Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
In 2022, university professors reported record levels of student stress and disengagement, an ongoing issue since the pandemic began. Due to this, many institutions have recognized the need to use more edtech tools to boost student engagement and retention, promote happiness and enhance hybrid learning environments — but many tools aren’t quite filling the void.
It’s important to note that the rapidly growing edtech industry doesn’t necessarily correlate with 100% high-quality products and limitless benefits. The reality is that there are many different categories of edtech tools.
From immersive tech like virtual reality and gamified classroom activities to learning apps and online courses, applications might be innovative, but most are still limited in availability and stress-relieving capabilities. In my experience, many students and teachers alike are tired of endless learning-management-system discussion boards and siloed conversations via messaging platforms like Slack.
There are, however, some collaboration tools for virtual discussions — from Wiki tools to virtual whiteboards — that are reducing stress by being figureheads for interoperability. Rather than alienating users, these tools are supporting high-quality, virtual social experiences for students and teachers. Let’s see how.
Investigating the causes of student stress
As the CEO of a collaborative annotation and social learning software, every day I speak to a diverse range of teachers and educational practitioners across the US, and they highlight several reasons for student stress:
As institutions have shifted courses online over the last few years, they have witnessed sharp declines in student engagement with course content. In a study from May 2022, 72% of students reported that low engagement during lectures negatively impacted their online learning experience. The disconnect from this hybrid teaching approach means they struggle to stay connected to their peers and instructors and to manage the pace of coursework, all adding extra stress.
Participation in class
In January 2023, Michigan State University Extension wrote about student stress stemming from the expectations of their participation during class time. A teacher randomly picking out students to read or answer a question, as well as class activities and online exercises, can cause huge amounts of anxiety for students who are more introverted.
Lack of interclass collaboration
Often, a class will have an engaging session during an allotted time, but students won’t continue discussing what they have learned in a collaborative online environment. As a result, they can feel disconnected from each other once they leave the classroom and resort to self-assisted learning between classes.
Diverse student populations
Indiana University Bloomington has nearly 43,000 students from all 50 states and abroad with a range of backgrounds and needs. With student populations juggling different responsibilities and commitments, institutions must meet them where they are. The edtech tools this university chooses can’t follow a one-size-fits-all approach, or students may feel neglected and abandoned, contributing to stress and anxiety.
Collaborative edtech tools can aid stress management
Virtual collaboration tools encourage students to give and get feedback, communicate and share ideas in real time, and have online discussions outside of class. But how exactly does this reduce student stress?
Teachers will know where students are struggling
Gauging the well-being of individual students and identifying which areas of a course are particularly challenging is quite a battle for teachers. However, free digital reflection tools have been designed to help teachers make students feel seen and understood, while virtual collaboration tools, like open annotation, can identify student misunderstandings more quickly. Clearing up misunderstandings helps reduce student stress.
Open annotation allows students to have conversations over web-based information from blogs and ebooks to articles and legislation, boosting engagement levels. In turn, this social approach to annotation means teachers hear every voice in the classroom and understand students’ thoughts and doubts, meaning they don’t suffer in silence as usual. This offers particularly vital insights for teachers whose students have unique needs or are from different backgrounds.
The University of Southern Mississippi uses open annotation for first-year students overwhelmed by the syllabus or new environment. Some of the newer students say they feel more comfortable engaging in text or content with social annotation — a safe space to dig into unfamiliar territory and experiment with sharing thoughts — instead of raising their hands in class. This could boost student participation and lead to better learning outcomes.
There are also game-based learning platforms like Kahoot that go beyond just fun motivation for students to study and be rewarded. They are pulse checks that teachers can use to capture test results, completion rates, recurring challenges and instructional insights for formative assessments in real time. Having that information can make it easier for teachers to address student stress.
Deeper engagement with content and peers
2023 is all about designing more inclusive learning experiences where students feel empowered. Virtual collaboration tools fit the bill by being more equitable; rather than a top-down power structure, learning is facilitated by students and not just teachers. It helps educators develop flexible and inclusive learning environments that accommodate individual differences and learning preferences, meaning deeper engagement.
In fact, these tools may also foster further interactions between students, particularly when discussing difficult, uncomfortable topics. Many find community and opportunities for participation through these collaboration tools, which, for various structural and dynamic reasons, might not happen naturally in an in-class situation.
For example, Labster, an edtech platform for virtual labs and interactive science courseware, gives students access via digital devices to simulations to practice lab skills and visualize theory. Labster leverages gamification techniques to boost student engagement and has developed an intelligent “hint and guidance” system to help nudge students in the right direction to complete challenging STEM assignments.
Finally, students often feel a little left in the dark when it comes to class content as they aren’t involved in the pre-planning. But with virtual tools for collaboration, teachers can leave discussions on pieces of content so students know exactly what will be covered. They can also cut out the “Can anyone tell me what the reading was about?” — thus leading to richer peer discussions. If students are offered this interclass collaboration instead of playing catch up in each lesson, they’ll have more autonomy over their progress, and engagement can jump.
Virtual collaboration edtech tools have the potential to empower students to take more control over their learning, foster stress-free environments and adaptive learning experiences, and help students thrive both academically and emotionally.
Dan Whaley, CEO and founder of Hypothesis, a mission-driven organization that has developed an open-source platform that enables anyone to annotate or comment on any online piece of content. Dan is a coder and early pioneer in web innovation and serves as a director of Sauce Labs, an open-source functional testing company, and Getaround, a peer-to-peer car-sharing company.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.