Students’ everyday lives have been lived under a state of emergency since last March. The coronavirus has presented students and university staff with unprecedented challenges, for which no one has been able to prepare fully. While studying remotely, students have been unable to enjoy the same type of support or wellbeing services that a university normally provides.
They have had to take courses online since last March, remotely, alone and without the guidance offered during normal everyday life in universities. Courses in an online learning environment can be completed without meeting the teacher or other students or engaging in proper interaction with them. I myself have completed many courses simply by returning online tasks via Moodle. The whole process is completed online, without leaving home or participation in a learning community of any kind.
Although distance learning is the only option during the coronavirus epidemic, the wide adoption of online work poses a risk to students’ wellbeing and mental health, and may lead to loneliness or difficulties in life management. Becoming part of a community and connecting with other university members are key aspects of student life, which are clearly hampered by prolonged distance learning. There is a danger that lack of physical presence and interaction leads to loneliness and makes it even more difficult for isolated students, who are alienated from routines, to find their place in the student community.
Unfortunately, prolonged loneliness and social challenges tend to be cumulative in nature. It may be more difficult for a person suffering from, say, loneliness or mental health symptoms to seek help or to be positive about their future. The long state of emergency leaves some paying a higher price than others — they suffer more from distance studies.
For example, studies of the long-term unemployed have shown that prolonged periods of unemployment and loneliness reduce optimism about returning to work or accessing networks. For many, the coronavirus epidemic may represent a period of loneliness of this kind, when lone online work can engender a sense of hopelessness. Returning to social networks can feel more challenging and unnatural after living outside them for a long period. Universities must not ignore this risk. A worryingly high number of students may feel that they have been in a strange state of limbo, which creates unease about returning to daily routines.
Even during the coronavirus epidemic, universities must continue to invest in a sense of community and attend to the wellbeing of students. Where possible, account should be taken of interaction and presence in distance learning. During the coronavirus epidemic, video call groups can add a strong sense of community in the midst of online work. When the coronavirus fades, investment must be made in the return to contact teaching, to make it fulfilling for students and other university members. The coronavirus must not be used as an excuse for automatically replacing face-to-face teaching with distance learning.
It is great that student unions have tried to identify the specific concerns of students during the coronavirus measures, arranging chats and other activities that support community and wellbeing online. Even as the crisis continues, we must ensure that universities remain communal, students participate, and that we combat loneliness. One day, we will once again be able to participate fully in our student communities, public health permitting.
Member of the Board of HYY