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The Effects of Distant Learning on Wellness and Responsibility in Higher Education

Updated: Apr 9

Author: Olivia Cason

October 27,2020

Contrary to popular belief, online education has become a more favorable option among students in recent years. According to Purdue Global, from 2014 to 2016 the number of students enrolled in traditional on-campus learning decreased by 8%, while the number of students taking at least one online class grew from 2.9 million to 3.3 million. Factors such as work and family life, learning style, and even geography have played an important role in the decision to go online, however, amid a global pandemic, now health and safety are contributing factors. Additionally, research suggests that feelings of anxiety and shyness have decreased in the online atmosphere. A 2018 study conducted by The Journal of Public Affairs Education found that although group contact online is maintained better than in-person, students in online groups expressed feeling less anxious. Whether you’re online or in-person, it’s paramount to find time to relax, and set boundaries to protect your emotional well-being. Even though distance learning can provide opportunities for increased wellness, maintaining self-discipline and motivation at home is a daily choice. How individuals decide to manage self-responsibility and emotional wellness does influence their academic success.

The physical change in instruction can inspire new ways of learning that are responsive to students needs, and also bolster the online classroom. Robin-Aspman O'Callaghan, professor of management at City University, acknowledges, “Hybrid learning has made me more aware of what is out there, not only in the area of traditional aids, areas of research, websites etc--it makes you so much more aware of platforms like TikTok and Youtube and how you can use music, video, film, and other less traditional materials to enhance your class.” By using a mix of traditional and modern teaching methods, professors can reach students differently. This is important particularly now when students are asked to sit through virtual lectures in every class; adding diversity can keep students engaged and at ease. Eileen McGinnis, professor of writing and U.S. history at Saint Edward’s University, invites her students to take a more active role in shaping both the syllabus and online class atmosphere. She hopes that her students articulate their own objectives for the course aside from the required ones and make decisions on online etiquette like how class should start and if video should be required on Zoom. McGinnis’s encouragement is helping students become more responsible for their academic success.

Nevertheless, learning management systems like Canvas and Blackboard have already played an integrated role in most higher education courses because they are both productive and convenient methods of organization and communication. O'Callaghan: “These online management systems can be easily navigated making turning in, grading, and returning assignments easy, and the systems have tools for group work and ways to create group discussion board topics and in-group only chats." Online instruction, however, still requires more than knowing how to navigate through Canvas. Mai Kuha, professor of English at Ball State University, explains, “Beyond waking up and showing up to class on time, in-person learning requires little effort from students and they can remain somewhat passive in their learning process.” Kuha continues, “In this setting, it’s the professor that draws their attention to content and reminds them of what to do, whereas the online learner has to be more self-directed.” It’s necessary for online learners to be more responsible for their education as it takes time and patience to navigate through course websites, online instruction, and virtual class alone. Moreover, creating a safe learning space at home and managing a schedule that differs from a normal academic calendar requires daily self-discipline. Kuha says, “while in many ways a professor can act as a personal assistant to their students, learning how to be self-directed can pay off later in life.” Even though online learning offers an opportunity to develop self-direction, instructors can still support this effort by providing mindful resources and assigning less work so those that are struggling can stay afloat.

Another benefit of online classrooms is the removal of internal stressors like shyness around speaking, which in return can make a world of a difference for shy students and their ability to participate in class. Austin Schultz, a graduate of the University of Delaware, expressed that although distance learning came with its challenges, his academic performance was at its best online. He attributes the success to Zoom as he felt that in many ways the program made learning more personable and found that students who don’t normally talk were more willing to speak up online. Students with classroom-related anxieties are less likely to volunteer to speak. Georg Stoeckli, a psychologist at the University of Zurich, found that teachers attribute weak classroom participation to a lack of interest and motivation. A failure to recognize the distinction between lack of enthusiasm and shyness can affect the student-teacher relationship and the students overall class grade. Online learners can securely craft a question and participate in discussions without the emotional stressors that are influenced by public speaking. Oliver Pour, student body president at Boston University, reflects, “It was a big worry of mine that I wouldn't know how to engage online, [but] BU has a moderator for each professor on zoom, and [despite a] 250 student virtual lecture, I think virtual learning has expanded engagement opportunities for students and aids us in learning collectively.” If distance learning can increase students’ confidence and sociability, then higher levels of genuine class participation can be achieved.

