Way back in 2017, the education sector was rocked by an Institute for Public Policy Research report, which found a fivefold increase in students disclosing a mental health condition to their college or university. Four years later, the situation has only got worse.
Today, students are facing unprecedented pressures, and these have only been heightened by the restrictions imposed around Covid-19. The pandemic – together with what has, for some students, been an unsettling, even anxiety-provoking disruption of the university experience – has exacerbated the issue.
A 2020 Office for National Statistics survey exposed the devastating impact, with 63% of higher education students saying COVID-19 posed either a ‘big’ or ‘significant’ risk to their mental or physical health.
A January 2021 online survey of more than 300 undergraduate students, conducted by the University of Sheffield, explored feelings about the pandemic, the impact of lockdown measures, and the effect of online learning on students’ mental health. Respondents described their experiences as “cripplingly lonely” and “isolating and overwhelming”, highlighting “so much uncertainty alongside increased isolation”.
The need to act has, therefore, been visible for some time, and I believe we can use positive technology, such as virtual reality (VR), to help extend support across dispersed teaching and learning settings.
VR is effective because it gives the user agency, mimicking how we live and learn in the real world. Although videoconferencing tools such as Teams and Zoom have made it possible to continue some level of social conversation through lockdown, difficulty persists around lack of eye contact and limited non-verbal cues. As we’ve all experiences over the past year, communicating on-screen can take more out of us, mentally, than meeting face-to-face. VR can remedy this, enabling natural gestures and haptic feedback, so a more human experience can occur.
In an education setting, immersive technologies can be powerful, encouraging authenticity in discussion and facilitating interaction with students that might otherwise be affected by anxiety in social situations
A recent Facebook IQ study study measured how participants wearing VR Oculus headsets headsets responded both cognitively and emotionally in virtual reality, versus having a conversation in person. The study measured participants’ comfort and engagement as they met in a virtual conference room, appearing as full body avatars with the ability to fist-bump, shake hands, and interact with others in an experience that resembled face-to-face meetings as closely as possible.
The results suggest that participants—especially introverts—responded positively and were able to establish authentic relationships within the virtual environment. One said: “It was a lot deeper, and enjoyable, and closer to life than I expected. We moved from two strangers having the same (superficial) conversation to two humans revealing themselves and their experience of life.”
In an education setting, immersive technologies can be powerful, encouraging authenticity in discussion and facilitating interaction with students that might otherwise be affected by anxiety in social situations. Community-driven spaces, such as Spatial and AltSpaceVR, can further drive positive communication by providing a platform-agnostic approach, allowing students access to shared spaces with low-cost, relatively low-tech and accessible means, such as webcam.
In a 2021 Student and Wellbeing report, commissioned by Jisc and Emerge UK, Nick Bennett – co-CEO of the mental fitness platform, FIKA – states that institutions should be proactive, not reactive, in their mental health approach, making wellness inclusive for all and central to students’ lifelong learning journey.
Now is the time to be open to new ideas and possibilities. As we reimagine the higher education sector in a post-Covid world, let’s embrace the opportunities immersive technologies present to support not only learning and teaching, but wellbeing too.
Matt Ramirez is senior innovation developer at Jisc.
Related content: Jisc’s higher education strategy for 2021-24