Let me start by acknowledging the perpetual dumpster fire that is this year, for everyone involved in it. It's hard. We're all struggling. I see you. You are seen.

Great, now let's talk about one of the ways we are contributing to the dumpster fire – in the name of social justice, lest you receive the shame of social justice.

Today's entry is all about Zoom cameras, and how "problematic" it is to ask students (in a school setting!) to turn them on because it assumes they have access to high-speed internet.

By the end of it, I'm going to make a case that:

  1. It's actually problematic not to ask students to turn them on;
  2. Any other stance here is actively anti-social-justice, especially the ones arguing it from the vantage point of equity and inclusion; and
  3. The way to make things better and more equitable is staring us right in the face.

But I'll start by making the case that I've seen everyone making.

"FYI: Stop requiring students use a camera in your Zoom classes. Not all students have high speed internet."

That's a quote from an email I got. The author went on:

I know a lot of us aren't aware of this so no big deal but a lot of students especially if they are marginalized don't have high speed internet access to do video calls or they are ashamed of their settings and don't want to be on camera. Stop assuming students have access to video and be okay with students being audio only. This is an equity and inclusion issue.

This is a thing I'd been hearing plenty of recently, increasingly moving from a "Heads up! Be aware of this," to a "You're oppressive if you do this" vibe.

It's applying a social justice lens to a thing a lot of us are mucking through right now: transitioning in-person learning to virtual.

I've been participating in a ton of virtual meetings in the last few months, and I can't even keep track of the number of times people have tossed in this little aside. "Oh, but remember to be inclusive and not assume everyone has high-speed internet."

It's one of those little "truisms" we learn to toss in as social justice people, while we're talking about other things. But increasingly, I'm seeing it like raisins in potato salad: it's not just that we don't need it, we need to not do it.

Over the last few days, I've seen the following infographic shared on Facebook by six separate friends of mine, all wonderful, social-justice-minded, educator-type people:

Nothing but love to Torrey Trust, who put together this graphic, btw. My beef isn't with you, or even this graphic itself, but lever for which it's serving as a fulcrum.

There is a whole lot there, plenty of which I agree with (don't trick students is a great rule, generally speaking), and a bunch that's not at all incompatible with video-focused Zoom learning, and could easily be a both/and situation (e.g., using real-time check-ins, or digital assessment tools).

I'm going to hone in on the equity one for this post (because that's what social justice is all about, and the angle I've seen people sharing this from):

Why does it matter? Equity. Students might have unreliable internet access, low bandwidth, devices without video capabilities, or limited access to a device.

That is not what equity means, and this is not how we (as social justice people) should be "making equity matter." This is making matters worse.

If you care about equity, get these kids access to internet.

A lot of examples of social injustice are abstract, hard to pin down, harder to solve. They're so far down the stream of societal effects it's hard to know the source. This is not one of those problems.

The problem is inequitable access to high-speed internet? And that's a barrier to participating in education? Then let's solve that problem!

Instead of "not requiring" video (more on this in a bit), let's work together as educators and community members to make sure our students all have access to high-speed internet.

Instead of focusing our activism on creating education norms that allow for some students to have while others have not, let's focus our activism on providing equitable learning environments for all students – whether they're learning from home (because of the pandemic, etc.), or in the classroom.

And this is a real problem, but it might be not as big a problem as we are making it seem.

For one, only about 6% of people in the U.S. don't have access to high-speed internet (higher in rural communities, so if that's you or your people be aware).

For two, high-speed internet is not nearly as expensive as it used to be. The cost of solving this problem, for example, compared to other social justice problems, is eensie-teensie.

Internet access has been ratified as a UN human right, and is increasingly necessary for participation in society. It's something we can, and absolutely should, be advocating for as social justice people.

On the flipside, a lack of high-speed internet access is not something we should be supporting indirectly, excusing, or ignoring.

It's that simple*: we can spend lots of time and energy and effort accommodating a lack of access to something important, or we can work to get these students access.

My vote is for the latter.


*P.S. Of course none of this is simple.

I was texting with social worker friends of mine about this, trying to get a read on whether or not taking this call-to-action in that direction would be something I should suggest.

One friend replied with hesitation, saying, essentially, that asking social workers to help provide students with internet access could easily become a "pass the buck" situation, something that doesn't actually get supported or a plan or the investment it needs, then the blame lands on the social worker for not being magical.

Digging into that, I got the following text [slightly redacted]:

I think broadly, yes, it would be a huge get and something that social workers could do and broker. I mean when I did [redacted], our agency set up their utilities and other needs like that. Any case manager has done that. So it’s for sure a thing we do, but in this context it would fall on top of, for example, a school social worker who is also likely fielding more incoming child abuse claims and suicide risks than ever before.

So it's not simple in the sense that it's easy, or would be politically popular.

It's just simple in that the solution to this problem is obvious, and (I think) we're obviously advancing the wrong solution.

Worse: our purported solution is actively a problem.

There are lots of other reasons people have been pushing the no camera thing beyond equity and inclusion regarding internet speed issues. Those concerns also make this less simple, but are outside the purview of today's post.

I will say, however, that almost every anti-camera argument falls apart in the face of the following question: "If Zoom is replacing in-person school, do your anti-camera concerns make sense within the paradigm of compulsory education and attendance?"

Maybe you think it's wrong to make students attend school. To force them to show up in class. To require them to participate in certain ways, to have grades, and to have standardized tests and knowledge required for graduating.

Cool! Then your issue isn't with a camera, it's with our entire education system as it's conceptualized right now. Let's talk about that, not webcams?