Balancing a life of being constantly connected

By Rebecca Vukovic

Dr Nicola Johnson is a senior lecturer at the School of Education at Federation University. Her research concerns internet over-use, and the use of ICT to enhance learning and teaching. She talks to TechnologyEd about why technology stress happens and provides strategies to help teachers manage their need to feel connected.

Why is it that educators are so connected to their devices?

Well, I guess it’s part of our professional development – that we want to keep up-to-date and keep up with the latest. So instead of just reading print material or the occasional monthly email or digest we get, we will now look at Twitter feeds and the constant reminders on Facebook group pages, and that kind of thing. It’s very easy to be connected and continue the perpetuation of getting more and more information and more and more updates and reading different blogs. If you were in a classroom you would sit down with the person next door and talk about a lesson or a unit that went really well – it’s now sort of become globalised in that people in different countries can share with each other electronically and instantly. All of these new ideas and new things – it’s just part of the culture. I guess 21st Century skills require us to be adaptive and flexible and constantly connected, so it’s certainly part of the expectations.

Do parents and the wider community expect teachers to be available whenever they need them?

I think they’re expecting an effective communication processes to be used. So 10 or 20 years ago, you never would text a parent to communicate with them, but that’s becoming more and more used. [Now,] instead of email you have a webpage so parents can go on there and see what’s the latest homework, and what events that are coming up. The ways we communicate are becoming more ‘media-tised’ if that’s a word. But it’s replacing the print forms of communication that we used to have but it also means that there’s a lot more ways we can communicate and a lot more time can be spent with this kind of communication. It can be good to be seen as efficient and professional but it’s not always necessarily the case.

At what point do you think technology use becomes more of a technology addiction?

I’ve had a recent experience myself where I’ve just realised that I’m so constantly connected to my emails now.  It had become a problem and I have sort of been getting ... an affirmative response from [it]. I think if I can deal with an email and I can respond to it, send it, then I’m doing my work or I’m doing a good job. But that doesn’t actually mean that I’m doing a good job. Answering emails or attending to non-important queries is actually not good work. We need to prioritise and decide what’s important, what those jobs are. Working in a classroom, the children are always the most important thing. It’s not about the amount of technology that we use or the amount of electronic communication we give to our parents. 

So, do you think when a teacher is more concerned about Twitter or responding to emails, rather than the learning in the classroom –  that’s the point where it’s probably gone too far?

Yeah, exactly and I think we need to be mindful of, you know, ‘what are my priorities?’ And the curriculum is a priority and good relationships is a priority, learning and teaching, and the children as young people are the main priority. 

Why does technology stress happen and why are people so affected by it?

Well, there’s a really good article that I’ve found ... it talks about multi-tasking and how we are just cramming our life full of technological engagement. So instead of just sitting and waiting for the bus, or when you’re waiting in line for a coffee, even when you go outside to have a coffee, you’re looking at your phone and you’re checking your phone and you’re wondering what’s going on. You look at your Twitter feed and the blogs you follow and we’re just constantly having this stimulation, and it’s not that we are changed by that, but it’s that we’re finding it probably harder to wind down and just to be. 

And that’s what my research is really interested in doing – for those people who choose to be stimulated all the time, what is it like for them to just decide ‘I’m going to not be stimulated, I’m going to take a step back from all of that stuff’? I mean, we can just fill our lives so much and it’s information that’s unnecessary or not important and so people are going to have to make decisions like the one I’ve recently decided to do. [I’ve decided]to take my email off my smart phone and I’m only going to do work when I’m sitting at my computer.  I’m not going to be doing work when I’m playing with my child or cooking the dinner or riding my horse. 
I’m trying to make that separation between work and home. Teachers haven’t been good at that and they’ll take home certain parts of their work to do at home but we all know that with teaching, you can just spend hours and hours and hours every week. It’s endless and so we’ve got to have the disconnect, a positive disconnect between the online and the offline and the real and the virtual and the work and home. Some people say ‘oh well you can’t be looking at that because we’re online all the time’ – it’s true we can be online all the time but that doesn’t mean that we should be.

Is there a difference between the technology stress that older teachers experience compared to those of younger teachers? 

I think there’s a misperception that the older teachers are out of touch with the technology. I certainly don’t find that to be the case and I find that there are a lot of younger teachers, student teachers especially, who come through and they’re clueless about technology. They might use Facebook and their iPhone but they really have no idea how to use technology in an educational program. So, it’s sort of a misnomer to say that the young teachers are better at it, but I think the technology stress happens to all teachers. 

