COVID | Free Full-Text | Scoping Review of Self-Directed Online Learning, Public School Students’ Mental Health, and COVID-19 in Noting Positive Psychosocial Outcomes with Self-Initiated Learning

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COVID | Free Full-Text | Scoping Review of Self-Directed Online Learning, Public School Students’ Mental Health, and COVID-19 in Noting Positive Psychosocial Outcomes with Self-Initiated Learning


1. Introduction

The America Medical Association has classified negative mental health in children and adolescents as a global crisis [1]. The World Health Organization Special Initiative for Mental Health (2019–2023): Universal Health Coverage for Mental Health cites suicide as the leading cause of death in young people [2]. Concurrently, it has been noted that the highest achievers in standardized school settings are at the greatest risk for negative mental health [3], a phenomenon well-known in the scientific literature [4]. Furthermore, school dropouts with poor academic performance are found at risk for major depressive symptoms upon reaching adulthood, considered a result of their previous poor academic performance in school [5]. As such, in this children’s mental health crisis, standardized learning must be recognized as having a direct and lasting negative mental health effect on both the most and least academically inclined students in public schools.
Public schools are government-sponsored common schools open to all students, aiming to stabilize and reproduce public social values with the intention of guiding individual psychological development from one generation to the next [6] through a standardized method of learning [7] intended to sort students into those expected to maintain the accepted psychosocial belief system and those anticipated to develop psychosocial deviance [8]. As such, standardized educational assessment is designed to reliably discriminate among students concerning the knowledge, skills, and abilities assessed [9] in relation to accepted psychosocial standards. In this way, the stability of school structure has assumed that students will adjust to the desired standardized methods of school over time [10] (p. 35), rather than recognize that different approaches are needed for different students [11].
Standardized learning is students adopting, believing in, and following the “curricula of initiation” for a particular society, the meaning of which in public schools is set by a ministry of education where these curricula of initiation cannot be modified by the teacher, the pupils, or their parents—no individualized instruction is permitted [12]. Learning is standardized when students are directed to learn in relation to the content of particular tests [13]. Learning is then judged as a percentage of how several questions students correctly answer on such tests. Given that the curricula of initiation cannot be changed by teachers, pupils, or parents, standardized learning identifies with indoctrination. Indoctrination means “infiltrating (drilling, inculcating, etc.) concepts, beliefs and theories into a student’s mind”. This is done by bypassing the student’s “free and critical determination” [14]. Indoctrination leads to state-controlled outcomes in social and political change with severe penalties for transgression [15]. As such, standardized learning promotes negative mental health in students [16].
During the COVID-19 pandemic, public schools underwent significant change [17]. Identified as a pandemic on 11 March 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) [18], on 4 May 2023, The Emergency Committee on COVID-19 met and issued a statement on 5 May 2023 in which COVID-19 was downgraded by the WHO as an established and ongoing health issue which no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern [19]. During the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools throughout the world were forced to contend with limitations to standardized program delivery that often included full school closure, necessitating an immediate and complete transition to online learning [20]. Defined as internet-delivered education [21], online learning was a necessary change, including in areas in the world where online learning was underdeveloped [22]. Teachers had to quickly establish online teaching skills [23] and students were expected to adjust to learning that was primarily self-directed [24,25,26].
Self-directed learning is defined as the ability to learn on one’s own [27] (p. 17). Self-directed learning in public school students became particularly important regarding various psychosocial factors following the shift from teacher-centered classrooms to learner-centered approaches with online learning during COVID-19 [28]. With respect to online learning, self-directed learning has been recognized to have a strong correlation with academic achievement when the learning is self-initiated [29]. A significant relationship has been demonstrated among digital literacy competence, academic performance, and self-directed learning readiness [30]. Unlike high academic achievement through standardized learning, high academic performance with student-initiated self-directed learning during COVID-19 was found to produce positive psychosocial outcomes [31,32]. However, for those students who did not self-initiate their self-directed learning and did not exhibit self-directed learning readiness, the effect of self-directed learning during COVID-19 has been found to be detrimental [33].
Positive psychosocial outcomes in students are necessary for the current mental health crisis in children to be alleviated [34]. According to transactional theory and research on emotions and coping concerning psychological stress, short-term outcomes represent emotions during and immediately after an encounter, and long-term outcomes involve subjective well-being, social functioning, and somatic health [35,36]. Although short-term emotional outcomes may, when stable, contribute to long-term outcomes [35] (p. 160), it is the long-term positive psychosocial outcomes that are of concern regarding the mental health crisis. As such, positive psychosocial outcomes in association with public schools are those that reduce anxiety, increase resilience, improve well-being, and increase positive mental health in students [37]. In this regard, successful self-initiated self-directed learning represents a problem-focused form of coping especially responsive to contextual factors while the relaxation of parents’ expectations concerning the maintenance of standardized expectations is, in contrast, a form of emotion-focused coping influenced by factors relevant to persons [35]. From this perspective, an individual’s appraisal of the situation greatly influences their resulting emotions, coping strategies, and subsequent outcomes [36].
In relation to COVID-19, online learning in association with self-directed learning became a tried and accepted option for public schools that has become a potentially sustainable feature of these schools [38]. This is important, as self-initiated self-directed learning has been found able to promote positive psychosocial outcomes unachievable through standardized learning in public school settings [39]. Yet, there are problems associated with self-directed learning, particularly regarding parental expectations concerning continued standardization of learning [28,40], that can decrease students’ school success and mental health if such challenges are not recognized and accommodated.

