How to Add the Human Element to Online Learning

The online classroom can sometimes feel like a lonely place due to a lack of presence of the instructor and other students. This lack of presence can negatively affect learning and lead to student attrition. Fortunately, some relatively simple measures can significantly add the essential human element to online courses.

In a recent interview, Jennifer Merrill, instructional designer at Salisbury University, offered some design and facilitation recommendations for ensuring a sense of presence in online courses.

Design considerations
When working with instructors to design an online course, Merrill often begins by asking, “How would you design this course for face-to-face delivery” and “What kinds of things might be missing if the course is to be taught online?”

Asking questions like these can help keep presence in mind during design. For example, if group work is an essential part of a face-to-face course, it should also be part of the design of the online course. And perhaps this could be supported by the use of synchronous tools or audio tools to provide opportunities for interaction that offers the nuances and presence of the face-to-face classroom.

Merrill worked with a nursing instructor to create an activity that used VoiceThread, a cloud-based application that enables users to record and embed audio comments to facilitate a conversation similar to one that would take place face-to-face. In this instance, a student began by posting a VoiceThread message that offered a diagnosis and treatment plan, and other students added to it and commented on it.

When designing an online course, it’s also important to be aware of students’ expectations based on their other media experiences. “Think about what television, media, and the Internet are doing right now to capture the attention of people. I think we have to tap into that kind of thing by adding things such as short videos and small chunks of information. … It’s not entertainment, but I think the audience now feels like they have to have a certain amount of visual stuff going on. They’re geared toward finding whatever information they need right now. It has to be searchable. You have to think about what’s going to be eye-catching and not by just adding a little clip art.

“They’re used to being able to click around a page and look at what they want to look at. So, maybe in the design process we don’t necessarily create learning modules that force them through steps. Maybe they can make choices about what they read and when, because adult learners need to be able to learn something that’s important to them right now.”

Videos can create presence. These can range from a simple five-minute welcome video to lecture capture. (If an instructor is camera-shy, Merrill recommends using an avatar along with an audio recording of the instructor’s voice.)

Other videos can create a sense of presence as well, Merrill says. A message with a link to an appropriate YouTube or Khan Academy video can add presence without any need for you to create the videos yourself. Using narrated PowerPoint presentations is another relatively simple way to convey presence.

Feedback is an essential way to convey presence. You can offer feedback in many different ways. Here are some that Merrill recommends:

  • Discussion board messages—Participate in the discussion board once a week to let students know that you are there, being careful not to drive the conversation but rather to provide feedback and perhaps ask questions.
  • Email—Send individual students emails to compliment them and comment on their work.
  • VoiceThread—One of the options when using VoiceThread is to create a second icon for the instructor called “feedback,” which indicates the type of message contained in the recording. This can be an effective way to indicate to students at a glance the number of times the instructor has provided feedback.
  • Announcements—When you find relevant resources, provide a link in the announcements section of the course, saying something like, “Here’s something I found recently. This is what we talked about in the discussion.” This is a clear indication that the instructor is active in the course.
  • Polls and surveys—Feedback does not have to be one way. Adding polls and surveys (about the learning experience and/or the content) can add a human element to the course. “I recommend checking in with students [with a poll or survey] once or twice a semester, asking them where they want to take the course. That makes it more personal,” Merrill says.
  • Take note of students’ interests and experiences—Use an icebreaker activity to gather student information that will be useful later in the course. What are your students’ work experiences? What knowledge do they have in their portfolios that you can tap into? One way to use this knowledge is to have students lead discussions on topics within their areas of expertise. “It makes it more personal and values their experience,” Merrill says.