Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her.
Image: Shows a multitasking woman, breastfeeding a baby, ironing clothes, with pets in the way, and a laptop open and next to her. This image is modified from a CC0 graphic courtesy of Clker-Free-Vector-Images via pixabay.

Are you exhausted? Zoomed out? As we say in critical incident stress management (CISM), “You are having a normal response to an abnormal situation.” This reflection is considering the faculty or administrator perspective on our current interpersonal reality. The student perspective is a separate writeup.

How could you have attended the same number of meetings in Normal World B.C. (Before COVID-19) and your schedule wasn’t nearly this exhausting? This is a matter that potentially affects only those of us privileged enough to be able to do at least two things: (1) continue doing our paid jobs, and yet (2) stay home and safe. For those of us in this virtual boat, many are realizing how attending the same number of meetings as in a usual week is way way way more exhausting when they happen via a video conferencing platform such as Zoom. There are many reasons, and here are three:

1. Perceptual mismatch

When you’re in a meeting, like back when we did that sort of thing together in the same space, you’d get a “read of the room.” It’s in our nature to do this. You’d scan the room, passively attending to details like, how are people feeling? What’s the mood or the vibe here today? Do folks seem to be on the same page? This is natural. In a video conference though? You are trying to read 25 rooms. You are. It’s in your nature. And you’re trying to do this while, ironically, ignoring the room you are literally in. That is not how perception works, which is the process through which we attach meaning to our sensory input in order to understand the social world. You’re trying to read all the rooms up on that screen, while ignoring the sensory information coming at you from within the room in which you are physically located, and that’s before you even engage with anybody. Speaking of the rest of the people:

2. Interpersonal intensity

When you’re in a room in Normal World B.C., you are not trying to maintain continuous eye contact with 25 people for an hour. In person, you can be in a group in shared space, completely engaged, attentive and present, and you’re still not maintaining eye contact with every single person at the same time. In a video conference, even looking down at a relevant piece of paper can be perceived as you checking out, no longer actively listening, or some other indicator assumed to be a lack of effort. 

3. High vulnerability and intimacy

While reading all the rooms and ignoring your own, and doing your best to maintain eye contact with everyone in a group continuously, you are also letting people read YOUR room. Your room right now is probably inside or outside the place you presently call home. That’s a level of vulnerability and intimacy greater than you signed up for when you began in this position, right? You didn’t plan on letting these people into your living room or your bedroom.

There’s Science Behind This!

The psychological and mental health effects of shifting nearly all of our interpersonal interactions into video conferencing is yet unstudied. What I’ve written in this piece is based on what we know to date about how the brain does its job. 

For more information on the perceptual burden you might be experiencing, look first at the process of “unconscious inference” known as perception itself. As we take in sensory information, through the process of sensation, our brain has to work with that input to produce something for us to understand and to which we then respond, through the process of perception. Reading 25 rooms while ignoring the sensory input from the very room you are in, makes this entire meaning-making process inherently more complex and likely burdensome. This is a traditional, bottom-up explanation of perception. 

Another perspective on perception is one of top-down processing, which “occurs when people’s expectations, emotions, and bodies affect how they see the world” (Reiner, 2019:267). This explanation is one of embodied perception, considering sensation and perception as not linear and not separate from our physical selves. 

Whether you view processing as top-down or bottom up, you will find explanations of your present state of exhaustion. Then recognize that making eye contact is one of the earliest forms of social communication we learn in our lives. This primal social role is made more central when we’re in video conferences that make most other social communication harder to gauge. We might feel the need to maintain eye contact more than what we would normally do, given this restriction of the medium, and this would likely contribute to our cumulative exhaustion.

What else?

Of course, there are more than three reasons why you might be feeling exhausted. The runners up include blurring of boundaries that can lead to you working well into the evenings and weekends when you never did that before. You might not be the cause of those boundaries blurring – especially when your boss expects you to respond at all hours, but you might find that you need to draw a line more firmly around your off time. You’re also suddenly some kind of movie producer to some extent, which probably isn’t within your skillset, so that’s tiring as you try to excel at something you’ve possibly never even planned to try. And none of this even considers the exhaustion and psychache we all are feeling to varying degrees as we interpret the current global pandemic, with concerns for the future of society and worry for the people we love within it. How could you not be exhausted right now?

