Our eLearners desire something human. The best designs let something human look back at them.

I have enjoyed this month’s issue of Wired, especially an article from senior writer, Mat Honan. I couldn’t find his article on the web, otherwise I would have just linked to it. I will have some sequential blog posts over the next few days with excerpts from his article, with some additional images, and thoughts to facilitate a conversation about social presence in eLearning which I have been writing and presenting about lately.

Originally written by Mat Honan on Wired Magazine. May 2014

“The history of the Internet is one of lonely people trying to find one another. Consider: CompuServe, AOL, MySpace, Google, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. Ultimately, they’re all about communicating with others. We look into a glowing screen and see something human. But the best of these services let something human look back at us. And when technology just melts away, it almost feels like we’re not alone.

The Internet has gotten better and better at letting us talk to one another. I can pick up my phone, start a conversation with a friend in Europe and another in Asia, and watch as they both type replies. It’s as if I’m seeing their thoughts form. I can share something—on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram—about what I’s currently experiencing and immediately hear from others experiencing the same thing.”

What Mat is sharing above, if we could for a second, relate it to eLearning. Do our learners feel this way in either a synchronous or asynchronous course?

alone_student(CC BY-ND 2.0) Bryan Rosengrant, Flickr

We need to remember that there is no classroom when learners are learning via eLearning. As Michelle Pacansky-Brock puts it when you read her book or hear from her at a conference, “students are isolated from their peers and instructor.” No matter how interactive it is, there is still no classroom. And there also is no “you,” that is, a teacher in an eLearning module. This may not be an original idea from Michelle but it definitely is a key one because our student’s in eLearning experiences are essentially learning alone.

Yes this can have it’s advantages which is probably why eLearning as often a method chosen by many students in the first place. It also has it’s inherent disadvantages as well and why students do not choose it. But yet, we cannot neglect that it could potentially save time, cut costs, and going to class in our pajamas is a plus!

I do believe they can but there must be intentional interactions built into the design of the experience so that, as Mat puts it, “technology just melts away, it almost feels like we’re not alone.” If we don’t cultivate a humanizing element into our eLearning then:

  • Increase a learner’s anxiety about learning
  • Decrease the learner’s use of the technology
  • Decrease the learner’s successful completion of the eLearning experience

But there has been research and much discussion about how to combat these issues specifically over the last few years. Some would say that a learner feels like they are learning alone because they are missing that “human element.”

A recent MOOC that I actually participated in back in November of 2013 on the Canvas Network called, Human Element: An Essential Online Course Component, shared this video with us and I thought I would share it with you here today.

This course was one of my favorite MOOC experiences because it did have this element. I was truly connected with other students around the material, chatted with them on Twitter, and many of them I am still connected with today. Some of the other MOOCs and eLearning experiences I have had in the past were not setup this way. Even courses that I have personally designed in the past. I know my learners had anxieties … perhaps because they felt alone. As much as we design our online experiences to be the same as a face-to-face class, without the human element their learning may not be successful.

About DaveHallmon

With experience in web, graphic, and instructional design, Dave maintains a balance between what is efficient and effective in every message. He always focuses on the why and how rather than "just doing it" to get the job done. By day he works at a leading university designing online courses that support 9,000 students in 64 countries. He works directly with faculty to brainstorm, design, and develop their online instruction utilizing the Adobe suite. He also teaches for the university as an adjunct faculty member in the area of web design. By night he is a devoted husband, father, freelancer, and adventurer of the outdoors. His other interests include LifeHacker, Science Fiction and Hayao Miyazaki movies, Settlers of Catan, and coffee with friends. He currently lives in St. Louis and has an M.S. in Instructional Design and aspires to pursue a professional degree in content marketing and strategy. Visit the links below for more information about his interests and design work.
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7 Responses to Our eLearners desire something human. The best designs let something human look back at them.

  1. Pingback: EDUC6115 Blog 1 | cauerblog

  2. Although the dynamics of social and emotional dimensions are less visible in online-learning contexts, they have an impact on students’ learning (Wosnitza and Volet, 2005). In online learning environments, instructors and learners are separated which could bring anxiety and feelings of isolation. It is important to consider the interaction in online instruction. According to Wenger (1998), participation is an intrinsic part of learning (cited in Hrastinski, 2008). Vigotsky highlighted the importance of learning within a social context (Guiller, 2008). As human beings, we grow up through social interactions (Hrastinski, 2008). According to Muirhead and Juwah (2004), interaction promotes active learning, enables effective facilitation, allows learner input in the learning process, enables the development of higher order knowledge and abilities, and enhances the quality and standards of the learning experiences (Woo and Reeves, 2007). Understanding the interaction process in terms of learning will increase meaningful interaction. Interaction is essential to knowledge acquisition and to develop cognitive and physical skills (Woo and Reeves, 2007). However, maintaining interaction in eLearning environments is more difficult because of the time and space separation.

