Exploring online learning and student mental health

There are many obvious pedagogical advantages to using digital technology to enhance opportunities but as we hurtle down this rapidly changing digital learning landscape, consideration must be given to the social and psychodynamic aspects of online learning approaches. Mental health is rarely part of the discourse related to digitisation. It is worth exploring those excluded and the subsequent unintended consequences if academic progress is viewed in isolation. A wider consideration of the ‘whole student’ is paramount so no student is left behind.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in a given year and 75% of mental health problems are established by the age of 24. The college sector has highlighted this as a significant strategic risk for a number of years. Despite individual and collegiate interventions, we still see poor mental health rising. The Young Minds March 2020 survey suggests over 83% of students with existing mental health conditions feel more unwell in the recent COVID-19 crisis.

Correctly, mental health is now one of the five top priorities for AoC. This is entirely and undisputedly the right call, pointing to a direct, immediate and likely long-term human cost of COVID-19 to which colleges will need to respond on the front line.

As chair of the AoC Mental Health Policy Group, we have supported this vital work with a Mental Health Charter, training and resources. This was to encourage a better and more coherent strategy for staff and students, with no student left behind. When combined with mass online or digital technology, how would the deployment of this strategy survive?

At East Coast College, we have witnessed a 177% increase in wellbeing and mental health referral across the tail end years of austerity. The government Green Paper ’Transforming Young People’s Mental Health’ published in 2017, referenced the potential impacts of social media on mental health as a line of enquiry but failed to draw conclusions or make firm recommendations. Any debate in the efficacy of digitisation and learning online without exploration on the potential impacts on mental health would feel insubstantial and no doubt incomplete.

Our college has taken a proactive and nationally recognised strategy around mental health and wellbeing, suggesting that micro-interventions aggregate into institutional improvement. In other words, small adjustments can make big impacts. Our strategic plan notes the college approach to developing the skills to support mental health and wellbeing, helping students to plan their future pathways. The college demographic is listed among the most deprived nationally. This has implications in terms of academic achievement at age 16. This also impacts support needs, wellbeing and mental health issues and speed of progress.

The college continuously seeks and develops statutory, private and voluntary sector partnerships offering students and staff expert internal and external support, advice and opportunities. East Coast College has a commitment to lead and respond to the national and local mental health landscape, ensuring student and staff voices influence positive change in the delivery of services. We ensure all students participate in a wellbeing programme as well as providing support services that enhance student resilience and personal development. Both initiatives are responsive to needs and teach students how to look after themselves. We do utilise technology as a significant and important element of this support service, but not exclusively.

Materials online have been found to be restorative and develop the communication and mental health literacy of students. Their main focus is preventative (not crisis) and fulfilling a signposting function. We use materials provided by the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust, the Mental Health Foundation, Action for Happiness and Mind, all long-term partners of East Coast College. For the core learner population, this online and face-to-face blended learning approach is effective. Emphasis on wellbeing and support in student induction and tutorials led to 57% of 2018/19 mental health disclosures by the end of term one, enabling the college to provide effective support early in the student journey.

The pedagogical experiment that COVID-19 has provided (or forced) upon colleges will allow us to gain a deeper understanding of the effects on mental health in the perspective of digital learning and support. Whilst it is early, it is fair to assume that there are vastly different ‘experiments of lockdown learning’ and a complex range of students, with a complex range of needs, both academic and support. Despite this, there appears to be a tsunami of futurists emerging claiming the digital learning revolution has happened without fully testing the impact and results.

So how do students with mental health difficulties fair in this brave new world? There are a number of issues related to digital inclusion or exclusion, with a number of groups that can forgivably be clumsily clustered together. Any teaching, learning and assessment solution must be cognisant of this fact. Therefore, within any development of digital curricula, students require an individual response regardless of physical place or media of delivery.

The Centre for Mental Health points to evidence that social demography plays a significant role. We are beginning to see that not only social deprivation and lower school attainment play a role in poor mental health, but levels of access to technology and levels of digital literacy can have both an amplification factor and acceleration factor for some students.

We can identity three broad groups: students who have a pre-existing mental health condition, students who have an emergent difficulty created by tech and a third group with no condition. We’ll focus on the first two groups in this article conceding the opportunities technology affords to the third.
For learners with pre-existing conditions, we have found in online learning these have quickly subdivided into binary groups; those students who have had a positive experience and those who have had a negative experience. Some students through digital only learning have experienced the discovery of resilience, they have practiced established coping strategies that they have carried into the online world. They have increased communication 1-2-1 through digital platforms.

