Aalto University Collaboration Design General

Wellbeing of a university community and its members during remote working

I wrote some weeks ago a Twitter Thread related to the story by the University of Helsinki, telling that university stu­dents’ well­be­ing con­tin­ues to de­cline. To keep this in my own files I copied the tweets to this blog. I made some minor edits, too.

In the fully remote mode we are not able to meet some of the very basic human needs.

In the news article Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro points out that “the basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, belongingness and meaningfulness have not been met in remote learning”. 

Maybe we could take a closer look of the basic human needs.

When thinking needs you can’t really overpass the Maslow’s theory of hierarchy of needs. If we think about universities we should aim to meet the need for self-actualization and transcendence (meta-motivation).

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more basic needs at the bottom.

You remember that according to Maslow’s theory the most basic needs must be met before people get motivated to achieve higher level needs. There are good reasons to challenge this, but if you are hungry, cold and scared you do not have time to look for self-fulfilment.

You might be now asking what really are these self-fulfilment and self-actualisation? 

I define them as development as a human being or growth leading to more full potential as a human — a conscious creature in the universe. Often this is also called simply learning.

And this leads me back to the question of the university community. We — like all good communities — should be designed for learning. You may call it a learning environment, if you wish.

So what makes a learning environment great? Right. You got it. It should meet all the needs of the people. Then we may think how these are met? This leads us to another theory.

Steven Reiss (2000) has presented a theory of 16 basic desires that motivates human action. There isn’t a lot of empirical research evidence, but I see it as an interesting design framework when thinking about learning environments and universities.

Reiss sees that there are individual differences in these 16 desires. We prioritize different things. As a community, however, we should consider all these individual needs are served. Some people desire one more than another.

This leads us back to the question of wellbeing of a university community and its members. We should think about the human basic needs and desires. We must ask, how well do we meet these needs and desires in the university community? I’ll pick some desires as examples.

In the context of a university the desires like power, independence and curiosity are easy. 

How about acceptance, idealism and family? 

Do we appreciate everyone as they are? 

Do we offer possibilities to advance social justice? 

Do we make it possible to have a family life? 

Most of these desires are difficult to meet in remote working. Online courses are a lousy learning environment.

University is so much more than degrees, courses, credits and research outputs. The quality of these depends on the quality of other things.

Finally. What learning, research and creative work needs the most is psychological safety. 

Poor working conditions, bad workspaces, continuous organisational reforms and redundancies do not increase this.

Disclaimer: These are just some bases used in learning environment design research.

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