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Online learning - how can productivity and creativity be maintained?

Research Article published on 18 November 2021 , Updated on 19 November 2021

During the successive lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, 80% of students around the world had to continue their courses online. However, videoconferencing while managing a continuous flow of emails can be exhausting and remote working can be difficult to cope with. A group of researchers, mainly from the Innovation, Technology, Economics & Management Laboratory (LITEM – Univ. Paris-Saclay, Univ. d’Évry, IMT-BS), followed a group of students at Université Paris-Saclay during the first lockdown in Spring 2020. Although some students managed to make the change well, many talked of ‘zoom burnout’ and of no longer being able to face being in front of their screens all day. In fact, whether an individual makes a successful transition to remote learning depends on an element which is often ignored - namely the ability to keep an open mind.

Anuragini Shirish works at LITEM and has been conducting research on work-related stress for many years. She became interested in the situation as regards students well before this current pandemic began as the result of a discussion with a Master’s student who was on her work placement in her laboratory. “The popular stereotype is that young people are all tech-savvy and that older people are the ones who panic at the thought of using new software. However, can we really be so sure that young people don’t feel stressed when they use computers or other technology?” asks the researcher.

When thousands of students had to suddenly switch to 100% remote learning in March 2020, it was the perfect opportunity for the researcher and her colleagues to conduct a study into online learning. The hypothesis to be studied was the following: does students’ perception of technology influence the effectiveness of their online learning?


Mindfulness with technology 

The team used the brand new concept of being ‘IT mindful’ for their research work. Being mindful means being grounded in the moment, keeping an open mind and being able to look at the big picture. This is the opposite of what we feel when we look at a screen, when we check in with a social network or our news feed. The user is more in an immediate response mode than that of thoughtful action.

The team surveyed 82 graduate students at Université Paris-Saclay to assess on a scale of 1 to 5 their level of IT mindfulness. A high score showed that the user was able to identify new features in the software, took the initiative and adapted its use to the context. Students scored 3.8 on average. However, although the researchers found that neither the gender nor the age of the students (18 to 31 years old) had any influence on their performance, they were intrigued by the wide disparity in scores. Some got close to achieving the maximum score, whilst others scored just over 2. Not all the students that were surveyed were therefore comfortable with technology.


Productivity and creativity

Those with a very low score on the IT mindfulness scale saw technology as a threat. This posed a major challenge according to the results obtained by the team. These students are less productive and less creative during remote learning. However, a student who is grounded when using computers is able to overcome any difficulty. For example, these two types of student would react differently to a computer problem occurring during an online discussion. While the stressed student would become paralysed, the IT mindfulness and grounded student would think of switching to a different platform, even if that had not been suggested by the teacher. 

As Anuragini Shirish explains, the key is being able to see the big picture. “We draw on a theory by the American psychotherapist Eric Garland who says that individuals who are capable of mindfulness are more open-minded and better able to reassess the situation when faced with a new source of stress. They deal better with the situation and experience positive stress, which makes them find meaning in adversity.” It is through this intermediate stage of positive stress, also known as eustress, that the student learns effectively and creatively. Need to master screen sharing or get to grips with virtual reality? Nothing scares this type of student as they see every change as a new challenge.


How can mindfulness be developed?

A day of remote learning is a source of many micro-stresses for students. Participants may forget to turn off their microphones, a camera might refuse to turn on, or there might be an audio problem which causes listeners to lose the thread of what the speaker is saying. All this is without mentioning having to keep your camera on all day and juggle platforms. This explains why some people drop out after a few weeks of lockdown. 

Being able to develop mindfulness can help students better withstand these disruptions. This can be achieved through learning how to calm the mind by perhaps spending five minutes relaxing before an online lesson starts, using a meditation app on your phone or simply closing your eyes and focusing on breathing. Doing a sport or creative activity also helps with seeing the big picture and being in the now. Far from being a waste of time, these suggestions are a way of improving learning capacity. According to Anuragini Shirish, it would be logical that a person who can develop mindfulness in their daily life should also improve their IT mindfulness.

Mindfulness and IT will continue to be the subject of future research by LITEM. Anuragini Shirish’s team will soon evaluate the contribution of mindfulness in combating, for example, mobile addiction or the spread of fake news, and whether it is possible to improve one's ability to be IT mindful in the long term, through use of positive technologies for instance.


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