Supporting socioeconomically diverse student body to achieve health and educational goals during challenging times
Professor Padmore Adusei Amoah
Research Assistant Professor, School of Graduate Studies, Lingnan University
The various measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly changed everyday life as we knew it. Physical distancing measures, in particular, have meant that drastic changes have been made to individual activities and institutional operations. The case of the educational sector, specifically tertiary institutions, is not different. Suspension of schools, adoption of online study mode, and schools operating below capacity for in-person classes (e.g., truncated contact hours) have been common since the first quarter of 2020 in most countries. While these measures are meant to control the pandemic, studies show that students' psychological wellbeing has been affected because of such measures. The struggle to adjust to the 'new normal' of education alongside the weakening or even breakdown of social activities, which are the essential fabric of school settings, have inured to psychological distress among students. The situation has even been exacerbated by limited knowledge on COVID-19 as well as fear and uncertainties surrounding the pandemic.
Given the above situation, the use of the internet through various platforms for educational activities and health and information have become commonplace and an essential resource for students and the general population. However, a problem arising from reliance on the internet for health information is that without adequate skills and knowledge to search the right sources and use information effectively, the process becomes another source of psychological distress among students. For example, recent research indicates that good skills in online health information seeking have a positive influence on the psychological wellbeing of university students. This is why digital health literacy is considered important in the fight against the pandemic among university students. Sufficient digital health literacy ensures that people can seek and utilise health information online to improve their health and wellbeing. Therefore, the quest of universities to enhance students' wellbeing during the pandemic and capacitating them to adapt to virtual learning must incorporate mechanisms to improve their digital skills and knowledge.
While universities aspire to provide more opportunities for students to improve their digital health literacy skills and related ones for educational purposes, attention must be paid to the heterogeneity of students, especially their socioeconomic characteristics. A recent study among university in Hong Kong and Macao has found that the socioeconomic status of students is critical to their digital health literacy. That study argues that students of high and low socioeconomic status have different needs when it comes to their digital health literacy and how digital health literacy affects their psychological wellbeing. By inference, students' socioeconomic status can also affect their academic performance relative to their digital skills as online platforms are instrumental to learning and other school-based activities.
In the foreseeable future, universities must do more to provide targeted support on digital skills to students with cognisance to their socioeconomic status. Given the potential stigma that some students may feel asking for help on their digital skills and those relating to health literacy, relevant interventions must be designed and presented in ways that encourage students to seek support without concerns about their digital deficiencies being publicised. Also, considering the significant role that socioeconomic status plays in digital health literacy and its relations with the health and wellbeing of students, a big question that we must collaboratively address is how to identify students that require support without violating their privacy? Cues can be taken from Lingnan University's approach to supporting students during the COVID-19 pandemic in areas of health, and education and career development. The approach of leaving students to self-select for various initiatives after providing them with thorough information can help to alleviate the above concerns on privacy.
Note: This piece is based on a recently published collaborative work together with several co-authors