Humanizing Online Learning

By Scott Warren, Ph.D.

The transition of education to online interaction from face-to-face settings has come with difficulties for educators and students. Designing online course experiences like those that students have in person is challenging. Maintaining course engagement and creating quality working relationships in online classes is vital for students and instructors alike. Distance learning students often express concerns about missing networking opportunities or chances to meet with instructors after class or in office hours. They also worry about not having time or space to meet with peers for group work or projects. In response to these anxieties, distance educators seek to provide a sense of presence in online settings by humanizing virtual learning. A major goal of this approach is to increase the quality of the educational experiences they provide.

In virtual class environments, technology can either better connect instructors and students or may act as a barrier between them. By humanizing online learning, educators can help retain aspects of their once face-to-face learning that made education a cooperative, fully engaging and interactive experience for students. Humanizing online learning means going beyond the relationship a student has solely with their device and engaging students as people with individual learning needs and challenges.

An article written by Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton, and Marcus Grant in 2015 discussed asynchronous online learning environments and how they may lead to student feelings of disconnection and result in a loss of interaction compared with face-to-face settings. For example, when a student watches or reads required materials and completes online class work without any significant interaction with instructor or classmates, it is harder to form the working relationship needed to help all stakeholders be successful. Without synchronous online interactions to provide engagement, students and instructors are both deprived of social contact needed to perform well. When an instructor uses asynchronous activities in lieu of live teaching, instructor and student introduction videos can improve a sense of human presence. Further, interactive videos and lectures and timely messages to students are also valuable for fostering connectedness. Without such relationship building, students can feel isolated. 

Several methods of humanizing online learning ensure that each student receives the support, time, and information they need to be successful. Success in this endeavor requires a student-instructor relationship. Online course software and application use has the potential to make classes, resources, and instructors more available and engaging more students. The inclusion of technology benefits students by providing quality instruction and learning activities through increased online resource access. Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s 2020 research noted that supporting students by giving individualized feedback and creating “check-ins” and “ice-breakers” can help them become more successful learners.

According to Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education, instructor-student relationships that were less present in online learning are important when considering students’ perception of and satisfaction with online classes. Humanized online teaching encourages stronger relationships and active interaction among students and instructors to foster increased engagement with activities. Distance learning should support different learning preferences of students by providing different forms of activities and media as needed. It is also helpful to build a culture of care that supports the development of trust between and among students and instructors.

Preferences regarding learning activities, modalities, and media vary from culture to culture and student to student but should be aligned to those that will best help students reach specified learning outcomes. Some students favor more social collaboration while other students would rather learn independently. To support increased learner participation, this may mean providing some different activity options for students to choose to meet the same educational goal and help students succeed. These choices can be crucial to motivation when students are primarily sitting in front of a computer to receive instruction rather than interact with teachers and peers in a traditional classroom setting. Just as educators may be apprehensive about lecturing over Zoom because they cannot see their students, these learners similarly want opportunities to engage with the others. Setting office hours, providing opportunities for online group work, and increasing overall interaction within an online class are all important approaches to fostering an environment that is responsive to student’s individual needs. Doing these things can create a classroom-like environment and support student and instructor connections that are difficult to replicate in an asynchronous learning environment.

University settings typically provide socialization and support the development of in-person relationships. Implementing humanizing teaching strategies requires instructors and classmates to actively participate with each other. This supportive human interaction, despite being through a computer screen, can make the online learning experience richer and more rewarding for all participants.

For a more humanized online learning and teaching experience, activities should support significant class engagement using available digital tools. Just as with face-to-face classes, students and instructors will need to make time for class discussions and get to know each other. Instructors can create interactive and interesting lectures and media, intriguing questions that motivate deep thinking, individualized responses, and feedback to student work that considers their situation and how to best help them succeed.

About the Author:

Dr. Scott Warren, Ph.D. currently serves as a Professor in the Department of Learning Technologies and Graduate Coordinator for the University of North Texas. As part of the institutional effectiveness team at the University of North Texas, Dr. Warren conducts annual program and course reviews as part of the accreditation process. He has conducted extensive program and course mapping along with reviews of graduate courses to ensure broad views from authors of different genders, ethnicities, and worldviews for an accelerated Master’s program and fully online doctoral program. Dr. Warren has chaired doctoral dissertations related to curriculum development and improvement. He also developed ID Evaluator, an online tool for conducting course reviews that speeds the process of evaluating course and program quality.