TECHNOSTRESS AND ONLINE TEACHING
By Arnie Witchel
Copyright 2003: Witchel & Associates
Our client is a for profit organization that owns and operates four school groups, which have seventeen campuses in nine states. While still associated with part-time nontraditional universities, numerous traditional schools, including California State University, the University of California, and Duke University have begun offering courses through Internet based technology (Hallman, Plaisent, & Bernard, 2000). As of 1998, an estimated 180 accredited graduate schools and more than 150 undergraduate colleges and universities support distance-learning degree programs, and many of these are Internet based (Phillips, 1998). Baer cites several studies that conclude distance learning is cost effective across a wide range of subjects to diverse students (as cited in Hallman, Plaisent, & Bernard, 2000). The University of Phoenix, the world’s largest private adult university, now counts its online campus as the largest (Irving, 1998). “Compared with other media for distance learning, the Internet offers more interactivity, greater flexibility, more functionality and potentially lower costs” (Hallman, Plaisent, & Bernard, 2000).
Our client is currently faced with the challenge of strategically positioning these various schools in an expanding adult education market without substantially investing more in property costs and overhead, but at the same time taking advantage of the emerging new technologies that offer what Dr. John Sperling describes as fitting the education into complex lives (Irving, 2000). One such solution is to offer the courses from our client’s various campuses through an Internet based delivery system, allowing students the opportunity to take any course or selected courses as a cohort through this delivery method as a convenience to the students. The online campus for our client, at first established as a separate campus offering, currently has 63 students taking classes without any form of advertising. Yet, there may be more opportunity than offering a limited program of courses through a separate online campus. How best to accomplish the strategy of this change in education distribution, while addressing possible sources of faculty stress through a stress management intervention, is the subject of this paper.
Psychologist Craig Brod coined the term technostress as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner” (as cited in Clark & Kalin, 1996). Weil and Rosen (1997) build upon this definition by concluding that technostress is any negative impact that technology has, directly or indirectly, on attitudes, thoughts, behaviors, or body psychology. Technostress stems from the individual’s reaction to technology and how the individual may be changing due to its influence. It manifests itself in distinct ways: in the struggle to accept computer technology, and in overly identifying oneself with computer technology (Genco, 2000). Students and adults who are particularly sensitive to technostress often engage in avoidance strategies (Hemby, 1999). They also experience anxiety and symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, eyestrain, increased heart rate, irritability and avoid using computers (Figuerido, 1994). Technostress may be caused by many variables, including lack of training, inadequate keyboarding skills, incomplete technical instructions and increased workload (Figuerido, 1994). Glass and Knight (1998) found that students who were highly anxious about computers also had negative thoughts about working on computers, and also had low expectations about their ability to do tasks and the outcomes of those tasks. Hudiberg (1989) worked at developing a computer technology hassles scale. The individual user views a technology hassle as a stressor. This study indicated that the most common hassles were the system being down, keyboard errors, lack of computer expertise, and the need to learn new software. In addition, it was found that women usually perceived stress with computers more than men. A study by Morrow, Prell and McElroy (1986) indicates that computer anxiety is closely related to computer knowledge, computer experience, locus of control and mathematics anxiety. The same study found that computer anxiety is more like a condition, rather than a part of personality, indicating that it may be easier to control and change.
