As national stress awareness month draws to a close, Julia Taylor highlights the need to focus on student and staff mental health during the coronavirus pandemic.
The sudden switch to online teaching and learning prompted by the coronavirus pandemic is challenging the accepted mechanics of teaching delivery.
In the initial flurry to ensure continuity for learners, the focus was, inevitably, on delivering emergency teaching materials. It’s now time to consider the longer-term implications, not just on teaching, but on wellbeing and inclusivity too.
After any disruption or trauma, it’s human nature to hanker for a return to ‘normality’ - but leaders in education have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t mean falling back into bad habits or reinstating flawed structures and systems. Now, there’s an opportunity to improve and adapt content for the digital classroom, to address inequalities in access and skills, and to support the mental health of learners and teachers.
Wellbeing – already a concern in the sector – is a crucial consideration through these unsettling and stressful times. April is national stress awareness month. Before it’s over, let’s take the opportunity to reconfigure in ways that support both students and staff to develop resilience. This will help them thrive in their changed education environment, not just ‘manage’.
Although more than a quarter of the students that responded to Jisc’s digital experience insights survey 2019 say they work alone online, we know that feeling connected is important, not least because it’s linked with academic success - and employers really want students to gain better digital collaboration skills for work. During lockdown, many of us have learned to use platforms such as Teams and Zoom which allow multiple users, and this is something we should encourage universities and colleges to build upon.
Students also say they want to be in control of their learning. An inclusive approach to digital planning that ensures access for all can provide crucial independence for students – especially those with disabilities and differences.
Most students can benefit from well-constructed group learning activities. Simply maintaining engagement during difficult periods might deliver much-needed continuity, reassurance and company. It could even keep some learners from dropping out.
Through this experience, teachers will be rethinking how best to use their contact time with students. They will need to choose tools and prepare activity carefully to suit the constraints of the virtual classroom.
Structured CPD to enhance digital teaching linked to the professional framework is crucial to encourage best pedagogical use of available technology, and suitable measures to support students through this time of rapid and unforeseen change. Now is the time to make full use of engaging interactive tools on the virtual learning environment (VLE).
The implications of moving all learning online will be complex and far-reaching - from the acute technical headaches for institutions to the painful adjustment of teaching and assessment techniques for staff and the academic and emotional fallout for students. This will impact on recruitment, participation, retention, attainment, quality assurance and ultimately the viability for the sector.
We should, however, be optimistic. Digital delivery allows for more individualised activities that play to students’ strengths, build their confidence and hone their capacity to problem-solve. The latter is, arguably, the most critical human skill as we face an uncertain future.
More targeted, personalised, effective learning could even begin to address worrying statistical gaps in academic outcomes for under-represented and disadvantaged groups.
Coping with an unavoidable but fundamental change in the way we measure achievement and performance across the sector seems like the biggest challenge ahead. It is also a chance to review established assessment procedures to see if they are fit for the widest of purposes and audiences.
Online education will evolve as learning merges with everyday life. This is our chance to make sure it – along with our learners and teachers - is in the best of health.