In language learning, students learn through interaction with the teacher, the other students, and with the study material, to build language skills. What happens to interaction opportunities when learning goes online? In an online classroom, collaboration is difficult to achieve due to lack of physical proximity among the participants. This paper explores the problem of online collaboration between teachers and students in English as Foreign Language (EFL) classroom with the empirical focus on the role that video cameras play in online collaboration. We argue that cameras, although being contested as a pedagogical tool, should be seen as an important ‘proximity tool’ that helps foster collaboration by bringing learners and teachers ‘closer’. We theorise ‘collaboration’ via the social constructivism lens and argue that collaboration as being ‘close’ echoes in the digital sense with ‘being with’ and is core for developing an ecology of virtual collaboration. We draw on the online survey data from foreign language students and language instructors in one Russian research-intensive university, who were asked how they use cameras online. Quantitative and qualitative methods of data analysis have been used to identify key patterns and emerging themes. The key findings of the study are that 1) cameras could be an important aspect of fostering collaboration online; 2) there is a tension in relationships between students, teachers, and study materials; 3) students and teachers differently perceive the need to use cameras, which may limit opportunities for online collaboration; and 4) while students feel more comfortable when all the other participants turn their cameras on, many do not see turning cameras on for themselves to be important. The paper concludes with a discussion of how camera use can foster online collaboration between teachers and students.

Practitioner Notes

  1. Transition to online learning is a challenge for teachers and students, which may disrupt their understanding of collaboration.
  2. Collaboration online should be reconsidered with regard to the notion of ‘being with others’ (Nancy, 2000), where proximity in an online environment is different for all singular beings.
  3. Teachers’ and students’ perceptions about the role of cameras in online collaboration can ‘clash’, which is not always transparent.
  4. It may be useful to encourage students and teachers to seek ways for online collaboration, for example, by undergoing specially designed workshops that will help them recognise the importance of fully engaging online via technology and ways of doing this.
  5. Teachers, in collaboration with students, should set up guidelines for camera use and develop specific strategies that will better create opportunities for collaborative learning.