The approach taken by the English Language Centre to build connection and community when teaching remotely using Zoom, led to some guidelines being developed for staff and students.

Cameras on? Is that a reasonable request?

There is discussion among teachers about ways to manage the Zoom classroom throughout this period of emergency remote teaching. Can we expect cameras to be on during synchronous delivery? Is it reasonable to ask? What about students’ privacy, poor internet connections and cultural beliefs about digital imagery?

The social constructivists among us ‘know’ that connection and community can empower the learning experience. It is why team-based, project-based and problem-based learning have gained so much traction in learning and teaching. But how do we build this community with a wall of black boxes in place of student faces on the Zoom room screen? When an educator segues from lecture to discussion, the best laid out breakout room activity falls to pieces when it turns out that only two of the six students assigned to the breakout room are in fact still ‘there’, floating in the darkness.

But the Zoom camera can be confronting and debilitating for some students…

There has been a cry for “cameras on” to better engage participants in the learning moment and to create opportunity for meaningful connection, and my own cry has been among them. Our teachers report disturbing feelings of disconnect when faced with swimming black boxes on the screen for hours on end and our international students report loneliness. Yet, the trauma experts warn us that the Zoom room camera can be confronting and debilitating for some students. The students themselves of course have a diverse range of expectations and preferences. Some want camera and connection, while others prefer to be incognito, or to sign on and disappear entirely.

As there is no one approach to suit all, flexibility, negotiation, and creativity are key to the establishment of productive learning environments online. The use of cameras in Zoom is something to be encouraged at specific, communicative points of the session. The iLearn discussion board has also become a wonderful makeshift whiteboard and collaborative learning tool.

International students had their dreams of an immersive language experience and new friendships shattered!

At the English Language Centre (ELC) we work exclusively with international students. Many of them are stranded here in Sydney studying throughout this disturbing pandemic period and forced into isolation. Their dreams of new shores and friendships were swiftly replaced by the fear and uncertainty the COVID-19 pandemic has heralded. Meanwhile, a growing portion of our students are trapped back in their own countries, unable to enter Australia to take up their immersion language studies with us.  For our students, it is more important than ever to create a learning community within the Zoom room space.

To achieve productive learning, we need a connection among the learning and teaching group that traverses borders, time zones and cultural divide to establish cooperative relationships and even friendships.

The English Language Centre (ELC) developed a set of guiding principles for remote teaching which highlights the importance of community, empowerment, and accessibility.

Read the Guiding Principles for Zoom developed by the English Language Centre.

Top tips to enhance engagement:

Top tips from the English language teachers are that engagement is enhanced when:

  1. Students are encouraged to ‘share’ something about themselves (professional, personal, or aspirational) in brief team meetings once or twice a week – recommend cameras on for this.  
  2. Roles of facilitator, note-taker and reporter are assigned to breakout room activities and there is always a requirement for at least two groups to report back.
  3. Shorter breakout room activities are used to break up long informational flows:

Posted by Cara Dinneen

I am the Associate Director, Learning and Teaching at MUIC and the ELC. My background in English language teaching has shaped my beliefs about the importance of community, connection and scaffolded learning design. These time-honoured elements transfer readily into contemporary learning spaces.


  1. Thanks for sharing your “Guiding principles for using Zoom” and top tips to enhance engagement; it is great to have some recommendations and lessons learned to share with our Faculty academics.


  2. Great post Cara!


  3. Thank you Cara. Useful information.


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