The impact of the global pandemic was worldwide, causing many people to reach the end of 2020 with a sigh of relief. Teachers, lecturers, and learners were no exception – the impact of suddenly transitioning to a remote teaching model due to government lockdowns and educational institution closures was not a good experience for most, as feelings of isolation emerged.
As 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 technology (like video conferencing) as it seemed like a logical representation of the classroom. However, these online methods cannot replicate a face-to-face classroom, and because almost no consideration was given to creating human-centric learning, social capital was lost. Consequently, learners and instructors become frustrated, leading to many of them harboring 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. When using technology 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, enhancing the feeling of isolation. The Covid-19 pandemic worsened 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.
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. We can compare these delivery modes 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 environment 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 becomes the online classroom’s focus, we surrender the humanizing aspect. Technology should serve humankind, not the other way around. The human should still take center stage.
How do we bridge this seemingly unnatural gap in online learning? How do we humanize online learning, or do we only attempt to make it as humanized as possible? It is a fascinating, thought-provoking, challenging question.
The definition of humanize is to make something less unpleasant and more suitable for people (Cambridge Dictionary, 2022). While there are many best practices available on how to humanize the online classroom, all of these address the crux of the matter:
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 your 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, and we consciously need to 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.
We should always strive to create online learning that improves the life of a learner— creating learning from which the learner can 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 education in a post-pandemic world, we can achieve this through meaningful interactions with learners.
Interpersonal interaction is a critical quality factor 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, and companionship in a learning environment is established through interaction with instructors and peers. We need to recognize the person on the other end of the communication not just as a learner, but also as a human.
Instructors should be partners in the learning journey, as 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 and them— linking to the age-old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know that you care.” The pedagogical approach would be 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. 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 must establish deep empathy for our learners by approaching and supporting them from a holistic perspective, not just academics.
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. Through community, we create a sense of belonging and increase motivation. In return, this motivation increases the likelihood of students engaging with others and the course content, a community where learners can connect, either synchronously or asynchronously.
Establishing community and social presence should be incorporated into the course design and 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 exercise choices and given opportunities to stretch, grow and learn, as this will add to intrinsic motivation. Think broader 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 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 by vulnerable learners. This disruption calls for creative thinking, but not only by adding more technological applications. We must constantly remind ourselves that we are developing and delivering courses for learners. To humanize the online classroom, we need to make a conscious effort to place a human at the center of the interaction.