Organisations and institutions in higher and further education are striving to understand and deliver the support systems that students need for good mental health. When students embark on a course of education beyond school age it’s often a time of great change in their lives and a range of factors can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. These can include increased financial pressures, the rising cost of tuition and perceived pressure to succeed.
The UK government recently announced the introduction of a University Mental Health Charter and a new recognition that will be awarded to institutions that meet mental health standards. With awareness of mental health and the impact it has on our lives generally increasing, the scale of the problem within the student community is becoming ever more apparent.
At the time of the government’s announcement Rosie Tressler, CEO of Student Minds, spoke of the importance of, “supporting the one in four students and staff experiencing mental ill health” while The Guardian recently reported that the number of UK students who disclosed a mental health condition, “almost doubled between 2012 and 2015 to nearly 45,000.”
Can technology help?
Technology in itself isn’t a solution to nor a preventer of mental ill health. However, technology should, at the very least, not add to student stress. Ideally, a virtual learning environment (VLE) should help institutions support students by making the learning process simpler, more personal, flexible and monitored.
To help ensure this, an effective VLE should:
Be easy to use –
a solution that is unfriendly or difficult to access or navigate or that doesn’t support the activities people might expect it to will soon lose favour with students. To attract and keep students coming back to the VLE it must be intuitive and provide a good experience. It must also meet the needs of students with accessibility requirements through features such as speech-to-text and text-to-speech. To be able to concentrate wholly on their studies, students must be able to do what they need to do without having to make their own adjustments or find workarounds.
Provide anytime/anywhere access –
many students now combine studies with a range of other activities that make demands on their time. These can include parenting, caring and working full- or part-time. In these situations, being able to access materials, course updates and feedback on assignments anywhere/anytime from the range of devices students use, including tablets and mobiles, helps give students the flexibility they need.
Today’s students connect and communicate with their colleges and universities in very different ways to how they used to. The structures and systems these institutions use therefore need to adapt and they must deliver a good user experience if they are to be a bridge between the institution and the student.
Include analytics –
modern VLE technology that provides educators with actionable insights from data enables them to spot potential issues before they emerge so that they can intervene appropriately for the good of the student. This might mean getting in touch with a student who hasn’t been attending class or logging onto the VLE, or who has fallen behind or experienced a dip in grades. At this point, the institution can provide appropriate support: perhaps give the student access to more background material to help them better understand a topic or connect them with a pastoral care expert. Interventions such as these can be instigated sooner when analytics from the learning platform paints a picture of the situation from a range of data points.
Support adaptive pathways –
it’s impossible for educational institutions to manually deliver personalised programmes for every student. Yet, all learners are different. Technology can help adapt course programmes to meet individual needs. Tools that include pre-enrolment surveys and tests, pre-learning assessments, release of content according to release conditions and adaptive learning journeys help students get what they individually need at each stage of their course. This flexibility can help prevent students from feeling overwhelmed, ensure they receive the attention, support and materials they need when they need them, and contribute to an environment where everyone is treated as an individual.
While technology in education is not a means to solving the issues that can contribute to student mental ill health, as a scalable part of an overall system of support and care it can help institutions implementing measures for positive student wellbeing. To do this, VLEs should be intuitive, flexible, accessible and engaging and through analytics they should help educators spot problems early on so that appropriate action can be taken in the best interests of the student.