This is the unedited interview conducted for any article about online learning. Read the article here.
An email correspondence interview was conducted with some key individuals about the topic of Zoom fatigue and digital strain. More importantly, this topic lends itself to highlight the divide, that is even more present now than ever before, of Professor/TA and student.
The respondents from Trent were Dr. Moira Howes, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy and Brenda Smith-Chant, PhD Senior Researcher, Self Regulation Institute, Associate Professor, Trent University. For a fair perspective outside of Trent I asked Darryl Silvestri, Registered Psychotherapist, MSc, RP.
Darryl, not having direct experience operating within a digital educational sphere during the pandemic, was given some alternate questions to reflect where his perspective would be relevant.
What has been the most difficult from a professor’s POV with online education?
Dr. BS-C: There are so many things that make online education difficult. First, many profs have never taught online courses, so suddenly finding out that we had to learn new online teaching technology and techniques was a bit of a shock.
Most of us have been trained in a “mentorship model”, where the role of the prof is one where we note, from questions and reactions, where our learners are. Often, our courses are designed around that approach. It is hard to translate that orientation to the online environment easily. Online teaching requires different approaches.
Many of us are struggling with the isolation. Teaching can be an incredibly rewarding (if intense) experience. We feed off of the class enthusiasm. It is hard to feel that students are enthusiastic when you are in a Zoom looking at just names and people are not responding to the material in a tangible manner. We are affirmed when we know what we are doing is useful and interesting to our learners. It is harder to feel that in online environments. For example, in my online intro psych class, I only know if something was interesting in my recorded presentations if someone emails to tell me so. Let me tell you that not many students let me know. LOL
All the faculty I have chatted with this year are deeply concerned about our learners. We know that online learning wasn’t something the vast majority of students would have chosen if there was an alternative. We know that many students are carrying extra burdens—loss of employment, family issues, COVID worries, etc. that are not the typical load for a student. We can sense that students are often frustrated by the limits of online learning and our attempts to mediate in this setting. Many of us are also struggling with our own coping and exceptional demands in COVID times—and feeling like we aren’t offering our students our best.
Dr. MH: I feel the loss of connecting in person with students and colleagues. The conversations before, during, and after class and at speaker events or in line for coffee—these connections are important for learning and scholarly life. I have heard similar sentiments from students: they miss being on campus, in class with others, and at in-person events. The social and physical campus environment provides much more academic structure than we typically notice. So, I would say the most difficult part is the loss of in person connection and conversation—that, and the freedom we enjoyed not having to think about such things.
The pandemic remote and online format is also difficult academically even for students already experienced in online learning. Normally, students enrolled in online courses and programs have “in-person” social engagement outside of academics – or at least more opportunity for it – and this provides context and support for their online education. So, even students who were experienced online learners before the pandemic may find learning more challenging and tiring as well.
Do you think digital meetings make it more difficult for us to have meaningful connections? Have they improved anything?
DS: Yes. I think the increase in digital meetings can create obstacles for meaningful connections. The depth of relationship often comes in the small, everyday, unscripted moments before and after meetings when you ask Jack how his father is recovering, or talking about the new Mandalorian episode with a fellow coworker who shares your passion for all things Star Wars. Working from home and interacting with others via digital meetings reduces interactions with coworkers to simply just about the task, the goal, the report. Interactions can become purely transactional and less and less relational.
Do you think there is validity in students believing the workload has increased with virtual classes?
Dr. BS-C: This is ABSOLUTELY the case and has been validated in multiple research studies and in previous experiences. Online environments are more difficult for both learners and mentors because people are designed to learn best in direct interactions with others and much of this learning is through verbal interactions (direct, through talking and indirect, through listening to others). With many courses, learning online requires more reading, more focus and attention, and demands more from everyone because much of this natural discussion moves to a more concrete form (writing or presenting more formally).
Also, many of the “teaching techniques” given to instructors for online environments stress the need to engage learners with structured interactions because of the lack of the less-structured classroom opportunities. Unfortunately, this structure (e.g., write a discussion post about your reaction to a course reading) adds to the workload for a student (i.e., being in a seminar group where you discussed your reaction to that course reading).
If I could assure my faculty colleagues and our Trent learners of one thing—it would be that online learning demands a lot more from everyone than in-person. According to studies, about 30% more.
