Can virtual communities be the answer to instructor burnout?
It comes as no surprise to anyone that the US education system has been completely flipped on its head in the past two years. We’ve gone from scrambling to get classes remote in any way possible, to now embracing a mostly remote-hybrid model across the country.
Instructors and TA’s have had to carry the brunt of this difficult transition, adapting their lesson plans and methods of instruction faster than they ever imagined possible. It’s important to recognize that this unprecedented transformation has led to some of the highest levels of instructor burnout we’ve ever seen.
A 2021 survey of the effects of COVID on public sector workers found that K-12 instructors were the most likely to report higher levels of anxiety, stress and burnout throughout the pandemic. However, this problem isn’t just isolated to K-12, as an October 2020 survey conducted by The Chronicle stated that more than two-thirds of over 1,000 higher education faculty participants reported feeling “very” or “extremely” stressed or fatigued in the past month. When instructors are burnt out, it can have a domino effect not only in their own lives, but also those of their students. The trickle-down effects of their stress can make it difficult for students to get a consistent learning experience and have access to the resources they need to succeed.
When we look deeper into the causes of this burnout, the story begins far before COVID and often stems from growing class sizes and thus a lack of instructor resources. The primary resource missing here being time. Instructors need ample time to plan their courses, find supplementary material, grade discussions and other assignments, and so much more. The bigger the class size, the more time an instructor needs to be able to provide a quality learning experience to their students. Not to mention that this must include enough down-time for the instructor, and their teaching team, to rest and recuperate.
In a study done by the Berkeley Public Policy Journal in 2015, Jessica Tyson, a history and English teacher at Oakland Technical High School, stated that “U.S. teachers spend more time in front of students by a significant margin than in other developed countries,” she said. “I was struck by how wonderful [it] would be … if I could just teach slightly less, how much more I could do.” This begs the question of how we can support instructors so that they have ample time even in classes that are larger than ever before. Doris Santoro, professor of education at Bowdoin College in Maine, told the National Education Association that “[Schools] should be asking educators, ‘what is the most time-consuming part of your job, what tasks aren’t as important and what are the systems that we can put in place so you can do the work that you think matters most?’”
When we look at the rise in productivity innovation in the past decade, the obvious solution appears to be the integration of technology into the classroom. If almost every workplace has adopted communication and productivity software to scale their ability to empower employees, why shouldn’t schools follow suit?
Building virtual communities through simple and effective communication platforms has been shown to reduce stress and improve access to resources. When you allow everyone in class to be an active knowledge creator for one another, it reduces the time that a single instructor has to spend to ensure that every student has exactly what they need to succeed. Moreover, students are already familiar with building community online, as it’s been ingrained through their use of social media. It’s time that we bring these modern techniques into the classroom to help both instructors and students unlock the optimal learning environment.
When it comes to implementing educational technology in the classroom, it can be difficult to get instructors and students onboard if the tool isn’t specifically built for their use case. Instructors who aren’t used to technologies like backchannels may be apprehensive to overcome the learning curve, while students are looking for intuitive and modern tech that feels similar to the other apps they’re already using outside of class.
Tools like Nectir that bridge the gap by creating communication technology specifically built for classes and campuses can alleviate the issues on both ends. Research shows that classes that use backchannel technology like Nectir have an easier time building community, and that same community is what takes the stress off the instructor by allowing students to access one another to get the help they need. Imagine a classroom environment in which students ask and answer each other’s questions without bombarding their instructor’s email inbox a dozen times with the same inquiry.
Not only does this allow students to build rapport and practice social skills, it also reinforces their own knowledge of the topics every time they answer a question for one another. Instructors aren’t stretched so thin when there are tens or even hundreds of others providing resources throughout the day inside these virtual communities. Additionally, instructors can see exactly how well their students are grasping lecture topics based on how they discuss them within their class channel. Even their TA’s benefit from being able to share info to the entire class at once through their Nectir channel. These channels then become repositories of information over time, accruing more value as each message is sent. Students can search by specific topic to access the info they need at any time of the day, without having to involve their instructor.
The benefit of utilizing effective ed-tech can stretch even farther than preventing burnout or providing timely resources. A study on Integrating Education Technology in Higher Education out of Governor State University states that “The advances in technology may prove to be among the greatest forces to influence the future of colleges and universities. The innovative use of educational technologies can lead to significantly better results on examinations, indicating improved learning outcomes, in addition to improvements in problem-solving skills.” There’s no doubt that the right tech tools in the classroom can save time for everyone amongst many other crucial benefits.
It’s time that we look at community in the classroom as a serious solution for instructor burnout, and thus improving the U.S. education system as a whole.
Kavitta Ghai is the co-founder and CEO of Nectir. She is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and has raised in excess of $2 million as an entrepreneur.
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