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The impact of digital fatigue in the educational system

More than a year ago, in the context of the international health crisis we are still facing, the entire world had to deal with unique learning circumstances. With schools being shut down, stakeholders, faculty, and institutional bodies had to reinvent teaching, exploring adequate alternatives to ensure successful learning.

Experiencing this new reality in various ways, teachers and students around the globe tried their best to move education online almost overnight. Mostly unprepared for such a scenario, but eager and diligent, everyone got involved in the transition.

However, after months of screen time, a new phenomenon emerged in the educational system, called digital fatigue. This condition appeared as a consequence of overusing the digital tools in the learning process, causing a feeling of saturation that can lead to burnout.

In a three-part series, I'll explore what digital fatigue is, how to deal with it as a teacher, and its impact on students and learning.

What leads to digital fatigue?

The abrupt shift from face-to-face to online teaching has left teachers and students struggling to adjust. Specialists have recognized digital fatigue as a concerning condition with significant physical and psychological impacts on both teachers and students.

While the causes of this phenomenon can vary, we can pinpoint the following:

  • Social inequalities regarding the quality of the technology used
  • Connectivity issues
  • Lower-resolution screens
  • Poor sound quality
  • Focusing on unclear images
  • The feeling of intrusiveness
  • The need for constant engagement
  • Too many visual and audio stimuli
  • Difficulty in setting time and space boundaries
  • A sense of overload because of the myriad of online resources

In the past year, online schooling has put a strain on vulnerable communities, especially those who have difficulties accessing technology or making the best out of limited resources.

Read more: 6 Practical strategies for teaching across the digital divide

Spending hours on end in front of low-resolution screens, doubled by poor sound quality, amplifies the feeling of digital fatigue. Nevertheless, everyone on the other side of the screen, be it low or premium quality, experiences a sense of intrusion, especially when the camera is on.

You are exposed 100%, which does not happen when teaching face to face. This is particularly true for students. At any given time during class, a student is seen by 15 to 25% of their peers. But online, whether it is real or not, there is this feeling of being watched uninterruptedly.

Such an experience can take a toll on a person because of the need for personal space and privacy. We mustn't forget that many families have more than one child connected to online school in the same room.

Also, both teachers and students feel pressured to fill every second of the online class. This is caused by the discomfort created by silence. There's the requirement — or so it's perceived — to be engaged at all times, leading to fatigue.

Moreover, from the tendency to limit screen time for children, in particular, we've reached the need to spend enormous amounts of time in front of screens.

With the multitude of resources and formats that take time to adjust, there is fatigue generated by too many visual and audio stimuli.

Read more: How to do more with less screen time

The number one cause for digital fatigue is the inability to separate the school space from the rest of the house, mainly because of living conditions.

Another reason for digital fatigue could be the inability or unwillingness of some teachers and students to assign time limits and keep them when it comes to preparing and creating assignments or content.

The impact of digital fatigue in the educational system

Regarding teaching and learning, there are some significant consequences to consider as they impact the educational process directly:

  • Lack of focus
  • Knowledge absorption decrease
  • Disengagement
  • High dropout risk
  • Body dysfunctionality related to movement, posture, and eyesight
  • Anxiety and stress often associated with physical ailments
  • The risk of seclusion
  • Underdeveloped, unpractised, or suppressed social skills

Our bodies are not made to function in a seated position for long hours. Sedentarism triggers posture and movement issues, vision problems, and even digestive dysfunctionality.

Digital fatigue is also responsible for the lack of or inability to focus, thus lowering academic performance and knowledge retention levels.

This condition, combined with anxiety and stress, can lead to disengagement and increased dropout risk, in addition to self-isolation and poor social skills.

It is safe to say that digital fatigue is a serious condition that can't be treated lightly.  It can significantly change the outcomes of the learning process as a whole, or for each individual at a personal level.

Socially speaking, e-learning has changed how we interact tremendously. However, when digital fatigue can be disruptive on an inter and intrapersonal level.

Stay tuned!

Specialists advise everyone involved in teaching and learning online to educate themselves and others to recognize the signs of digital fatigue early on. This way, we can reverse its consequences or at least limit its damage.

In the following two parts, I'll explore more aspects of digital fatigue, focusing on how teachers and students perceive it and how the less is more approach is the best practice. So keep an eye on the K-20 Blog!