Western Albemarle High School students who turned their computer camera on during virtual classes performed better academically, a junior at the school found.
Jenna Stutzman asked classmates to weigh in on how they engaged in virtual classes during the first semester and to share what grades they received. Nearly 90 students responded. She recently presented her findings from the anonymous survey at the regional and state science fairs.
Stutzman said students with higher grades used their camera more in class while a majority of students who received either a C or D said they never used their camera. Having the camera on likely helped students to stay engaged in class and more focused on the material as they are being seen by the teachers and their peers, she said.
“One of the big things is just trying to engage with both your peers and your teacher as much as possible because, of course, that’s one of the biggest aspects missing due to virtual school,” Stutzman said of key takeaways from her project. “… Looking at the variables and looking at the statistical significance, engagement is really the biggest indicator whether or not you’re going to do well, whether or not your grade is going to be impacted.”
For next school year, Albemarle County school division leaders are building on lessons from this year in crafting an all-virtual school option. Students who elect to attend the virtual school will be required to turn on their cameras and participate in classes. This year, students did not have to turn on their cameras, though the division has encouraged them to do so.
The virtual school is part of the division’s plans to offer five days of in-person classes during the 2021-22 school year. The School Board will vote on that plan Thursday.
WAHS Principal Jason Lee said he appreciated Stutzman’s project and that she captured the perspective of students.
“I just thought it was really powerful, and it captured some of the issues that students were having and allowed them to have a voice and share their experiences to help us to assist with that experience,” he said.
Lee added that having cameras on during virtual classes helps teachers see if students are understanding the material and enjoying classes through experiences and other nonverbal cues.
“It’s important to see the faces,” he said.
Poor internet connections and privacy concerns could prompt a student to keep their camera off. Stutzman said that for most of the school year, she couldn’t have her camera on because of technology issues.
“I actually had to get a replacement computer and it was very annoying,” she said.
If her classmates kept their cameras on when she couldn’t, she said that helped her stay focused on the class.
“You can see the wider class, and they have their cameras on and you feel more engaged because of that,” she said. “You can pretend that they can see you. It’s just the accountability aspect that we normally have in an in-person school but isn’t necessarily there, and trying to create that.”
In-person classes at Western Albemarle started in mid-March when the division moved to Stage Four of its reopening plan. Stutzman decided to stay virtual and has noticed fewer students turning on their cameras.
Stutzman said she wanted to study ways to be successful in virtual classes because of her own experiences this year.
“Especially with my own friends, I know we’ve all kind of had to adjust our learning styles,” she said. “Some of them aren’t doing as well because of the virtual environments, and seeing ways you could overcome some of the obstacles that virtual environment has presented in the last year.”
The findings reflected her experience with virtual learning this year. When her camera was off, she didn’t always fully understand what was going on.
“I’ll admit I’m easily distracted, so I did make sure that I had a consolidated workspace and kept the door closed so my cats couldn’t get in,” Stutzman said.
In the survey, she asked about different variables that could affect success with virtual classes, such as voluntary participation and a student’s workspace at home.
“D students did not engage voluntarily,” she said.
She found that those who were able to log on to classes and do their homework in the same workspace were more likely to have higher grades. That’s because those students could better separate school from home, she said.
“Engagement is really important, as well as maintaining that home/school divide, especially for students, who even right now are all virtual, and also just engaging with your peers, as well,” she said. “It helps maintain normalcy — the kind of normalcy that we lost when we went all-virtual.”
After conducting her research, Stutzman was less likely to turn her camera off because of a bad hair day or for other reasons.
“If I do that, I will be less likely to engage,” she said, adding that the findings helped to hold herself accountable. “I have actual statistical evidence that I’m not going to learn as well if I keep my camera off.”