One quarter of first-year university students in Canada self-declare that they have a disability. Among those, mental-health-related disabilities are the most common. Each year, more students with self-declared mental-health issues enroll in post-secondary institutions.
At the same time in Canada, more students are taking online courses, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For students with disabilities, online learning might be the best option to pursue post-secondary education.
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My doctoral research explored various influences that affect learning for post-secondary students with mental-health-related disabilities who are studying online, drawing on the perspectives of students, instructors and student support staff.
Course work is central to student experience
To get a picture of the range of influences on learning, I categorized influences on learning as individual (for example, experiencing symptoms of mental illness), inter-personal (relationships with instructors and peers) and institutional (factors like accessibility of course content and student services).
My study findings suggest online learning spaces ought to be inclusive and accessible, and that they can be key locations for promoting mental health for students.
While the post-secondary experience is not all about course work, completing assignments, writing exams and attending lectures is a big part of students’ daily lives.
This makes academic courses prime forums where instructors can promote mental health by sharing mental health resources (providing information about student mental health services) and by designing accessible and flexible courses.
Universities’ commitments to well-being
There are many opportunities to make post-secondary institutions more accessible, inclusive and health promoting.
What’s known as the Okanagan Charter is an international charter that outlines language, principles and framework that post-secondary institutions should use to promote health and well-being. Forty-four Canadian post-secondary institutions have taken up aspects of this charter as part of the Canadian Health Promoting Campuses Network.
Simon Fraser University, for example, has areas for action for promoting mental health including:
promoting well-being in physical spaces with a focus on factors such as air quality, ventilation and moveable furniture;
helping instructors promote well-being in learning environments, for example through a resource library which allows instructors to discover “helpful activities, teaching practices and other methods shared by SFU faculty and instructional staff to bring conditions for well-being to life” in the courses or educational activities they lead;
providing a policy framework to embed health promotion in all policies and procedures by identifying guiding values like social connectedness, reducing undue stress and inclusivity.
What students want
Students in my study were asked: “What advice would you give to your professors/instructors (teaching online courses) to facilitate inclusive and supportive learning environments for students with mental-health-related disorders?” Students suggested the following:
1) Use elements of universal design for learning to provide accessibility for all students while also promoting mental health. For example, recording lectures can improve student engagement by being concerned with maximizing student autonomy and individual choice while offering multiple ways to access course material and reduce stress. Students said:
“Online learning has been wonderful for my mental health. It has allowed me to work around periods of time that I have had major mood issues. If I’m feeling really down one day, since things are recorded, I can just go back when I’m feeling better and actually attend the class.”
“When you’re at a point in which you just cannot pull yourself out of the house or go to class, having a recorded class that you can go over is extremely helpful.”
2) When possible, offer flexible due dates for assignments for all students. Having to ask for extensions can be difficult for students who are already experiencing the negative effects of mental-health-related stigma.
3) Students consistently said they are juggling multiple priorities (academics, jobs and family) and managing stress with varied levels of support. They wanted instructors to know that inevitably, there will be times when they need support and they would like compassion from instructors. They want instructors to understand their need for flexibility doesn’t mean lack of a work ethic.
4) Learn about mental health literacy. Learning about common mental illnesses and how mental health affects learning will help instructors use teaching methods that centre flexibility and accessibility.
Setting the stage for wellness
The results of this study suggest that online courses can be designed to be accessible and to promote mental health.
With growing numbers of students studying online, many of whom have mental-health-related disabilities, it is critical that educators integrate accessibility and mental-health promotion into course design. Courses that are designed to be accessible and to promote mental health set the stage for learning and wellness.
As the shift toward online teaching and learning continues, educators must understand the range of influences on learning for students with mental-health-related disabilities to provide equitable and accessible learning environments where all students can reach their academic goals.
Natalie M Frandsen received Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funding for her doctoral research.