A year of restrictions, health concerns and economic turbulence has taken a heavy toll on emotional wellbeing across all sectors of society.
Data published by the ONS shows that 57% of people in Britain feel their personal well-being has been affected by the pandemic. Anxiety and unhappiness are at similar levels as when the UK first entered national lockdown in March last year. In the same study, two thirds of 16-to-18-year-olds in full-time education say they are concerned that continuing their education at home will negatively affect their life plans.
Little wonder that the mental health charity MIND has warned that we’re living through a mental health emergency. In England alone, the Centre for Mental Health has predicted that up to 10 million people will need new or additional mental health support thanks to the pandemic.
Almost three quarters of students say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their well-being, with almost half having considered leaving their course as a result.
Young people are being hit with a double-whammy of pandemic-induced stress and anxiety, isolation and worries about their future. It’s hardly surprising they want more help.
The path back to normality
With the vaccination roll-out racing ahead and a cautious path back to normality emerging across the different nations of the UK, things are at last, looking up. But thanks to the largely successful adoption of online learning, questions remain over how and where teaching will best be delivered in the future.
The speed with which colleges, universities and students have adapted to remote learning is to be applauded. Being able to study from anywhere offers greater choice and greater flexibility. Online learning itself could hold the keys to better well-being and economic prosperity as we recover from the pandemic.
A study into the online learning habits of 20,000 people in the UK published before the pandemic, found that three quarters of people who learn online say it’s beneficial to their mental health. Nearly a third of the UK working population have used online learning to secure a pay rise, equivalent to £3,640 per year for a 35-hour week.
If physical proximity is no longer an issue, learning can, in theory, be done from anywhere. But if, as largely expected, the future of further education will involve a more wide scale adoption of blended learning, what are the implications for those who don’t have a suitable environment for learning at home?
Lack of quiet space
A lot of the conversation so far has focused on digital exclusion and access to the internet. But limited/no access to the internet and devices are only part of the problem.
A poll carried out by the Office for Students in September last year found almost three quarters of students in England don’t have a quiet space to study at home, with 24 percent saying they were moderately impacted and 22 percent saying they were severely impacted.
UK homes are the smallest in Europe. Even before the pandemic, 50% of homes in the UK were too small to meet the needs of the people who live in them.
For many people, having somewhere quiet and private to study means retreating to the bedroom. Not only is this less than ideal from a physical health standpoint; it’s a disaster for mental health. When people are studying or working and sleeping in the same space, the brain gets confused. It’s hardly surprising that reports of insomnia and sleep disorders are skyrocketing, another cause of stress.
Widening the gap
Recent research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has shown that poorer students in England are up to three grades behind peers who live in more affluent areas. If we ignore the fact that space is an issue, we risk worsening the divide.
The conversation around supporting learners and harnessing the potential of online learning needs to evolve beyond technology and infrastructure. Remote collaboration tools and platforms may be part of the solution, but they cannot tackle every issue.
There needs to be a greater consideration around the individual environments available for studying, accessing and indeed delivering education remotely. It’s not just about internet access and laptops. It’s about ensuring people have access to a quiet, distraction-free environment that promotes focus and concentration. If a suitable environment for studying isn’t available at home, what alternatives are available nearby?
Existing solutions to support studying close to home are not fit for the post-pandemic future, where millions more people will be working, studying and living locally. Over 800 libraries have closed in the UK since 2010. Coffee shops and cafes may form part of the solution, but will themselves be grappling with the post-pandemic operating environment.
To harness the potential of remote learning to unlock potential, boost well-being and contribute to the economic recovery, there needs to be a broader conversation about access to environments that support individual learning. In summary - we need to talk about space.
Luke Aviet co-founder and CEO of Space Republic the creator of Pluto™
Space Republic was founded in 2017; its mission to make space work for people. The company’s Pluto™ pods provide safe, plug-and-play on-demand private workspaces for the new self-employed and work-from-home generation. Space Republic is currently working with Brunel University London to develop the world’s first COVID-secure office pod and workspace.