The purpose of this study is to highlight the results of a scoping review of relevant articles concerning self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health regarding public school students during COVID-19 to determine if these articles took into consideration the importance of self-initiation in learning and reduced parental demand that learning be standardized. More generally, the question is, what was the effect of self-directed online learning on the mental health of public school students during the COVID-19-imposed, in-person learning restrictions? Following an evaluation of the returned articles concerning this question, it will be considered in what way self-initiated self-directed learning and reduced parental concern regarding standardized learning might be put into perspective so that the result is an appropriate use of self-directed learning in online learning for the improved mental health of public school students that will lead to positive psychosocial outcomes.

This study is valuable because it is the first scoping review of its kind to evaluate the results of self-directed online learning of public school students with respect to mental health during COVID-19, especially in relation to self-initiation of learning and reduced expectations of parents regarding standardization of their children’s learning. It is important because self-directed learning, if self-initiated and unhampered by standardized expectations by parents, has been found able to promote positive mental health in students, leading to positive psychosocial outcomes, unlike what is found with the standardized learning of public schooling. The conclusion is difficulties that have been recognized regarding self-directed learning in public schooling are ones that relate to the perspective taken by researchers regarding the relationship among self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health in public schools. These perspectives can be redirected and difficulties overcome if the focus of research is self-initiation of self-directed learning unimpeded by parental expectations dependent on standardized learning.

2. Materials and Methods

The materials to be gathered and methods used follow the identification of studies via databases and registers. The process begins with an identification of the records and registers, removing duplicates, ineligible records marked by the automation tools, those records not in English, and those that are not peer reviewed. The process continues with the records screened, excluding those fundamentally irrelevant, i.e., those lacking public schools, students, or COVID-19 as keywords, leaving the reports that were sought for retrieval—eliminating those that were unable to be retrieved. The resulting reports were assessed for eligibility, excluding those lacking the keywords specific to the undertaking: self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health. This process resulted in the studies included in the review—all of which represented the reports of the included studies. Positive and negative responses with respect to self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health are then recorded. The resulting included materials are then scrutinized concerning whether they consider the role of either self-initiation of self-directed learning or the role of parental expectations concerning maintaining standardization of their children’s online learning. A preferred reporting item for the systematic review and meta-analyses (PRISMA) flow of information diagram specific to scoping reviews was developed. The PRISMA diagram represented in Figure 1 is based on the most recent PRISMA template [41]. Figure 1 follows the flow of exclusion and inclusion criteria conducted over the three days. As well, the PRISMA Scoping Review Checklist is included in a supplementary file (Table S1) outlining the process undertaken in this article.
As this scoping review concerns a COVID-19 investigation, the requirements of the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (PROSPERO) are relevant. In accordance with the content of the video attached to the requirements webpage of PROSPERO concerning accessing and completing the registration form, this study represents a scoping review defined as “a type of knowledge synthesis that follows a systematic approach to map evidence on a particular topic” [42]. In meeting the definition of a scoping review, this review is not a systematic review. In contrast to a scoping review, a systematic review is a “comprehensive, in-depth analysis of research conducted on a particular question designed to inform clinical practice and policy decisions. The review should be a planned, methodical project that aims to uncover all relevant research via a systematic search, analysis and synthesis of results” [43]. As a scoping review rather than a systematic review, following the instructions provided, registration with PROSPERO is not required.
The collection of the materials of this study began with a Google Scholar search on 30 May 2023 with the following parameter inclusive of five keywords: “self-directed learning, online learning, mental health, public schools, and COVID-19”. Google Scholar was chosen for the search as a 2019 study of twelve academic search engines found it the most comprehensive academic search engine [44]. This was additionally reconfirmed with 2023 research [45]. However, in 2020 [46], Google Scholar was evaluated as unsuitable for primary review searches, considering it a supplementary source of evidence. The reason noted is that Google Search does not deliver reproducible results at all times. On the other hand, this same 2020 review continued to acknowledge Google Scholar as the most comprehensive database used by the majority of academics, regardless of its low precision and lack of support for several of the features of systematic searches.