If you are reading this and you have any authority in this world, please cut folks some slack. If your organization can continue to be fully functional online? Cool. If you’re a boss, shorten the meetings. If you are an educator, lean towards fewer assignments and lessened demands. Shorten the meetings and classes. The exhaustion you are feeling makes sense, and it is universal. Please take care of junior faculty, graduate students, and the support staff whom you are probably realizing are working more than they should be.

A young woman sits in a beanbag chair while participating in an online class on her laptop. Photo by pxfuel.

In this unprecedented time of suddenly teaching courses online that were designed to be taught on campus, and as we look ahead to the upcoming semester, we are now solidly in the realm of online teaching and learning. Neither you nor your students signed up for this. No matter what you chose to do early on in the response to COVID-19, what are you going to do looking ahead? What have you learned that can help you decide? Are you going to teach synchronously or asynchronously? What’s better for your students? What’s better for you? 

Teaching synchronously involves holding “live” sessions that generally allow interactions in real time. Teaching asynchronously means you are probably producing little movies of what you wish you could be teaching in the in-person classroom environment where we all thought our classes would be taking place, and you upload these little movies for students to view on their own schedule. Acknowledging that there are strongly-held beliefs about the superiority of the method on each side of this debate, let’s walk through the key strengths and drawbacks of each option.

What’s so great about teaching synchronously?

This category of online learning allows students to see and interact with one another and with you, to give and receive real-time feedback on their ideas, to brainstorm and collaborate with peers, to ask questions of you as a lesson is being shared, and to be reminded that we are community members, separated physically but not in spirit. With real solidarity, synchronous classes can remind all of us that we are not alone even as we negotiate our changed landscape amidst the novelty that is physical isolation.

You can be creative in nurturing a sense of community in your synchronous classroom. You are a team, on a shared mission. You are in this together. Making eye contact and having conversations at your regularly scheduled class times is priceless as a preventative measure for mental health outcomes, and for increasing engagement with the course materials. Whether students are in your class to complete requirements of a major, or to earn elective credits or specialty skills and knowledge, in the synchronous online classroom you can readily help students remember why they registered for your course to begin with, which can be very grounding. 

So the benefits of teaching “live” include improved communication efficiency and clarity, increased sense of community, fostering solidarity with and among your students who might deeply value the peer support and shared experience of being together for your class. 

Image shows grid view of 25 students in Erika Sanborne’s Social Research Methods discussion/lab section on March 18, our first suddenly-online synchronous gathering. We all wore University gear, to remind one another that we are in this together. Students gave expressed permission to share this class photo. Photo by Erika Sanborne.

What is good about teaching asynchronously?

The most popular reason for choosing this option for your teaching is flexibility regarding when work is done. You can make your little lecture movies whenever you have the time and space to do so, recognizing that your own obligations have likely increased for now as well, so this flexibility can be invaluable. Also, of course, your students can watch those recordings at their convenience. Students’ life circumstances have likely changed. They did not plan to be where they physically are right now while they are completing your course. They might be sharing technology and not have unlimited access to it. They might be across the globe in an incompatible time zone. They might not want to let you and their entire class into the space where they are living right now. This unprecedented social intimacy may have unknown effects on their emotional well-being, and an asynchronous class lets them receive lecture information without that intimate reciprocity of audio and/or video from the place that’s currently home to them.

Asynchronous classes have pedagogical benefits too. They allow students to literally “pause” your class when they are confused or need a break, something only possible in their dreams for in-person and synchronous online classes, which go at a pace not set by them at all. Also, the technology requirements to take in an asynchronous class are lower, and this is therefore more accessible to more students. Watching or downloading a video can happen on the most basic internet-capable devices. Asynchronous lectures can even be mailed on DVDs, or transcribed and printed out with captioned graphics as needed. They can also be closed captioned for accessibility. 

What have you learned so far teaching under these conditions?

