Assessing the impact of Virtual Learning Environments in higher education on student and staff mental well-being

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Psychology


The use of digital technologies as teaching and learning tools
has grown rapidly in Higher Education with all universities
using online platforms called Virtual Learning Environments.
Online platforms typically provide resources, reading lists,
activities, chat forums and lectures recordings. Universities
are striving to increase use of such platforms. Two key
assumptions underpin this i) students and staff are
comfortable in digital environments, and ii) students
appreciate the flexibility of this type of education which gives
24/7 educational provision. These assumptions are untested.
It is possible that rather than being beneficial, increased
digital education is detrimental. For example, there is
emerging evidence that both staff and students have lower
levels of digital skills than original believed, which may mean
their comfort in working within digital environments has been
overestimated (e.g. Beetham and White, 2013). Increased
reliance on Virtual Learning Environments may contribute to
a greater loneliness among students and the 24/7 provision
may leave students feeling that they should be working
longer hours, adding pressure for them. Both effects could
be damaging to mental health. These effects may also be
found in academic staff.
Student and staff mental health difficulties are increasing.
Student mental health has been identified as a significant
concern amongst key stakeholders. A recent large scale
international study, identified that 31% of students screened
positive for at least one common mental health disorder in
the past year (Auerbach et al., 2018). Student service
providers are reporting a substantive increase in demand for
counselling services (Williams et al., 2015). There are
frequent reports from students of loneliness (Richardson et
al., 2015, Byrom, 2014) and feeling under pressure to do well
academically (Piper and Byrom, 2017; Thorley, 2017).
Although less researched, there is evidence of increasing
mental health problems in academic staff, with many
reported as being at risk of burnout (Watts and Robertson,
2010). A recent survey found that 43% of academic staff
exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder; this is
almost twice the figure for the general population
(Gorczynski et al., 2017).


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Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2317404 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2022 Katie Rakow