One of the significant things that influences that, is technology not working in schools or not having the infrastructure and the technical support. So teachers might go about doing a really great session with some technology and the internet fails or the software doesn’t load, they become frustrated. I think often it’s the technology not working, so then that becomes a stressor. They want to be seen as innovative and creative and doing engaging things, but if they can’t because the bloody stuff doesn’t work, it’s really difficult for them. 

Do you have any advice or strategies that teachers could use to manage their technology stress?

I think sometimes [it is important] to have a timetable saying ‘I’m not gonna check emails’ or ‘I’m not going to go online from 8pm to 7am’, or having a regiment of time of when I’m not going to bother about it. You don’t have to check your emails, you don’t have to be online and check all your emails all the time. Why not check them twice a day, instead of having them on all the time? 
I get email alerts all the time and I think ‘what am I doing?’ I can’t actually manage that all the time because I’ve got other priorities and other jobs that I need to do that aren’t email. Switching off, saying that you’re only going to use one means of communication, like you might use emails rather than phoning. I think you’ve got to be careful with what means of communication you use with parents, especially, so that it’s the best form that you’re using, most appropriate. I think younger teachers need to be aware of that too. 

You don’t have to communicate in all the ways, it’s OK for you to turn Twitter off. Deactivate your Twitter account, you know. Just because you use Twitter a lot doesn’t mean that you’re actually a good teacher. The textbooks I’ve read, and I’ve said [it as well], that using technology doesn’t make you a great teacher – quality learning and teaching programs do.

Teaching’s a techno pressure cooker

By Dan Haesler

Technostress is an ever-present fact of modern teaching life – so what can you and your school leaders do about it?

According to a Safe Work Australia report, published in 2013, teachers, police officers and prison staff have something in common. 

They are the professions most likely to make a stress-related mental health claim. Anecdotal evidence might also suggest that there are even more teachers suffering stress who aren’t speaking out. 

Let’s be clear. Schools can be stressful places regardless of their postcode. Sure some schools have issues that others wouldn’t be able to fathom, but stress is contextual, and teachers’ reactions to it, personal. 

There is no inherently stressful event or place. What is stressful to one may not be to another, but research from Dr Philip Riley shows that workplace stress and a perceived lack of support is one of the primary driving factors that leads to 40 to 50 per cent of teachers leaving the profession within their first five years. 

So when something comes along that is hoped will make things a little easier on staff, schools tend to prick up their ears. 

Technology in the workplace – both in the corporate world and educational institutions – is often heralded as a way to reduce stress, create more time and increase efficiency in every way imaginable. I’m sure you’ve heard the word “streamline” more than once in the past couple of years. 

In schools we have platforms and software to write our reports, manage our timetables, store our lesson materials, deliver lessons online, check students’ work for plagiarism and put our newsletters in the digital hand of every one of our parents. What’s not to like about technology in schools? 

Well, as it happens, quite a bit. 

“Technostress” is not a word I made up. Rather it is stress that is derived from the use of and expectations around technology. 

For example: pressure to multitask, higher productivity expectations, erosion of work/life balance, inability to “switch off” or the frustration associated with failing technology. 

Recognise any of these? Thought so. 

Another common concern I hear from teachers is the constant pressure to keep up-to-date with the latest technology. 

And when you add to this, the rather emotive claim from American author David Thornburg that, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer deserves to be”. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the TED Talk Prize winner Sugata Mitra who has suggested that schools – and by extension teachers – are becoming obsolete  due to the rise of computers.  

So it’s not unusual that in any given staffroom, whilst there may be some early adopters, there will also be many who are wary of new technology, perhaps resistant to change. And whenever there is change, there is a level of stress. It’s how schools handle change that will determine whether that stress impacts on their teachers’ health. 

But to compound this, there is another issue that seems to have crept up on us without us noticing.  In one of my favourite episodes of Seinfeld, perennial underachiever, George Costanza realises that if he leaves his car in the car-park all week, then each day, it will appear to others as though he is the first to arrive at work and the last to leave. He thinks this will suitably impress his peers, but more importantly his boss.  

I reckon that some of us send emails in much the same way George parked his car. Whether we mean it to or not, sending an email at 10.29pm to all staff says, “Look at me I’m still working.” And to some that might also read as, “Why aren’t you?”

Now I’m not presuming to tell you when to work. Some of you have to get through your admin or preparation late into the night. What I am asking though is, that you hold off sending that email till the morning.

You’re not expecting anyone to read it before then anyway, are you? There is a big difference between receiving an email from your boss or colleague at 7.30am and receiving something at 11pm. I think this actually plays into a bigger issue, and that’s our inability to switch off in general.