To increase the reach and acceptability of the scope, a 28 June 2023 search was conducted of PubMed, Scopus, Web of Science, and ProQuest using the same parameter as the 30 May 2023 search of Google Scholar. These databases were chosen among others as their entries include both research related to health and that concerning public schools. Upon conducting the searches of each of the databases, it became evident the ProQuest 28 June 2023 search (which returned 691 results for “self-directed learning, online learning, mental health, public schools, COVID-19”) consisted primarily of returns related to online learning for other than public school students. Consequently, the ProQuest search was adjusted to “k-12 online learning” rather than “online learning” on 29 June 2023, which returned 51 results.

The methods used in developing the materials included, firstly, searching Google Scholar until its page of ten separate results did not return at least one article with each keyword in the parameter. On 30 May 2023, 11 pages of returns were required to meet this criterion, with 110 distinct entries. The entries were then copied to a Word document to search for duplicates. None were found. As well, there were no records marked as ineligible by automation tools. Following, a tab for each of the 11 pages of the search was created in the Safari browser. The returns were checked for the English language by skimming the abstracts. Concurrently, noting if the publication was in a peer-reviewed journal. There were 3 articles in languages other than English and 17 published in non-peer-reviewed journals, completing the screening portion of the Google Scholar search, leaving 90 articles. Eligibility was determined by reading each abstract to identify if any of the words public schools, students, or COVID-19 were missing from the article. A total of 53 did not include public schools, 2 did not mention students, and none lacked mention of COVID-19, leaving 36 eligible articles from the Google Scholar portion of the search. These remaining articles were further assessed for mention of self-directed learning, online learning, or mental health. This assessment was done by conducting an individual word search for each of the three terms in the remaining articles. There was 1 article that did not mention self-directed learning, 1 that did not refer to online learning, and 12 that lacked discussion of mental health. This left 21 articles from the Google Scholar portion of the search for the final assessment.

Regarding these final 21 articles to be appraised from the Google Scholar search, each was then scrutinized regarding whether the article had a positive or a negative point of view concerning any of self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health. This involved a search for these terms in every one of the articles and identifying the content regarding the terms. The positive responses were 9 for self-directed learning, 9 related to online learning, and 6 concerning mental health. In contrast, the negative responses were 12 regarding self-directed learning, 12 for online learning, and 15 with respect to mental health.

On 28 June 2023, similar methods used to those of the Google Scholar search were followed in relation to creating the materials searched for each of PubMed, Scopus, and Web of Science, in that order. The result was that there were 2 articles returned for PubMed, 0 for Scopus, and one for Web of Science. There were no registers that were searched. The 2 PubMed results were excluded as both concerned post-secondary learning. The Web of Science return passed all tests regarding eligibility that had been undertaken for the Google Scholar search the month before and was included as part of the study. A ProQuest search was also performed on 28 June 2023, returning 691 articles. To ensure that the articles returned were those concerned with public school students, ProQuest was re-searched on 29 June with the keyword “online learning” modified to “k-12 online learning”, as it was evident that most of the returns were for post-secondary or adult learning primarily. This additional search limited the returns to 51 articles. Of these, 21 did not concern public schools, 7 did not mention students, and 5 did not relate to COVID-19, making each of these screened articles ineligible for inclusion. Two of the articles searched were unable to be retrieved. Finally, the full text of the articles returned in the ProQuest search of 29 June 2023 was assessed. Excluded were 4 articles that did not mention self-directed learning, 1 that did not refer to online learning, and 5 that did not consider mental health, leaving 8 articles from the ProQuest search that were included for study.

It should be remarked that there were no duplications of these additional articles returned from a search of the other databases with those returned from the Google Scholar search conducted the previous month or among the other databases themselves. This lack of duplication brings into question the fullness of the Google Scholar database and the adequacy of the other databases for searching topics concerning both health and public school learning.

In total, there were 30 articles included as part of the study. The positive responses concerning the three variables under consideration were as follows: self-directed learning—14; online learning—13; and mental health—9. The negative responses were self-directed learning—16; online learning—17; and mental health—21. These included returns were then ready for the later assessment to follow in the Discussion Section regarding whether they considered self-initiation of self-directed online learning or parental expectations concerning maintaining standardized expectations regarding the online learning of their children.

