San Diego — I knew with certainty that distance learning was not the same as in-person school when I found myself Googling “russian orthodox ikons” during my environmental science class. To be clear, we weren't discussing Russian Orthodox ikons. Like many of my peers who are doing remote school, I’m distracted by every passing thought. With nothing to hold my attention, pretty soon I’m scrolling through TikTok or falling down Google rabbit holes. Despite the remarkable optimism and adaptability of my teachers and my school’s unique support and flexibility, it’s hard to connect with my teachers or classmates, and even harder to sit still for the hours that online school requires.
But there's something else about online school that I’m finding surprisingly thorny: when you’re on Zoom, it feels like everyone, including yourself, is staring at you.
I’ve found myself increasingly aware of a peculiar phenomenon: the “Zoom gaze.” Because Zoom and nearly every other video conference platform allow users to view themselves alongside other participants, I find myself looking at my reflection for a significant portion of class, no matter how much I try to stop. This ability to critique ourselves uninterrupted takes a toll on young people. We are already prone to be insecure about our appearance and to care what others think. Many students also have to contend with the fact that the appearance of their home may reveal sharp socioeconomic divisions between themselves and their peers. Basically, video conferencing platforms dial up the pressure to lead a flawless social media-worthy life. The pressure to look perfect on a 9:00 AM Zoom call is intense, at least for me. And while I did try to look presentable for my classes at in-person school, I only caught the occasional glimpse of my reflection in the bathroom mirror between classes. Now, that mirror is my computer screen, and I have to stare at it all day long.
In a normal classroom setting, students aren’t looking at each other all at once, and we can tell when others are looking at us. Yet the wall of neat video boxes containing my peers doesn’t offer the same luxury. Of course, I know that it’s unlikely anybody is watching me. Most people are probably doing what I’m doing: alternating between texting my friends, glancing at themselves in the Zoom window, and trying to focus on the lesson. But the screen of staring faces still makes me feel on display.
The dread starts an hour before I log onto school. And the thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. I know, because I don't feel this way in every virtual space. For example, I'm a part of a podcast called "This Teenage Life," where our teacher and the other students have built a culture of trust and authenticity throughout our years working together. At my podcast meetings, I'm too busy listening to my peers to stare at my own face. We're working together with shared interest and investment in our project. If people are looking at me, it's because they're paying attention to what I have to say.
Which got me thinking: what if students could choose what our education looks like, and worked with teachers to achieve this ideal? How would the motivation and mental health of students improve if more of our learning were authentically self-driven? In a recent "This Teenage Life" episode where we discussed the difficulties associated with remote learning, our contributors remarked that a self-driven model of learning, in which students work on independently created projects, would be more motivating. When students are in charge of our learning, we’re also more accountable. As senior Molly Zucchet noted in the episode, “You’re so in control of what you’re doing, there’s no saying ‘I didn’t know what to do.’ You’re in charge, so you’re responsible for it.”
Alternative solutions to online learning can be difficult to conceptualize — simple fixes, like not having cameras on to avoid Zoom insecurity, involve trusting that students will not wander away from the computer and can cause teachers to feel awkward and disconnected. Yet solely viewing an alternative solution to remote learning under the lens of what has traditionally been done is faulty, and I question how sticking with the status quo during this decidedly different time will benefit students in the long run. Re-envisioning what remote learning looks like now could be as simple as working in more nonacademic social time to rebuild (or create from scratch) the classroom camaraderie of in-person learning. Or, it could be as radical as allowing young people to be the creators, rather than consumers, of their education.