Research is showing that increasingly the last thing we do before going to bed is check our phones. Some people report waking up in the middle of the night to check their social media timelines. 

In 2011, The Lighting Research Centre, part of New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that looking at a backlit screen such as your tablet, laptop or phone supresses the release of melatonin thus making it harder to sleep. Combined with the intellectual stimulation that professor Kevin Morgan, director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit at Loughborough University says screen-time provides, you have yourself a perfect storm of sleeplessness. 

Why is this an issue? In his book Brain Rules, John Medina suggests that by sleeping for six hours or less for just five consecutive days, your cognitive function is impaired in the same way it would be after going 48 hours straight without sleep.

No wonder we’re so tired and stressed by the end of term! How would you feel if you switched your phone off at 8pm? Why not try it? I bet it will feel strange for a while, but then you might notice you start sleeping better, and who knows, you might even look forward to switching it off!

Of course some will argue, “But Dan! My phone is my alarm clock!”  To them I say, “Buy an alarm clock.” Seriously though, how can schools – and in particular – leaders, be mindful of technostress?

First of all, appropriate training in tandem with a clearly defined direction around the use of technology in your school is imperative. I’ve seen too many staff meetings where with a few clicks, and window flashes the latest and greatest idea has been presented, and all but the few teachers who knew about it anyway are any the wiser.

Perhaps instead you could strategically buddy up departments with early adopters. Not so the tech savvy can impose their beliefs on the department, but rather the department can say what they’d really like to be able to do and those with the knowledge and the skills can show them how. Perhaps your students could have a role to play in this? Particularly if you’ve gone to a BYOD program. 

Invest wisely in the infrastructure. Network dropouts and Blue Screens of Death not only kill lessons, they also kill teacher enthusiasm and confidence in using technology. And it can be embarrassing too. 

Have a clear email policy. I think some essential aspects of any policy should be:

1. Ensuring that dissemination of information can be done via an as-and-when system. Where information can be uploaded to a central repository and teachers can access it as-and-when they need it. Attendance records, for example. 
2. Ensuring everyone is clear about how quickly emails are to be attended to. As a guide, if parents have access to your teachers’ email addresses, I think 48 hours to respond to a parent email is sufficient. We are supposed to be focused on teaching after all. 
3. Have a time after which no one is expected to send or reply to emails – 7.30pm perhaps, or, let’s go crazy, how about 5pm?
4. And never, ever – use Reply All – unless it is explicitly requested that you do so. Ever. 

Stressed? Hang on – help is on its way

By Daniel Groenewald 

Daniel Groenewald lists seven common causes of technostress for educators today, and some tips to help them get by.

Scholars aren’t usually the first to wave pom poms when new technologies arrive. Socrates, who predates the invention of lycra by just a few millennia, complained that the invention of writing would “create forgetfulness in … learners’ souls”. Sigmund Freud moaned about rail travel because it whisked children away from their native towns. Albert Einstein is credited with wondering if “our technology had exceeded our humanity”.  

Although these cerebral superstars may have been playing devil’s advocate, they do make the point that new technologies have unintended effects. And it is these unintended effects that are the catalyst of so much technostress. 

Technostress is the stress people experience in adapting to new technologies and their effects. The main symptoms of technostress include feeling overwhelmed by new ICT systems, software, excessive information and excessive requests or feeling anxiety in relation to the changes wrought by these systems. Nowhere is technostress more prevalent than in today’s busy schools. Here are seven common causes of technostresses and some tips to address them:

Email overload

There are no queues in the digital world.  Student, parent and workplace requests can occur simultaneously and without an awareness of your personal workload or context. Expectations are not just high but recorded, too. Email creates stress when too many people expect prompt responses to issues that require deep thinking in timeframes that are unreasonable. Solution: Develop, communicate and implement an effective email policy that is shared with the whole school community.  The policy could start with the idea that email will be responded to before and after school only and within an agreed reasonable timeframe. Using other media to communicate – such as conversation, chat and cloud-based file sharing (eg.“send me the link”) will also free up mailbox space. 

Poor wireless connectivity

Having taken a leap of faith and constructed a digital lesson, it’s frustrating to be unable to download material or keep students on the same page. Solution: Complete a Wi-Fi audit to identify and address problems. Have leadership staff teach in all classrooms to make them aware of black spots.  Keep a plan B and C lesson for those difficult classrooms so you are never caught short. 

