Leveling Up Online Learning

Image by febrian eka saputra from Pixabay

Earlier this semester, guest lecturers from Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science led our weekly session of the Preparing the Future Professoriate course. The class consisted of improvisatory theatre games–adapted for Zoom–to foster fundamental skills in collaboration and communication such as deep listening, image-making, and gesturing. As someone who’s spent most of my life in theatre as a director and performer, I was curious to see how games I’ve experimented with many times before would translate to the clunky medium of a video conference. While there were some technical “hiccups,” as anyone might imagine, the session was largely successful. Classmates who had previously exhibited taciturnity, on the whole, were suddenly laughing. Students were connecting in new ways as they were invited to reveal aspects of their identities and daily lives that had heretofore remained private. Ultimately, the session illuminated the merits of experimenting with differentiation in remote instruction to maximize engagement and community. 

Eight months into the present pandemic, we’ve learned a great deal about the pitfalls and possibilities of virtual learning. There’s still much to discover, of course, but I’ll highlight some recent findings on the subject and recommend ways we might adapt instruction to boost the quality of teaching in higher education.

One of the biggest and most obvious challenges of engaging with others online is the loss of physical presence. Not only do we lose the sense of organic camaraderie that results from simply sharing space together, it turns out that video conferencing denies the senses critical data for communicating with others. A recent piece in National Geographic explains:

“During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt. [. . .] [A] typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed. [. . .] The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.”[1]

Sklar, J. (2020, April 24). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens. National Geographic.

This circumstance isn’t all bad. The natural turn-taking in conversation and reduction in visual stimuli during video conferences have proven beneficial for those on the autism spectrum.[2] Considering this, the present moment offers an opportunity to enhance learning for those with the disorder. For those outside the autism community, however, how can remote instruction be adapted to better suit their needs? Instructors could experiment with planning lessons that isolate the senses. Examples include audio only (with closed captions for those with hearing impairment) or non-verbal classes where course content is delivered solely through visuals. 

As is, most communication via video conferencing these days contributes to the phenomenon that is now part of common parlance: “Zoom fatigue.” In a Psychology Today article on the subject, a University of Kansas professor of communication, Jeffrey Hall, describes why this occurs. 

“‘Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so  much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls.’” If you haven’t turned off your own camera, you are also watching yourself speak, which can be arousing and disconcerting. The blips, delays and cut off sentences also create confusion.”[3] 

Denworth, L. (2020, July 31). Why Zoom Fatigue is Real and What You Can Do About It. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-waves/202007/why-zoom-fatigue-is-real-and-what-you-can-do-about-it

Instructors could more effectively equip students to navigate these realities by familiarizing learners with the factors that contribute to Zoom fatigue and empowering them to put in place proven mitigants. This is different from statements of “netiquette,” which many faculty members have distributed to students in this transition to online learning. For example, urging students to activate “Speaker” view and close the picture-in-picture video of themselves during video calls could reduce the visual data that produces self-consciousness and distraction.

These kinds of technical fixes may improve the experience of online learning, on the whole, but exogenous factors like lag produced by overtaxed internet connections or audio and video issues regularly make video conferencing a cumbersome affair. But is the clumsiness of the mechanics purely a downside of virtual learning? These complications can throw every detail of a given lesson into high relief, fostering greater reflexivity about the effectiveness of pedagogical approaches. Think of brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. The difficulty of doing so makes a person all the more cognizant of every move. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found as such in their evaluation of faculty members’ views of teaching in the pandemic. The mass move to remote learning sparked heightened awareness about instructional practices and creative approaches to delivering course content. 

“When asked why they had such a key interest in teaching once they shifted to online instruction, the most common answer the interviewees gave was revealing. In the words of one college instructor, in a face-to-face classroom, we know — at least we think we know — how to teach because we were taught that way as students. With the switch to online teaching, the faculty members had no prior experience to fall back on, so they had to think through even the most basic steps in ways they had never had to do before.”[4]

Miyagawa, S., & Perdue, M. (2020, November 11). A Renewed Focus on the Practice of Teaching. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/11/11/switching-online-teaching-during-pandemic-may-fundamentally-change-how-faculty

In this period of greater mindfulness about instruction, encouraging faculty to observe one another’s virtual classes and provide peer feedback could rapidly improve teaching. And the value of this grows when one considers recent research into students’ feelings about online learning. While the majority of undergraduate students who were surveyed by courseware company Top Hat reported that they still prefer in-person learning to remote, a larger percentage than those surveyed in Spring ‘20 said that their virtual classes were engaging–particularly in circumstances where the students perceived care and attentiveness from their professors.[5] I consider these findings to be really heartening. As those in the U.S. face what many consider to be the most difficult period of the pandemic yet, capitalizing on this increasing openness, creativity, and momentum could ensure a stronger learning experience for all involved in the coming semesters.

Notes

[1] Sklar, J. (2020, April 24). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens. National Geographic.

[2] Sklar, 2020.

[3] Denworth, L. (2020, July 31). Why Zoom Fatigue is Real and What You Can Do About It. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-waves/202007/why-zoom-fatigue-is-real-and-what-you-can-do-about-it

[4] Miyagawa, S., & Perdue, M. (2020, November 11). A Renewed Focus on the Practice of Teaching. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2020/11/11/switching-online-teaching-during-pandemic-may-fundamentally-change-how-faculty

[5] Lederman, D. (2020, November 13). Are Students Happier With Virtual Learning This Fall? A Little. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/11/13/student-impressions-online-learning-improve-modestly-fall

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