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Funded Research Opportunities

Assessing the impact of Virtual Learning Environments in higher education on student and staff mental well-being

Start date: October 2019

Award: 1+3/3 Fully Funded PhD Studentship


All universities use online platforms called Virtual Learning Environments, typically to provide resources, reading lists, chat forums and lecture recordings. Universities are striving to increase use of such platforms. Two key assumptions underpin this i) students and staff are comfortable in digital environments, and ii) students appreciate the flexibility of this type of education which gives 24/7 educational provision. These assumptions are untested, and we believe if they are incorrect the increased use of virtual learning environments could be detrimental to staff and student mental health. For example, their use may contribute to a greater loneliness as more work is done remotely and create pressure to work longer hours due to the 24/7 availability.

Student mental health has been identified as a significant concern amongst key stakeholders. A recent large-scale international study identified that 31% of students screened positive for at least one common mental health disorder in the past year (Auerbach et al., 2018). Although less researched, there is evidence of increasing mental health problems in academic staff, with many a risk of burnout (Watts and Robertson, 2010). A recent survey found that 43% of academic staff exhibited symptoms of at least a mild mental disorder; this is almost twice the figure for the general population (Gorczynski et al., 2017). Although many factors contribute to mental health problems, no research has investigated the role of virtual learning environments. Given this gap in current knowledge, the aim of this project is to better understand the impact of digital education on student and staff mental health, specifically focusing on the Virtual Learning Environment, as the most ubiquitous digital tool used in Higher Education.

This research project will use a mixed-methods (focus groups and surveys) to test the assumptions around the use of Virtual Learning Environments and relate their use to mental wellbeing in UK wide university staff and students.


Supervisors: Dr Eleanor Dommett & Dr Nicola Byrom

In partnership with Student Minds, the student mental health charity

Further details about the supervisors can be found linked from the LISS-DTP page


Entry requirements: Successful applicants are likely to have a very good first degree (BA or BSc Honours or equivalent, at 1st class standard or upper 2nd with clear evidence of first-class work), and for +3 awards, also an appropriate Masters degree (at distinction or at least high merit level). Other qualifications highly relevant to the proposed area of study, such as prior professional or work-related expertise, may also be considered.


Award types and eligibility: 

Studentships are only available for students who meet residency requirements set out by the ESRC.  If you are classed as ‘overseas’ or ‘international’ for fees purposes, then you will not be eligible for a LISS DTP studentship.  Please check directly with the Admissions team at the LISS DTP partner university where you plan to apply how you will be classed, as LISS DTP will use the status provided by Admissions teams. 

The position includes EU/UK fees (currently £4260) and an annual studentship (currently at £16,777).

Students who will have already undertaken more than 1 year of their full-time research degree programme (or more than 2 years at part-time status) by the time their studentship would start (1 October each year) are not eligible. Professional doctorate degrees are not eligible. Distance learning programmes are not eligible. Applicants who have already been awarded a PhD or equivalent degree are not eligible. Full details on eligibility can be found here:

Further information: This project is being completed in partnership with Student Minds – and will be linked with the Student Mental Health Research Network –

How to apply: 

Details of how to apply can be found here:

All applications must include:

  • a completed ESRC LISS DTP Collaborative (CASE) Application Form
  • a copy of your CV
  • 2 academic references, or 1 academic and 1 professional reference
  • (these should be sent directly to by your referees)
  • copies of transcripts for all relevant degrees

These materials should be sent BOTH to and the project academic lead (Dr Eleanor Dommett) by the deadline indicated in the project tab.

Closing date: 4th March 2019

Interviews: 15th and 18th March 2019


Further information: 

London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership 

About the IoPPN 

Studying at the IoPPN 

MSc programmes at the IoPPN 

Research degrees at the IoPPN 

KCL Researcher Development Programme 



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