• Victoria Hekking

Why We Should Humanize the Online Classroom—Now More Than Ever

By Nadine Hamman |

The global pandemic’s impact has been felt worldwide, causing many people to reach the end of 2020 with a sigh of relief. This is true for many teachers, lecturers, and learners who suddenly had to transition to a remote teaching model due to government lockdowns and educational instances' closure. For most, it was not a good experience, as feelings of isolation emerged. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over yet, and all indications are that education will see yet another year with online learning stepping in where face-to-face learning is not considered safe.

Online Versus Face-to-Face Learning

As it was an emergency measure, much of the online learning was set up using face-to-face principles instead of applying the correct online methodologies. In many instances, the focus was on the technology (like using video conferencing) as it seemed like a logical representation of the classroom. However, as these online models—especially when applied haphazardly—cannot replicate the face-to-face classroom, social capital was lost as little to no consideration was paid to create human-centric learning. This led to frustration, and many learners (and instructors) harbor negative feelings toward online learning. One of the biggest complaints is the feeling of isolation—and this is not a new complaint in the online learning sphere. Humans connect with humans, after all. It is a basic human need.

Interaction and connection with other human beings are naturally present in face-to-face environments. Due to technology use as a delivery vehicle in online learning, connections and interactions do not feel as natural, and the quality thereof is subsequently not valued as high, which enhances the feeling of isolation. The Covid-19 pandemic worsens this amidst social distancing and self-isolation. And because online learning does not occur in a natural communication environment, we need to work hard at humanizing the online classroom consciously. This is true now, more than ever.

A mind shift is needed: Online learning should not merely be a digitized version of the face-to-face environment, as face-to-face and online learning are not the same. These delivery modes can be compared to different roads leading to the same destination; even if it is the same content, it should be presented in different ways. Ironically, the biggest difference between the two modes is also a statement of its biggest strengths. In face-to-face environments, learners and their instructor(s) simultaneously share a common space in a natural communication setting, without the compulsory use of technology. With online learning, the learner and instructor(s) are not bound by geography and time, but it needs a form of technology as an enabler of the communication setting. The challenge this brings forth is that it is not a natural setting.

If technology (and all its bells and whistles) becomes the online classroom’s focus, we lose the humanizing aspect. Technology should serve humankind, not the other way around. The human should still take center stage.

More Suitable for Humans

How then do we bridge this “unnatural” gap in online learning? How do we humanize online learning? Or, do we attempt to make it as humanized as possible? It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, challenging question.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, humanize means “to make less unpleasant and more suitable for people.” There are many best practices available on how to humanize the online classroom. All of these address the crux of the matter:

“Humans connect with humans. If this social element is missing, people experience online learning as broken.”

The Killers pose a strange question in their hit song, Human. They ask, “Are we human, or are we dancer?” Brandon Flowers, the lyricist, asks this question in a metaphysical sense – he deliberately uses incorrect grammar to grab the audience's attention by striking a discordant note. Similarly, online learning provides a bit of an off-beat balance. It does not happen in a natural communication setting. We need to consciously develop and assess deep, meaningful learning experiences for learners to achieve success and increase motivation. Learning is as much an emotional as a cognitive process.

People-Focused Learning

We should always strive to create online learning that improves the life of the learner—learning from which the learner is able to construct meaning. One of the core values at Construct is being people-focused, emphasizing meaningful contact in human interaction. We transfer this value into creating online learning programs, where our mission is to enable opportunity through transformative learning. The learning should not only serve but also transform the person on the receiving end. In the context of the current pandemic, we can achieve this through meaningful interactions with the learners.

Interpersonal interaction is one of the most important quality factors driving learner attrition and success. One of the main reasons MOOCs have not seen the expected uptake (from start to finish) is the lack of companionship. In a learning environment, companionship is established through interaction with instructor(s) and peers, establishing a social presence. We need to recognize the person on the other end of the communication not just as a learner but also as a person, as a human.

Instructors should be viewed as partners in the learning journey, and they can play an integral part in motivating students in a course. As caring is relational, a learner needs to know somebody cares about their learning, about them, linking to the age-old adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know that you care.” This can successfully be achieved through a pedagogy of care, where the instructor exercises concern for the person and performance.

As course designers, we can help instructors establish a (teaching) presence in the course by being natural and relatable. Sometimes this is built into the course design, and other times, you (as the instructional specialist) can guide conversations with the SME to understand how important it is to be present in the course they teach. Instructors need to take the time to get to know their learners and let them get to know each other. We need to establish deep empathy for our learners by approaching and supporting them from a holistic perspective, not just academic.

The Power of Community

Community is built through interaction with peers, providing an opportunity to network, socialize, and work together toward a common goal. Having an online forum does not provide enough motivation to solve isolation issues. It is through a community that we can create a true sense of belonging and increase motivation. In return, motivation increases the likelihood of a student to engage with others and the course content itself, where learners can be connected either synchronously or asynchronously.

Establishing community and social presence should be incorporated into the course design and should not be included as an afterthought. Learners should be allowed to learn from each other and construct meaning by creating and using real-world connections. Learners should also be allowed to exercise choices and be provided with an opportunity to be stretched to grow and learn, as this will add to intrinsic motivation. Think wider than just the delivery of content—create a space for students where they can banter away in a “safe zone” (like a Yellowdig platform). Where else do they have the opportunity to interact with other unknown learners amidst a pandemic without an established social media connection? Where learners feel part of a community, student satisfaction is higher, we see an increase in student-to-student interactions, and actual and perceived learning increases.

The pandemic caused a rapid shift to online learning. With additional factors like self-isolation and social distancing, the brunt of isolation was felt probably most by the vulnerable learners. This disruption calls for creative thinking, but not by adding more technological applications. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are developing and delivering courses for learners, for humans. To humanize the online classroom, we need to know that we need to do it and constantly put in a conscious effort to put a human at the center of the interaction.


Nadine Hamman

Learning Strategist at Construct