Glencora Borradaile






         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

February 29, 2012

Student depression, large classes and online classes

Last quarter, three students I was teaching spoke with me about their depression.  Three of the 160 or so students I was teaching. This was the first time a student had spoken with me about their mental health.  I was happy that these students felt that they could approach me.  I was uncertain of what to say, beyond what I would say to a friend in the same situation.  I was happy that these students assured me they had people (professional or not) to speak with. I was worried about the 157 other students.  How many of them were struggling with depression and distress?  These students who approached me were probably more likely to be seeking counselling – if they were comfortable speaking with me about their problems, they probably were alright with speaking to others.

However, most may not be.  As classes get bigger and move online, the sense of community at a university will degrade.  I won’t know my students.  They won’t know me.  They may not even know their fellow students.  Is this an advised model of education for our youth as they become adults?

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6 Comments

  1.   Ashwin Rao — February 29, 2012 @ 8:53 am    

    I would like to share two points.

    1) Me and my professor were on the receiving end of a suicide threat when I was a TA. The problem is that the student had come with an unrealistic expectation of living in paradise once admitted to a top university. The fact that getting admitted was the first step in a long journey was forgotten. The shattering of the unrealistic expectations after looking at the work to be done got the student depressed.

    2) I believe that the class strengths in India will give you an glimpse on what to expect and how to approach this problem. The increase in class strengths is a reality and will have to be addressed by all the leading universities. In India I went to a school where I shared the class with 40 to 60 student. During high school I shared the class with 100 to 110 students. I then did my engineering (under-graduate studies) where class strength was at least 100 students. During my grauduate studies depending on the courses I took the class strength varied from 15 to 90 students. I guess these numbers might give an idea of what to expect. I would like to share that up to my graduate studies I could not interact with “any” of my professors. I was lucky in finding friends with whom I could learn the subjects. There were no video lectures then and we had a lot of help from our seniors.

  2.   Chip Klostermeyer — February 29, 2012 @ 8:15 pm    

    What a sensitive and sensible post. I wish all those involved in the push to move us to become online certification mills could read it. I may pass the link along …

    •   Glencora Borradaile — February 29, 2012 @ 8:17 pm    

      Thank you. And feel free to pass along. (There will probably be more posts in this vein in the near future.)

  3.   Shannon L. — March 16, 2012 @ 9:15 am    

    Online education can be really beneficial for some students and shouldn’t be viewed as inferior to face-to-face education. Online education serves students who have different learning styles from those emphasized in face-to-face education. Students with social anxiety, for example, may be able to communicate more effectively than they can in a traditional classroom setting. Many students feel insecure expressing themselves verbally but may find that they excel in an online setting where they have more opportunities to share their ideas in writing.

    I also believe online distance education has the potential to maintain community for many students. When it is well planned, online education can effectively serve students from remote communities. There are some good case studies of this in Canada where distance education reaches remote Indigenous communities. Online distance education allows students to learn without having to leave their families, local services and support networks.

    I think it’s great that you’re thinking and talking about mental health in higher education as there is so much silence around this issue on college and university campuses. I hope this post generates a good discussion about how academic environments can better support the mental health of faculty, staff and students. It might be worthwhile keeping tabs on Queen’s University in Canada where some high profile suicides of students have led that university to start a Mental Health Working Group, launch a Principal’s Commission on Mental Health, and participate in The Jack Project, an organization dedicated to helping youth achieve optimum mental health.

  4.   Sydney counsellor — March 31, 2012 @ 7:12 am    

    You raise a very important issue here. How can we keep a sense of community in our classrooms, even when so much education is moving online?

    I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think it’s essential that the dialogue about the mental health of students is one we continue to have. We need to have quality support services in place that are easy for students to access- online and offline.

    Thank you for raising this important issue.

  5.   John — April 25, 2012 @ 11:17 am    

    Yes, it’s an advised model. It means cheaper education for students. They can finally get degrees without going $25,000 into debt to enter a job market that, if they *can* get a job, pays them minimum wage.

    Worst-case, they could go into a job market paying minimum wage without $25k in debt.

    Isn’t that a better, advisable situation to be in than the former? They’re probably all depressed because they know how much their education is costing them and what their opportunities really look like in the job market, but they don’t know what else to do because it’s all they’ve ever been told to do.

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