We have a lot to be thankful for regarding the technology that allows us to meet online, especially during a pandemic such as the one we are currently experiencing. Even before the current crisis, online meetings had brought people from all fields and continents together, enabling human connections to flourish by linking workrooms, meeting rooms, classrooms, and living rooms. These days, chatting, singing, and sharing in other ways by using a video platform can alleviate the sense of isolation that lockdown has brought to so many. At the same time, teachers and students are feeling exhausted by these early weeks of sudden enforced (but necessary) distance learning. Is it the stress of having to learn how to use new technology? Is it the challenge and time-consuming work of converting classroom-based active learning materials into lessons that can be taught remotely to large and small classes of students? Or is this fatigue related to the way the brain processes information presented on screens and the large number of hours that now need to be spent operating via a screen? Our video and article selections for this issue discuss both sides of these issues. We hope they provide a balanced perspective, and some answers, as well as an appreciation of just how much we still don’t know.
The intro video is by pioneer Mind, Brain, and Education expert Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa. She has been working with Harvard University to develop an online course in Mind, Brain, and Education science which is taught once a week for two hours. (See our video and article on her course in the Professional Development Think Tank). She explains the benefits of learning in this virtual classroom, and how this style of education can actually suit the way the brain learns. The video itself is a master class in how to use the technology to manage your screen to hold and direct the attention of your online audience. For example, everything she says is subtitled at the bottom of the screen, allowing us to both listen and read (which I personally find increases my focus). The main part of the screen is taken up with her slides and she uses a cursor and other means to highlight the points she is making. Meanwhile, for those who like to maximize input through body language and other non-verbal cues, we can see Tracey as she speaks in a small screen inset on the left part of the screen. She is not simply a disembodied voice.
The aims of the Harvard online course are to train educators in how the brain learns and how to use this information in the classroom, including the online classroom. Harvard has been among the vanguard of tertiary level institutions offering online asynchronous and synchronous learning options to students from around the world. (For more on this situation, listen to the Freakonomics Radio podcast in which Stephen Dubner interviews three US university presidents.)
In this lecture for Oregon State University, Tracey shares information on how to use some common online tools to maximize participation and learning outcomes. First, she tells us that in a large Zoom session where the participants can view each other on screen (gallery mode), the students’ sense of anonymity is increased and they feel less inhibited and more willing to share their opinions than they would if they were all sitting together in a large classroom. What I think she is saying is that they sense safety in their invisibility as part of a large virtual crowd. They are able to hide in plain sight among people they will never actually meet in person. A second benefit of such Zoom sessions is the way they facilitate social contagion by allowing the participants to see the faces of everyone else.
Tracey points out how the use of breakout rooms enables small groups to discuss topics privately and generate ideas, then return to the whole group to share their results. The difference between doing this in a virtual as opposed to a real classroom setting is the time saved. Moving students into and out of groups can be done in seconds online. Time saving can clearly be beneficial, but I have a question about this for those who have taken or taught long online sessions. Are the breaks for physical movement that we know to be vital to good brain function factored into these online lessons? I suspect that one reason why long Zoom sessions can be draining is that people remain seated and stationary for far too long.
Tracey recommends using the chat function to take attendance, as well as keep everyone involved in the session. She does this by putting out a question for everyone to respond to (e.g. “What is something you want to know about the brain?”). She then integrates the responses into the lesson. An additional benefit of the chat function is that it allows students to ask questions as they arise and not have to wait until the end of the class. Tracey has the luxury of assistant teachers who, as co-hosts, answer the students’ questions immediately, enabling the students to focus on the next part of the lesson. I imagine that these questions and comments can provide useful feedback to the teacher about the course content and delivery, too.
The use of frequent, low-stakes, online quizzes is also highly beneficial to learning, because they enhance memory. For the Harvard course, students can take the quiz associated with each lesson as many times as they want, allowing them to see for themselves their increase in understanding and knowledge. Other suggestions are the use of discussion boards to create a sense of community, the “3-2-1” reflection papers (3 things that were new information; 2 things that you will research more and share; 1 thing that you will change about your current teaching practice), creating e-portfolios, and providing resources through a system called “bundles,” in which all the relevant research papers on one brain topic are listed together. Hearing about such systems left me feeling that we are still in the dark ages when it comes to organizing online learning at my own institution, where the most serious concern was not the quality of online materials the teachers could conjure up in a matter of days or weeks, but whether the university server would crash under the strain or not.
This is not the only contrast with our current situation that occurred to me. The students taking the Harvard course have chosen to study online and are prepared for the flipped classroom approach in which the bulk of the learning is done before class and then applied in the Zoom sessions. This is far from the expectations of Japanese university students. Nevertheless, now is a good chance to change mindsets.
One further difference is that the Harvard students live all over the world and may feel comfortably anonymous because they are unlikely to ever meet in person. For our students, however, we can assume that online learning is a temporary situation and that they will be meeting each other in a classroom in the near future. This may be an inhibiting factor for some. Moreover, in my own limited (three weeks) experience of distance teaching, I am finding that many students prefer not to have to meet online and are happy to be assigned work that they can do in their own time. Which brings us to the other side of the issue: is the human brain ready for and adapted to online meetings?
This is a question that is addressed elsewhere in this issue, including my review of Julia Sklar’s National Geographic article, Zoom Fatigue is Taxing the Brain. Here’s Why that Happens in the PLUS section of this magazine. You can also see Julia in the Lite lead-in video as well, Video Calls Making you Feel Exhausted? It Could be “Zoom Fatigue,” a news broadcast that touches on her work.
Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, a digital non-native, is currently experiencing multiple steep learning curves. While enjoying gaining new skills in planning, preparing, and delivery online lessons, she is eagerly awaiting the day she can return to her natural environment of a classroom.