This summer has been a season of Zoom meetings to discuss learning options for the fall instead of social gatherings with family and friends around a grill. I have had more screen time than at any other point in my life since distance learning started back in March. Although working with my computer for hours is nothing new as a teacher and an individual that continually signs up for more and more graduate courses, Zoom has brought in a new form of tired to my life and I know I am not alone with this.
Numerous publications from psychology journals to traditional magazines and newspapers are discussing Zoom burnout; however, as I scroll through various learning models from districts around the United States, I am noticing some that require long hours of Zoom or Google Meet instruction. My school purposely switched to a quarter system to help reduce the number of Zoom sessions the students would have to engage in daily and assist them in having a more workable schedule. Yet, thinking outside of the box models are not in place everywhere and some schools are trying to mimic a normal in-person day by having students engage for hours at a time online.
What are the issues that can arise from video conferencing and why is Zoom, or other video conferencing sites so tiring and taxing on the brain?
Screens and Exhaustion
As I teach in front of my class, my students watch my body language while they are also listening to my lecture. They can easily see my face and hand gestures to gain cues about the emotions or the importance of what I am saying. In Zoom, the teacher is reduced to a small box and these gestures become hidden. Even the face is harder to read as it is now a smaller box on a screen. Furthermore, if a student has a gallery view up, which will then have boxes for every student in the room displayed, the mind is trying to scan between all of the boxes for cues that no longer are easily perceived. However, they are still not getting the normal classroom cues from their classmates and may find that they never truly know what the climate of the classroom is. This can lead the brain to exhaustion as it is focusing more on the words and the experience in general than it would need to if the mind was working in a traditional classroom setting.
If you teach middle of high school students, like I do, you are very aware that students are trying to find their identity and believe that people may be watching them more than they really are. On Zoom or Google Meet, a student is very aware that they are being watched or viewed by others at possibly every moment of the session thanks to the gallery view. This can be nerve-wracking for some students who feel like they are on a stage at every moment of the class. Zoom fatigue can quickly set in. Furthermore, if there are clubs or other social events hosted by the school via Zoom and the student feels pressured to attend based on friends attending, then they are not getting the time away that they need to rest their brain.
Video conferencing and phone conferencing has been studied for years before Covid-19 changed the education world. What they have found is that the lag time with responses and the inability to accurately hear a person the first time is leaving a negative feeling with the participant. It can cause someone discomfort or even anxiety as they are not having the normal and natural rhythm of a conversation anymore.
How We can Help Avoid Zoom Fatigue or Burnout
First, make a schedule that works for you and for your students. If you notice that the time on Zoom is too long for your students and frustration is building, then you may need to speak to your administration to have them reevaluate the required time students need to be on Zoom or Google Meet. If you get to decide, then think of activities that they can do with a paper or pen. One of my projects this summer was to make a reader for my AP students so they could do assignments from anywhere and send me pictures of their work. They do not need a screen to accomplish these tasks. Also encourage your students (and yourself!) to move and get fresh air when they can. I am finding that my standing desk extension is helping me a lot, even when I am leading a Zoom session. I feel more like I am in my room and my students see my hand gestures as I stand back from my screen more than I do when sitting. Finally, check in with parents and guardians to see if they are noticing any built up frustration, negative feelings, or anxiety due to the sessions.
Having a personal hello to each student as they enter the room can diminish anxiety and help bring about a bit more normalcy. Also, allowing some students to turn off their screen to reduce anxiety so they can be mentally engaged should also be allowed. With that, the teacher though needs some way to ensure that the student is still watching, like having a poll pop-up during the session.
If you cannot preset “speaker view” for your sessions, then encourage your students to pick “speaker view” so they are focused on the one talking. This will help reduce the fatigue that the gallery view can bring. Also, let them know that multi-tasking is not the best at this point and can led to frustration and anxiety so they should just focus on the lesson, not on a side assignment.
Finally, if you are doing a step-by-step activity, give extra time for students to complete it and check in with them more than you would typically do in a classroom. For some students, a task that is easy in the room may be more stressful and exhausting and overwhelming feelings can happen quickly. If you see a student that is overwhelmed, then encourage them to take a break so they can reset.
A Year of Video Conferencing
We are all involved in a great experiment with teaching with Zoom or Google Meet. Be aware of the changing dynamics throughout the year and be ready to take naps when you can! Also, when you can, find other ways to communicate with others like picking up the phone to reduce Zoom time.