Online Learning and Mental Health: Prioritizing Learner Well-Being
For better or for worse, COVID has altered the online learning landscape so significantly that we are still coming to terms with the resulting effects two years on. Perhaps the most radical shift that students had to face during this time was the mass transition from face-to-face learning to distance learning in just a matter of weeks. From rarely having to learn using online tools, K12, higher ed, and corporate learners, all had to get comfortable with the idea of a 100% virtual learning setting.
This sudden transition to such a high level of technological dependency has left quite a few consequences in its wake. The most significant of which is the mental health impact that online learning has on students. With the expectation that learners would be able to navigate a variety of technological tools and information while at the same time maintaining their productivity, many individuals report feeling increasingly anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed.
Managing online learning and mental health issues at the same time has affected the overall morale of students. According to Edly’s survey, the biggest roadblock respondents face during eLearning is trouble with focusing on the content. This is, at least in part, a result of the mental health issues stemming from the way online learning has been implemented so far.
There are ways to navigate online learning and mental health in a way that puts the learners first and allows them to transition much more easily into the realm of eLearning. We’ll take a look at some of these ways, starting with a deeper look into what mental health problems learners are currently facing.
How Can Online Learning Be Detrimental to Mental Health?
Heightens Stress and Anxiety
One may be inclined to believe that learning from home would make for a more comfortable and easy-going experience but the reality may be very different for some students. A survey by San Antonio students revealed that 71% of the respondents felt online learning to be more stressful than in-person learning. This can be explained by a myriad of factors.
For many students, concentrating at home can be quite a challenge due to limited privacy, distractions such as family members interrupting or helping siblings with their work, internet connectivity issues, and more. Many economically challenged families cannot afford to provide the required technology or workspace for students to study.
Technology requirements aren’t just limited to internet connection either: device availability and system performance are critical to the eLearning experiences. For K12 organizations, rapidly mobilizing enough laptops, Chromebooks, and devices for students was one of the first major milestones in the shift from classroom learning to at-home eLearning. Once the students had the devices in hand, schools also had to determine how young children could handle ed-tech tools like Google Classroom and Zoom.
A problem in itself is emphasized by the fact that these platforms may not have been designed with young children in mind. Not to mention, quite a few students and learners of all ages feel uncomfortable with videoconferencing, as it allows their peers a glimpse into their personal lives.
Navigating all these issues and also maintaining performance at the same time can cause heightened stress and anxiety among students. Unfortunately, most institutions did not anticipate this consequence of online learning and mental health as they transitioned to eLearning during the pandemic.
Causes Social Isolation
Learning is greatly influenced by social interaction. In a traditional classroom setting, students are used to learning as a group and getting face-to-face instructor feedback and attention. In an online environment, this is challenging to replicate. With limited interaction with peers, many students report feeling isolated, which greatly impacts their mental health.
While some online learning platforms enable social learning, institutions are still a long way from incorporating the same level of peer interaction or group activities as they did in the traditional classroom setting. The same applies to instructor feedback. Teachers have a much less hands-on role in the online classroom and students get very limited one-on-one time with instructors. This enhances the feeling of isolation and demotivates learners.
May Lead to Learning Fatigue
The sheer amount of learning materials available to students online can often lead to information overload. Instructors often recommend several online resources to students, which students find quite challenging to stay on top of. Apart from that, learning from home often blurs the boundary between the classroom and students’ personal lives.
Consequently, many learners find it difficult to extricate themselves from their studies and continue to stress about incomplete work even in their downtime. Many instructors also feel inclined to communicate with their students outside of classroom hours, which further reinforces the feeling of never being truly free. As a result, many students report learning fatigue and trouble concentrating.
What Can Be Done About Online Learning and Mental Health?
The mental health issues students face online can seriously impact their relationship with learning. However, there are ways to ensure that your online learning strategy is effective, while at the same time being considerate of your students’ mental health.
