One of the consequences of the Coronavirus crisis is that higher education is moving away from in-person learning toward virtual classrooms. This is an immediate consequence of the need for social distancing, but like a lot of temporary changes, could be here to stay.
While this won’t bother a lot of people, it presents a profound change in how lectures and seminars will be conducted. Thinking back to my time at university, everything was conducted in-person.
Lectures were carried out with upward of fifty people in attendance. While seminars took place in intimate settings of six to ten people. Nothing was done online, save for the online portal where lecture slides were uploaded.
During these lectures and seminars, it was easy to stay engaged when someone was speaking in front of you and there was an active discussion. Even though the lecture was to a broad range of people, I felt like I was being spoken to and the benefits of discussion in person during seminars are clear.
However, with the move to virtual learning, everything has changed. While we have become more accustomed to Zoom calls, attending lectures and seminars through this medium will be strange.
Personally, I find it much easier to be distracted when I’m speaking or listening to someone through Zoom. I also find it harder to concentrate for long periods of time and need to take breaks.
These are all challenges that students will face this year and into the future as they get to grips with the world of online learning. Thankfully, there are few ways you can make this experience much more pleasant and work for you.
If you’re going to spend the majority of your day staring at a screen, here are a few tips to help you get by.
Minimise screen time the night before
If you’re going to be spending the majority of the following day online, the last thing you want to do the night before is to stare at your phone or watch Netflix before you go to bed.
Multiple studies have shown that screen time before you go to bed affects your quality of sleep. This is because the blue light that is emitted from your phone or laptop suppresses the level of melatonin, which is the chemical responsible for regulating your sleep-wake cycle, your body produces.
As a result, it makes sense to limit the amount of time you’ll be staring at a screen the night before if that’s what you’re going to do the next day.
Instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through social media to unwind, read a book instead. This is a fun activity that will divert your eyes from a screen, and if the reading is to do with your subject, help you prepare for your studies.
Another idea is to go for a walk in the evening. This is a great way to sync your circadian rhythm with the rising and setting of the sun, which will help you get a better night’s sleep. A brief stroll is a useful way to distress too.
Simply put, if you’re going to be spending a long time staring at a screen the next day, make sure that’s what you’re doing the night before.
Prepare the night before
One of the mistakes I made when I started university was not to prepare for what I had to do the next day. I’d wake up, roll out of bed and scurry around to find my notebook and any books I needed to help me with my studies.
This was an inefficient process and often set me back in the morning which got my day off to a bad start. The last thing you want to be doing in the morning is rushing around trying to get ready. This was paramount when you had to attend lectures in person, and even more so now with virtual learning.
This is such a simple task that should only take five minutes. There’s no excuse for not having your notes, a pen and paper and some books in front of you before you start your studies for the day.
Putting this in place shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Once it’s done you can relax for the rest of the night in the knowledge that you're ready to go as soon as you wake up.
As the old saying goes, fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Get outside for a break
One of the main issues with spending a full day on your computer for many people is that it leaves them stuck inside for large parts of the day. This can be annoying which can leave you feeling drained and unmotivated towards the end of the day.
I know when I’ve spent hours staring at a screen, that I start to feel tired and need to get moving to keep restore my energy levels. This will depend on your schedule, but if you don’t have a full block throughout the day, use whatever time you have available to get outside and go for a walk.
It’s important to remember that the human body wasn’t designed to sit and stare at screens all day. Our bodies are designed to move not to sit still. Studies show that brief exposure to sunlight and fresh air is beneficial for our bodies and wellbeing.
Research suggests that spending just 20 minutes in a park — even if you just sit there and do nothing — is enough to improve your wellbeing. A short break can make all the difference when you have a long day ahead of virtual learning ahead of you.
You could take this a step further and go for a run, head to the gym, or for a cycle if you have the time. What’s important is that you take a break when you can and get outside to get some fresh air and perk yourself up.
Set up your workstation
If you’re spending the majority of your day in front of a screen, it’s essential to ensure that you have your workstation is set up properly. As someone that works online, I know how important this is.
Firstly, it’s important that you have a comfortable chair. You’re going to be sitting in it for a while. If you’re uncomfortable, it’s going to be noticeable to others and will affect your ability to concentrate on what’s being said.
You also want your work surface to be free of clutter. All that you should have in front of you are your notes, relevant books, a pen and of course, your computer/laptop.
You don’t want to be too close to your computer screen either as this can lead to eye strain. Keep your screen about 20 to 24 inches (50.8 to 61 centimetres) away from your eyes, with the centre of the screen 10 to 15 degrees below your eye line.
Getting your workspace set up properly will mean that your experience learning online will be much improved. It’s amazing how small changes such as these can have big results.
A small change such as adjusting how far away from the screen you are will help to cope with the demands of virtual learning and thrive!