All universities use online platforms called Virtual Learning Environments, typically to provide resources, reading lists, chat forums and lecture recordings. Universities are striving to increase use of such platforms. Two key assumptions underpin this i) students and staff are comfortable in digital environments, and ii) students appreciate the flexibility of this type of education which gives 24/7 educational provision. These assumptions are untested, and we believe if they are incorrect the increased use of virtual learning environments could be detrimental to staff and student mental health. For example, their use may contribute to a greater loneliness as more work is done remotely and create pressure to work longer hours due to the 24/7 availability.
Student mental health has been identified as a significant concern amongst key stakeholders. A recent large-scale international study identified that 31% of students screened positive for at least one common mental health disorder in the past year (Auerbach et al., 2018). Although less researched, there is evidence of increasing mental health problems in academic staff, with many at risk of burnout (Watts and Robertson, 2010). A recent survey found that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder; this is almost twice the figure for the general population (Gorczynski et al., 2017). Although many factors contribute to mental health problems, no research has investigated the role of the educational context, specifically virtual learning environments. Given this gap in current knowledge, the aim of this project is to better understand the impact of digital education on student and staff mental health, specifically focusing on the Virtual Learning Environment, as the most ubiquitous digital tool used in Higher Education.
This research project will use a mixed-methods (focus groups and surveys) to test the assumptions around the use of Virtual Learning Environments and relate their use to mental wellbeing in UK wide university staff and students.