Banani Debnath: Researching "student well-being" in COVID Times
Learning during the COVID-19 period from “lock-down” in March 2020 and two years forward, has transformed higher education, and it has done so worldwide. This new sense of emergent change led universities around the world and their stakeholders to seek transformation into a “new normal” – which in one sense is a different word for “blended learning”. As a result, this blending of face-to-face and online learning interactions resulted in trials and errors during this extraordinary period, representing also a future challenge: How much do we know about the student perspective on this transformative challenge and change? What challenges are we facing after COVID-19 concerning student well-being in a blended learning environment?
My participation in the project “Boost Edu” entailed reviews of literature in academic journals. Boos Edu is financed by the Erasmus+ framework, as a collaboration between Norway, Iceland, Czech Republic, and Romania. Within this project, the Norwegian part of it at UiA, also introduced a “student learning lab” in order to engage with students through workshops, discussion forums and many other similar approaches.
My enrolment as a research assistant in the Future Learning Lab at UiA, was part of this Student learning lab set up through the Boost Edu project. My role in the project was to sift through a large body of research literature, as detailed below:
I went through scholarly literature pertaining to the theme of “student well-being" in a period starting January 2020 until December 2021. Using Google Scholar as main source, I went through journals such as Science direct, BMC Psychol, PLoS ONE, Current Psychology, BioRxiv, Health Education, Frontiers, Front Edu, Educational Psychology, Journal of Further and Higher Education, Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice and many more. These online databases of the past one year represented a total of about 300 articles, from which I chose to emphasize about 150 in a structured overview of titles, themes, and abstracts. The literature review is focused on identifying global trends of research, concerned with student well-being from a range of different fields and perspectives, with the intent to develop the empirical material into a publishable research paper.
I have worked on similar themes and academic materials as master’s student at the Global development and planning department, especially in my MA thesis. The literature developed for this Student in Research project is not the same, however. In addition, I have attended a hybrid course at UiA that in one sense was life-transforming experience. Before the pandemic, the format of this course was face-to-face, and it occurred at the beginning of the MA study period. Most students in the program were following the courses through distance learning. Canvas and Inspera were the digital platforms used to submit the research-based assignments and online discussions. The study format and activities worked well for me and my fellow classmates. However, the psychological experience during this chaotic period was stressful. This eventually led me to explore the transformation of higher education as topic for my master’s thesis related research.
Especially, during the master thesis the emerging digital culture in higher education was my primary focus and how multiple disciplinary perspective were affected. When summarised the phenomena of the digital transition, interpreted that student are ultimate stakeholders and their well-being is connected to this shift. The transition was resulting students to develop digital competency, facing camera profoundly and moreover to understand data security and privacy protocols. At the same time, the online oral and written examination for the students from non-hybrid courses were difficult. Although the academic engagement was happening, students and staff all emphasised the need for a psychical classroom experience added to the online one. This experience illustrates how physical contact in the “real world” is an important part of student everyday life, and how higher education plays an integral role in achieving social goals through academic engagement activities.
In general, the COVID-19 digital transformation expressed in sampled articles seemed to show a general lack of- and perspective on socially inclusive components. As the year ascended, the more pronounced the student well-being perspective became.
During this project reviewing literature, I had regular discussions with professor Oddgeir Tveiten at the Faculty of social sciences, seeking to contextualize and understand the commonalities in the articles as well as the more generic meaning of the term “student well-being". The topic itself has lot of potential for subdivisions in higher education, where tracking particular research fields in a sense is tempting but not necessarily the best approach. There is a considerable number of subfield and sub-discourses that addressed the issue of student well-being, directly or indirectly. As a result, identifying discourses and approaches to the student well-being theme was a significant challenge. However, Insights from MA-project research was helpful.
Naturally, the project implied an understanding of the contextual meanings of the term “student well-being" and the numerous factors relating to student engagement. In general, the literature within a single year is substantial. Moreover, parsing quantitative and qualitative studies is also a challenge, not the least in terms of genres and formats in the research journals. How does one must “measure” student well-being? Multidisciplinary aspects and geographical inferences were also identified as essential to a more deeply penetrating study in the future. A future study should pay critical attention to the diversity and complexity of higher education world-wide, as a background for researching student responses and perspectives on the issue of COVID-19.
The lifecycle and intensity of COVID-19 was the base of this study. The on-and-off requirement for physical presence at UiA during the academic year 2020-2021 raised new awareness concerning blended learning and approaches to it. The code of conduct for the courses during the pandemic was fluctuating due to the intensity of COVID-19, governmental policies on lockdown rules. At the initial stage of the corona pandemic there was complete lockdown and as the vaccination proceeded, the education inherited towards blended theme caused due to governmental regulations. Some universities and certain courses were able to cope with the blended format while other universities struggled to provide virtual education. It was due to the variations and compatibility of the online technology, tools, and infrastructure of the universities. Moreover, the courses which included field activities like sports or social work; practical learning set ups such as nursing or social work; and laboratory-based music, science or arts education were suffered the most.
It seemed, on one hand the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the old notion of higher education, meanwhile the new potentialities surfaced leading to the transition. Student well-being is a vast and complex concern, based on the interconnection of physical and mental welfare. The COVID-19 situation created on the one hand a sense of insecurity and lack of motivation due to self-isolation. At the same time, it also provided some with a means of justifying self-imposed isolation. One should note that not everyone wished for a return to campus. On the contrary, the perspective is quite complex, which is in a sense a main learning outcome from having reviewed these research articles.
One of the prominent recognizable factors were ‘zoom burnout’, due to monotonous online session and with a lack of online engagement. Another factor worth mentioning in this summary is the importance of students having a sense of belonging at their universities. As a result, many universities clearly started to pay close attention to “resilience,” which is also seen as a discursive theme in this body of literature. The issue of social inclusivism is another key theme which I found in this literature, across the variety of fields and perspectives surveyed.
Students’ demographics from developed to developing countries is yet another marker, in terms of functionality and decision-making of HEIs during the Corona lock-down period. Some universities seemed to have transformed rapidly, due to the available digital infrastructure while others struggled due to lack of amenities and adequate policy framework.
The chance to do this student in research project offered me an opportunity to go deeper into academic resources that on the one hand triggered me as someone taking courses, and on the other hand made me choose these themes for my MA thesis. Reading and reviewing materials across many fields, even within a brief time span of one year, results in a wealth of ideas and perspectives on which to keep building. As someone who is studying in Norway but come from another part of the world, there are comparisons to be made here which I plan to pursue further.