Why it’s wrong to blame online learning for causing mental health issues during COVID-19

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Post-secondary student mental health is in crisis: Research shows student mental health has been impacted by the pandemic, and this follows pre-existing concerns that campuses were struggling to meet demands for health services mental.

Over the past two and a half years, many people – including educators, academics, education administrators, politicians and political commentators argued that online learning is detrimental to student or family mental health or well-being.

Partly or largely based on this perceived relationship, many have urged universities and schools to return to in-person teaching and learning.

What if this relationship doesn’t really hold up?

We collected and analyzed all the empirical literature we could find on mental health and online/distance learning. We found that the results of this literature are mixed, and any claims about a relationship between online learning and mental health are belied by the quality of research and pandemic bereavement.

How will a return to in-person learning affect student mental health?
(Allison Shelley for EDUimages)CC BY-NC

Mixed conclusions, pandemic grief

The three of us have studied and practiced online learning for more than two decades, held leadership positions in the field, and closely followed the expansion of remote learning during the pandemic since day one.



Read more: Coronavirus is pushing universities to move to online courses — but are they ready?


We knew there wasn’t much research on online learning and mental health before COVID-19, but we also knew that an avalanche of research on distance education has emerged since then.

We wondered if there was something in the research that we were missing, perhaps something new that was inconsistent with our previous experiences and understanding.

Our review of studies found that the assumption that remote/online learning is detrimental to student mental health and wellbeing is unfounded, as the evidence on which to judge this claim are both mixed and problematic.

Why is the evidence problematic?

We identified the following challenges with the research we reviewed:

  • The vast majority of research on this topic was conducted during the pandemic, but failed to control the pandemic. This is important because mental health is inextricably linked to the pandemic.

  • Most studies have judged the effectiveness of online/distance learning by asking people if they were satisfied with their education. Satisfaction is a poor indicator of effectiveness.

  • Some studies have found relationships between mental health and remote learning, but have claimed that remote learning causes lower mental health without using the kinds of statistical methods needed to establish causal relationships. Others found no correlation, yet continued to assert causal relationships.

We identified these issues in 75% of the studies we reviewed.

Nature of learning rarely described

Equally significantly, the nature of the distance or online learning studied was rarely described. This is important because e-learning is not a monolithic approach. Its approach and quality can vary widely: it can be students passively watching hour-long pre-recorded lectures, or people working together in real time in workshop-style groups, or anything in between. .

A wide variety of teaching methods are possible in the online settings. In other words, without controlling for instructional strategy, we cannot be certain of the type of online learning that was studied.

A screen seen of different course offerings.
There is no one form of online learning.
(Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages)CC BY-NC

Among the small subset of studies that did not have serious methodological issues, the results on mental health impacts were mixed and there is not enough data to draw firm conclusions.

Some of these studies have focused only on specific populations, such as learners with ADHD or severe anxiety or learners in a specific program (such as nursing or agricultural studies) at a specific institution, and also discussed pre-pandemic mental health issues.



Read more: 5 ways students can support positive mental health in college


At best, what we can say about e-learning and mental health in this context is this:

Online learning that does not facilitate meaningful interactions and does not include mental health supports – especially emergency remote learning that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic which required measures quarantine and physical distancing – can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

How should policy makers proceed?

How can universities and colleges address student mental health and wellbeing concerns when a return to in-person learning won’t solve the mental health crisis?

A student seen walking past a building with steps.
How should policy makers address the mental health needs of students now?
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nicole Osborne

There is helpful guidance in published research that can help institutions develop responses to student mental health.

For example, a study by two researchers from the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Social Work, and Criminal Justice at Seton Hall University identified the following as root causes of mental health issues among affected undergraduates. by COVID-19:

  • Loss and grief: loss of loved ones, loss of health, worry about economic impacts and loss of income, managing own illness and symptoms;

  • Psychological impacts of how the pandemic has been handled by federal, state, local and institutional leaders;

  • Changes in personal routines, especially exercise, sleeping and eating habits;

  • Quarantine and physical distancing, which created feelings of isolation and loneliness.

In another study, researchers highlighted how post-secondary institutions could offer personalized wellness classes, advertised by course instructors, that included a physical activity component.

Importantly, the purposeful design of online courses can also help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.



Read more: The 7 elements of a good online course


Simple answers to obscure challenges

Perhaps the most important lesson here is that focusing on the learning modality (in this case, online/distance learning) obscures the loss, grief, and challenges students face.

It costs us opportunities to identify solutions and supports that can be designed in online, in-person or blended forms of learning.

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