A Pandemic-year Later: How Now More than Ever, Emotional Intelligence Takes Center Stage in Course Design

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Brief Abstract

As students and teachers begin to regain their balance on the heels of the pandemic, its time to recognize the importance of emotional intelligence in course design. A more thoughtful approach to teaching and learning can help meet the changing needs of our students.

Extended Abstract

One of the simplest and most poignant truths of online course design is that when it’s done right, it fades into the background. Rather than upstage it or complicate it, good design facilitates learning in ways that allow learners to take the path of least resistance from class introductions to final exams. It’s a sentiment that still rings largely true, but one that easily ignores the circumstance of the receiver. Where a streamlined approach can help erode the barriers between, say, learning objective and learner deliverable, the logical conclusion of the laconic-as-iconic approach is that while we have courses that meet the time and usability needs of our student audience, we may be ignoring their emotional needs.

In this new era during which interactions have moved from physical spaces to virtual ones, what was once tangible, once tactile and physical has been replaced with a two-dimensional scrolling page; text in a box, a PowerPoint presentation. Much to the delight of tech giants, the great flattening of our work and school lives has helped realize the promise of web-conferencing software and online education from a productivity standpoint, but the aftershock of such a shift reminds us that there is more to a learning environment than four walls and a grid of desks.

Though the data is still in its infancy, what we’re learning is that it’s not just the physical reality of the pandemic that has raised stress, worry, and anxiety. Recent research suggests that the always-online economy that spawned following the initial lockdowns in early 2020 has placed an invisible burden on all of us. In one of the more thorough studies conducted on the relationship between the digital environment and stress, researchers at Stanford and the University of Gothenberg studied the factors behind “Zoom fatigue.” Their work has provided a solid foundation suggesting that in virtual calls and meetings, we are facing a brand-new set of stressors. The researchers test “five theoretical nonverbal mechanisms” identified as “mirror anxiety, being physically trapped, hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces, and the cognitive load from producing and interpreting nonverbal cues.” Their conclusions tell us, that while technologically remarkable, the implicit requirements of our new methods of schooling and working may violate many of the social safety nets that help our emotional well-being. While its nice to see faces on-screen and read body language like we used to, the benefits of close proximity cannot be replicated so easily.

Perhaps rethinking course design so that it addresses some of the emotional needs of the learner can begin to help us find a better way forward.

Let’s widen our gaze for a bit and think about why emotional needs (and intelligences) deserve our attention in the first place. Beginning from what we know:

  1. COVID-19 has increased stress, worry and anxiety for people everywhere, so much so that there have been observable, physical health effects.
  2. Any combination of stress, worry, and anxiety increases the likelihood that students will burnout and abandon their studies.
  3. The relationship between emotional intelligence and burnout among university students is such that students who have higher emotional intelligence are less likely to suffer from symptoms of burnout.  

It’s with this understanding that I am of the opinion that the challenge facing course designers in the post-pandemic landscape has less to do with staying out of the way of the content, and more to do with asking ourselves how design can create a softer, more palatable environment for the learner. We ought to be emphasizing design in a way that allows students to feel like the space they occupy in online learning is right where they’re supposed to be; that after a year in which they felt more stress than ever, it’s ok to take a deep exhale and participate in a learning journey that takes into consideration their emotional stability.

Perhaps such reassurance and posturing is better suited for the “good-in-theory-not-in-practice” pile of ideas, and maybe giving students design-focused empathy belies the fact that the best way to craft a diamond is to add extraordinary heat and pressure to coal. (If this is your opinion, might I also suggest that if we’ve learned anything from our year with the novel coronavirus, is that heat and pressure don’t amount to much when there’s no social and emotional counterbalance.) But before relegating the theory, lets take time to heed the words of Scott Newstock, founding director of the Pearce Shakespeare Endowment who reminds us that recognizing the emotional connection between learner and environment is a concept as old as schooling itself:

Our word “school” derives from the Greek skhole — “leisure.” Skhole, in turn, goes back to an Indo-European root segh, meaning “seize,” “hold” or “pause.” Both “pause” and “leisure” sound a bit odd to us; we tend to associate school with work. But “school” is a particular kind of activity, one that requires a respite from physical necessity, in order to pursue thoughts in common, a freedom to think and interact alongside other human beings.

What stands out here is the idea that school activities can and should serve as acts of leisure. Not only that but in order to pursue the highest level of thought, the environment students engage with should function as a kind of respite. When a learner sits down on their couch (or bed, or wherever) and opens up the coursework, we must ask ourselves, does the environment online mirror the physical environment they occupy? Are we meeting them in a place that gives them the freedom and security they need to “pursue thoughts in common?”

Of course, this does not mean that schooling should be divorced from rigor; decoupling difficulty is by no means a pre-requisite to creating a place where students can, as Newstock says, push pause. To die on this hill would be to miss the point entirely, and would undercut even the most rudimentary lessons we’ve learned from spending a year online. We only need to recognize that advancing into higher-order thinking is impossible if students aren’t feeling like their physiological needs, their safety, and their needs for love and belonging aren’t being recognized. Even so, there is a relative misconception that a needs-based design approach stands in contrast to a more rigorous, intensive education when, in fact, the rigor can (and should) be maintained.

Now, the most obvious response to any suggestion that there must be a sea-change in educational practice, but is addressing emotional intelligence really such a departure from standard educational practice? Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences has been ingrained in teacher education programs for decades, its only recently that such a departure has made the re-integration of the softer elements feel like they’re being ham-fisted their way back into the zeitgeist.

Recognizing, therefore, that school has, and can once again be a place of comfort, it’s not so much of a stretch to think that a design that caters to lowering blood pressure, and design that enables students to activate their emotional intelligence can be weaponized to ward back against feelings of burnout. Moreover, offering courses that activate emotional intelligences can be a powerful way for institutions to transition away from survival mode and into a new online frontier. As designers, we need to consider how we can give students a chance to find the yang to the stressors of online coursework, video calls, virtual birthday parties, postponements, and curb-side take-out. Courses of the future should allow students to relax and move through a virtual space that not only provides scaffolding and assessment, but also provides an emotional compliment.

That this concept feels so foreign is, to me, representative of the great sacrifice we’ve made at the altar of expediency and efficiency. The assembly line-style churn of higher ed that loaned out many of the relational and interpersonal elements of learning is exposed when those spaces disappear. When the world collapses into a digital space, where are the opportunities for restorative interactions? How do we make the spaces students will continue to inhabit (i.e. Learning Management Systems, the web as a whole) more palatable to someone on the verge of burnout?