You need to set up mental scales of your own, to weigh out and determine what really matters to you, and what is best for you and for your students. I’ve spoken with many individual faculty members at several universities while consulting on this topic, and in every conversation, we’ve decided the best option is to offer some combination of both synchronous and asynchronous offerings in a class. This is not necessarily ideal or superior. It’s just one way of trying to maximize the benefits of both options, while using each to cover the shortcomings in the other. Perhaps thinking through this example will help you refine your own plan as we look ahead to more of this sort of course design, of teaching classes online that were slated to have taken place in person.

An example of “doing both”

Suppose you were scheduled to teach your class twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, 10:00 am – 11:15 am local time. For this example, you can now meet synchronously (live) Mondays and Wednesdays at 10 am local time, for about 30 minutes. Keep it briefer to minimize the fatigue that results from too much continuous video conferencing, for them and for you. After revisiting your course’s learning objectives and determining what’s most essential, cover the associated lecture topics live, interactively. Remain, or reclaim if you’ve steered apart, the community that you were before everything shifted online. Invite your students to your live classes assuring them of both your accompaniment and your realization that they likely have new burdens and expectations. Use some simple measure of classroom participation (i.e. three short questions that you introduce throughout the 30 minute class, and that can be answered typing on a smart phone); offer them some various live office hours each week, and teach your class. Give them whatever is most important for your course.

What about those students who cannot make it to the live classes? There are valid reasons. If at all possible, do not expect them to share the reason with you. Asking them to justify why they cannot attend your class online, when they had not planned to be an online student right now, is a bit unfair. Trust your students when they say they cannot make it to your synchronous class. Their reasons may include time zone difference, lack of technology, no free space in their home, no quiet space, less time to be a student because of shifted family responsibilities such as caregiving, etc. Some are working jobs to make up for parents’ lost wages now. Some are homeless because student housing was their solution for where to live right now. For students who have never had an online class before, they might have anxiety about how it all works. There are many reasons why one might not be present for synchronous classes.

The solution for them is simple. Record those 30 minute live classes, and make them available to those who cannot attend at the regularly scheduled class time. Make sure they can complete the same simple measure of classroom participation in a way that is no more or less taxing whether one is live or one is watching the video later. Make sure you follow FERPA regulations and basic copyright laws for recordings, and that you only make public your own face and your own thoughts. You can also restrict access to these videos with passwords, time-limits and other means depending on your platform. Check with your institution for these details. 

Which option is better for you and your students?

That is the question we have answered on the fly, and may be reconsidering as we look ahead to plan future semesters, and only you can answer. I am in favor of the “doing both” option as in the example above. I have had the most success with, as have faculty I’ve helped figure some things out. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary. No matter the option you go with, do your best to be truly present with your students, and to let them see that, either as they make eye contact with you themselves, or otherwise when they see you offering your accompaniment as they view the recording later. If you are choosing to go strictly asynchronous, do what you can to connect with your students and to allow them to share the experience of your class with one another. One pro tip: Talk to the camera, not to your screen, to convey eye contact. It is worth practicing this skill.

You are probably doing great. If possible, consider synchronous classes such as in the example, with a recording offering a comparable experience for the students who cannot get to the live class. If you offer no synchronous classes, try to have some optional synchronous time in general, whether that’s office hours or something else. You’re reaching out through the physical distance between us, to show them that you care about their learning and their struggles. 

If you are personally juggling too many unforeseeable stressors, or you need to do exclusively asynchronous instruction for whatever other personal reasons, that is valid, My hope is that you find nothing but institutional support for you doing the best that you can. If you are struggling with the fatigue that comes from too many video conferences, all while trying to hold your concerns about the world and your loved ones in check, please hang in there and be kind to yourself. You are not alone either.

Photo depicts a modern office work space with two tables and two white boards. Photo via Pixabay.

This article is reposted with edits from an original post made 3/11/2020

Erika Sanborne is a TSP Graduate Board member who has received various awards for teaching and often serves as a teaching & technology consultant for faculty and graduate instructors. Her research interests include the life course, race, and religion. Her favorite course to teach is statistics.

Many of us are a week or two into teaching a suddenly-online course that we had designed to teach in person. Having taught about 50 undergraduate class sections in person, and about 50 undergraduate class sections online, I am duly familiar with both options. To be clear, when I have taught the same subject online and on campus even during the same semester, they are very different courses. Yet here we are with this current situation, so let’s deal with it as best we can. In this write-up, I’m inviting you into “round 2” following all the big changes you have made in the past few weeks to get to this moment.

