Learning is joy — wellbeing challenges in pandemic higher education

Sometimes you only realise how important something is when you lose it. As university teachers, the COVID19 outbreak acutely made us aware that we lost something when we had to suddenly shift to 100% online teaching. This change clearly had an enourmous impact on education and on student wellbeing. But what is it exactly that we lost? And how does that insight help us shape our ‘pandemic higher education’?

When we first became aware of the impact of the COVID19 outbreak on education, my colleague Rebecca Price and I started looking into how we might be able to support students and staff in these times, working with an informal working group of colleagues and students. In this blog series, we share what we have learned so far. One thing that is becoming increasingly clear is that human connections, wellbeing, and education are intrinsically connected, and that such a view can help us shape education that promotes wellbeing.

But before we get to that point, let me first explain what wellbeing in higher education means to me. A couple of years ago, when I worked at the University of Technology Sydney, we had our students work on a wellbeing challenge. We asked students to develop a strategy that would promote student and staff wellbeing in a university context. It was not an easy challenge, but all student groups managed to develop some interesting ideas and while doing so learned about wellbeing. In the final presentations the students presented their results to us and to each other, and I had also invited the director of our student services department. After the students presented their ideas in role-plays, visualisations, stories and PowerPoint presentations, I asked the director of student services what he thought of the presented results. I still remember his answer. He said that he had seen some great ideas, but most of all he had experienced a great feeling of wellbeing in the room and he would love to see more of that in the university. He was right. The students were cheering each other on, there were jokes, there was laughter, there was even some singing and dancing, and you could just feel in the room that everyone was proud of what we had learned and achieved together. This experience illustrates what wellbeing in education for me is all about. Yunkaporta (2019) describes it well in his wonderful book Sand Talk: “if people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy [..]” (p99)

This experience of ‘joyful learning’ is not unique. I have had similar experiences in other places including my current work at the TU Delft Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering, and I hope that if you are studying or teaching in higher education you have come across these moments where you shared this feeling of pride and happiness about what you had learned or were learning.

But unfortunately, the wellbeing of university students and staff is at risk. Over the past years, increasing pressure on performance and competition have given rise to increasing levels of mental health problems such as burnout with both students and academics. The recent outbreak of COVID19 has further threatened our wellbeing. Moving to an online environment, in addition to worries about health, family and financial situations has led to increasing levels of stress and decreasing levels of motivation. And it’s much harder to find those moments where we feel we are all flourishing. Like our dean, Ena Voûte, mentioned in a recent newsletter, she was missing the ‘buzz’ that you often feel when you walk through the faculty building.

The first stage of our work entailed bringing a group of colleagues and interested students together to make sense of this whole new situation. In an immediate response to the crisis, many initiatives had been rolled out by many different people in the university. Academic counsellors got ready for an increasing demand for counseling, both students and staff members started organizing all kinds of virtual social events, online self-care programs for students were being developed etc. To make sense of how we were responding to this crisis as a university I created below image that is based on the IASC intervention pyramid, a model developed by an interagency committee established by the UN that describes how to address mental health and psychosocial aspects of the COVID19 outbreak.

An intervention pyramid to support wellbeing in universities

The top or ‘cure’ level considers specialised support for students and staff with mental health problems. This is the role of expert professionals such as psychologists. Below that, the ‘support’ level is about informal mental health care, such as self-care programs, aimed at supporting those who struggle, and preventing that they develop more severe mental health issues. The third level considers strengthening the university community, within and outside curricula, for example the student associations that have been organising all kinds of online social events. The bottom layer is where wellbeing becomes part of the way we shape education, for example through ‘humanizing online learning’. The model is a pyramid, because we like to keep the tip small and focus on prevention rather than cure. While the top level focuses on the traditional psychology field of diminishing human suffering, we adopt the concept of wellbeing from positive psychology, which focuses on the factors that enable individuals and communities to flourish.

