Abstract: This blog examines the rise of remote learning in universities during the pandemic. It reviews the possible negative impacts of the continued use of remote and blended learning models in universities post lockdown, especially its impact on student mental health and the student experience.
Time to read: 5 minutes
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a global shift towards remote learning that enabled universities to continue functioning and students to continue their studies. Post lockdown many universities have seen this as an opportunity to continue with both remote learning and / or blended learning models mixing remote and face to face teaching. This has provided many benefits, allowing faculties to expand their curriculum without the corresponding need for (and cost of) increased teaching space, to increase their geographic reach and give students (and academic staff) more flexibility. But is it all a good thing? Is it giving students the full “university experience” and, more seriously, is it impacting on their mental health?
The Impact of Remote Learning on Student Mental Health
We are still getting to grips with the post lockdown world and the changes it has made to the educational landscape. Studies on the impact of remote learning on student mental health are fairly recent and tend to focus more on the experience of remote learning during the height of the pandemic and the enforced isolation during lockdown. However, several of these studies have investigated the relationship between remote learning and mental health outcomes both pre pandemic and during the lockdowns of 2020 to 2022. A number of issues were identified, principally:
Increased Anxiety and Stress
Remote learning has led to increased anxiety and stress among students. Studies show that 63% of UK students experienced increased anxiety levels during the pandemic, with remote learning being a contributing factor (1). Research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and the Journal of Affective Disorders (2) found that students who were engaged in remote learning reported higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to students who attended classes in person.
Another study published in the Journal of School Health (3) found that students who participated in remote learning during the pandemic reported higher levels of stress and anxiety compared to those who attended school in person and that they were more likely to experience disruptions in their sleep patterns, further exacerbating their mental health concerns. We do need to take these studies in context, they were mainly conducted during the global pandemic where other pandemic and lockdown related anxieties may impact the results. However there have been many studies over the years linking regular social interaction to increased morale and feelings of wellbeing and, I believe, there is no doubt that remote learning can have negative consequences to student mental health.
Its not rocket science to realise that a lack of face-to-face interaction can lead to students experiencing social isolation. In fact, a survey found that 71% of UK university students felt lonely during the COVID-19 lockdown (4).
The lack of in person education also can mean an absence of in-person support from peers and instructors, coupled with the challenges of managing online coursework, which can take a toll on mental well-being. It can also make it much harder to spot students who are struggling with the course or with their mental health, making early intervention much harder.
Decreased Motivation and Engagement
Remote and blended learning may lead to lower engagement levels, as students struggle to stay motivated and participate actively in online classes (5). The absence of immediate feedback and the impersonal nature of digital communication can contribute to this feeling of disengagement creating a negative spiral which in turn can lead to poorer academic performance and higher dropout rates.
Students who are learning remotely or isolating themselves and not attending in person learning opportunities are also missing out on the collaborative learning experiences, such as group projects and discussions. These can be more difficult to facilitate in an online environment. Without this engagement students may face challenges in building relationships with their peers, which can negatively affect the overall quality of not just their learning experience but their time as a student.
On the flip side, it can be argued that for those students who have been able to adapt, that the transition to remote / blended learning has not only provided students with greater flexibility, but it has also forced students to develop new skills (such as effective time and task management). They are adapting to an ever-changing educational landscape fostering a sense of resilience that may serve them well in the future.
The Impact of Remote Learning on the Student Experience
But even for those students who have been able to adapt to remote learning, is studying from their rooms really the student experience they signed up for? For many, it’s about learning to live away from home, learning to interact socially with their peers, to make new friends and learn those collaboration skills that will make them effective in their future careers. The reduced social interaction can mean students miss out on the traditional social aspects of university life, such as clubs, sports, campus events, and informal gatherings, an important part of their development and learning as they move into post-school adulthood.
Even with blended learning models, with significant in person tuition, the adoption of new technologies has led to many universities allowing students to opt to attend lectures virtually (or catch up on them later). Although this can ensure that course content isn’t missed, if we don’t encourage students to attend in person, we run the risk of providing a lower quality experience (with subsequent higher dropout rates, affecting both income and space utilisation as cohort numbers reduce as the term goes on).
Some students and educators also argue that remote and blended learning environments don’t provide the same quality of education as traditional in-person classes, due to differences in teaching methods, limited access to resources, and decreased opportunities for experiential learning.
The students’ personal circumstances and their personal learning environment is also a major factor. Many students may not have access to suitable learning environments at home or rented student houses (often crowded HMOs), which can hinder their ability to concentrate and engage with their coursework. Add this to the fact that not all students have equal access to reliable internet connections and necessary hardware, this can lead to disparities in the quality of the learning experience. Digital Fatigue can also be an issue, prolonged screen time and constant exposure to digital devices can lead to digital fatigue, eye strain, and other physical discomforts, which may negatively impact students’ academic performance and well-being.
Remote learning is not just challenging to the students, it can also cause issues for assessment and academic Integrity. Ensuring fair and accurate assessment of student performance when remote can be challenging, with concerns about academic integrity and potential cheating in online exams. In February the BBC highlighted a university student who had used ChatGPT to write an assignment as an experiment, and who had received a 2:2 for the work produced.
Conclusion – Get the Blend Right
We have looked at the negative aspects and issues surrounding remote and blended learning; however, it can definitely have an important part to play in the future of higher education and the enforced adoption due to the pandemic is an opportunity to rethink how we deliver education. Remote learning does provide for greater access to education for a more diverse range of students (both from a geographic and neuro-diversity perspective). It allows for better use of resources, greater flexibility in the delivery of education and potential reductions in cost, improvements in space utilisation and expansion of the curriculum.
As mentioned before, it has not only given students more flexibility and choice in when and where to learn but also arms them with the tools and skills they need to operate effectively in the new hybrid world of work.
It is also worth noting, that it might not necessarily be the remote learning itself that is the issue. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that the quality of remote learning delivery may also impact mental health outcomes (6). The study found that higher-quality remote learning delivery was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression among students, so it is important not to jump to drastic conclusions but consider how we can address the negative impacts of blended and remote learning whilst ensuring that when it is delivered, it is of the highest quality.
But we need to be mindful of the issues relating to isolation and ensure that we are providing in the right blend of in person and remote learning, encouraging the student body to attend in person, not just for lectures, but to experience student life, to collaborate and socialise with their peers. It is on this note that I think we, as property, facilities and design professionals, need to consider how we can act as facilitators for this, providing high quality, inviting and stimulating learning, collaboration, social and student support spaces that encourage students to want to attend and get the balance right. More on this in my next blog!
1 N. Szilagyi et al., “The impact of COVID-19 on UK university students: A longitudinal study of mental health, study stressors, and behaviour,” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 12, 2021.
2 Zhang, Y., Zhang, H., Ma, X., & Di, Q. (2021). Mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: Changes and predictors among college students in China. Journal of Affective Disorders, 280, 166-171.
3 Wang, G., Zhang, Y., Zhao, J., Zhang, J., & Jiang, F. (2021). Mitigate the effects of home confinement on children during the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet, 395(10228), 945-947.
4 S. Elmer et al., “Students under lockdown: Comparisons of students’ social networks and mental health before and during the COVID-19 crisis in Switzerland,” PLoS ONE, vol. 15, no. 7, 2020.
5 C. R. Sun et al., “Remote learning and students’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: A mixed-method enquiry,” Psychiatry Research, vol. 300, 2021.
6 Gao, W., Ping, S., Liu, X., & Gao, X. (2021). Quality of remote learning, stressors, and mental health outcomes among college students during the COVID-19 pandemic: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 23(2), e28864.