Can we tackle the student mental health challenge using data analytics?

Author: kate.edser@jisc.ac.uk
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Launched today, a new report commissioned by Jisc, focuses on student mental health, exploring how emerging technology may help students in need

A mental health survey of UK universities (pdf), published March 2019, was a wake-up call for the higher education (HE) sector. Of 37,500 students polled, 50.3% reported self-harm, 87.7% struggle with anxiety, and 75.6% conceal their symptoms from friends.

The picture is no better in further education (FE). In a 2016 Association of Colleges poll, 85% of colleges that responded said the number of students with disclosed mental health difficulties had increased in the past three years.

Developing responsive technology

The Horizons report, which launched today at Jisc’s Digifest event, provides welcome insights and suggestions. Outlining strategic challenges facing UK universities and colleges, from finance to cyber security, Horizons also addresses the mental health challenge in detail, offering suggestions for how technology may help better support students and staff.

Technology is already playing a role in the wellbeing agenda. Learning analytics are increasingly being used to support students, identifying those at risk and enabling early intervention.

At Nottingham Trent University, for example, a dashboard generates an alert if a student doesn’t engage for 14 consecutive days, allowing tutors to follow up. The University of Greenwich, meanwhile, is expanding its learning analytics system to cover mental wellbeing. And Jisc’s learning analytics service, which went live in August 2018 and currently has 26 institutions subscribed, is exploring applications around student mental health and wellbeing, which are key to its next phase of development.

Online support services and apps provide further examples of technology’s role in supporting students’ wellbeing. Brad Forsyth is an undergraduate at Ravensbourne University London. He helped author the Horizons report.

“With the pressure of keeping up with social media where people portray their ‘best lives’, technology doesn’t always impact positively on young people’s mental health,”

he comments.

“Despite this, the positives technology has brought are incredible and ever-improving. We now have access to doctors 24 hours a day via apps, and there are awareness websites for mental health that allow students to easily find details for organisations or just have a chat with someone online. Universities are gradually doing more.”

Do chatbots have the answer?

Chatbots are now entering this space too. Bolton College’s chatbot, Ada, is able to answer high numbers of ‘mundane’ enquiries, freeing up staff time by responding to questions around timetabling, for example, or directing students to their classroom. Ada’s developer, ILT manager Aftab Hussain, explains: 

“If a student is struggling with stress or self-harm, the chatbot service will respond with links to appropriate online information and the contact details for the college’s mental health team. We are also improving the service so that our mental health unit is automatically notified when students are seeking further advice and support on these matters.”

Meanwhile, at Leeds Beckett University, the chatbot Becky cost just £30 to develop as a support for clearing, based on research that the target audience is largely uncomfortable talking to universities on the phone.

A humans-first approach

The Horizons report predicts that the role and potential for technology to help tackle mental health issues will grow. Chris Warrington, head of student support at the University of Leeds, says:

“We need to diversify our offer around student wellbeing and how we enable students to feel at home and part of the university.

“As new modes of learning develop, we need to understand how students might respond and use technology in new and different ways. Although there is value in using analytics to respond reactively to provide support – if a student isn’t attending, for example – we need to go further and put the technology in the students’ hands, so they can use data about themselves to understand how they are learning.

“Digital wellbeing is a key concern and some devices now have built-in tools to help keep track of how much users are accessing social media. Universities – and schools before universities – can play a part in raising awareness of social media use through helping students and guiding them. That feels like a theme that joins the work of Jisc and the Horizons group with the broader landscape of student experience.”

Crucially, it’s people – not technology – that must be at the centre.

“Meaningful support comes from human beings,”

stresses Phil Richards, chief innovation officer at Jisc,

“but there are indications that technology, such as learning analytics, can help to identify mental health issues early on. Used wisely, this can help colleges and universities understand their students’ problems and offer timely support.”

Collaboration is key

Collaboration will also be crucial to supporting students in the future. Phil Richards explains;

“Data could be shared between schools, colleges and universities, and across services from healthcare to accommodation, to provide a more comprehensive approach that follows students throughout their education.”

Collaboration is the spirit in which the Horizons report has been written and researched, bringing representatives from 30 national sector bodies, government, universities and colleges, and industry together to form the Horizons group. The group is united in its aim to predict the education challenges of the future and tackle them using technology.

“It’s encouraging to see the dedication from across the sector aimed at better understanding and supporting students who suffer with ill mental health,”

comments Gwyneth Sweatman, NUS Wales president.

“I welcome this report and deeply value the potential impact of emerging technologies in this area”. 

Yet, while positive steps are being taken, Brad concludes with a note of caution:

“There is still a long way to go,” the student stresses. “The system cannot keep up with the number of sufferers, but the awareness and support that is vital to improving mental health is moving in the right direction. Now the funding needs to keep pace, too.” 

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