcam use in the workplace which has been a hot discussion since COVID began, and corporate policies seem to be based heavily on company superiors’ beliefs or own experience.  Relying on personal experience when setting policies is dangerous, we all have biases and need to make sure you are researching, involving marginalized voices, and being considerate.  After reading a fantastic article “Do you show your face in Zoom meetings? Your gender may play a role,” I was able to see a clear correlation between allowing the option for webcams and better learner retention due largely to the impact it could have on cognitive load.  This lead me down a rabbit hole of research 

Feeling Safe to Learn

The [article by Zlati Meyer] is really interesting and I encourage you to check it out, it describes the link between gender identity, race, and webcam use.  Essentially men are more likely to show their faces on webcams during meetings than their female-presenting or nonbinary peers and people of color (POC). Additionally, when discussing the numbers between genders, women were found to prepare for using a webcam or chose not to use a webcam solely based on their beliefs about their appearance.   Culturally this makes sense as we place the burden of ‘beauty’ on female-presenting AND people of color disproportionately often with very strict white hetero normative “beauty.” 

One aspect that the article didn’t mention was the impact on neurodivergent learners, when researching for this blog I came across a great [youtube video by Challenge Solutions] in the video the consultant describes how to set up for a virtual meeting as a blind person.  She gives tips and tricks, but what struck me was the prep needed to prepare for a virtual meeting as a blind person.  She recommends having a seeing person set up the computer first to make sure the webcam has the correct frame. Another thing I didn’t think about was the fact that she needed a seeing person to tell her what would be in the background. This never crossed my mind, but you can see the undue burden that requiring cameras for a neurodivergent person could cause. 

Can you imagine having to do this in an impromptu virtual meeting?  What about rushing to put on makeup, a binder, hiding children, a messy house, or “nice” clothes?  When we account for the number of steps and thoughts that it takes to just prepare for a meeting, can you imagine being ready to take in learning after that? 

How Does This Affect Learning?

This idea of cognitive load is based on the idea that working memory has a limited capacity and that the brain can only do, remember and problem solve so much before its retention is affected. The prep required for someone to be on camera, or the effects of being on camera in class are called extraneous load.  Extraneous cognitive load is simply unnecessary information, activities (even sound), or stimuli that will affect a learner’s ability to attend and retain.  With the implication that turning on a webcam takes up many different problem-solving processes, a need for remembering, and emotional labor it is easy to make the connection between cognitive load theory and its effects on a learner.  

I feel like I have said several keywords over and over; autonomy (choice), respect, safe, and inclusive.  These are all based on adult learning theory and what researchers have found adult learners need in order to be open or comfortable enough to learn. Malcom Knowles created a set of [Adult Learning Characteristics] which is a generalized list of adult learner traits.  These traits are very important when we are talking about creating learning environments.  

According to Knowles, adults crave autonomy or the ability to make their own decisions and have options in their learning.  We need to treat adults as the wealth of knowledge they are, including their experiences and knowledge is crucial.  Emotional barriers happen, such as anxiety about a subject, environment, or life event.  Adult learners have potential physical and mental limitations, our learning should not be geared towards neurotypicals nor rooted in white culture.  Adults also crave community, and building a safe and inclusive learning community is important. And last but not least, adults have outside responsibilities that can impact their ability to learn, being mindful of this and potentially reduce the extraneous load for those who may be having a difficult time outside of training.

How Can We Reduce Cognitive Load?

First, give the learner the option to turn their webcam on for as long and in what capacity they wish. We are working with adults, who are able to manage their time, work independently and pay attention.  By providing the message of respect; “I know you will be paying attention whether or not your webcam is on” you are building a foundation of trust AND respect. 

Additionally ensure that you have communicated training dates, times, and expectations clearly with enough notice to allow folks who need extra time to prepare to do so. Go the extra mile and provide an agenda ahead of time, this will allow those with children at home the ability to plan ahead, build in breaks for those who may have to take a break or medication, cognitive load theory states 7 minutes is the maximum length of attention by an adult learner. By providing time to prepare before the meeting, you are starting with respect, which is essential for building a community.   

Next, use breakout rooms to facilitate safe, small group learning, employing learner choice on group roles, webcam use, and giving a structured activity.  This will not only break up learning, and provide connection but the autonomy and community adults crave. We all should be checking for understanding throughout our courses but providing multiple modalities for response including; chat, observation, speech, etc. will provide a more inclusive and less stressful learning environment.  One of my favorite methods for this is Waterfall which asks a question to the class and asks everyone to input their answer in the chatbox but not send it until you say “okay” this reduces the stress of having to answer and with all of the answers flying at once its a lot more comfortable for learners. 

Ensure you have captioning active and are checking chat often for those participants who may not be comfortable speaking.  Additionally, ensure your mouth is visible for participants who may need to lip-read. Sending out the PowerPoint or links to activities ahead of time allowing learners to prepare is also a great idea. Providing wait time and utilizing an order for responses will be more inclusive for those with cognitive disabilities. 


Building a safe community for learning starts with very simple acts of respect, learner choice, and forethought.  As architects of learning, designing for who is coming to your building is just as important as the visual design or cost of your building. And as always, check your own biases, our learners are diverse and our methods must be anti-racist, trauma-informed, and inclusive in order to produce an even learning field for all of our learners.

Do you require webcams to be turned on? Were you surprised by the data in the article? Let me know below!


Mavilidi, M. F., & Zhong, L. (2019). Exploring the Development and Research Focus of Cognitive Load Theory, as Described by Its Founders: Interviewing John Sweller, Fred Paas, and Jeroen van Merriënboer. Educational Psychology Review, 31(2), 499–508.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2013). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Meyer, Z. (2020, June 23). Do you show your face in Zoom meetings? Your gender may play a role. Fast Company.

Rothwell, W. J. (2020). Adult learning basics. (2nd ed.). ATD. ISBN: 978-1950496143

About Video Conferencing – OneHE. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2022, from

Business, S. M. K., CNN. (n.d.). Stop making employees turn on webcams during meetings. CNN. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from

Challenge Solutions. (2021, March 29). Zoom Etiquette for the blind and Visually Impaired.

Characteristics of Adult Learners. (2019, September 28). The ELearning Coach.

Cheetham, J., & Thomson, S. (n.d.). Webinars: Webcams off or on? 2.

Chin, M. (2021, January 28). University will stop using controversial remote-testing software following student outcry. The Verge.

Gilmour, A. (2021). Let’s talk about webcams, and a pedagogy of kindness. Compass: Journal of Learning and Teaching, 14(2), Article 2.

Neurodivergence and online learning through the pandemic: What is neurodiversity? (Post 1 of 3). (2022, March 4). #ALTC Blog.

Student Video Equity Assessment – Ethical EdTech @DigCiz. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2022, from

Webcam Anxiety from a Neurodiversity perspective during Covid-19. (2020, April 7). Exceptional Individuals.

Why forcing people to turn on their Zoom cameras isn’t inclusive. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2022, from

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