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Zoom Fatigue: What We Have Learned

Zoom (and other videoconferencing) fatigue was recognized early in the remote learning efforts of 2020. It is real. We have learned much about the cause and some about how to avoid the symptoms that impair communication and learning.

January 20, 2021
 

Early in the remote learning efforts of the spring semester last year, we found that many faculty members unaccustomed to teaching online made few adaptations to the new delivery mode other than substituting the Zoom room for the lecture hall. Of course, those who have supported and researched online learning over the past 25 years know that online pedagogies and best practices to achieve active learning are quite different online than lecturing face-to-face.

Much has been learned about Zoom and similar conferencing technologies. Zoom has updated the product monthly and even bimonthly as educators at all levels used the technology. It continues to improve. Zoom was so ubiquitous at the beginning of the COVID pandemic that is on its way to becoming an eponym, joining a long list of trademarked products and technologies that represent an entire field. However, while we use the term generically, several very powerful alternatives have emerged.

Google launched Meet, which was integrated into the hugely popular Gmail system. Daphne Kohler, co-founder of Coursera, has joined a team that launched Engageli, aimed at meeting the needs of higher education. Of course, many of the popular LMS products have proprietary meeting technologies. It is a crowded and evolving market.

The crucible of massive use of these technologies by less experienced faculty at all levels of education has exposed vulnerabilities and a host of less-than-optimum uses of online conferencing.

Zoom fatigue is a recognized condition. The popular media has picked up on this phenomenon worldwide. Some have suggested that the microdelays in audio and the extended focus on lower-resolution, poorly illuminated portrait images of participants contribute to fatigue. Almost certainly, there are a variety of such factors that contribute to the fatigue.

In “A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue,” Dr. Jenna Lee of the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and the UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital writes, “The contributing factors, depending on their adjustability, serve as potential therapeutic targets to alleviate fatigue and salvage the aspects of social interaction that were once unconscious and taken for granted. Exploring alternative and more explicit ways to improve perceived reward psychologically during virtual communication may be a therapeutic approach for not only Zoom fatigue, but the mental and physical toll that comes with it.”

Dr. Jeffrey Hall, author of “Relating Through Technology,” is quoted in Psychology Today as explaining Zoom fatigue as a very real phenomenon. “Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls.” If you haven’t turned off your own camera, you are also watching yourself speak, which can be arousing and disconcerting. The blips, delays and cut off sentences also create confusion. Much more exploration needs to be done, but he says, “maybe this isn’t the solution to our problems that we thought it might have been.” Phone calls, by comparison, are less demanding. “You can be in your own space. You can take a walk, make dinner,” Hall says.

Hall is not the only expert suggesting that wherever possible you revert to audio-only or text media to communicate. Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in Harvard Business Review suggest several recommendations to alleviate fatigue, including more breaks, reducing multitasking and other online stimuli, as well as switching to audio phone calls or email.

So, as we move into this new year, it may be wise to resolve to reduce the number and frequency of Zoom conferences. Check yourself as you begin to create an invitation to Zoom; ask if this could be done as well via email or a phone conference call. Consider your “standing” Zoom meetings, whether they be every week or (gasp) every day. Could you take the lead on this by using less intense -- and more reliable -- media? What is it about the videoconference that you must have to achieve your goal?

Reducing the number and frequency of Zoom meetings may actually enhance productivity, lower frustration and anxiety, and make everyone just a bit happier in these COVID-plagued times.

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