Anxiety and Technology in the Classroom: Identification and Solutions for Multimodal Inclusivity

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Technology is increasingly becoming a requirement in composition courses. After all, many of our students have practically grown up using smartphones, so the assumption is that they will automatically be comfortable with multimodal projects that incorporate technological components with traditional writing. Yet such pedagogy does not take into account students battling anxiety. These students might appear disinterested or “lazy,” when in fact the idea of creating a multimodal project among peers causes extreme stress. In these cases, anxiety might be related to a mental health disorder, or the technology itself can induce symptoms in students who might not otherwise experience anxiety on a regular basis (also sometimes called technostress). Here I address the common signs of anxiety exhibited by students confronted with digital projects, as well as offer solutions to help promote inclusiveness for students with anxiety.

In the April 2016 edition of English Leadership Quarterly, Oona Abrams brings up an important question when considering the use of digital projects in the English classroom: “What actions are we taking to address digital divides, both socioeconomic and generational?” Indeed, there are numerous considerations to contend with when using any digital projects as a framework for English lessons. Yet aside from age and class, many instructors tend to overlook the fact that multimodal projects tend to fall in line with an ableist framework—especially when a student might suffer from anxiety as a form of disability.

Anxiety itself is defined as a mental health disorder which encompasses “excessive” fears and worries. This often “silent” disability can manifest itself in numerous ways, and the classroom is no exception. As an instructor, you’re more than likely to come across anxious students from time to time—especially towards the end of the semester. Yet the truly anxious student, from a disability perspective, might not approach you for help. In fact, the anxiety might be so debilitating that the student could suffer physically and emotionally in silence. Such a student might be vocal about their worries in class, while others might keep to themselves and are too fearful to talk or share their work.

It is also important to note that the symptoms of anxiety and their severity can vary from person to person. While some people suffer from ongoing anxiety, others might experience constant ups and downs. Excessive worrying and fear of failure are just a couple of the hallmarks of this disability. When it comes to assignments in school, some might experience increased anxiety—especially when it is a subject such students are unfamiliar with.

Technological literacy itself, in fact, is culturally considered to be a requirement for relevancy in society. Yet not everyone is technologically literate. So what happens when we come across students who are not all that comfortable with digital assignments, and who also battle anxiety? Such a combination can certainly become detrimental to a student’s participation and overall success in a multimodal classroom.

In 1997, Times Higher Education reported an estimate by psychology professor Richard A. Hudiburg that about 25 percent of all students experience some form of anxiety over technology use in the classroom. While the technology has changed over the last two decades, some of the issues Hudiburg noted in his original study cause anxiety in students today. Among these include “outdated computer skills,” “lack of computer expertise,” “need to learn new software,” and “lack of help with a computer problem.”

It is admittedly not easy to solve such a dilemma. While we tend to use multimodal projects as a way to increase inclusion and participation in the classroom, we also do not want to leave out certain sets of students whose anxiety can leave them out of the discussion. Below, I propose a few steps instructors can take in terms of identifying and solving this problem to help make digital projects inclusive for all students.

  1. Conduct an anonymous survey at the beginning of the course.

This survey is not to see who might identify as anxious in your classroom, but rather to be used as a tool that can help calculate students’ levels of comfort with various digital tools. Such a survey ought to list the types of technologies you plan on using in your classroom, as well as a rating scale of your students’ comfort with using such tools. You can also leave a blank section for comments.

For an example, take a look at this sample Technology Survey.

It is important to keep these surveys anonymous to protect your students, but also to help anxious students feel comfortable with disclosing their fears with you. Attaching a name to a survey is likely to cause the anxious student to experience further anxiety and fears of incompetence—they may also be less likely to be honest about their technological “shortcomings.”

  1. Implement mini-technology group lessons.

Based on the results of the surveys, you can address technological issues in groups. Not only will this help ease all of your students into multimodal projects, but it will also help avoid singling out anyone who is not as comfortable with different modes as their peers. This turns out to be a win-win for students of all abilities: those who are not comfortable with the technology can learn in low-stakes environments, while those who possess a higher expertise will likely relish in teaching others their skills. For example, when teaching students how to create digital texts, a Photo Shop lesson can be an icebreaker that also poses a fun learning and sharing experience between students who are accustomed to the program and those who are unfamiliar with it.

  1. Hold conferences earlier in the semester.

Conferences are great opportunities to have one-on-one discussions with students—especially with students who might otherwise be too anxious to speak up about any concerns during or after class in front of their peers. It is best to have conferences before any major projects are due to be sure you have an opportunity to help students with disabilities before the semester goes on too far.

The setting and tone of the conference is also crucial in promoting an environment that doesn’t further promote anxiety. While some conferences are held in less-intrusive places, such as coffee shops, the anxious student might not respond well if other people are around “listening.” You should also anticipate that an anxious student may have difficulties talking about stresses. Starting with concrete examples of your observations can help, such as “I noticed you seemed a bit stressed in class the other day when we were learning______.”

  1. Maintain an open, empathetic dialogue.

While it is never okay to single out a student who has trouble with a multimodal assignment, it is important to be sure to set the class as a whole at ease. For example, you can make statements such as, “I know this looks tough at first,” or “Please see me during office hours so I can help with this assignment if you are stuck.” This helps anxious students know that you can help alleviate their fears about any multimodal assignments they might not be comfortable with at first.

There are certainly numerous concerns with executing multimodal projects in the composition classroom. An awareness of the fact that many of these projects are approached through an ableist lens can further prompt instructors and students to implement more critical thinking about the structures and meanings of these texts. In coming back to a focus on anxiety as disability, we can then start thinking about how multimodal projects affect students who struggle with anxiety. We can ask questions such as: is technology inherently anxiety-inducing? Or does the issue lie primarily within our approach? An awareness to these questions can help us identify the struggles of anxiety and to potentially decrease fears and uneasiness to make the multimodal composition experience a positive one for the entire class.

Works Cited

Abrams, Oona. “Digital Dilemmas and Delights.” English Leadership Quarterly 38.4: April 2016. 1-2.

“Students suffer technostress.” Times Higher Education. THE, 10 January 1997. Web. 7 June 2016.

About Author(s)

Kristeen Cherney is a doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University. Her research interests include composition pedagogy, disability studies, mindfulness in composition, and literacy studies. Aside from teaching first-year composition, she also works with Georgia State's Lower Division Studies.

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