Rising number of academics experiencing burnout as online teaching takes increasing toll

Results from the Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future indicate that drastic changes are necessary if the “new normal” of online teaching and learning is to be sustainable. (Photo: Daily Maverick)

Growing workloads and a constricted work-life balance are becoming considerable challenges for lecturers tasked with teaching students online.

More than half of academics who took part in a survey about perspectives on remote learning and teaching say they are experiencing burnout.

Results from the Staff Experiences of, and Perspectives on Teaching and Learning and its Future (SEP-TLF) study released by Universities South Africa found that burnout had affected 53% of the 1,851 academic staff surveyed at 24 public universities.  

Though the sample represents less than 4% of the sector, the responses indicate that drastic changes are necessary if the “new normal” of online teaching and learning is to be sustainable. A total of 75% of those surveyed said increased workloads impacted their wellbeing. To a lesser extent, balancing work and home life as well as feeling isolated also took their toll.  

Hylton White, a senior lecturer in social anthropology at Wits University, told DM168 that the “new normal” often resulted in 12-hour workdays.

“Preparing effective online classes takes at least twice as much time as preparing for contact lectures. Because students are isolated from one another and from lecturers, there is also a staggering amount of one-on-one email. Teaching this way in 2020 to 2021 was necessary but extremely stressful.”

While institutions offered professional support to staff such as training on how to use new systems, assistance with personal factors — including support for family responsibilities, work/life balance and work-from-home guidelines — mainly fell by the wayside.

Nearly 70% of academics said mental health support was available at their institutions but only 17% made use of it.

According to White, there were anecdotes that lecturers were struggling with stress and mental health, though he is unsure how much of this was attributed to heavy workloads.

“Like everyone in the country, academics also had a whole range of stressful situations in their own lives — illness, bereavement, homeschooling, isolation from friends and family,” he said.

A recent study done at the University of Fort Hare found that nearly 30% of staff members reported psychological distress. Female staff members and those with comorbidities were almost twice as likely to suffer from psychological distress.

Neglecting research responsibilities and difficulties “switching off” were other key challenges respondents of the SEP-TLF faced.

Kerry Frizelle, a psychology lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told DM168 that online teaching in its current form was not sustainable.

“I think it is problematic and robs students of the campus experience,” she said.

Access to data, internet connection and devices is a huge problem, primarily for students. Although educators had good access, it was mainly self-funded. They were also affected by national infrastructure challenges such as load shedding.

A 2020 survey by the Department of Higher Education on students’ “access to and use of learning materials” found that only 50% of students had an appropriate network connection.

Students were also challenged with disruptive home environments. Frizelle noted that female students in particular were burdened with domestic labour, which is likely to have affected the time they could dedicate to their studies.

Dropout rates were also a cause for concern. South Africa has an alarmingly high dropout rate, particularly among first-year students, at more than 50%. It is nevertheless unclear whether these figures were gathered after the lockdown began.

White said lecturers’ efforts to redesign courses to make learning accessible to students with connectivity issues may have mitigated failure rates, but he noted a significant rise in dropout rates.

Students’ struggles had a profound effect on lecturers as well, he noted.

“Remote teaching meant that students were isolated from campus goods such as residence life, adequate study conditions, peers and organisations. So those of us who were teaching had to serve not just as lecturers and online course designers, but also as tech consultants and problem-solvers for students’ crises of mental health, anxiety, poor infrastructure and study space.”

Blended learning — a mix of online and contact teaching — has been touted as the solution to sustaining the “new normal”. Respondents in the SEP-TLF said despite the challenges, there were several positive outcomes to remote teaching, such as providing a wider range of learning materials to students, increased empathy towards students’ challenges and adopting new teaching methods like the flipped classroom model.

Kumbirayishe Chitenderu, a creative writing master’s student and tutor at the University of Cape Town, said her department was able to leverage digital technology to its advantage, particularly for film and media studies. “We could use the very platforms of interaction as examples for theoretical application. So we were fortunate in that sense,” she said.

Frizelle felt lecturers could be trained to work with online teaching and learning in more effective ways. Assessment methods also need revision for the sake of academic integrity.

“Asking direct content questions online results in students using online resources or electronic texts to cut and paste answers. There is a need to develop innovative applied questions, but few of us have been trained to do this,” she said.  

The interactive element of face-to-face teaching is what lecturers miss the most. Switched-off cameras and muted microphones limit engagement.  

“I miss the daily in-person connection with colleagues. I miss the buzz of students on campus. In particular, I miss engaging with students in the lecture room. I am known for having a performative dimension to my teaching and I love working with my students’ reactions,” said Frizelle.  

“I really miss the undergraduate classroom. It is a space where social scientists and others in the humanities can engage directly with young people on the fundamental questions of our time and our society. The strength of those engagements lies in how we surprise one another: students and their lecturers alike. Contact teaching is the foundation for that. No matter how creatively you try to prestructure opportunities for surprise in online teaching, they remain just that: prestructured,” said White. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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  • It is entirely true that academics, globally, and at all levels, have borne a disproportionate level of stress from lockdowns, closed campuses and the enforced ERT (Emergency Remote Teaching). For educators, the switch to online and blended learning was as unexpected as it was rapid, with many unprepared for the requirements for fully online facilitation and instruction on top of dealing with significant challenges already faced by students (those old data and device chestnuts).

    But, as evidenced in this article and elsewhere, not all online experiences were negative, not all academics are facing quite the same challenges. There is growing acceptance that contextualised & well-developed fully online & blended learning is normalising as an effective means of teaching and learning. With the right support (technical & administrative), insightful leadership, training for teaching online & flexible academic practices, educators can and have excelled.

    Anecdotally, there is also an overwhelming majority of younger academics and teachers who have embraced blended learning more than traditional, contact preferring eductors, as they feel more comfortable with digital tools and are active in the social media space where online communities thrive which are critical for online study success

    There is definitely much to debate and consider as the pandemic continues to disrupt education and our lives, but academia should do as much as it can to support digital mediums now and in future

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