By: Sarah Enouy, Master’s Student (Mental Health & Addictions Lab; Dept. of Psychology)
After the switch to online learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers were quick to name, and study, the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” (e.g., Fosslien et al.,; Wiederhold, 2020). However, while it is clear that video meetings lead to increased mental load and fatigue, little attention has been paid to other online learning practices that increase the mental load on students. Aside from Zoom, there are other online learning experiences which additively contribute to overall fatigue and burnout among university students and teaching assistants – one of which is using multiple, non-universal online learning platforms.
Every university has its own standardized online learning platform, or learning management system (e.g., Chalkboard, CULearn, Brightspace). These university-provided platforms usually have a public communication forum for students to ask questions and collaborate with each other, and to access the course content. Historically, this platform is standardized across all courses (i.e., the same format). However, since the start of the pandemic and online learning, I have noticed an increase in the number of non-universal social and learning platforms used to deliver course content. These non-universal platforms have some advantages over university provided learning management systems (e.g., easy student-to-student interaction, private conversations) but also pose additional challenges for students.
What is the Problem?
The shift to multiple different learning platforms is an emerging issue in online learning environments and has increased the student workload for at least two reasons. First, students have to manage large amounts of information coming in from an ever-growing number of learning platforms. Second, students have to learn how to use these platforms – many of which do not have the same technical support as the university platform. This article discusses the challenges of using online platforms outside of the institutional learning management system and tips for teaching assistants to support students with this change.
A recent Google search revealed over 100 options for online platforms (e.g., Discord, Slack, Google teams). This means there are a potential 100 different learning platforms that students could be exposed to, thus exacerbating the multi-platform management issue. Indeed, recent research found a significant increase in the reported number of online learning tools used before the pandemic to now among university students (Aguilera-Hermida, 2020). The problem is, if each class uses a different platform, an undergraduate student can have up to five different platforms to monitor and maintain. Moreover, the problem is exponentially worsened if some classes use a combination of multiple non-universal platforms. While there has yet to be any peer-reviewed work directly focused on this issue, teachers and university professors have written about the difficulties of multiple platforms on personal blogs (see link in Appendix) and urge educators to use as few platforms as possible to reduce cognitive load for students.
To illustrate the problem with multiple platforms, I have provided an example of my own student experience. My instructor uses a course website outside of CULearn to post course content. In addition to this, class communication is done through a platform called Discord, which has multiple different “channels” for varying subjects and groups of people. Importantly, the instructor sometimes posts content to CULearn, and other times to the course website, and other times to Discord. However, the platforms do not have a synchronized alert system, resulting in missed notifications. To try to avoid this, I check each platform and channel daily, which takes about 5 to 10 minutes. If you multiply this by five classes, it could take fifty minutes of the day to check for class updates, and that is only to check once! Monitoring so many different platforms increases fatigue, time-management demands, and uncertainty – issues which are already exacerbated by other online learning factors (Syahputri et al., 2020).
The second issue with non-universal learning platforms is they can disadvantage less tech-savvy students. Indeed, while most students can spend their time learning course material, the less technically inclined students may waste time and energy learning how to access the course materials on online platforms, putting them at a disadvantage (Cannell & Mcintyre, 2017; Olesova et al., 2011). Moreover, there is not always adequate technical support for system or user errors on non-institutional platforms, creating additional barriers for accessing course content on each new system.
To illustrate this issue, I provide another example from the class I am in that uses Discord. I have learned that Discord was originally designed as a gaming platform and has a surplus of features (e.g., voice chats, screen sharing, private chats). However, because Discord was designed with the gaming community in mind, it is not user-friendly to the average student and does not have good user resources. During my first meeting with my partner for a project, it took thirty minutes to figure out how to use the voice chat option. I have also missed information at the start of class because I did not know how to turn on e-mail notifications from the application, and I also did not know how to navigate to the different information “channels” (something I could do on CULearn). I am not alone in this frustration, as many other students in the class expressed confusion and discomfort while using the platform. My experience is also in line with current research and observations. For example, a recent study found students reported stress from not understanding how to use some online tools (Aguilera-Hermida, 2020). Moreover, when given the option, most students in Dr. Talbert’s a math class at Grand Valley State University indicated they would prefer course announcements and messages be provided through the institutional learning management system instead of other platforms (see link to blog in Appendix).
How can Teaching Assistants Help?
In sum, using non-universal platforms increases cognitive load and stress among students and teaching assistants. As a teaching assistant, you can try to reduce this problem in two ways. First, when communicating with your teaching team encourage the use of the university’s universal learning management system (i.e., Brightspace) for all course-related information and communications. This will help alleviate multi-platform time and information management issues and relieve the workload on students who have difficulty picking up on new platforms.
Second, if a class does use an outside platform, ask the instructor to give you a thorough demonstration of how it works. Then, consider making a quick “users guide” video for the students. Picking up on a new platform does not come easy to all students, and it would be helpful if you were available for assistance during the first week of class, or when a new feature of the platform is introduced.
Finally, make sure if information is being shared on an outside platform, or especially if the class uses more than one platform, that the information is always relayed to one general information source – this should be the institution’s e-mail. It can be as simple as an e-mail with a link to the website/platform saying, “see today’s update”. This will help reduce the student’s need to continuously monitor multiple platforms, as well.
Aguilera-Hermida, A. P. (2020). College students’ use and acceptance of emergency online
learning due to Covid-19. International Journal of Educational Research Open, 1, 100011.
Cannell, P., and R. Mcintyre. (2017). “Free Open Online Resources in Workplace and
Community Settings – A Case Study on Overcoming Barriers.” Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, (19), 1
Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat zoom fatigue. Harvard Business
Olesova, L., D. Yang, and J. C. Richardson. (2011). “Cross-Cultural Differences in
Undergraduate Students’ Perceptions of Online Barriers.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 15(3), 68–80.
Syahputri, V. N., Rahma, E. A., Setiyana, R., Diana, S., & Parlindungan, F. (2020). Online
learning drawbacks during the Covid-19 pandemic: A psychological perspective. EnJourMe (English Journal of Merdeka): Culture, Language, and Teaching of English, 5(2), 108-116
Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Connecting through technology during the coronavirus disease 2019
pandemic: Avoiding “Zoom Fatigue”.Cyberpsychology, behavior and social
networking, 23(7), 437–438. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.29188.bkw
Links to Blog Posts
Issues with online learning platforms blog:
Dr. Talbert’s blog: https://www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2020/04/16/too-many-platforms-add-chaos-online-school-work-opinion/5136096002/