Zoomed Out: Is This Really Online Education?

With the immediate switch from residential education to remote learning many, including the institution I work for, switched to finishing out the semester via video conferencing software. While in many ways this is a necessary move, but some are beginning to feel the fatigue of always Zooming. This brings up a couple questions:

  1. Why does video conferencing all the time bring so much mental and emotional fatigue?
  2. Is this really online education?

Why the fatigue?

The Chronicle this morning posted an article on the reasons for our Zoom fatigue:

The body language and other cues that we expect but can’t access; the way we monitor our own appearance; the stimulation of staring into faces at close range; the inability to take a break, move, or change our surroundings.

I believe this is largely correct. Mentally, we are expecting something more than what we can actually get. Video gets us only so far in a virtual connection. Seeing others on a screen creates a false sense of expectation that the connection we feel may replicate the in-person experience. When this is done for multiple hours a day, day after day, week after week, and month after month, it is naturally going to take a toll on us.

Mike Caulfield posted on Twitter awhile back:

You know how wiped you feel after that series of Zoom call meetings you had today? Because it’s a lot of the energy of face-to-face without many of the psychological rewards of face-to-face.

I think we are all learning what we already knew. Physical connection is a key and necessary factor in the human experience.

Is this really online education?

The other question that is probably arising among many people is the question, is this truly what online education is? Are the experiences I am feeling teaching this now remote distance course what all online courses are like?

In short, no. While there are special cases that certain courses will have an advantage of being synchronous and a remote-learning design the bulk of a student’s online education should not be in this format.

Online education is more than just live class meetings via video conferencing. When we think about online education much works needs to go into rethinking and reconceptualizing a course and thinking through how to deliver and meet the same course objectives that we would in an on-campus class.

Online courses should be a mix of video, reading, interactive content, discussions between students, and more. Much of this happens naturally in the classroom (and sometimes, unfortunately it does not). When you are teaching online it take more preparation and planning to do an online course well.

Most online courses are asynchronous, which means that students and teachers are not meeting at the same time. Content is delivered through video, reading, discussion, and other activities. Even if your online course is asynchronous I would encourage you to think of thoughtful and focused ways to provide synchronous opportunities for students.

As with most things in life, there are both advantages and disadvantages to asynchronous learning. First I want to outline some of the advantages for this type of education:

  1. The obvious benefit is that students are able to arrange their schedule in greater flexibility due to the asynchronous nature of a course. This isn’t to say that there are not due dates or structure but the live class structure does not prohibit students from taking a certain course.
  2. Students are able to replay lectures and review content more thoroughly.
  3. Lectures are generally shorter and more focused, which allows for students to grasp concepts more readily as they learn on their own time.
  4. There is generally more discussion and offline collaboration that allows all students opportunities to discuss content. Too often in a synchronous environment, only those students, generally extroverted, contribute to discussions. Students are given more time to reflect on what they are learning before contributing rather than thinking on their feet, in the moment.

But there are some difficulties for asynchronous learning:

  1. Community building and connecting with your students within the class is more difficult and will not look or feel the same as an on-campus course. Students take online courses because of different life situations. Many need to stay in the context where they are while they further their career through education. Take this into consideration as you prepare an online course and incorporate activities that involve the student’s context.
  2. Planning an asynchronous online course takes more time and needs to be more focused. Clear expectations and communication are vital for teaching online.
  3. Content delivery needs to be “chunked” or broken down into manageable learning sessions rather than an hour long lecture. Chris Anderson has a great video on the secret to TED talks. I think some of the principles he outlines can be used for creating and delivering great online video content.
  4. There is a learning curve for students and faculty to engage with new technologies.


Online education should be thoughtfully planned out for a student in an asynchronous environment. Teachers should think through the goals of the course then work backwards creating new ways to help students achieve those learning objectives. An online course should not exactly replicate an on-campus course but this doesn’t mean that it is easier or has different learning goals for the students.

Resources Linked in the Article

This entry was posted in education and tagged online learning, zoom on by .

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