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Mics and cameras off again! Student teachers’ experiences of navigating the challenges of teaching in digital classrooms

Christopher Grundy, Lecturer at Plymouth Institute of Education

As a result of the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions in 2020–21, most education providers in England relied on various online platforms and digital technologies to maintain their provision (Ofqual, 2021). A common theme resonating in research (Ofqual, 2021; UNESCO, 2020) suggests that the sudden and dramatic shift to remote teaching during the lockdown period represented a unique litmus test for the effectiveness of digital teaching technologies in practice.

The widely reported everyday problems many teachers encountered with students frequently hiding behind muted mics and switched off cameras during synchronous online sessions arguably represents a significant issue that is highly disruptive to effective learning within digital classrooms. This phenomenon brings some sobering insights to the debate about the possibilities and constraints of digital classrooms for revolutionising more ‘traditional’ in-class modes of teaching (Fluck & Dowden, 2011). This blog post joins the conversation by discussing our research into the student teachers’ experiences of online teaching and the challenges they identified.

To introduce our story, during the 2021 lockdown period our student teachers faced the challenge of completing most of their teaching placement remotely using various online platforms and digital teaching tools. They adapted their emerging professional knowledge and ‘in-person’ teaching practices to suit the nuances of digital learning environments. This represented a steep professional learning curve in terms of student teachers  navigating uncharted digital landscapes, teaching to expected professional teaching standards (ETF, 2022), while at the same time managing their own professional learning.

In this context, as teacher educators working in a university context, we certainly learned a lot of lessons ourselves. We were alerted to the increasing importance of ensuring that our programme remains current with the ever-changing landscape of digital teaching technologies, and we were inspired to research the affordances and constraints of digital technologies in practice. To this end, in March 2021 we started a small narrative research project investigating four student teachers’’ lived experiences of teaching in digital learning environments while on their teaching placement. The research aims to gain insights into the trainees’ pedagogic philosophies and practices, and illuminate their understandings of what works, what does not and why. Such research, we think, will prove useful for developing digital teaching practices and establishing ways the professional learning experience of our student teachers could be improved to better prepare them for the challenges of teaching in digital classrooms.

Data for the research project was generated using semi-structured, one-to-one interviews that aimed to capture the student teachers’ ’ storied experience (Clandinin, 2023 and provide a window into their worlds. Etienne Wenger’s community of practice model (Wenger, 1998) provided the lens through which to analyse the participants’ narratives and establish ways their professional identity, pedagogic intentions and practice experience intersect in a meaning-making process of professional learning.

Commensurate with other research (Castelli & Sarvary, 2021), our analysis shows that the nuanced affordances of digital classrooms gave rise to communities of practice in which the student teachers often struggled to elicit verbal participation and facilitate social interaction between students. This frustrated their pedagogic intentions of creating collaborative and dialogic learning experiences they consider as being a hallmark of good practice.

A common theme across the student teachers’’ narratives suggests many students were often reluctant to ‘be present’ and continually had their microphones and cameras switched off. One possible reason for this is that digital communities of practice represent ‘strange worlds’ for both teachers and students which can manifest in pronounced social anxieties – especially at the initial stages of a programme where the ‘rules of the game’ need to be explored, co-constructed and learned before a sense of community and engagement with meaningful learning processes can occur.

‘Digital communities of practice represent “strange worlds” for both teachers and students which can manifest in pronounced social anxieties.’

Our working hypothesis maintains that increases in students’ social anxiety and inhibitions stem from a sense of dislocation and human disconnection when participating in synchronous online sessions. The sense of distance curtails interpersonal interaction between students, disrupts meaning-making processes and diminishes the formation of learning communities that are so essential for effective learning relationships to flourish. We are terming this phenomenon as ‘digital distanciation’. As ours is exploratory research, I recognise that this concept requires corroboration through further theorisation and collaborative research.

Meanwhile, I invite you to ponder why it is that so many students choose to hide silently behind their screens, and what strategies teachers could use to resolve this issue. More broadly, what is your position on the revolutionary potential of digital classrooms and other digital teaching technologies?


Castelli, F. R., & Sarvary, M. A. (2021). Why students do not turn on their video cameras during online classes and an equitable and inclusive plan to encourage them to do so. Ecology and Evolution, 11(8), 3565–3576.

Clandinin, D. J. (2023). Engaging in narrative enquiry (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Education and Training Foundation [ETF]. (2022). Professional standards for teachers and trainers

Fluck, A., & Dowden, T. (2011). On the cusp of change: Examining pre-service teachers’ beliefs about ICT and envisioning the digital classroom of the future. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(1), 43–52.

Ofqual. (2021). Learning during the pandemic: Review of research from England.  

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (2020). Global education coalition for COVID-19 response.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press.