Before anything else, please hear me that you are probably doing great! If your students are still learning something, and you can still somehow assess that, awesome. You are not aiming for a well-designed online learning experience, because it takes both time and expertise that you probably don’t have in order to develop a quality online course. That’s not your goal, so please lower the bar if you haven’t done so yet. Your goals at this point are teaching for accessible student learning, and your assessment (grading) of student work. Everything else is bonus, and good on you.

A centrally important consideration is students’ mental health. You have probably noticed that your students are somewhat anxious, scared, and unsure, and that’s if they are not also sick or caring for someone who is sick yet. We must take care of their emotional well-being in this unprecedented time of change, and in advance of the numbers of sick people rising.

Are your suddenly-online classes accessible?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights:

Accessible means a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally and independently as a person without a disability. Although this might not result in identical ease of use compared to that of persons without disabilities, it still must ensure equal opportunity to the educational benefits and opportunities afforded by the technology and equal treatment in the use of such technology.

Even suddenly-online courses should be accessible. Digital accessibility ensures that students can navigate and interact with all of your online content, regardless of ability. For example, you should not use any video that does not have correct closed captioning, which is a full-text transcription. Are you linking to something on YouTube? Cool. Go ahead and double-check if you need to replace that, which you do if it’s not properly captioned. Most institutions will caption any video you legally own for course use, but that’s not going to happen in this short-term crisis mode, so just pick a new video that is already accessible. Also, do not use red or green fonts, because of color-blindness, and describe all images for screen readers, as in the following example.

A small white dog sits on a porch looking out; large text appears across the top: Social Distancing. Image modified by Erika Sanborne and used with permission from Pixabay.

Oh, right. My image caption reminds me of copyright issues, which you need to keep in mind. Photos are copyrighted by the person who took the photo. They may release them with a license or by designating them public domain. Pixabay is a good site to find released images that you can use. There are other sites. And, conversely, anything you create right now that moves your in-person course into an online course will likely become the copyrighted property of your employer. Please check on that, but I suspect it to be true in all or most instances. Sorry to bring it up, but some of us value our intellectual property rights and this is a thing. You’re doing this labor because of your current employment, and that probably makes whatever you create “work product” in terms of who owns it.

My concern is that this crisis is going to create a lot of low-quality online courses which are totally fine for this short-term crisis but should not become something thought of as a complete library of online learning experiences. You don’t need to think about that right now, but please remember it down the road. It might also help you reclaim rights to content, by pointing out to your institution that it’s not great and should not be reused. Ideally, you would be creating something much better than whatever you’re piecing together right now if or when you create your first proper online course.

Continuing with accessibility, be sure to use a san serif font such as Arial because it is easier to read. Use black “ink” on white “paper” meaning black font on a white website. I agree that it looks cooler to have white font on dark background, but that’s not ADA-compliant because it’s not accessible. Also, don’t use any scans of text that are not text-searchable and thus text-readable to screen readers, and never underline words in an online course unless they are links. Yes, really.

For more information on ADA Compliance within your suddenly-online courses, you can visit a good article on accessibility, and the website for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

What about assessments – i.e. grading?

Regarding your current-semester, suddenly-online course, think of the major course assignments that remain. Come up with a way to sustain them if you can. A course syllabus is a legal contract between students and the university, through you, so the fewer changes you have to make to your syllabus, the better. If you can keep remaining major course assignments, emphasize to students that your remaining major course assignments remain unchanged. We are past midterms, so presumably you have already talked to them about these major course assignments. If they involve students presenting in class? Keep those but allow various means – i.e. they can make a video with their cell phone propped up, of them “presenting” to the camera. I don’t advise insisting they create something else, a PowerPoint presentation for example, if the initial requirement was that they stand in front of class and talk through something.

A brown and tan puppy lies on the floor with wide eyes looking up. Photo by Pixabay used with permission.