In universities we tend to disconnect services aimed at wellbeing from what we do in education. We have specific staff members that focus on the wellbeing of students (academic counsellors, psychologist), and physical and social wellbeing events are organized outside of curricula (for example in sports and cultural centres). Responding to the psychosocial impacts of the COVID19-outbreak in that way, means ensuring there is adequate mental health support for students and staff and we organize online social events. These support mechanisms are very important, but at the same time we would like to argue that we cannot separate our wellbeing from the way we teach and learn, and that learning, human connection and wellbeing are intrinsically connected.

When we take the perspective that learning, human connection, and wellbeing are interconnected, we get a different perspective on the impact of the COVID19 outbreak on education and wellbeing, and on the responses that we develop to it. The three concepts can be seen as connected as follows:

  • The connection between wellbeing & learning: these concepts are connected because we cannot learn if we are not feeling well, while the way we teach and learn in turn impacts the way we feel. Wellbeing and learning are also intrinsically connected. True learning is a joy.
  • Wellbeing and human connection are related because we feel better when we are connected to other humans (see for example Seligman’s PERMA model). Wellbeing can also be considered a characteristic of a community, not just of an individual. Community wellbeing is about healthy relationships and feeling positive energy in a group or in a room (see this article for an example of how we used that perspective in previous work about the ‘healthy university’)
  • Learning and human connection are interrelated in peer learning and social learning. Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle tells us how we learn in cycles of acting, experiencing, reflecting, and abstracting. Learning tends to be stronger when we (act and) reflect together in peer learning. Social learning means that we learn from observing each other, for example first year students learning from the behaviour of more experienced students.

The interaction between wellbeing, human connection, and learning is exemplified by the story that I started this blog post with. It just feels great when we share our learning. It’s that thing that we might call ‘buzz’ or ‘positive vibe’.

This picture provides a different perspective on what the consequences are of the current pandemic and online education on wellbeing. We see this impact mostly with students who are working on their own. For example, Rebecca conducted a survey amongst design students who were writing their final thesis for their graduation projects, which shows how many are struggling with their motivation and many have real trouble with making decisions. We had taken for granted that even though students have always done their graduation projects ‘alone’, they benefit a lot from the random unorganized interactions with other students in the faculty building, or with colleagues in their graduation companies. It’s in those random interactions in which you have to explain what you are working on and what you struggle with to someone else that you go through small ‘reflection’ cycles that help you advance. And it’s when you see what other students are working on and struggling with that you get inspiration for your own project.

Another group that needs extra attention are the new first year students that will start in September. We will be allowed small groups of students on campus after summer and the university is prioritizing the first year students for on-campus education. We hope that this will help them quickly shape those human connections that are so important for their learning and wellbeing.

So how do we promote this integration between wellbeing, learning and human connection in pandemic education? This does not just mean organizing ‘social events’ separately from education, but to integrate human connection in the way we learn. For example, our colleague Marieke Sonneveld integrated reflection in small groups of students on what it means to be a designer in the COVID19-outbreak in her online classes. And we have planned an online workshop for graduation students to (re)connect them to each other by sharing experiences and strategies to promote wellbeing and motivation. But there are still many things we don’t know. How do we turn online interactions into meaningful human connections? How do we keep each other engaged? Also, the integration of wellbeing, learning and human connection means more than just bringing students together physically. If we get more time with students on campus in the future, we have to think about how we make those connections worthwhile.

A big challenge is that the Dutch Government policy does not allow large groups of students anytime soon on campus. The Dutch university presidents advocate for more time for students on campus, and rightly so. And if we get that time, let’s use the time that we get to the best to optimally benefit from its impact on wellbeing and learning.

So one way of tackling this wellbeing challenge can be found in connecting students in a meaningful way. We have also found that it is essential for teaching and for universities to adapt to connect teachers, which I will explain in my next blog post in which I take a systems perspective on this challenge.

We’d love to hear from others who are trying to promote wellbeing in a higher education context. How have you responded to the COVID19 outbreak impact on wellbeing in your education? Let’s connect!

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Yunkaporta, T. (2019). Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World. UK: The Text Publishing Company.

I'm a researcher, educator, and designer with an interest in systemic design, complexity, transdisciplinarity and public & social innovation - views are my own.

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