Understanding Zoom Fatigue
For more than a century, educators, students, and parents have been hearing that one technology or another will revolutionize the way we educate students. The next tech revolution has always been around the corner, and some would say we are rounding a major one now thanks to the pandemic. Many educators and thought leaders would argue that the pandemic has provided an opportunity to rethink how schools function, given that millions of American students have successfully navigated the crisis from behind a laptop or tablet screen. I’m not among those; I would challenge the notion that videoconferencing technology, such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet, has been “successful”—even for secondary students who do tend to fare better than their younger counterparts. Setting aside questions regarding the effectiveness of virtual lessons, the fact is that there is a lot we do not know about how this technology is affecting students and teachers even now, as we engage in a real-time experiment.
The Downside of Zooming In for Class
The term “Zoom fatigue” has become almost ubiquitous in our socially distanced world, but as Jeremy N. Bailenson points out in “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” a recent article in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, our fatigue may be due to much more than our mere boredom with interacting with our screens. The reasons Bailenson points out for our fatigue strike me as not only plausible but also vitally important to understanding what we are asking of students and educators when we ask them to “Zoom in” to classes for hours at a time.
Bailenson writes that there are four main causes for the fatigue we experience as a result of extended videoconferencing meetings. Although his focus is largely on the world of working adults, I could not help wonder about the world of education and how it may be impacted by overreliance on videoconferencing technology.
Eye gaze at a close distance. When we look at a screen filled with the faces of our colleagues or classmates, our distance from the screen dictates the perceived “closeness” of the individuals. “On Zoom grids,” Bailenson writes, “faces are bigger in one’s field of view than they are face-to-face when one accounts for how groups naturally space in physical conference rooms.” Therefore, the size of the faces in our frame of reference brings those faces into a personal space with us usually reserved for those with whom we share our most intimate relationships. Moreover, Zoom meetings force an unnatural and often unnerving amount of prolonged eye contact. Imagine being in a packed elevator and having everyone in your personal space staring you directly in the face for minutes. In the case of remote learning, it’s hours at a time.
This suggests that with remote learning we are asking students as young as three years old to engage in a socially awkward proximity to adults that are not their parents, grandparents, or guardians. What impact might this have on the development of social mores and norms moving forward? How are we impacting students who are developing an adolescent sense of self? How uncomfortable are we unintentionally making our children?
Cognitive load. In face-to-face conversation, human beings send and receive a constant stream of nonverbal communications. Many, if not most of these communications are lost in a virtual meeting. Therefore, we compensate by working harder to make ourselves seen and understood. Bailenson explains, “Examples include centering oneself in the camera’s field of view, nodding in an exaggerated way for a few extra seconds to signal agreement, or looking directly into the camera (as opposed to the faces on the screen) to try and make direct eye contact when speaking. This constant monitoring of behavior adds up.” Moreover, the nonverbal cues that we do receive do not match with the verbal conversation or lesson being shared. Individuals glancing off screen are not looking at the student next to them, a smirk or a chuckle may be the result of a pet entering the room and not the teacher’s instruction, and a yawn might be due to the fatigue of watching a screen for long periods of time or the temperature of the room. And the lack of body language on the screen means that there is an exaggerated—and sometimes unintended—importance placed on facial expressions and eye movements that in turn can be misinterpreted. This means that the signals we’re receiving as students and teachers do not match what our subconscious picks up naturally, and we have to do extra cognitive work.
School is challenging, and a rigorous educational experience like the one offered at many independent schools is designed to ask students to exert themselves. What are we asking of students on top of the subjects of our lessons and the content of our discussions? Is it fair to pile on the cognitive load of a long Zoom meeting and expect them to learn about long division or iambic pentameter at the same rate they would in person?
An all-day mirror. I have often found myself merely monitoring my own response to a meeting’s content, even when I’m trying mightily to stay engaged with what is being said. Ongoing exposure to one’s own visage may prove detrimental to mental health. Indeed, in tests, people who were given bad news and then asked to look into a mirror for a time afterward suffered even more negative cognitive effects than those who received the bad news without the mirror.
This is serious business for students. Effective education requires providing kids with ongoing feedback, which is going to be both positive and congratulatory and negative and corrective. We do not know how staring into their own faces for hours at a time may impact their self-image or their mindset regarding their ability to improve when asked to move on to the next lesson or activity. This monitoring of facial expressions and responses to a Zoom conference adds greatly to the cognitive load.
Reduced movement. Zoom meetings tend to require attendees to remain stationary for the duration of the scheduled time. Most schools, even traditional and structured schools, could not be more different. There is a reason we have recess, and a reason we get students up and around as much as we can. The brain loves movement, and physical activity aids in students’ academic, physical, and psychological well-being.
It’s not just structured activity that helps students refresh and refocus, either. In a normal classroom, students get up to get a drink of water, use the bathroom, sharpen their pencils, turn in assignments, and a hundred other small tasks that get the blood flowing. I know parents work hard to keep their children engaged and physically active when they are learning remotely, but even simply asking students to sit in front of a camera for extended periods is not a good approximation of an effective learning environment.
Looking at the Good and the Bad
Zoom has been instrumental to many schools during the pandemic. Not all schools have had the privilege to open safely. Some students have needed to remain remote learners due to health concerns or state and local health department regulations. Videoconferencing technology has allowed us to run our schools, where necessary, with a reduced daily student population when required by the health district and the state. It has enabled us to continue educating students during quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure. And I know mine is not the only family that has used videoconferencing to keep in touch with friends and family.
We must, however, stare down the good with the bad. Much has been written about how the lack of in-person, face-to-face contact might be impacting school-aged kids, but we should also be concerned with the longer-term impacts of the virtual mode of learning we have adopted. For all the revolutionary effects that Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet have had on our society and our workplaces, we do not have a clear picture of the negative impacts of these technologies. Early anecdotal reports indicate that students learning remotely are suffering higher levels of anxiety and depression, are suffering learning losses and delays, and are simply not thriving in ways we would expect them to during in-person learning. How much of this is due to missing school and classmates, and how much of it is due to Zoom fatigue?
Independent school leaders, faculty, parents, and students have responded heroically this year and made the best of an impossible situation. But this year has illustrated that one of the lessons we must take away from the pandemic is that schools have always been, above all, a human endeavor requiring human contact and connection. Current technology may provide a medium for that contact temporarily, but in the long run our dedication to students and their success requires us to double down on what makes our institutions human, caring, and connected places and to call into question any medium that serves to limit our connectedness to one another.