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2 Online learning and wellbeing

Technologies can provoke both positive and intensely negative responses; people tend to develop habits around using them or avoiding them. Smartphones are a good example. Many people would say they feel completely lost without theirs; others dislike them and try to avoid owning one, which can cause pressure in the modern world where connectivity is an expectation.

When using technologies for teaching and learning, it is important to consider the range of possible emotional responses learners might experience. Well-designed educational technologies can create a sense of delight. However, technology can cause frustration and some people are prone to feelings of anxiety when confronted by technology. Online educators therefore need to give some thought to the digital wellbeing of their learners.

Aspects of online learning that are positive in terms of wellbeing include:

  • reduced stress and pressure associated with being able to choose where and when to study;
  • satisfaction of mastering a skill or achieving a qualification;
  • online studies providing a focus/excitement to life;
  • confidence-boosting discussions or feedback.

However, other aspects may negatively affect wellbeing. These include:

  • online discussions leading to bullying, individuals being targeted or disconcerting opinions not being challenged;
  • feeling alone or isolated;
  • having too many online locations to keep track of when studying, especially multiple discussion forums;
  • anxiety around assessment deadlines.

These problems can be limited or avoided by building in measures such as: guidance on interaction (see Section 1.4), opportunities for social discussion, clear signposting of activity times and locations, and flexible deadlines.

Other ways of supporting the wellbeing of online learners include providing support for time management, study skills and reference management. All of these are potentially sources of stress and anxiety.

Time management skills are essential for any form of study. For the 21st-century learner, the online world (including social media) presents innumerable time-consuming distractions that can be a barrier to wellbeing and compromise study outcomes. To support executive skills such as time management, integrate the topic into the curriculum, direct students to free courses and resources on the topic (for example, this section of an OpenLearn course on work-life balance [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ) or signpost them to specific apps (such as Trello, Remember the Milk, and Evernote) that can support time management.

Study skills (or the lack of them) have a clear connection with wellbeing. For example, tasks that require learners to search online for information or resources can be time-consuming and overwhelming, especially when learners lack the skills to navigate and critically evaluate the vast amount of web-based sources available. One way to support students in this area is to direct them to Caulfield’s extremely comprehensive Creative Commons-licensed open textbook Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers. Another is to provide them with links to online resources such as these Skills for Study courses on OpenLearn.

Reference management can be an onerous task. Reference building apps such as Mendeley and Zotero help learners to compile a list of relevant references while writing. Such apps can even be linked to a bank of references that the learner bookmarks while browsing and researching online, making the selection of quotes and appropriate referencing much simpler and less stressful.