Students are overwhelmed by too much course content

The internet’s boundless capacity is becoming a millstone for students, as they struggle for buoyancy in a rising tide of course content.

An Australian study has found that academics are largely oblivious to the “online engagement fatigue” engulfing students. Spurred by the need to cater to different learning preferences, educators dish up a banquet of recommended readings, videos, online forums, course announcements and weekly lecture recordings.

But do they “overdo” it? “Are students [becoming] tired from those very engagement strategies designed to support [their] learning?” researchers from the universities of Southern Queensland and Newcastle asked in the journal Computers and Education Open.

They interviewed students and educators to find out. While academics had “mixed views” as to whether online engagement fatigue was a “real phenomenon”, students “almost unanimously” acknowledged it as a regular affliction.

Yet although online engagement and how to enhance it were subjects of a “large and growing body of research”, the consequences of overkill had been all but ignored. “Further research is needed to explore possibilities for more easily recognizing online engagement fatigue, the relationship between its antecedents and consequences, and taking action to reduce its impact on student motivation, involvement and success,” the authors wrote.

Lead author Suzanne Maloney said some students were selective about the material they consumed. “But now it seems harder for a student to discern what to leave alone,” said the associate professor of accounting at the University of Southern Queensland.

“There is a push to have lots of bells and whistles in every course. There’s so much information coming at them…through websites, links, papers, online lectures and Zoom meetings. It is getting more difficult for a student to put a boundary around that. People [say]’we’ll put this up just in case it’s helpful’ – not thinking [that] maybe putting it up is really unhelpful.”

Students interviewed for the study spoke of being “overwhelmed” by “way too much knowledge” and “a million messages from the university”. Hours spent “looking at a very small screen” left them drained and tempted to quit.

An academic interviewee described this as “a standard fight or flight response…where some people just [say] it’s too much trouble, and they turn off”.

The study found that self-directed students were often misunderstood, as universities harnessed digital analytics to measure their engagement and interpreted a lack of “clicks” as apathy. “You can’t make the universal assertion that a non-clicking student is a poor student,” an educator told the researchers.

“They [may be] a high-performing student who’s got their act together…and to heck with having to interact with anyone. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Dr Maloney said clicks were taken as “some sort of proxy for engagement” when in reality, students could “download everything and not read anything”. She said extensive material was not appropriate for every course. “There are some modules [where] you just want them to practice, practice, practice.

“We’ve got to educate educators not to put everything in. We probably even have to educate management of universities to trust educators to decide what’s essential [for] their discipline.”

She said teachers needed to focus on their educational objectives. “We’ve got all these fancy course specs and it’s all mapped, but at the end of the day, what’s my goal here? What can I do for these students to help them understand?”

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