Digital interactions allow for different language teaching and learning tasks to be performed overcoming time and space constraints. Yet, they take a rather heavy toll on our ability to concentrate and think creatively.
The burden of working in a predominantly – if not solely – digital environment can lead to serious problems, especially in professions where the relationship component and psychophysical balance play a central role such as teaching. How can we help teachers combat the sense of fatigue that comes with the uninterrupted use of digital tools? In this article, we try to suggest a way out of digital fatigue for language teachers.
Digital fatigue: a contemporary disease
Since March 2020, with the imposition of national lockdowns, workers in any industry have had to learn to adapt to new ways of working. For many, online meeting platforms and shared drives have become the daily workplace.
Schools, of course, have been no exception.
While the need to provide continuity of didactic activities through online mediums has provided the impetus needed to enhance the digital awareness of teachers and students, many education professionals have noticed a deterioration in their own mental health. The reason? Spending hours and hours in front of a screen, perpetually connected and, yet, prey to a growing feeling of isolation and anxiety.
In other words, the disorder known as digital fatigue has become a reality for many people.
While the time we spend on the internet has increased, approaching 7.5 hours a day, at the same time impatience with messaging apps, streaming platforms and the ubiquitous lure of Zoom and Teams calls has grown. According to an analysis conducted by consulting firm EY, “41% of respondents are more concerned about the impact of the internet on well-being than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic”. Moreover, as a consequence of digital fatigue “47% … seek downtime from internet-enabled devices”.
Online teaching and teachers’ burnout
Teachers have been among the groups particularly affected by the phenomenon of digital fatigue. Distance teaching has not made it easier for teachers, quite the opposite. According to a testimony collected by the nonprofit organization Learning Curve Foundation:
“If you think that a teacher’s job has become easier during the pandemic, then think again. Not only does a teacher have to put in extra efforts to make sure the lessons are made interesting enough for an online medium, he/she also needs to keep the kids on the other side of the Zoom call even remotely engaged”.
Certainly, the effort to maintain a high level of engagement in a virtual classroom is a major stressor for teachers. But on the other hand, students also suffer from being subjected to a constant state of visibility. Within a virtual classroom, in fact, the exposure of individuals to the attention of other participants is greater than that observed in a traditional classroom.
With these premises, it becomes very complicated to create a healthy and constructive online learning environment.
But are we forced to accept a situation in which teachers only have to endure the downsides of constantly being online? As we’ll see in the next section, fortunately, there are strategies for using technology to reduce the workload that would require the teacher to spend additional time in front of a screen.
Using technology to reduce online fatigue
In this article, we make a strong case that there are constructive approaches to online teaching that can optimize the amount of time teachers spend on computers for instructional activities.
In any case, it should be emphasized that it is always good practice for schools to invest in support programs to protect the mental well-being of teachers and pupils. Only an educational context that is truly attentive to mental health will help all those involved in the learning process to come to terms with physical and psychological disorders such as digital fatigue.
After this necessary premise, let’s get back to the main point of the article: how to implement online learning plans that reduce the negative elements of distance learning?
An effective approach to online learning is one that alternates different modes of distance learning, such as synchronous learning and asynchronous learning approach. By adopting an asynchronous learning approach, it is possible to devote a portion of time to learning activities that students can do without direct teacher supervision, within a set time frame, but allowing students flexibility in choosing when precisely to do this task.
In sum, by alternating synchronous learning and asynchronous learning, it becomes possible to separate two key moments of the lesson – theory, and practice – thus distributing different types of activities in different moments.
Secondly, educational technology (EdTech) solutions provide teachers with tools to help students stay engaged in virtual classroom activities. Keeping student participation on a good level reduces stressors for teachers, especially in a virtual setting where physical distance can easily lead the teacher to feel that they have no control over classroom dynamics.
So, how can teachers use educational technology to engage students in a virtual classroom?
Firstly, by being familiar with the functionality of distance learning platforms and online tools. For example, it is good to study whether the technological tool allows creating workgroups, breakout rooms, etc. In other words, it is necessary to understand what tools are available to plan activities that involve dialogue and interaction between students.
Understanding the virtual context is therefore fundamental to planning functional teaching activities to keep students participating. An engaged class is a class that works well together and makes certain aspects of distance learning less frustrating.
Second, experimenting and being creative are necessary to make a virtual class enjoyable and less stressful. Teachers can engage students in brainstorming sessions, looking for new activities to improve their target skills. Chat features can be a fun way to get students to practice writing skills, while record sessions are a great way to monitor students’ communication skills.
In short, being able to make the best use of the features of online platforms certainly helps to stimulate the attention of students, with the positive consequence that the teacher will not have to fear that behind the cameras there is nothing but boredom and difficulty in concentrating on the part of the students.
In conclusion, alternate between different learning methods – synchronous and asynchronous – and experiment with different types of activities based on the features offered by the virtual platforms are all moves that could help teachers work better in online learning environments. Because technology really can make educators’ lives easier.
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