Students doing well often have a good level of independent learning and high levels of communication skills which can be deployed. Those that thrive have high levels of intrinsic motivation and well-structured local support through families. They hold well-structured and resourced care plans supported by external agencies such as counselling or mental health workers.

A second group that has reported thriving under ‘lockdown learning’ are those students where social anxiety was a root cause or contributory factor to their suffering. Not physically attending college has removed this barrier and created new possibilities and routes into fuller participation.

There is, though, sadly a student group for whom online learning has pushed them further into social isolation. Spending increasing time out of human contact and increasing time ‘living in their own heads’. They struggle with how to be alone and as such any condition is significantly amplified. These students often lack skills in self-regulation. Being out of direct physical contact means support needs might be slower and disengagement increased. Some students report lacking structure and momentum being lost as routines, previously used as social and mental health anchors to guide the week and help regulation, are eroded with flexibility and choice becoming a tyranny.

Some students who have no pre-existing condition and previously have thrived in a college environment have failed to adjust to digital norms and morays. They are struggling to find motivation and belonging. They value social learning, with interactions with teachers reported as the critical dimension rather than the quality of the digital assets. East Coast College is now conducting some academic research to better understand the experiences and barriers.

Mental health concerns are rapidly rising for those that are left behind by digital poverty. Digitisation in this scenario becomes a damaging exclusion factor. Exclusion can come from the lack of financial ability to get access to kit; including many households in our catchment area not having broadband connections. We witness exclusion from digital literacy or poor mental health, such as anxiety creating additional barriers to online participation. In this instance, digital learning amplifies existing inequality. Our students in disadvantaged groups tell us there are rarely quiet work spaces in the home, and technology, if it exists, is shared between siblings. Concentration is more difficult. Sadly, some report that their home isn’t “safe like college”.

Often excluded from any pedagogical discussion, our apprentices are used to completing a significant portion of their learning online (in terms of knowledge transfer and recording of assessment). Digitally, they experience a richer range of pedagogy and as such think about learning in a different way. The hidden risk is once again one of pastoral care. Identification of mental health referrals are slower and at a lower rate. Support often happens not at the preventative stage but when issues become acute. As contact becomes more digital and remote, it seems a risk worthy of further reflection.

Adult learners seem to hold a dual experience. Some suggest that flexibility creates very positive learning which is less stressful. Others miss the social dynamics of the group. They cite that learning is more effective as a social activity, which is disrupted by complex family life. Attending college provides physical and mental respite.

Colleges have moved support services into the digital space with virtual student council meetings, peer-to-peer wellbeing support, increasing communication posts on social media, online anxiety groups and wellbeing checks and ‘virtual coffees’. We are seeing an emergence of online counselling services, although the take-up appears lower and there are challenging and conflicting definitions in this arena.
Richard Caulfield, policy lead for mental health at AoC, recently remarked “Colleges have had to respond rapidly to providing all their services at a distance. What we do know is that many colleges are doing fantastic work to support students and staff alike, and this is something we can all learn from, and that there are partner organisations who have expertise that can help.’ The test is whether these digital support services are effective or should they only augment physical delivery?

Digital learning can easily be argued as a more fertile environment for flexibility and creative, engaging (or at least entertaining) teaching but for me, it is easier to see how those learners who require structure and motivation may fall behind. This can easily lead to increased instances of amplified levels of stress and anxiety.

Consideration must be given to the added value of educational interventions that stretch beyond knowledge transfer and delivery of entertaining content. How can students see modelled behaviour, experience healthy conflict and conflict resolution? How can they develop essential social skills which help them in a safe, more human environment, experience failure, tests of confidence and acceptance of others? All of these can be avoided online and may have longer term negative societal effects.

In conversation, Paul Grangier, Director for the Centre for Education and Work at Institute of Education at UCL and member of the G20 Task Force for Education and Training in the Digital Era, suggested: “Technology will not generate values. If it does, they will be of a fiscal nature, but technology does not cherish morality. The focus of technology is expediency, which is not always the correct course or purpose in education.” Online learners might experience a less culturally rich experience. For many of our learners, home life can be less supportive with less healthy relationships. The digital world excludes colleges from effectively providing a bridge into another world of possibility and the creation of better relationships.

The conclusion must be it is too early to adequately define the relationships and impacts between digital learning and mental health. However, early evidence suggests that mental health can be impacted by delivery models. Online learning has not been fully tested and the indirect effects are unknown on different groups. We need to fully understand, or at least (I would argue) better understand what we may have unintentionally taken away in digital learning. Delivery may have amplified, or created new, significant educational, societal or psychological inequalities and reduced opportunity rather than enhanced it.

Stuart Rimmer, Chief Executive Officer, East Coast College and Chair of the AoC Mental Health Policy Group