Dr. MH: I do think there is validity in student reports that their workload has increased. But not necessarily (or only) for the reason that faculty have increased their workloads. On the one hand, I have heard from students that some faculty have increased the time they are required to “attend” lectures beyond pre-pandemic standards. Depending on the extent of this practice and the reasons for it – and we would need data to evaluate the situation properly – this is an issue we would address as a university. On the other hand, I know faculty who have slightly reduced the number of hours per week that students “attend” lectures, whether synchronously over Zoom or Teams, or asynchronously via video lectures. Some have also assigned fewer readings and/or large assignments. These practices factor in that learning in a pandemic is new, weird, stressful, and involves changes in the resources, physical environment, social context, and embodiment of learning. Assigning the pre-pandemic amount of work (or more) could very well reduce learning and increase inequalities that students experience. So, we must consider various factors when setting workloads if we want the quality of learning and the work produced to remain high.
But even if student workloads are the same or reduced, students might nonetheless feel like they are doing more work. And their feelings would be justified. We are all learning what it is like to learn in a pandemic in addition to learning philosophy or macroeconomics or whatever. Moreover, individual faculty set up their remote courses differently, so students must work with various new formats and expectations in a new context. Finally, despite knowing this summer that we were faced with a huge challenge, and despite all the training that faculty did to prepare, there was no way that students and faculty could know what the experience would be like. We are learning “what it is like” as we go, and we haven't yet had much time to process it. For these reasons, I believe the workload will feel heavier even if faculty are assigning the same amount of work (or less) than they were pre-pandemic.
Have you witnessed students or professors feeling a digital strain from online learning?
Dr. BS-C: Everyone I know is feeling digital strain. It is coming out in multiple ways: People are getting more stressed—which makes them more cranky and irritable; That stress depletes your energy resources, so they are not working as well and it makes things take longer (which adds to the stress); and we are also entering a time when stress is fundamentally part of the learning cycle—the end of the term. The fatigue is undermining the learning and teaching processes.
Dr. MH: I have witnessed digital strain for both students and faculty. While it is wonderful to connect through online conferencing and I am grateful for the technology – it is better than nothing – it is tiring to have your video and sound on for long periods. It is tiring to spend so much time at the computer and indoors. The physical movement and mental break time that we normally have walking or wheeling between classes (which I took for granted) adds up. Even our eyes are affected by the loss of ambient activity. When moving between classes, we naturally look to the distance and it keeps our eye muscles in shape and our vision clear. Now we have to consciously remember to exercise our eyes, of all things!
I think I know the answer, but do you believe people are feeling the digital strain more now?
DS: Yes. I think we underestimate the impact on our body and brain when we lack an adequate diversity of environment. A deficit of adequate novel stimuli can drain us and decrease motivation and fulfillment. There isn't enough difference to keep us meaningfully engaged because of a kind of stimulus poverty in our surrounding environment, even if that environment is home. The strain is also felt by collapsing boundaries. Work space is home space and it can either create a difficulty in shutting the work brain off to be present to home life, or it creates a difficulty in being fully engaged with work because home is a place where one's brain is trained to shut off work. Work phones contribute to this, but working from home exacerbates it.
What trends or habits have you seen with students’ video and chat? Do you see a lot of faces? Or do many have their cameras off?
Dr. BS-C: Very few students turn on their cameras. I have heard from other profs that students appear to be much more passive and “listening” (or perhaps, not listening).
Dr. MH: Many students keep their cameras off. And some students have difficulty with sound. It’s difficult to adjust to this as a faculty member, as I like to see and hear students as they share their ideas – this is where the joy of teaching resides. But I do not think it is acceptable to require that students turn on video or use their audio to contribute. Privacy in one’s home is important. Students may lack resources for cameras or audio. Their wired or wireless connections may be weak. Or their equipment might break. These are all things I consider as a faculty member.
Do you think it’s acceptable to demand that people turn their videos on during meetings or classes?
DS: I think it depends on the meeting. In some cases, I think we need to give people the autonomy of choice on how they are going to connect in the meeting to get what they need from that meeting. Many students enrol in classes and never attend the lectures and do just fine at the end of the semester. Is it necessary to force everyone to have their video on so you can ensure they are there? Probably not. Does it make the person chairing the meeting feel important? Probably. People leading digital meetings (teachers, professors, team leads, managers, etc.) need to be honest with themselves about what is necessary from the participants. Their ego is not the point of the meeting, and they have to check it so they don't become self-aggrandizing control freaks who need such tepid validation. If someone's participation is required then it should be acceptable to require their video to be on.
Do professors, like yourself, have the option to turn their video off?
Dr. BS-C: Personally, I do not feel that I have the option to turn my video off—when I am doing a synchronous presentation. However, I do tend to show only the PowerPoint in full screen, so I am pretty hidden. I am VERY aware that this also reflects how much I hate seeing myself on screen and I worry that people are more distracted by seeing me and my room on the call, rather than seeing and focusing on the material. When I am lecturing, I have no idea how I look and I am not focused, at all, on my appearance. Instead, I am looking at the others in the class. With online conferencing, I become an audience member and I get distracted by my appearance. This is the same for students and a big reason why it is less stressful to turn your video feed off.