3. Results

The results of applying these methods through the PRISMA flow of information for scoping reviews produced 30 articles for inclusion as the materials. These 30 articles are listed in Table 1 by the order in which they were returned in relation to their research topic while comparing whether the article had a positive or negative view on each of self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health. In total, 16 (53.3%) had a negative response regarding self-directed learning; 17 (56.7)% had a negative response concerning online learning; and 12 (70%) were found to be negative regarding the mental health of students. Concurrently, it was determined if the papers mentioned the importance of self-directed learning being self-initiated and/or that there was parental concern that their children maintain standardized learning during COVID-19 lockdowns. Of the 30 articles, only 8 (26.7%) mentioned self-initiated learning (or some combination of words equivalent to the meaning of self-initiated learning). In contrast, 15 (50%) of the 30 papers referred to parental concern that the learning of their children continues to be standardized.
In this scoping review of articles containing “self-directed learning, online learning (for ProQuest, k-12 online learning), mental health, public schools, and COVID-19”, the intent is to identify papers mentioning the relationship between self-directed online learning and the self-initiation of learning, as these factors have been found to promote academic success combined with positive mental health [31,32,39]. In addition, it was to recognize those articles stressing parental concern regarding maintaining standardized learning, as this type of concern by parents during COVID-19 has been found to reduce their children’s academic success and promote negative mental health [33,40]. It is important to make these assessments to advance positive psychosocial outcomes for public school students if the mental health crisis in children is to be reduced.

Of the articles assessed, 19 of the 30 (63.3%) articles have either all negative or all positive assessments of each of the three variables. Of these, 7 articles (23.3% of all articles) are entirely positive regarding self-direction, online learning, and mental health. The other 12 (40% of all articles) have completely negative assessments of each of self-direction, online learning, and mental health. For those articles that were neither all positive nor all negative in their assessment of self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health regarding public school students during COVID-19, 2 (6.7%) were positive with respect to both self-direction and the mental health of the public school students during COVID-19, but negative regarding online learning. A total of 2 (6.7%) found self-directed learning and online learning to both provide positive results during the pandemic but, at the same time, create poor mental health. No articles (0%) were positive towards online learning and mental health but negative regarding self-directed learning. There were 3 articles (10%) that were positive about self-directed learning but negative concerning both online learning and the student’s mental health; 4 (13.3%) judged online learning as positive but were negative about both self-direction and the mental health of public school students. There were no articles (0%) in which the authors were positive about the mental health of public school students but negative regarding both self-direction and online learning. The low percentages of articles with other than all positive or all negative assessments demonstrate that authors are more likely to be polarized one way or the other regarding the effect of this parameter containing each of these keywords.

Of the articles included in this study 8 (26.7%) focus on self-initiated learning and 15 (50%) mention parental concerns regarding their children continuing with standardized schooling expectations (see Table 1). As positive mental health in public school students has been found in those students who self-initiate their learning without expectation from their parents that they focus on maintaining standardized school work [31,32,33,39,40], it is relevant to now turn to a discussion of the articles returned in the scoping review that mention self-initiated learning (or refer to learning based on what the student personally values) and those that refer to parental concern that standardized learning is retained.

5. Conclusions

It has been noted that students’ positive psychosocial outcomes are necessary if the mental health crisis in youth is to be alleviated [34], as these outcomes reduce anxiety, increase resilience, improve well-being, and increase positive mental health in children and adolescents [37]. Unlike standardized learning, self-initiated self-directed learning has been identified as providing these positive psychosocial outcomes [31,32,39]. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when public school students were forced to become self-directed online learners, it became evident that the role of self-initiation of self-directed learning (dependent on a reliable internet connection), along with reduced parental concern regarding the maintenance of standardized learning, was paramount if all of the self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health were to be judged positive and that without them, self-directed learning was judged as negative [33,40]. This has become clear from a search of the parameter containing the following keywords: “self-directed learning, online learning (with this narrowed to k-12 online learning for one search), mental health, public schools, COVID-19” that included 30 articles. Of those 30 articles, only 13 (43.3%) mentioned self-initiation in self-directed learning, and, of these, just 8 (26.7%) took a positive stand regarding self-initiated learning [48,51,52,53,56,58,66,69].
Knowing the importance of self-initiation in relation to positive self-directed learning with positive mental health, it became evident during the COVID-19 limitations that public schools have the capability of supporting self-directed online learning apart from in-school learning. Some students did not experience positive self-directed online learning or positive mental health during this period. However, there were others—the self-initiated self-directed online learners—who did experience a positive result with each of their self-directed learning, online learning, and mental health. This improved their psychosocial outcomes, with much of the difference in the level of success as a result of parent expectations of students that were not tied to standardized learning [33,40,53,68]. Furthermore, with the right type of teacher support, students who might not start with an interest in self-directed learning were found able to develop a positive experience with self-directed learning [53,59,73,74]. Consequently, for those self-initiating self-directed online learners, public schools are advised to continue the online learning they permitted these students, rather than demanding such students return to the in-person standardized learning which is acknowledged as unable to produce positive psychosocial outcomes in both the most [3,4] and least achieving students [5]. As well, teachers are advised to continue to encourage students to self-initiate their self-directed learning as this ability was able to be taught during COVID-19. With reliable internet connections, in this way, students who self-initiate self-directed learning may avert the continuing international mental health crisis of public school students.

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