A 1998-99 study conducted by the University of California - Los Angeles found that of 34,000 faculty members surveyed across the nation, nearly nine out of 10 college instructors agreed that the student use of computers enhances learning, but only 35 percent used the Internet to conduct research themselves, and just 38 percent used technology to create class presentations. Two out of three professors reported that they were stressed trying to keep up with the emerging technology, surpassing in rank traditional troubles such as publishing pressure and teaching loads (McQueen, 1999). Studies among vocational/technical teachers in Dade County, Florida indicate that while there may not be differences due to demographic variables such as age, ethnic background, and teaching/professional area and computer related anxiety, there are differences based on computer experience, educational level and school type (Yang, Mohamed, & Beyerbach, 1999). In a comprehensive review of the literature, Hemby (1998) points out that while older adults may have less computer experience than younger adults, they are not necessarily more computer anxious. In addition, while women have more negative attitudes about computers than men, when effects of prior computer experience are controlled, no gender differences are found regarding anxiety. However, the literature strongly supports that computer experience, keyboarding skills and other variables, including self-directed learning readiness, years of computer experience, state anxiety, trait anxiety, locus of control and gender are significantly related to computer anxiety (Rakes, 1991). Studies to predict computer anxiety in the business communication classroom found that gender, keyboarding skill, and self-assurance variables account for about 18% of the variance in computer anxiety (Hemby, 1998).
Some may view this introduction of new technology into the teaching area as creating psychological strain by increasing job responsibilities, while simultaneously reducing decision latitude (Karasek, 1979); others view technostress as simply resistance to change (Clark & Kalin, 1996). However, Dent and Goldberg (1999) question and challenge the concept that people naturally resist change. They argue that the forces of change in organizations go beyond the individual level to the systemic. In order to relieve the resistance to change, removing obstacles from the system, and not necessarily focusing on individual resistance, is a more correct approach. The system merely tries to maintain a goal that was not part of the change process. Perhaps a more comprehensive approach is to realize that technostress, as all stressors, can affect the individual and are modified by the individual and the organization (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997).
Stress Management Intervention
There are a number of approaches to stress management intervention at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The approaches that will be focused on to relieve possible technostress among our client’s faculty will be conducted at all levels; however, the emphasis will be on a stress prevention program at the primary level, which anticipates stressors before they occur.
The primary level of stress management is concerned with anticipating stressors before they occur and managing perceptions of stressors. A key to the term stressor is that a person or event must be perceived as a potential stressor (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997). One simple method for an organization to relieve stress before it occurs is to tell staff what you are planning (Clark & Kalin, 1996). Genco (2000) suggests that to alleviate technostress, an organization should also develop good communications, establish goals and priorities and set realistic user expectations, at the same time providing necessary resources. The organization can also position the change positively. Through positive self-talk and cognitive restructuring, optimism can be learned. If the potential stressor, such as teaching in the online environment, is positioned more positively as an opportunity to manage the personal work environment and increase the faculty member’s ability to plan and control time demands, this may positively affect the faculty member’s feelings toward the introduction of new technology and teaching methods. Formal social support may be especially beneficial in the introductory stages (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997). In addition, focus groups may offer useful insights and qualitative and exploratory information, explore the faculty’s beliefs, perceptions and attitudes about the topic, as well as assess problems that may need to be addressed (Rose, Stoklosa & Gray, 1998).
One of the methods of assessing potential stressors is to analyze the individual faculty member’s stress with technology and the personality variables that may accompany certain reactions to stress. A needs assessment in the form of a stress audit can help assess the potential stressors that may occur once new technology is introduced. Hemby (1998) points out that this needs assessment does not have to be expensive. Diagnostic instruments that measure interest, attitude, anxiety, learning style or informational or personal interviews can be valuable. A tool such as Oetting’s Computer Anxiety Rating Scale can identify specific stress concerns and anxieties for the faculty as a whole and for individuals who may be more prone to technostress (Hemby, 1998). Clark and Kalin (1996) emphasize that training is critical for successfully handling stress that is brought on by technology changes, and that research indicates that men and women learn technological skills differently, which should be taken into account when designing training curricula. Yang, Mohamed & Beyerbach (1999) suggest that while learning style does not relate significantly to computer anxiety before differences in computer related experience are taken into account, there are four methods that that may be effective in reducing computer related anxiety: 1) Increasing computer based training; 2) Enhancing computer competence (such as keyboard skills noted above) by focusing on skills rather than abstract concepts and jargon; 3) Increasing computer related confidence by developing training programs that build a sense of control in the learning environment and dispel stereotypes; 4) Improving computer perception by providing training that is relevant to educators’ interests and learning styles.
