Universities are increasingly concerned with their students’ well-being, and are committed to a digital transformation that takes mental health into account
What is the relationship between the digital transformation and mental health at academic institutions? Universities are increasingly concerned with their students’ well-being. And instead of using traditional methods to achieve it, they are committed to a digital transformation that takes their students’ mental health – and consequently their well-being – into account.
Mental health has been a central topic in many debates since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. It became a very important issue due to the major changes, sacrifices and adjustments that people had to make overnight. Lockdowns, remote working, emergency online education and various public health measures have exacerbated global unrest. This has affected people’s mental well-being, and the population’s mental health has been highly vulnerable in recent years.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people had suffered from a mental health problem in their lifetime before the pandemic, and 75% of them did so before they were 18 years old. The situation has become more apparent than ever in the last 25 years, with a 75% increase in depression and anxiety among adolescents. However, COVID-19 has aggravated this situation to an even greater extent, and the prevalence of anxiety and depression disorders worldwide has risen by 25%.
Many institutions had to adapt quickly and implement a digital transformation hastily in the wake of the pandemic, or at least had to do so faster than they would have done if the health emergency had not occurred. Universities are good examples of educational institutions which had to make drastic changes to their learning model by applying the digital transformation to their daily routine. Although the digital transformation does not mean any one single concept, and each institution approaches it in one way or another, it is mostly considered in terms of an overall process that involves the entire institution, and which is student-centred.
The digital transformation processes at various higher education institutions have been studied as part of the observation tasks carried out by the eLearning Innovation Center (eLinC). In this article, we examine how some universities relate the digital transformation to the mental health and well-being of students, who are a vulnerable group. Although many universities have had to make quick decisions under difficult circumstances, many others have focused on mental health and created initiatives and programmes that are very useful for students’ mental well-being, which ultimately affects the quality of their learning.
First, a distinction must be made between the universities that have had to transform their educational model into a blended or hybrid model in the wake of the pandemic, and those which had always been committed to an educational model based on online learning.
A good example is the University of Buckingham, which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor its students’ mental health and well-being. It identifies students who are at risk and alerts staff to see if they require extra attention, in order to prevent a possible impact on their mental health and consequently on their academic progress. The university also obtains this information using chatbots equipped with an AI prediction engine to identify words related to mental health and to identify and ascertain possible warning factors.
The University of Wollongong is a different case in point. They created the UOW Compass, a self-awareness pathway to facilitate students’ well-being and success. This tool aims to improve the students’ overall experience by fostering their emotional well-being. The tool establishes a relationship between eight dimensions, which are considered factors that collectively encompass aspects that contribute to the students’ well-being, and five pillars, which represent the skills needed to achieve it. Based on self-awareness, the framework of the Compass pathway aims to guide students using services that can support them, in order to foster their resilience and empower them by giving them self-confidence when solving the problems that may arise during their student journey.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has created a comprehensive resources page to fight stress. In addition, they also consider that it is essential to take into account that many students have probably lost someone close to them because of COVID-19. For this reason, they have also provided support groups, programmes, and other services related to grief issues.
Finally, Southern New Hampshire University offers both face-to-face and virtual programmes. They have created spaces that enable students to connect to each other in order to foster socialization and cohesion. It includes spaces for relaxation created by students, where they can vent their frustrations in confidence and establish links with other students on campus, or even on other campuses, in order to create an atmosphere of well-being and comfort.
Meanwhile, the universities that have focused on a virtual educational model from their earliest days include the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). Its students have not experienced the “shock” of moving to a very different type of education to the one they had before (except for moving most exams online). The UOC focuses on prevention and training in order to prevent any risks related to mental health issues. It provides videos and articles that explain the steps students need to take in order to enjoy a positive online learning environment. Bearing in mind that its entire academic programme takes place online, the UOC provides tools and guides to facilitate and improve the study environment and offers advice for improvement and wellness measures.
In conclusion, the digital transformation can have considerable benefits, but the mental health and well-being of students must be a core feature of this transformation if those benefits are to be achieved. Holistic change in digital transformation processes will be impossible if mental health continues to be stigmatized, and the well-being of students will remain a secondary issue. Technology plays a key role in this process. It is not important in itself but must be the primary means for people to fulfil their potential.
 World Health Organization (March 2022) Mental Health and COVID-19: Early evidence of the pandemic’s impact. http://www.infocoponline.es/pdf/WHO-Mental-health.pdf
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