If that something was a PowerPoint, though, then try to keep it as is. You can ask them to add the voiceover in PowerPoint. Note: ADA compliance doesn’t waver, so this, like all video, would need to be captioned. Consider whether you want to add that burden or not, then either scale back the assignment (i.e. to allow PowerPoint to stand on its own, and it just goes to you instead of the whole class) or take out something else, so the captioning can happen. Captioning is needed for the voiceover, and captions are needed below graphics, for a video presentation to be accessible and shared within the course.

Please remember that, for some students, their access to technology is related to their access to the campus. Where are they staying if told to vacate? Do they still have access to software that allows creation of PowerPoint presentations, for example? Consider this, and allow for alternatives such as this: Students can create something on ordinary paper, with a pen, and take a photo of it with their phone, and email it to you.

Also please consider reducing expectations altogether – i.e. tossing out complicated assignments. Feel empowered to do this, as it’s your course and thus within your power to make their lives easier right now. With all that you cannot change or control in this world, work with what is in your power to change, and do it.

Do you have smaller assessments – i.e. little weekly writing tasks that students complete? Try to keep all of those. Use whatever course management system (CMS) your institution has – i.e. Blackboard, Canvas, etc. Create an assignment for each week, name it something obvious, and invite creativity amidst your aims at consistency.

As you can see, thinking through assessments shouldn’t be too bad, which means you should have stuff to grade, right? Cool. Now on to lecture content delivery (teaching).

Okay. How are you going to teach now?

If possible, try to have weekly interactive time set by video. Your CMS should have this capability, and most institutions have Zoom, GoToMeeting, and other solutions you can use too. Be mindful to not use anything that students are unlikely to now have access to. If most courses from your institution are using a certain platform, please use the same one, even if you don’t think it’s the best. Students shouldn’t need to spend extra time learning a platform just because you have to have things your way. This isn’t about you right now; it’s about them. Please keep it simple.

If you already lecture using PowerPoints, this is great. You should add that voiceover to your PowerPoints (which you should caption, because accessibility should not be optional) and now you will have decent online learning content. If you don’t have PowerPoints for your lectures? You should write some things out, but write them like I am writing this article you are reading right now. Do you notice how reading this feels different? It is an acquired style, almost conversational, and it invites students to read when written lectures are in front of their eyes. Keep that in mind. For the love of all things holy, do not write like you’re writing a textbook. Write like I am writing for you here.

You should definitely have online time that is synchronous, meaning the whole class is online at the same time. This should be your regularly scheduled time, and this is, at minimum, for Q&A and clarifying things. It’s exactly for the non-lecture parts of your class time each week! You might also have the entire lecture time synchronously, but an asynchronous lecture delivery could be good too. Ideally, you offer some of both: some live online interactive time, and some asynchronous stuff. Having them together at some shared time and space is good, but maybe not three hours a week of it.

Also be sure you maintain online office hours. This should be able to be scheduled with you, or make a range of hours on different days, like you normally would, and have them be drop-in, and then allow students to privately chat with you – like in your office, with other students standing in the hall – it’s a thing, and they will understand. Use video chat if at all possible – both for having the most efficient communication, and to remind them with your face and your voice that they are not alone.

A 3-credit, undergraduate course is supposed to meet in person for 3 hours, and students are expected to complete about 6 hours of work outside class time. That’s standard. When you move online, you are replacing the 3 hours of contact. I’m going to be honest, you are not going to create anywhere near three hours of asynchronous online content. And that’s because a lot of in-person class time is interruptions, announcements, tangents, and other things that are truly useful to student learning, right? As much as that can lead you in the classroom, let it continue to do so. For this, you should offer synchronous online time.

A wooden table holds a laptop and a coffee cup; a handshake happens with one arm extending out of a laptop screen shaking hands with the person sitting in front of the laptop. Image from Pixabay used with permission.

 And look. You’re probably anxious about this whole process. Your students are too, and some of them additionally aren’t sure where they are going to find food for the longer term. I’m sure you are on their team, and this is a great time to demonstrate that with your accompaniment. Start class by offering resources you know of – i.e. local food banks still operating, for example, for those still near your campus. Make sure your students know that you are aware that this is probably hard for them. People don’t fear change (they fear loss) and for some this will be realized as they will have lost access to not only technology but their social support. As best as you can, foster a supportive environment online, by showing true solidarity with your students. Be kind through it all. You can do this.