Communicating in real-time, however, is imperative to keeping both instructors and students engaged. McGinnis: “I have found that our regular synchronous Zoom classes improve my own sense of wellbeing and connection.” The transition to distance learning has been an exceptional experience for instructors who, prior to Covid-19, did not consider teaching online. Kuha explains that the spring transition to online was a pleasant revelation after facilitating 10 face-to-face classes a week and ending each day cognitively drained: “Many days I’d come home incapacitated and have to rest for a long time before being able to grade homework and prep for the next day.” Online, however, Kuha has the chance to give each task the time it deserves, and by teaching asynchronously she can devote more time and energy to her students. In contrast, synchronous classes also have the potential to improve students’ emotional health, and McGinnis suggests creating a curriculum that supports conversations around shared challenges. When teachers provide a safe space for students to open up, emotional stress is alleviated which can improve class connection.

University health and counseling centers are also doing their part to assure students and instructors have access to emotional support. In a virtual forum, Campus Well-Being During a Continuing Crisis, hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, health professionals across U.S. institutions offered different approaches to connecting with students amid Covid-19. Corey Wallack, Executive Director of Health and Wellness at Syracuse University, shared that on-campus students have the option to attend outdoor therapy, while Stacia Alexander, Director at Paul Quinn College Mental Health Clinic, deployed a robust email marketing campaign that promotes the schools virtual counseling services and mindfulness resources such as yoga and meditation videos. There was an overall consensus throughout the forum that reinforced how important it is for students to make time to go outside. Ecotherapy, a therapeutic concept that encourages students to walk and talk with the counselor around campus, was used prior to the pandemic at Paul Quinn College, and now counselors are encouraging students at home to take the call outside on their balcony.

At a time where wellness is needed most, counselors brainstormed how to get students to embrace clinical services and normalize mental health support. Asia Wong, Director of Student Affairs and Student Health Services at Loyola University New Orleans, shared that her office transformed spaces into comfortable Zoom rooms where students can safely go and virtually chat with their counselor in a setting that imitates an office. Wallack noted that although the vast majority of clinical services have moved to Zoom, students at Syracuse have expressed that they miss the in-person office visits. At home services, however, may offer a more intimate opportunity for students to talk comfortably with their counselor.

When it comes to integrating wellness into students’ lives amid a pandemic, health experts understand that it is impossible to ensure that things will be ok, when really no one knows how the pandemic will progress and continue to affect our lives. Having compassion, transparency, and optimism were among the qualities university health leaders agreed would benefit both counselors and students. “This is not the time to suck it up,” cautions Monica Osburn, Executive Director at North Carolina State University Counseling Center. “Give yourself grace because you’re doing the best you can.”

About the Author:

Olivia Cason is an outreach communicator for the Interdisciplinary Environmental Association and science writer for Footprint App. Her viewpoints link humanitarian, scientific, and global perspectives so that she can effectively reach diverse audiences from scientists, educators, students, and activists. Olivia has written several features on personal achievement and student success such as “Dr. Tomomi Maekawa Reflects on First IICE and Shares Thoughtful Response to Social Distancing”, and most recently she is researching distance learning in higher education and the future of STEM degrees. A novice traveler, Olivia’s experiences in Spain have helped shape her worldly views and are emblematic to her ambitions to become a bicontinental science communicator who bridges the gap between the English and Spanish language so that institutions and scholars can freely communicate across disciplines and geographic boundaries.

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