ATOM: Are we all Zoomed-out?

Kasia Lewis is Director of Oxford International Biomedical Centre (OIBC) - a charity that organises Scientists in Schools - educational events aimed at enthusing more young people about science and encouraging them to choose further education in science subjects.


Kasia has been a member of ATOM committee since 2014. She shares her thoughts ahead of a much-changed ATOM 2021.

Like everyone right now, I’m spending a lot of time on video calls – Zoom work meetings, family catch-ups over FaceTime, drinks and card games with friends on WhatsApp and a virtual book club on Skype.


The organisers of various festivals, having had to postpone their events last year, are scratching their heads trying to decide whether to cancel/postpone again this year or whether to run their events online. But will people come?

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust our lives into a virtual space. For nearly a year, children were educated online with the help of their sometimes quite desperate parents. University students have been offered virtual learning and no peer interaction. Online lectures, concerts, museums’ and art exhibitions’ tours, theatre productions – all without leaving our houses. So what, you may say. Is it a problem?

In fact, when it comes to higher education in recent (pre-pandemic) years, the number of people enrolling on online degree programmes had risen significantly. Living in a multimedia world lends itself to novel multimedia content – making online degrees accessible and engaging for students all around the world.

As the world still struggles with the challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is interesting to take a look at how online education weighs up against face-to-face education.


Obviously one of the most significant differences between face-to-face learning and online learning is that face-to-face learning is synchronous, or done at the same time. All lecturers and students are present in face-to-face learning.


With online learning, however, that is not necessary. Online tuition can be either synchronous or asynchronous. Some universities don’t even offer a weekly timetable – lectures are uploaded to the website and available to watch at any time.


Some may say that it is harder to succeed when studying online because you must be highly self-motivated and disciplined. In online learning, no one is keeping you on track — you must be your own motivator, time keeper, and disciplinarian. And when the students are young (primary and even secondary school age) in practice that often means high parental involvement and support in order to keep that motivation and time keeping going.


In both face-to-face and online learning, teachers must have a way to measure performance. This is typically done by submitting assignments, administering tests and exams. Participation and class ‘attendance’ is harder to measure in an online learning environment especially when students are given freedom to listen to the lectures at their convenience.


Face-to-face learning has been the standard way of teaching for centuries. While online education has become increasingly popular, in-person study may still be the best option for some people. With face-to-face learning teachers are better able to gauge understanding and interest of students, and it is easier to generate group excitement about a subject. It is also easier to hold students accountable.


Zoom-fatigue is definitely a thing

Advancements in technology have allowed the traditional classroom to move into the virtual realm, turning face-to-face interactions into face-to-screen interactions instead. Webinars and other live events such as Q&As are now an integral part of online curriculums. Some universities offer online personal support tutors to help with well-being queries, as well as constant communication with academic advisors and faculty members to help ensure students are up-to-date with their coursework and assessments.

In some circumstances online education is outperforming classroom-based education. So, if you are well motivated and organized, prefer to study at a time and place that suits you and helps your work skills, then online education can be just as good as face-to-face learning – if not better in some instances.


However, the unprecedented increase in exposure to video conference platforms is causing so called Zoom fatigue and shows that virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.


There's a lot of research that shows we actually really struggle with this, says Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. He thinks people may be surprised at how difficult they’re finding video calls given that the medium seems neatly confined to a small screen and presents few obvious distractions. 

Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt. These cues help paint a bigger picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to analyse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy. However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.


Gallery view subverts our peripheral vision

Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem. Gallery view challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker. And if you view a single speaker at a time, you can’t recognize how non-active participants are behaving - something you would normally pick up with peripheral vision.


Technical limitations mean that only one person at a time talks while the rest listen. That makes meetings less collaborative and makes parallel conversations impossible.

For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.


Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat, our minds are together when our bodies feel we're not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting and make it impossible to relax into the conversation naturally.


Silence is another challenge as it creates a natural rhythm in a real-life conversation. However, when it happens in a video call, we become anxious about the technology.


An added factor is that if we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. When you're on a video conference, you know everybody's looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-racking and more stressful. It’s also very hard for people not to look at their own face if they can see it on screen, or not to be conscious of how they behave in front of the camera. People like watching television because you can allow your mind to wander – but a large video call is like you're watching television and television is watching you!


And our current circumstances – whether lockdown, quarantine, working from home, home schooling or otherwise – are also adding stress to the Zoom fatigue.


Then there’s the fact that aspects of our lives that used to be separate – work, friends, family – are all now happening in the same space. Normally most of our social roles happen in different places, but now that context has collapsed. Imagine if you go to a bar, and in the same bar you talk with your colleagues, bosses or professors, meet your parents and date someone, isn’t that weird? That's what we're doing now… We are confined in our own space, in the context of a very anxiety-provoking crisis, and our only place for interaction is a computer screen - a tool we use for work.


On the whole though during these unprecedented times, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.


But a big question that organisers of festivals like ATOM are asking themselves is: do people have enough mental energy and capacity to participate in virtual lectures, talks and events on top of all the other online activities they are forced to be involved in. It’s true that the festival lectures would be more like watching TV or participating in a webinar and there would still be a way of asking questions but would they attract enough audience? Is it better to cancel events all together and reschedule for next year when they can be run in their normal format or is it worth going ahead in virtual form? Let us know – we’d love to hear from you.


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