Technology and workload: stressed out and always ‘on’

Digital technology does not always save time, and in fact can seriously intensify the workload of teachers, writes Janet Marshall, OHS Organiser for the AEU Victorian Branch

It will come as no surprise to our members that the education sector experiences high rates of stress-related injury and illness. Evidence from WorkCover, together with the results of a 2014 Monash University survey of AEU members, shows that the key cause of this stress is increasing or changing workload, work intensification, and bullying/harassment.

These were some of the central issues explored in depth during the AEU annual OHS conference in August, which brought together Health and Safety Representatives from around the state, and AEU organisers.

Monash University Professor of Education Neil Selwyn was a keynote speaker. The author of Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, Dr Selwyn is a world-renowned expert on the impact of digital technology on teacher workload.

The working lives of teachers are now increasingly predicated around the use of technology – but Dr Selwyn questions whether that technology is actually saving teachers time and simplifying their lives, as it promises.

‘Generally, the role of technology in teachers’ work is described in positive terms – facilitating innovative pedagogy, alleviating administrative burdens, and generally functioning as the ‘teachers’ friend’,’ he says.

Bill Gates, and other stakeholders with fingers in the software pie, are quick to sing the praises of digital technology – however Dr Selwyn’s research suggests that there needs to be greater recognition of the ways in which the ‘digital expansion of education’ might actually mean teachers are engaging with their work 24/7.

‘Teachers are increasingly expected to communicate with students out of class on an ‘anytime, anywhere’ basis, monitor their classes’ after-school engagement with homework tasks, conduct lessons even when not physically in school, and deal with administration, planning and bureaucratic aspects of their work outside of classroom time.’

This ‘blurring’ of professional and personal life, which technology facilitates and in some ways, promotes, is an OHS issue that the AEU is raising as part of our current negotiations for the next Schools Agreement.

As Dr Selwyn sums up: ‘All told, teaching is no longer something that only takes place within the confines of the working day.’

… there needs to be greater recognition of the ways in which the ‘digital expansion of education’ might actually mean teachers are engaging with their work 24/7

Digital technology can also negatively impact on students, particularly when it comes to increasing ‘standardisation’ of teacher work. Dr Selwyn shared an anecdote about how a teacher was thanked profusely by her student for writing an influential and life-changing report. Selwyn compared that to the impersonal, cut-and-paste approach that report-writing software now encourages. ‘At the end of each term, many teachers will find themselves using online ‘comment banks’ of prescribed text to construct reports and other forms of feedback,’ he says.

While these technologies promise to bring consistency to teachers’ work and reduce errors in human judgment, the reality is that ‘while teachers might individually input data, most decision-making around these aggregated data is computed by software.’ This can undermine teachers’ sense of professional judgment and ultimately risks creating a cookie-cutter type approach to assessment.

The second keynote speaker at the conference was Associate Professor Michelle Tuckey from the University of South Australia, who spoke of both the high incidence and cost of bullying in Australian workplaces. She also explained how stressful working conditions are directly linked to increased incidents of bullying. Despite this knowledge, existing practical responses to bullying focus on individual-level factors rather than organisation-wide, primary preventions.

Dr Tuckey emphasised the importance of supervisors consulting with staff on their workload, resources, job descriptions and responsibilities, along with providing regular, constructive feedback. She also suggested the development of a risk audit tool to assist this process and help to prevent bullying in workplaces.

Reprinted with permission from the Victorian Branch’s AEU News.