Dr. MH: Faculty do have options for working without video. Some provide audio lectures alongside slides and images, either during a synchronous lecture or via asynchronous recording. I chose to go with video because students who need to see a person talking to stay attentive have that option, and those who prefer to listen to audio or just scroll through the slides can do that instead. I also keep my video on during my weekly Zoom sessions in my courses. But I have a mostly quiet home office with good equipment and a strong connection. Some faculty do not have these privileges, and it is important for us to recognize their situation as a just and compassionate institution.
How do we humanize the people on the other side of the blue screen?
Dr. BS-C: If students do not like to turn their camera on, I do appreciate having a picture or avatar they share, so I feel like there is a person. If the picture/avatar is smiling—that helps. If it is a gif and they gently nod in agreement, even better! LOL
I try, as much as possible, to connect with people individually, whether they have their video off or on. I think that the hard part of no video from an instructor is that we have been trained to respond to the reactions of our learners to judge our instruction. For example, even in a huge lecture—I can see facial reactions if something is too confusing for many in the audience (the furrowed brows, the look of confusion) and I am cued to slow down and try to resolve that confusion. Without those looks, I may have lost the audience, but I can’t tell. As a result—I am less effective in my teaching and it is also very unrewarding because I also can’t see expressions of interest.
Dr. MH: It’s amazing to witness the new practices we are creating to humanize our interaction over Zoom and other platforms. We’re waving instead of clapping and introducing people to our companion animals. I’ve seen some hilarious backgrounds. The other day students in one of my courses created a very amusing and astute chat thread about the material. Humour helps a lot. I also email my classes more. While I don’t want to clog students’ email with notes and updates, I want them to know that I am present to support their learning. But it is good to reflect that students, staff, and faculty each have their own struggles and sources of suffering during this pandemic. Patience and generosity with ourselves and others is a powerful humanizing force.
DS: Intentionally build into digital meetings opportunities for interpersonal connection over non-work related content. If I only interact with someone in one specific kind of way, my brain is more likely to reduce them to that part of them that I interact with. I need a diversity of experiences of a person to help remind my brain that this person is more than just the slice of them that I usually see. It requires real intention on our part to remind ourselves of the other's humanity.
Knowing this is most likely how we will continue for the rest of the year, what tips do you have for people feeling Zoom fatigue?
Dr. BS-C: The most important thing, if I could gift our Trent community with something, is to understand that the PERCEPTION that online environments are harder, more demanding, and effortful is REAL. They are. Knowing that, I would ask people to be kind. If you are a faculty member, be kind to your learners and appreciate that 30% more work across multiple courses is often overwhelming. Focus on what your goals are: To support learning. Let other things go. For learners, be kind to your instructors. This is NOT the way most of us want to teach. We are mentors. This is hard for us too.
Most of all, BE KIND TO YOURSELF. Acknowledge that this is harder. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it isn’t a flaw in you, it is a reflection that the current circumstances are not normal. This is not the way things usually go, so don’t expect that things should feel normal or typical. Focus on sustaining yourself through to the end of term.
Dr. MH: Interacting online is often discordant socially and it can be hard to resonate with others in online classes. One striking example I read about is that seeing enlarged heads up close on the computer screen is apparently threatening in some primal sense and can make us feel anxious and tired. We can minimize the anxiety-provoking effects by reducing the size of our Zoom window, thereby making people’s heads smaller. Who could have anticipated this? Thank goodness for the observant researchers who study such problems. The upshot is that if we are aware that online interactions can induce anxiety or feelings of disconnection by virtue of their very structure, we will be less likely to take these experiences personally and build mistaken narratives around them. And this will keep our energy and spirits up. So, take heart. It’s not you, it’s Zoom!
It's also helpful to remember that the pandemic is impermanent and that we are making our way through it successfully as an academic community. Throughout this crisis, Trent students have truly risen to the occasion. They are keeping the quality of their work up, and they are taking on the difficult challenges presented. Though students might not yet fully realize it, they are also developing a cracking skill set and a much deeper understanding of the world and its needs. So, when the digital fog sets in, take a good break, and remember that we are in this together, bumps and all.
DS: Better boundaries. Boundaries in time and space. You need to create limits for work/school in your life that don't allow it to bleed over into all other facets of your life. Get out of your house, move your body and engage your senses in diverse ways to help keep your whole body awake and alive. Leaders, teachers, etc. can allow workers or students autonomy where necessary.
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