Written by , Ryerson University. Photo credit: Gettyimages. Originally published in The Conversation.
The temptation – but also often the pressure – to use a host of technological tools to capture and hold student attention or facilitate collaboration is often very strong, but it has its downsides.
As another virtual academic semester looms on the horizon – the second or even the third for some since the start of the pandemic – fatigue and declining satisfaction with this remote format seem to be increasingly felt, either side of the screen.
On the one hand, there are students worried about the quality of the courses received, but especially lacking in campus and community life. On the other hand, teachers at the end of their rope or short of resources, pushed overnight to change their practices and lead their classes from home.
Beyond the purely educational impacts, it is also the issue of everyone’s mental health that is of concern today. Having personally had to teach over 250 undergraduate students online over the past few weeks, I have been able to experience these challenges and feel all the limits of this new way of teaching.
The temptation – but also often the pressure – to draw a host of technological tools to capture and maintain the attention of students or facilitate their collaboration is often very strong. Certainly, the idea of giving a lesson live on Twitch or in a fictional world on Minecraft , and continuing the discussion on Discord or Slack can seem stimulating. But, in this particular context, the teacher is sometimes more of a web influencer than an academic expert.
These technological choices also confront teachers with limits, both logistical and human. What to say to the many students who access this content from their mobile phone and therefore even from their cellular data, or even to those who do not yet have a computer and a sufficiently powerful Internet connection? What to do with students who have to share their workspace with the rest of the family, who do not immediately master these different tools or who must learn to handle a variety of different applications for each of their courses?
These questions also illustrate the very real risk of creating new barriers to inclusion in education. Thus, before mobilizing such hardware, it is important to focus on the ability of students to understand it well, but also of teachers to train enough to derive a positive learning experience. More importantly, this is also an opportunity to understand other methods of distance learning, and finally to extricate oneself from this vision which requires ever more tools and overstimulation.
A more human approach
What if one of the responses to the challenges of distance education mainly involves a return to basics and the establishment of less “techno” and more human contexts?
In their work on the experience economy , in which created value is based on the experience of “guests,” consultants Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore explain that so-called “aesthetic” experiences simply provide a framework within which participants are invited to adopt a contemplative posture. The experience then aims for the harmony of the senses and the attainment of a kind of individual plenitude. Visiting a museum, an experience in which people wander around, sit on a bench and lose themselves in thought, is one example. It contrasts sharply with an entertainment experience like a music show or an amusement park. It is the praise of slowness, of a more subtle non-technological stimulation, but just as compelling.
This kind of call for a slower, more informal approach to teaching is nothing new. Moreover, the idea of reducing the pace, or pruning the content a little to facilitate retention without affecting its quality was slowly gaining ground long before the pandemic.
Watch your back!
So, instead of using yet another collaborative tool during a Zoom course, why not simply create an atmosphere conducive to reflection with a warm decor, a bit of nature, a work to watch or music that is fun to listen to?
Likewise, why not open the virtual rooms earlier, or close them later, in order to allow those who want to exchange in a more informal setting. Why not send the content in advance so as to take advantage of these so-called “synchronous” moments to interact and inject a little human warmth?
Finally, it is possible to enhance stimuli other than visual in order to allow students to take leave of their screens, if only for a brief moment. Simply recording podcast episodes or streaming ratings via audio not only rests your eyes, but also offers more flexibility in when and where to view that content. The opportunity has also come to rediscover the charms of a simple telephone conversation, instead of another videoconference.
Since this virtual mode of teaching is expected to last at least until next fall or winter and to play a greater role in university courses after the pandemic is over, it is not too late to imagine engagement methods that are more concerned with individual constraints.
According to Pine and Gilmore, any good experience must also be thought of in terms of the larger context in which it is situated. So, rather than relying again on the equivalent of the online lecture, let’s keep in mind the constraints of the moment and imagine courses that allow you to vary the contexts in which we immerse ourselves, whether close to a fire or even under the duvet!