Technostress: How Covid is straining teaching and learning

‘Cameras on’ policies in some schools exert pressure on teachers and students

Working and learning remotely during the pandemic has led to  additional stress. Photograph: iStock

Working and learning remotely during the pandemic has led to additional stress. Photograph: iStock

 

Throughout 2020 there was a proliferation of surveys and national media coverage in relation to how Covid-19 has impacted the work-life balance for teachers and students. One of the most comprehensive studies was carried out by Ireland’s ESRI. It surveyed school leaders on their experience of addressing the challenges arising from the sudden switch to remote learning. This research highlighted that the ability of schools to adapt “was impacted by schools’ prior adoption of technology, and the level of access to digital technologies and broadband availability in their catchment areas”.

The term “technostress” first appeared in the mid-1980s, defined by psychologist Craig Brod as the “inability to adapt or cope with new computer technologies in a healthy manner”, pointing to difficulty in accepting technology and over-identification with technology as key concerns.

To lessen negative impacts, technological change requires planning and sensitivity in its introduction and implementation. However, rapid changes required amid Covid-19 left little time for such planning, increasing the risk of technostress for all parties involved in second-level education. The concept of technostress has evolved substantially over time, with more nuanced understandings of how technology affects us. Five sub-factors have been identified by Monideepa Tarafdar and colleagues, relating to technology overload, invasion, and complexity, as well as insecurity and uncertainty brought about by technology.

Events over the past year have led to additional stress for educational stakeholders, in working and learning remotely during the pandemic. Teachers reported increased workloads within the online environment. Technostress was reported across a wide range of experiences, with particular reference to upskilling for those with only basic digital skills. The provision of introductory ICT courses for teachers provided by the PDST (Professional Development Service for Teachers) attempted to address some technological uncertainty. The “techno-invasion” into homes was another factor to consider, with “cameras on” policies reported in some schools as exerting pressure on teachers and students across all socio-economic backgrounds.

Out of hours

During the first lockdown, many schools strove to maintain their timetables, and additional duties such as pastoral care increased as schools tried to contact and support families unable to engage with online classes. Emergency meetings after school time were also a further factor as teachers scrambled to deal with additional communications across multiple platforms from students requiring support. For some, collegial support in the form of ad hoc training sessions occurred out of hours.

Before the school closures, some parents had a digital policy in place governing the use of devices in the home. Households with plans in place were in a better position to navigate the first few weeks of the school closures, where many teachers and students reported that they found themselves in an “always on” mode. During the first few months of Covid-19 both social and traditional media outlets reported on teachers, parents and students feeling particularly stretched due to this intense intrusion of technology in their lives.

The pandemic has created a hidden layer of extra digital administration for students learning online for the first time without the supports of a traditional classroom setting. Teachers anecdotally reported that student management of materials was difficult, with some students effectively using a camera roll as a copybook. The online environment demands a whole new set of organisational and management skills that were not required or nurtured before now. Parents also face some of this extra administration load, with handwritten notes being replaced by emails or a requirement for parents to log in to a school app to respond to notifications.

Extra tensions

There has also been tension around the perceived value of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. During the early stages of the closures, many parents and students felt that they should be receiving synchronous teaching, with many assuming even haphazard synchronous teaching approaches to be superior to meticulously planned and recorded asynchronous activity.

In fact, the best practice in such a complex and fast-paced environment tends to be the latter. This continues to be a divisive topic: will schools continue to provide elements of asynchronous learning in the future, and if so, how will that alter dynamics between school and home? It’s an issue contributing to increasing techno-insecurity as stakeholders look to the future.

There is an impetus now for Government to shape regulation regarding technology use, which will ensure better outcomes for teachers, students and parents in the future. Workers in all sectors will continue to face ongoing changes to job functions that require continual skill acquisition and decisions related to career development.

However, in education the current arrangements risk becoming normalised as part of the career path of newly qualified teachers. As such, a co-ordinated policy from the Department of Education and stakeholders is required, such that responsibility for development is not placed solely at school leader or teacher level. In the wake of Covid-19 it is critical that leaders establish and enforce policy that supports the healthy adoption of technology outside of school hours by both teachers and students alike.

Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn is lecturer in technical communication and instructional design at University of Limerick; Dr Tríona Hourigan is a teacher and researcher; and Dr Caroline Murphy is a lecturer in employment relations at UL