This blog was kindly contributed by Mary Curnock Cook who chairs the Advisory Board for the Student Room’s development project and the university pilots.
Worries about students’ mental health and wellbeing are seldom far from the news and the higher education sector is taking seriously what seems to be a spiralling increase in low wellbeing and poor mental health. Now, three universities are piloting a technology-driven approach to tackling the problem.
Back in 2017, Universities UK (UUK) published its #stepchange initiative urging HE leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic imperative. Students’ mental health charity Student Minds has developed its respected role in student agency in this area also to focus on supporting institutions to deliver a ‘whole university’ approach to mental health. More recently the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) was funded by UK Research and Innovation to focus on how the higher education sector can better understand student mental health. The Office for Students ran a challenge competition to encourage universities to find new ways of combating the rise in student mental health issues. And recently the Office for Students announced plans to explore new National Student Survey survey questions around student mental health and wellbeing.
Universities across the UK are developing strategies to respond including the Universities of East Anglia, Exeter and Sussex who have collaborated with The Student Room to develop an innovative app/dashboard platform which plays to the idea that a powerful way to support students’ mental health would be to reach them where they are most active – on their phones.
In 2018, The Student Room itself had responded to a shocking 850 alerts on its forum for potential serious self-harm using its now well-rehearsed extreme distress response mechanisms. This prompted the organisation to think more deeply about how it could do more than just react and at the beginning of 2019, the new platform concept was piloted at UEA, Exeter and Sussex.
The underlying premise was simple – feed regular questions (five per week) to students, focused on their engagement with their course and their wellbeing or otherwise, and give them a space to express any problems or anxieties which could be addressed immediately with relevant information, and signposting to support services. The app also provided a simple way for students to post suggestions that could improve their experience and these could be up or down-voted by their peers. The back-end of the platform is a dashboard for universities and student unions to see and respond to suggestions, as well as receiving a live update of student engagement and wellbeing scores across different courses, cohorts and socio-demographic groups. Students using the app were anonymous and the platform automatically suppresses information that involves five or fewer students in order to protect anonymity.
It was an experiment, but one which was supported by the pilot universities through the development stages and in planning the launch to limited groups of students between February and May this year. Over the 20-week pilot, 1800 students registered on the app answering a total of 147,000 the questions or statements using a positive to negative ‘slider’ and with a less than 1% skip rate. Interesting insights emerged. For the questions centred around ‘Learning Experience’ the lowest scoring question across the whole pilot was “I keep in contact with my personal tutor” while “I’m determined to complete my course” was the highest scoring. For the wellbeing questions, the lowest score was for “I know which uni staff to speak to if I have money worries” and the highest was “I have people in my life that I care about”. In the ‘feeling connected’ series of questions, the lowest scoring statement was “teaching staff show an interest in me as an individual” while the highest was “I feel safe on campus”. This was live actionable information and responses to each question or statement could be analysed and presented to university staff on the dashboard.
Data in the dashboard showed that students in one school had a lower ‘learning experience’ score than students in another school in the same faculty. This evidence contributed to a decision to award more credits to a module in recognition of the higher workload expectation.
Perhaps more surprising than the active response to the questions, and the feed of articles and advice, was the engagement with the ‘ideas’ function – over 2300 ideas were submitted and voted on by users during the pilot. While some were rejected as ‘unreasonable’ and were arguably submitted in jest (“I’m sure the Uni has enough money to knock up another nightclub”), other ideas were serious and valuable. Top scoring ideas through the pilot featured requests to record lectures, reduce sports fees, provide more water fountains, fund mental health services and provide for blood donation on campus. These might sound familiar to many in the sector but there were plenty more that led to direct action. Disabled students at one university were showing poorer wellbeing associated with a low ‘managing money’ score. Coupled with ideas submitted through the app, the university recognised the frustration that disabled students were having to pay for car-parking while non-disabled students were benefiting from the cheaper park-and-ride service. Free car-parking for disabled students was implemented.
Student Unions liked the platform too. As one SU welfare officer put it, “it’s been really useful. It can be difficult trying to measure student satisfaction with email questionnaires. This new approach is great because it’s instant and constantly being updated. Between us, the student union and university we can work to address issues in real-time.” There was also a general enthusiasm from student reps for having visibility of the wider range of concerns and ideas surfaced through the app and working with university staff to respond.
As well as using and benefiting from the app themselves, students also became active champions with distinct groups of ‘super-users’ springing up during the pilot. These advocates actively promoted the app to other students on campus (36% of users were through existing user referrals) and wrote popular pieces for the feed articles – “keep calm and study on: tips to improve your grades” was one popular title. The app community itself appeared to foster greater student engagement. As one student put it, “the app is a good tool to get students talking to the university, because how the app works means that those less confident to bring any ideas or issues up directly, they can do so with a sense of anonymity and also gain support from fellow students, creating a sense of community”.
Building on the #stepchange framework, the continued development work and larger scale pilots will consider integration with universities’ learning analytics platforms, including as part of one of the Office for Students mental health challenge projects alongside Northumbria University and Universities UK. Improved algorithms and analytics within the platform will start to provide sophisticated metrics about student engagement and wellbeing and research projects will track whether using technology in this way can go further than measuring and might also be a tool to improve student wellbeing and engagement.
While there is still much to learn, these pilots have demonstrated that tech can play a role in sensitive areas such as wellbeing and mental health. This year’s expanded pilots and roll-outs will test the approach at scale with undergraduate students.