Keep your camera on: recording and consent in the age of Zoom

I click the link. The Zoom window opens, showing me a preview of my camera image. I adjust my hair, slip my clunky headphones over my ears, and enter the call.

A message flashes across the screen: By continuing to be in the meeting, you are consenting to be recorded. I click “accept”, even as I wonder whether that’s really the answer I want to give.

Recording images or videos for class discussions isn’t a new concept. But in the age of online learning, the frequency of this recording practice has increased astronomically. As not all remote students are able to synchronously join classroom calls, classes are being recorded to accommodate time zone differences and other conflicts. But in the process, those who might not want to be recorded are being put in a difficult position.

Unlike the thorough guidelines around COVID-19 era health practices that can easily be located within Vassar’s reopening plan, a specific explanation of classroom recording policies is nowhere to be found. Dean of Faculty William Hoynes confirmed that, while a general guidance email about recording practices had been sent out to faculty, “We do not have a formal policy on recordings of class meetings.” There are brief mentions of online teaching and recorded classrooms in the reopening plan, but no details about how student privacy will be protected, especially given that videos posted on Moodle, a learning management website used by Vassar, can be downloaded and redistributed. As many classes are at least partially online, these details feel important. Why, then, are they omitted?

One contributing factor may be that students are always alerted when they are being recorded. Zoom, Vassar’s video call platform of choice, asks for your consent before you may join a recorded call. Given this gesture of transparency, an elaboration on the details may seem unnecessary. The problem lies in the difficulty of opting out of recorded classes. While students who don’t wish to be recorded may potentially be able to participate asynchronously, or participate with their camera off, this solution is flawed. At best, it limits students’ ability to directly interact with fellow students and professors, and at worst it could lead to a drop in their grade because of their inability to demonstrate participation. Additionally, even if students aren’t participating in the recorded sessions, they may still be required to post videos of themselves, as has become the case for many classes now that Moodle and similar platforms have become central to classroom interactions.

The requirement of consent to be recorded is fairly new, and beyond protections to prevent explicit or hidden recordings, there are few laws in place to prevent unwanted recording in the United States. In most circumstances, anyone can be legally photographed or recorded in public without their consent, and nearly 40 states, including New York, are one-party consent states. With some minor exceptions, this means that as long as one person in a conversation consents to be recorded, the communication can be legally recorded regardless of the other people’s wishes.

Given the lack of legal protections to promote consensual recording and our increasing reliance on recording technology, being filmed has become a familiar, even comfortable process to many. When I asked some of my professors about their recording practices, they discussed the logistics of how content would be posted online, and did not consider the aspect of student privacy in relation to the recorded classes until I explicitly mentioned it. “I hadn’t thought [of] the need to do that,” admitted Professor Nevarez, in a statement that echoed that of other professors. While the Dean of Faculty office’s general guidance email on recordings encouraged staff to “talk with…students about the use/access/purpose of any recordings”, it seems that many classes are not having these discussions, beyond a brief comment or two on where to find recorded lessons. Similarly, among my peers, I heard little discussion about discomfort arising from being recorded. This general outward consensus makes it difficult for students and staff alike to deviate from the common recording practices that have been adopted by most of the wider community. 

However, concerns are still being raised. The Dean of Faculty office stated that “[An] issue that has been concerning a number of faculty is that of the security of recorded class sessions, recorded videos related to course materials and potentially inappropriate release of recorded material to wider audiences.” While strong opposition to being recorded is rare among students, more subtle expressions of discomfort at being in front of the camera are noted by many, who told me they felt they must always demonstrate engaged posture and expressions and are often distracted by the presence of themselves on screen.

How, then, do we address these concerns without disadvantaging asynchronous students who may require recorded class sessions? Increased transparency with students about what is being done with the recordings, both through in-class discussions and a general policy, as well as an explanation of the factors used to help protect student and staff privacy, may help alleviate concerns. Sending only the class audio to asynchronous students instead of video may also be a potential strategy, although an untenable one for classes that require visual aids.

In such an unprecedented situation, it is difficult to strike a balance between ensuring student access to class resources and protecting student and staff privacy. As our education becomes increasingly digitalized, I suspect new questions of consent and privacy will emerge, too. But regardless of the issues that may surface in the wake of this new educational medium, I am confident that Vassar’s community can rise to the challenge.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you for a very excellent opinion essay, with great insight raising ethical questions about remote learning, privacy, technology and ownership of intellectual property. Who owns your thoughts as a student?
    And why are students paying tuition money for this?

  2. Another very interesting part of this report is the mention of concern of “a number of faculty” of potential inappropriate release of classroom material to a wide audience. Really? What could that be- political bias,
    indoctrination of students, one-sided viewpoints? What are examples of material which should be presented to students but hidden from general transparency?
    A suggestion also would be to refer people to the college yearly financial statements and a review of how much actually goes to instruction, or elsewhere.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *