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Q&A: How to Fight the ‘Zoombies’ and Minimize Screen Fatigue

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Lorne Fultonberg


Lorne Fultonberg


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Man at desk on Zoom

It’s day 439 of the pandemic, and Zoom has lost a little of its charm. The novelty and convenience of conducting work, school and socializing online have given way to glassy eyes and blank stares.

Scott Toney

Scott Toney, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Business Information and Analytics at the Daniels College of Business, calls it “the Zoombies.” (You may have heard it called, less humorously, “Zoom fatigue.”)

“In the spring quarter of 2020, we began to see signs in our students that we might see in victims in a horror movie,” Toney wrote in a recent journal article, published in Communications of the Association for Information Systems. “Vacuous, glazed, undead eyes. Students that watch too many passive online class sessions and become too bored to learn transform into Zoombies. If effective learning was to occur, the Zoombies had to be kept at bay.”

As the University of Denver transformed spaces on campus to accommodate COVID-19’s challenges, faculty retooled their classes for an online or hybrid structure (in which part of the class is in person and part is online).

The article Toney wrote, in collaboration with Daniels colleagues Jenn Light and Andrew Urbaczewski, looks at his own courses and research-based practices. In an email interview, the DU Newsroom asked Toney to share what works and what doesn’t when engaging online.

You had been incorporating online, hybrid and flipped classroom techniques into your classes even before the pandemic. When you went virtual for COVID, how did your experience compare? Did you feel well prepared?

The switch to online class meetings with the students was hard on everyone. Changing to Zoom instead of being in the classroom was an adjustment for all my students and all the other instructors. For me, I was able to dive right in and use the techniques I had practiced in the online MBA@Denver program. I was also happy I could share some of my hard-won experience with other professors to help them adjust more smoothly.

Tell us about some of the techniques you found were effective — and ineffective — for fighting the Zoombies.

Breakout groups, screen sharing to help with debugging [in Toney’s coding class], in-class online quizzing and very little time spent listening to lectures on new material worked well. Switching from one activity to another in quick succession helped to keep everyone focused.

That said, there were things that had to be overcome. The technology was unfamiliar to many of the students. It was easier for students to miss class or zone out when not in the same room with the instructor. It was an unexpected change that many did not welcome. Add to that the stress of the deepening pandemic and everyone was having difficulty keeping focused.

Did things change as the quarter went along?

The technology fluency we all needed increased as the quarter progressed. Students became familiar with the rhythms of the classes. For most, the learning got easier and more effective. That said, the psychological effort of the spring quarter was hard on everyone. Some students did not have a good quarter, often based on stresses beyond the classroom. For a few students, things were much worse for them, but overall, most students persevered and learned.

From what you wrote in your paper, it seems like a lot of your success came from things that weren’t exactly teaching. Engagement could be as simple as personal greetings and clearly outlined instructions?

You bet. The engagement piece is hard to measure. Good engagement is a constant struggle. Different students do better with different kinds of engagement. The interesting part is that this kind of struggle happens in a traditional face-to-face classroom as well. Long, one-sided lectures are hard for many but not all students. Some students want to be heard regularly in class. Other students dread speaking up. Taking time to meet students where they are, mix up activities, and involve students with each other and with in-class activities is important in most classrooms, no matter the delivery method. In this context, it feels different and uncomfortable when presented online, but it works in similar ways to in-the-classroom learning.

The online-only class experience puts up extra barriers. Clear instructions, clear expectations and extra attention to student needs help pave over some of the rough patches. It is hard on students and instructors the first few times, but it gets easier with practice.

What are some strategies that instructors can implement to find success in the future?

It is quite a process. It requires some understanding of the kinds of things you already do in the classroom. Then, professors need to think about the goals of the class. The new technology or classroom reality may make some comfortable methods less useful for the students trying to learn the material. That said, there are ways to reach the same goals in some new way. For example, in an in-person setting, I would go around to each person and look over their shoulder to try and debug coding problems. This was a way to help them get “unstuck” when things were not going right. But now, I must have them share their screen and debug their code in their small group. This helps the student who was stuck in pretty much the same way. It has the added benefit of helping other students see a way to get past the places they are stuck as well. It is a small change to meet the same goal while leveraging the new classroom and technology reality.

How do you think this research will inform, influence or change the classroom experience going forward?

What Jenn, Andrew and I put into the paper feels like an example for folks struggling to make the change to online and hybrid teaching. Everyone who taught in the last 12 months has been challenged to make changes to the way they teach. I hope folks will see this as an example of how a technical class can change to take advantage of the way online technologies can be best applied. I also think there are ideas that can apply to many types of classes.

The truth is that what I did was not groundbreaking. Most of these ideas are well-known to people who do active, hands-on learning in the classroom. My hope is that people will see it is possible to apply the same ideas in an online setting.