Inadequate professional development

A digital school is only as good as its training. There are many new whiz bang ways to engage, monitor and assess students. But if teachers are only half trained to use them, they’ll feel stressed, resent the change and return to their old ways. Solution: Ongoing training at the point of need. Identify effective staff trainers and provide them with paid time to support new technology initiatives. Where you lack bandwidth, engage expert consultants to provide additional support with new technologies.

Poor student device maintenance

In the old days, when pen and paper ruled, it was harder for students to be off task. If a student learning device has a flat battery, or is lost in space, students now have a new reason for being off task. Solution: Encourage a culture of ICT maintenance and have plan B tasks for students that require pen and paper. 

Tech distractions

A class full of laptops, connected to a world of friends, and a world of gaming, can be difficult to manage.  Steve Males, head of the Junior School at Aquinas College in Perth, whose PhD research focuses on effective one-to-one computing, has developed an excellent model for managing digital distractions. The model – developed with Notre Dame colleagues Frank Bate and Jean MacNish – is called the ABCD of managing distraction in one-to-one laptop programs. ‘A’ stands for creating active classrooms with active tasks. ‘B’ is for buy-in, empowering students to make appropriate choices.  ‘C’ is for community – ensuring the entire community understands what appropriate ICT looks and feels like. ‘D’ is for deterrent. Making sure consequences are in place for contravening acceptable use.

The times are a changing

The villain of our age is the time thief. More is being asked of teachers in less time. Doing too much at once is overwhelming but there is still a need to engage in authentic change. If you are going to implement a change to how you teach or assess curriculum, choose one change per term. Work on that project with a peer or team and gather as much support for it as possible. 

App mania

There are a million apps out there that promise to improve learning. Knowing where to start can create uncertainty. There is no need to constantly search for new apps. Apps are the vehicle to deliver curriculum outcomes not the destination. Why not limit the number of apps you use to 10? Why not use the same ones your colleagues are using to develop a community of expertise?  Focusing on a limited set of apps will create a stable and fluent learning environment. Continuity is best. Using the same learning management system (LMS),   note-taking program and cloud storage is an efficient and effective way to create scalable digital learning capital (SDLC).  

Fortunately, there are some strategies to deal with technostress in schools. And thanks to my professional learning network, itself a strategy for dealing with technostress, I’ve been able to gather a few handy tips from ICT leaders around the country: 

Mike Israel, IT manager at Knox Grammar School in Sydney, believes in the power of support to reduce teacher stress. For Israel, communicating your ICT plans early, demonstrating the positive aspects of new technologies, establishing pilot groups, and aligning your vision with the executives, helps to decrease staff stress. He believes you also need a genuine mandate for tech change: “If the users get a sense that the change is just the latest fad being pushed by the local techno geek, then forget it and stick to the pen and paper method.” 

To deal with staff technostress, Anna Hu, director of Information and Learning Technologies at Presbyterian Ladies College and Scotch College, Perth, says: “We have put in a number of support structures to provide staff with training and just-in-time assistance with technology. We have established an infrastructure that provides high speed, reliable access to resources and the internet. We have consulted with curriculum area leaders to set up classroom technology that is complimentary to their department’s teaching and learning style.” Hu says technology is trialled carefully in one context before being rolled out to the next to minimise or share the stress associated with rapid technological change. 

Peter Gazzola, director of Innovation at St Andrew’s Anglican College Peregian Springs  Queensland, believes that structure and planning are the key to minimising stress for teachers. For Gazzola, the careful management of whole change is critical. Planned innovations must align with the school’s vision and therefore gain the support of the leadership. Expert pedagogies must lead technology change and gather support from technical experts. Resourcing must be as faultless as possible. The school needs to identify teacher ICT champions, train them up and have them help other teachers. And there must be time to pause, reflect and revisit the motivations for making change in the first place. One of Gazzola’s tips is to get parents involved. Communicate well with parents and bring them along so they understand the school’s vision for digital learning. 

Paul Fuller, associate principal of Yanchep Beach Primary School in Perth, says that time is critical in managing technostress: “Teachers must be given plenty of time to explore new technologies with support from their colleagues before there can be any expectation of them adopting those technologies in the classroom. When teachers see the benefit of new technology, have choice over the tools that they use and have built strong support networks, technostress is not an issue”. 

Technologies are supposed to increase our locus of control and makes our lives easier. If your technology is leaving you high and dry, it’s time to change tack. Start by doing small things well. Focus on school or curricula goals and make learning more effectively the objective. Limit the number of apps you use, trial technologies in groups, pause to reflect on your curriculum goals. Avoid doing too much on a whim. Plan, rehearse and persevere.