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Digital wellbeing during lockdown: the student perspective

Chris Thomson

Life under lockdown has meant that students have had to get to grips with new ways of working, which can prove very stressful. Jisc’s subject specialist in digital practice, Chris Thomson, shares his top tips for maintaining learners’ mental health 

With the rapid and forced change to online delivery, and uncertainty around what the next academic year might look like, wellbeing and mental health are key considerations for the education sector. Students are looking to their institutions for clear, reliable messaging and support, and universities and colleges across the UK are working hard to ensure that learners are safe and well throughout this trying time.

To help support these efforts, I’ve curated a list of the sector’s top tips on how you can support student wellbeing in the digital space:

  1. Be aware of ‘online overload’. Since students are likely receiving an increased amount of online communication during lockdown, thinking about the urgency and frequency of your messages is key

  2. Questions to help identify the urgency of communication include:
    • - Does it need to go out immediately?
    • - Can it be communicated more effectively?
    • - What response are you expecting?
  3. Consider the context in which your students are operating – do they have additional caring or other family responsibilities? Do they have access to sufficient connectivity and IT hardware?

  4. What level of digital capability do students have? Are they comfortable using the platforms you have suggested or do they need extra support?

  5. Think about what positives might emerge from this situation and could be implemented in future. For instance, how is the use of asynchronous learning impacting the study–life balance for students?

What do the students say?

Learning through lockdown has been “both a blessing and a curse,” says Harry Baker, an apprentice at East Coast College. Although there are elements of the pandemic that have certainly been isolating, and anxiety-inducing, there are also moments when Harry has found the space to appreciate the quiet, and time to reflect on the positives in life. In terms of learning, not much has changed, says Harry:

“I can complete my college work easily at home, or when I have down-time at work, as all I need to do is log into the VLE.

“I can do projects in isolation at work as well and then check in with my apprenticeship tutor via Facetime, so it’s all gone quite smoothly,”

he continues, adding that digital technology has been a big help during lockdown, as not only can he speak with his tutor but the tutor “can even draw diagrams which I can screenshot and save on my phone”.

The frequency balancing act

But, of course, each student is different.

“I am finding that my anxiety has been heightened during lockdown,”

says Rozanna Piddington, a student at the University of Bedfordshire. Much of this anxiety has been caused by the sheer volume of emails coming in, she says:

“I struggle with digital technology at the best of times, let alone being bombarded with emails and support guides.”

As a parent, Rozanna also juggles university work with educating her children, which is proving difficult. She says:

“There are only so many hours in the day and only so many devices,”

Some students find consistent and supportive digital communication reassuring, says Kelly Housby, a student at Keele University:

“I think everyone I have spoken to is glad to get daily communications, to keep in contact, and there is some comfort that others reflect back their own uncertainty as we all pull together to get through this.”

Having access to extended digital support during this time is also of great benefit, adds Kelly:

“In the normal course of a degree, there will be some students who engage little with online learning and have rudimentary knowledge of VLEs and online databases. Now, more than ever, these students will need technological support through any channels possible, from YouTube walkthroughs to instructive emails to personal tutor phone calls.”

Developing self-sufficiency

Students are also having to adapt their ways of working to complete assignments and projects, especially those undertaking more practical courses.

Alfi Howard, a second-year student in performing and production arts at Harlow College, had to completely rethink the show he was creating for assessment:

“Initially, I was planning to perform a one-man show at college but obviously when lockdown hit that couldn’t happen. So I adapted the show into a short film, and filmed and edited it myself at home. We are all given iPads when we start at the college, so that had everything on it that I needed.”

Overcoming this kind of obstacle has helped develop self-sufficiency and independent learning skills, says Alfi:

“We’ve had really good contact with our tutors, and they’re always available if we need them, but sometimes they will assign us work via Showbie and then let us get on with it – it's helped us be more independent in our learning.”

Adaptability is also a key skill for employability, adds Alfi, so having to develop ‘real-world’ skills such as problem-solving has been a valuable experience.

A need for reassurance

However, for many, the uncertain nature of the current climate is something that’s adding to student anxiety, says Rozanna:

“The basic need at the moment is to feel that I am on the right track and progressing.

“Having a personal academic tutor or dissertation supervisor check in on me would be ideal, just to check to make sure I am progressing and to offer support – whether that’s signposting to another service or just some recommendations for how to plan my workload during this difficult time.”

“On the upside,”

says Brad Miller, a student at Ravensbourne University London,

“in a devastating situation, the fact that mental health and wellbeing is so widely discussed online of late is empowering. It’s reassuring to witness people really listening to each other.”

Harry agrees:

“It’s important to talk about mental health and it’s good that people are starting to do that more now. A problem shared is a problem halved, as they say.”

Emerging positives

When it comes to emerging from lockdown, Harry is hoping for more flexibility:

“Since I can do all my college work from home, it would be good to be able to say I’m only going in one day instead of two.

“It would save on fuel costs, as it takes me between 45 minutes and an hour to get to college, and it would save on emissions too, which I think is something we really need to be thinking about.”

But the essence is in the choice, says Harry:

“Some people might feel more comfortable in college, or not be able to concentrate at home, and that's fine: they could choose to go in.

“But sometimes being in a classroom with lots of other apprentices can be distracting, especially when everyone is catching up: you can spend a third of your time chatting, whereas if you’ve got work to get on with and can do it at home, it’s good to have that option.”

Briefing papers on digital wellbeing for both senior leaders and practitioners are available for download on the building digital capability service site.