Teachers are tired and stressed. Traditionally, they have had worries about job security. safety at schools, whether they will be paid for prep work and extracurricular activities and a host of other aspects in their routines. But now, in the age of pandemic, the worry turns to tech and issues of time. How does this software work? How will it help me? How will I find the time to learn how to use it?
The World Has Moved to Zoom
It doesn’t matter whether it’s adult education for learners of English (ESL, or English as a second language) or nursery school programs conducted online, whether young or old, students are getting lots of their face-to-face time via electronic devices. Teachers are leading virtually, often from home, and students log in at their appointed times, just as they did pre-pandemic. While good teachers will always be good teachers, a lot has changed and the experience is different.
In my own experience and anecdotally, I have witnessed and heard about varying degrees of success with courses that take place largely online using video conferencing as the main tool. Some should operate this way and others could be radically adapted, relieving pressure on teachers and students.
Zoom Fatigue is Real – Here’s What Happens
On the Ted Talks blog there is an article that explains why video conferencing is so exhausting.
When you have an audience staring at you at close range – because your web cam is not far from your face – it literally makes one feel “on the spot” and like you are being inspected. There is pressure to perform.
Teachers and trainers leading video chat sessions may feel they have to be “on” and appear engaging more than they would in a classroom.
the authors write: “People feel like they have to make more emotional effort to appear interested, and in the absence of many non-verbal cues, the intense focus on words and sustained eye contact is exhausting.”
A Look at Some Current Teaching via Video Conference Case Studies
I have 3 personal or anecdotal online teaching experiences to contrast:
- E-learning certificate course at U of T
- LINC ESL and TESL courses in the Greater Toronto Area
- ESL tutoring at a distance
I will cover these examples in the following sections. I have experience teaching in colleges, private schools and immigrant service agencies in the Greater Toronto Area (often called settlement service providers).
The ability of the teacher, abilities of the students, support of the institution, and factors including availability and familiarity with technology come into play. Literacy is an issue, whether that is at the digital technology level or at the language and academic performance level.
My Experience with Asynchronous and Synchronous Online Classes
The term asynchronous implies that teachers and students are collaborating but not in real time. Assignments, instructions and tutorials are posted and students begin work on them independently. Teachers support via email, discussion boards and even a telephone call or video chat, but most of the communication is not live. Synchronous means interacting at same time. Usually this would be a lecture via Zoom or similar technology.
Of course, traditional classroom environments offer mostly synchronous real-time learning experiences. Classes are face to face, large groups are common, and teachers and students can interact in many different ways. Even in these situations there is a difference between quality of instruction and tech supports between different kinds of schools and teachers, and between students. A well run online course can be infinitely better than a face to face class if conditions are poor.
In the most fully realized version of asynchronous learning I can offer the experience of taking the E-Learning certificate at the University of Toronto. I took multiple courses to obtain this post-graduate certificate and each involved a semester of study. Each course operated completely asynchronously. We met virtually using discussion boards, completed our work over the course of a week and asked most questions via email. I felt close to my instructor and the other students. I do not recall any live lecture – and I didn’t miss it.
I am teaching English right now using Skype. This video conference tool is combined with Google Drive for file hosting and the duo work well. My feeling is that each two-hour session is as rewarding as regular tutoring but more exhausting. I feel that I am more tired after the tutoring session than if I had taught a face to face class.
Emergency Distance Teaching and Reliance on Video Conferencing Time
Anecdotally, I have heard that LINC ESL and TESL instructors are teaching most of their days online using Zoom. I fear that this is leading to issues of burn out. Non-teachers may not think a 5-hour teaching day would be tough but they might sympathize with anyone facing 5 hours of Zoom!
Part of the problem with what is taking place is that it is emergency teaching by distance rather than teaching via an online course prepared using e-learning best practices or tools. Teachers started doing this in March and April and have had to make do and improvise, while getting used to tools like Zoom and Moodle.
One teacher I spoke to clarified that in their school about 2 hours per day was spent on Zoom. If the typical teaching day is 5 hours this means less than 50% of the time is spent in video chat, and students complete a lot of work on their own. However the same teacher said the other day that they had spent over an hour on Zoom trying to familiarize one student with Google Drive and apps like Google Documents.
Alternatives, Tech and Training Solutions
What options exist? How can we beat Zoom fatigue? According to the article, there is a physical effect which contributes to a feeling of tiredness, mental exhaustion.
General recommendations would include hosting fewer video chat sessions, diversifying the content, having breaks and trying to move some of the video conference time to private rooms which means working for brief periods with individual or small groups in sessions away from the larger group.
My feeling is that some classes will generally require lengthy video conferencing and others can be modified so the teacher is live on camera less often. On a simple level, students can lead more sessions by presenting or sharing their experiences. On a slightly more advanced level, why not have the teachers record some of their lectures so they can be reused?
Using E-Learning, Blended Learning and Media Recordings
Teachers recording themselves or using video recorded by others could reduce time spent on video conference calls. In e-learning the principle of the reusable learning object, a chunk of content, writing or media that can be used again and again, is paramount. It saves time and repetition. If the material is produced well it ensures a high quality experience for learners – no issues with glitchy audio if and benefits like students working at their own pace and even downloading the file for a guaranteed smooth video experience.
Adapting classes so readings or lectures are done in advance by students, and then students spend time in discussion with each other and their teacher during class time is the foundation of blended learning. It’s especially true with ESL. Teachers spend a portion of each lesson presenting and then students take turns practising, then move toward a production that hopefully demonstrates their grasp of a subject. Why should the teacher portion have to be live? Recording that presentation or using recordings by other educators doesn’t remove the ability of the students to then ask questions of the teacher later on. Questions can still be asked via email or direct messaging, or when private or group video chat resumes.
I’m a big fan of discussion boards and voice recording tools? They can be very productive and allow the students opportunities to research, get comfortable with the material, and then practice restating the main ideas by discussing with their peers and teachers. Some assignments and coursework can routinely involve students making voice recordings. Assuming the recordings are based on their own writing, teachers will be able to make sense of the audio and use it for assessment and feedback – not just on content but on structure, style, grammar or any other aspects documented in the process.
Let’s UnZoom and Consider the Benefits of Asynchronous Learning
2020 has been a stressful year. It’s a time to consider and begin adjusting many practices from school to work to home. It’s an opportunity to rethink how classrooms and education work.
It’s time to end the practice of relying so much on live interactions. It is a waste of time and resources, stresses instructors and replicates too much of the traditional teacher-centred classroom. Zoom equals a lecture format. If you unZoom you free students to work at their own pace and schedules. And the work will get done. I think teachers can reduce their Zoom time by 50% and everyone will be better off for it. Let me know your thoughts – feel free to drop me a line via email.
Founder of AncestryProject.ca
Mike Simpson is an educator and designer from Toronto, and the founder of Ancestry Project, which won the “Digital Teaching or Learning Resource” award from TESL Canada in 2017. He’s worked at George Brown and Centennial College teaching a variety of courses in programs like EAP English and Art/Graphic Design. Mike loves education and media and finds e-learning sits in that perfect sweet spot. A lifelong learner, he completed the University of Toronto E-Learning certificate in 2016 and continues to work in e-learning, media and education development.