  3. Pingback: Our learners are social: Television has talked to us for decades, but it never listened! | coffeeanDesign

  4. Katherine says:

    Last year I took an online gamification class through Coursera. I felt the course designers did a good job of making sure the human element was included. Besides the weekly video lectures and online discussion boards, the instructor engaged students by creating a virtual riddle using background props. Each week props were moved or added and the class was asked to think of the solution to the prop riddle. That intentional use of technology helped to humanize the learning experience. As students chatted with the instructor and each other about riddle, it caused the students to form a deeper connection with the instructor and each other. As we looked for changes in the props each week, it also helped us to draw mental connections between the current week and previous weeks. I thought it was a very engaging technique.

    In an article in TechTrends, the authors share some tips on how to humanize the online learning experience. The article highlights the importance of instructor immediacy behaviors, as well as the importance of recognizing each class participant as an individual (DuCharme-Hansen & Dupin-Bryant, n.d.). Thank you for sharing the information on using Voice Thread to build community and humanize the online learning experience (Pacansky-Brock, 2013) .

    DuCharme-Hansen, B. A., & Dupin-Bryant, P. A. (n.d.). Distance education plans: Course planning for online adult learners. TechTrends, 49. Retrieved from http://www.adesignmedia.com/onlineresearch/(strategies)courseplanning.pdf

    Pacansky-Brock, M. (2013). How to humanize your online class with voice thread. Retrieved from https://platform.virdocs.com/viewer/MzIwODQ6MThlNTkyNC0zMmUwLTQwZDItYWFlNi1hYWM2YzA6MTQwMDM5MzkwNDowNjcxY2MzZjRjN2Q4MjAyZTUzMzAyMzFkNWJkMGRmYg

    • DaveHallmon says:

      I love the idea about the virtual riddle that you shared from Coursera. Was this perhaps CS101 which I have heard has something like 300k enrollments every year? Thanks also for sharing the resources, especially the TechTrends article. Developing that personal relationship with a student is so key… especially in an online setting where it may be difficult to connect with students. They need it. If they feel like they are learning alone it will increase their anxieties about their learning, decrease their use of the technology for their learning and may decrease their successful completion the course.

      I hope we can connect more Katherine. BTW, how did you come across my blog?

  5. kspaan says:

    Dave, thank you for the intriguing blog. I’m currently in my second course of an online master’s class in instructional design. The online course worked well with my work and family schedule, but it also fit my introvert personality. I didn’t feel like I would be forced to interact with other students. That assessment has not be completely accurate as discussion is a large part of the experience. In my previous classroom college education I spent a lot of my time avoiding the other students and just getting my work done. Despite being in a classroom full of other students it was a very individual experience.

    I thought that the the online course was going to be a more isolated version of that learning experience. But, it has not been. What I’ve found is that I’m interacting more with fellow students. The thing that I didn’t realize that bothered me about the live course was having to spend my time listening to students that didn’t get it. It was to some degree a democracy. If that student raised their hand and was called on, I was forced to listen to their opinions. And they always seemed to have a lot of opinions.

    With online training, I’m finding that I have a greater ability to “mute” the students that don’t get it and to optimize the time I have with the students that have something to say. The discussions that I’ve had with these students have been more “human” than what I experienced in college. I also appreciate the asynchronous nature of the discussion as it allows me time to gather my thoughts and provide a cogent argument.

    I also design Compliance training for a health care company and those are pretty low on the human element. It is not blended environment, but since compliance is about changing behavior, a human element could be helpful to showing staff about how we want them to act. Regulatory training tends to be high on information, so it is a struggle to structure it in such a way that the human element comes out.

    • DaveHallmon says:

      Hi KSpann. Glad you could catch my blog. BTW, how did you come across it? Thanks for sharing your thoughts about learning alone in the comfort of your own home. This is a perk and affords us to chose how we spend our time (which may be difficult for some) and also construct our thoughts more fully off line. Plus going to class in your pajamas is just uber cool. Thanks for sharing about your compliance training. Depending on the objectives I would say most definitely there needs to be a human element presence (whether online or f2f. While having the human presence online takes some strategy, it does work and helps remove the walls of the classroom. Maybe we could chat about collaborating on some of your training in the future?

      Hope you have a good rest of your day,


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