The emphasis on training cannot be overstated. Training helps relieve stress by reducing anxiety; in addition to training, staff must have adequate time for practice and reinforcement (Clark & Kalin, 1996).
Another valid strategy that can reinforce training and reduce stress is the realistic job preview (RJP), which is often used to develop more accurate job expectations and help employees cope with job demands simply by giving them awareness in advance (Roth & Roth, 1995). Wanous (1989) noted that an organization might choose to begin an RJP to avoid future problems. This can deepen commitment to the project and can be designed and installed prior to retention problems.
Secondary level preventions are designed to dissipate stressors once they are invoked. As noted above, focus groups can be a means of dissipating stressors by bringing concerns into the open (Rose, Stoklosa & Gray, 1998). Quick, Quick, Nelson and Hurrell (1997) note that the age-old method of talking it over can be an effective means of emotional expression. Some online universities have faculty support groups and areas where common problems are discussed and advice sought. Pennebaker notes that this use of emotional outlets can dissipate stress induced energy that may become counterproductive (as cited in Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997).
Other personal prevention techniques that an individual can use to dissipate stressors after they become evident include staying healthy, awareness of technostress levels, and taking the time to relax (McKenzie, Davidson, Bennett, & Clay, 1997). Momentary relaxation is suitable for the control of individual responses to specific stressors; for instance, if an online instructor is experiencing stress due to the type of message received by a student. The momentary relaxation can draw upon the mental and physical memory of deep relaxation in order to achieve rapid relaxation (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997).
Tertiary level stress prevention aims to address symptoms of stress after they occur and to direct therapeutic treatment to the sufferers. While programs such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are extremely valuable to organizations, this stress intervention plan would direct efforts at training individuals who are suffering from technostress to create a personal preventive stress management plan. The reason for this is that, as demonstrated, the reasons for technostress are varied and individual in nature. Stress management plans do not need professional guidance; they are insight-oriented, and individualized (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997). They consist of five steps: 1) Identifying demands and stressors; 2) Identifying stress responses; 3) Identifying action options; 4) Making a plan; 5) Modifying the plan. While seemingly simple, the strength in this level of intervention is that it goes back to the nature of stress management: managing those factors that cause an individual to deviate from healthy behavior. As such, the stressor is the physical or psychological stimulus to which the individual responds (Quick, Quick, Nelson & Hurrell, 1997). Stress is an individual perception. Individual plans of attack have value in creating an overall wellness program once the stressor is identified, responses charted, options identified and plans drawn.
Expectations from adopting this stress intervention program would be lessened technostress by the faculty, greater acceptance of the online learning environment and opportunities it can provide faculty, improved technical computer skills for faculty. In addition, decreased resistance to change, greater acceptance of the new technology in teaching effectiveness, decreased turnover, and a greater understanding of the faculty member’s individual level of technostress and technical skills is anticipated.
Projected Targets and Goals
The projected targets and goals are to reduce the stress of online faculty members through needs assessment and training. Using a pretest-posttest design, the pretest will be conducted using Oetting’s Computer Anxiety Rating Scale and personal interviews three months prior to beginning the actual online teaching. The training will be adaptive and consist of a combination of group and individualized sessions. It will comprise curricula that teach basic computer skills, as well as the basics of tone and challenges of teaching in the online environment. One month prior to the first online class, each instructor will be exposed to a Realistic Job Preview by shadowing an existing online instructor teaching a class. This will serve as a means to determine if the instructor wants to continue or if there is proper job and environment fit. Before beginning the first teaching assignment, and following the training, the faculty members will be assessed again, using Oetting’s Oetting’s Computer Anxiety Rating Scale and personal interviews. The goals of the training program are to achieve a 30% reduction in technostress, as measured by the test instrument and personal interviews. The projection and hope is that those with middle levels of technostress will be reduced to low levels and those with high levels to middle levels, leaving the overall faculty of in a much better environment to manage the types of technostress that may occur by teaching in the online environment.
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