Mental Wellbeing in Distance Learning: Barriers, Enablers and Solutions

Lister, Kate (2022). Mental Wellbeing in Distance Learning: Barriers, Enablers and Solutions. EdD thesis The Open University.



Student mental wellbeing is a significant issue in higher education; increasing numbers of students are disclosing mental health difficulties, and statistics show persistent impacts on their study success. This is particularly critical in distance education; distance learners disclose mental health issues at a higher rate than campus-based students, they tend to study in isolation, and campus-based support is generally not available to them. Research has found that aspects of higher education can trigger or exacerbate mental health difficulties, but these ‘barriers’ to wellbeing are under-researched in distance learning. With increasing numbers of students studying remotely, it is crucial that the barriers to mental wellbeing within distance learning curricula, tuition, environments, and culture are understood, and that solutions to address these are identified.

This study explored barriers and enablers to student mental wellbeing in a distance learning institution, and co-created solutions that could be embedded in practice.

First, students (N=16) and tutors (N=5) were interviewed using narrative inquiry. Findings are represented as a taxonomy of barriers and enablers across three categories (study-related, skills-related, and environmental.)

Second, focus groups were held with staff (N=107) and students (N=9). Collaboratively generated solution ideas were identified and were turned into 16 pilot project proposals, including staff training, additional resources for students and staff, and changes to practice.

Third, seven solution ideas were piloted and evaluated as ‘praxis’ projects, using facilitated practitioner research.

Fourth, surveys sought wider insight from students (N=584) and staff (N=666) on barriers and enablers to wellbeing, ideas for solutions, and perceptions of the solutions being piloted. Findings reveal different experiences of barriers and enablers according to student demographics, but that assessment and life circumstances were generally the most commonly experienced barriers and that staff training was the most popular piloted solution.

The findings and outputs of this study are positioned as an agenda for change that makes a contribution to knowledge and practice, and can begin to pave the way towards more inclusive distance learning practice that is more conducive to student mental wellbeing.

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