Relax Rigid and Unnecessary Rules
Many institutions felt the need to enforce certain rules at the beginning of the pandemic in order to maintain a sense of discipline even though the students were learning from home. While the idea to create the same classroom environment at home was well intended, it ended up adding more stress to the learners’ lives, admittedly because learning from home is unlike in-person learning after all.
Having to keep the video on at all times, even when not needed, wearing school uniforms at home, or completing asynchronous lectures during normal school hours are only some of these rules. While these rules have little positive outcome on student performance, the adverse mental health consequences they have are significant. Relaxing such rules would help relieve learners from some of the stresses that come from distance learning, and allow them to learn more comfortably.
Offer Online Mental Health Support
To cater to the rising need for mental health support, it is imperative that institutions dedicate the necessary resources to enable easy access to mental health professionals. On top of organizing information sessions, sharing resources, and promoting awareness, organizations need to have mental health professionals available online to cater to those in need. For many institutions, this can be arranged through their existing Learning Management Systems that the learners are already familiar with.
Instructors must also be trained and equipped to recognize possible at-risk students and encourage them to seek help since students are much more likely to reach out to them. One of the perks of eLearning is the possibility of incorporating technology-driven assessments of student progress in real-time.
This could be achieved through the built-in reporting in a platform or trend analysis of user engagement. With data in hand and the absence of the same distractions seen in the classroom, adding mindfulness activities in between lessons can also help students take a break from their screens and re-energize themselves. On top of that, learners must be encouraged to maintain a healthy diet and exercise, in a dedicated wellness week.
Keep Personal and Classroom Boundaries Well Defined
We talked about students experiencing learning fatigue and information overload due to the lack of a rigid boundary between their personal and academic lives. Enforcing such a boundary can make a huge difference to learners’ mental health. While it should be up to the students to determine when they want to complete asynchronous parts of their courses, all synchronous learning must occur within regular school hours. All communication between students and instructors must also be done during the same hours. Any activities during the after-school hours must be left up to the learners’ discretion just like they would be in an in-person class.
Promote Social Interaction
Institutions must revise their current communication strategy and allow dynamic interaction between students, teachers, counselors, and parents. Apart from official channels of communication, a more informal discussion forum between students should also be arranged. Many LMS platforms are equipped with individualized forums for each course and a more informal thread where students can discuss general topics.
Not just that, instructors must also come up with more group activities that motivate learners and allow them to interact and work together. Presentations, group assignments, and projects are some conventional ways to do so. Other unconventional activities, such as game nights and group workouts can be arranged outside school hours and open to those who wish to join. The goal is to maintain the level of social interaction that students would normally be exposed to in the traditional classroom.
Technology can be used to create student interactions that may otherwise be unavailable in traditional in-person learning. For example, peer reviews can enhance student interactions on open response assessments; gaining feedback from multiple students in a class can be done much more quickly when each student responds digitally rather than verbally.
Allow Individualized Instructor Feedback
Another aspect of social interaction is instructor feedback. In a regular classroom, teachers offer face-to-face feedback to students which is translated into an email equivalent in online learning. For many students, communication through emails is not as effective, or insightful as in-person interactions. A good compromise would be for teachers to schedule a periodic check-in with each student, in a one-on-one video, which would not only serve as a means to discuss students’ academic progress but also as an opportunity to talk about their mental health.
Recent events have made it difficult to predict what the new normal will look like a few years from now. While it is likely that distance learning would become a permanent fixture, the future of learning remains open to flexibility and change. It is important in these times for learners and educators to remain resilient and doing so involves paying attention to the mental needs of all those involved.
When creating new learning opportunities fit for today’s world, the relationship between online learning and mental health must be carefully considered. If you want to create thoughtful learner-centric eLearning content, Edly’s full-stack learning solutions are the way to go. With the features best equipped to cater to learners’ mental health needs, we can help you deliver engaging learner experiences. Built-in support for discussion forums, peer reviews, instructor feedback, and even Zoom integrations give you the complete toolset to address mental health and create meaningful social interactions right alongside all the tools needed to create comprehensive eLearning. To find out more about our services, feel free to contact us!