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The Human Element In Online Learning

By Larry DeBrock, Norma Scagnoli, and Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta

As the nation prepares to meet the threat of COVID-19, we are surrounded by the language of loneliness. We move from “social distancing” to “self-isolation” to even the prospect of avoiding the people we love. At colleges and universities across the country, we are pivoting quickly toward online learning, or as it is often called, “distance learning.”

But here’s the secret most educators and students don’t yet know: Done right, online education is surprisingly intimate.

That student who’s sitting far enough away in the lecture hall that you can’t quite read her expression, amid the proverbial sea of faces? When you call on her in a live Zoom session, she pops up right in front of you, one-on-one, looking you straight in the eye. There is no back seat in online education — every student is in the front row.

That other student in back, who never raises his hand? You might be surprised at his willingness to open up and share his ideas in the live chat room that’s running alongside your primary content.

When you create small breakout groups online, you eliminate not only the chair shuffling and wasted time of moving people around, but also much of the awkward social dance that human beings do as they try to find their place in a new group. Over and over, we find that group work online creates strong team bonds in amazingly short periods of time. After all, many of our students grew up cultivating and navigating their social lives on screens and keyboards.

Three years ago, our institution, the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business created a new kind of online MBA, designed from the ground up. We certainly had more time to plan for it than our colleagues who are now going online in the face of an epidemic. But for many of us, it was still a daunting dive into unknown waters. We all wondered what we would be missing.

The online program has been phenomenally successful, growing from 114 students its first year to 3,200 students in 2020, with high rates of retention and satisfaction. Students tell us they find great value in the educational experience. There are many reasons for that. But when faculty and staff members gather to talk about what is working, one theme that arises over and over is the level of engagement. And not just intellectual engagement with the course content, but human engagement — between faculty and students, and even more strikingly, among students from around the world whose main commonality is this shared digital adventure.

That is not to say that this emotional component in online education comes automatically or easily. Effective online teaching often requires more planning and more overall effort than traditional classroom teaching of the same material. Running useful office hours online, for a group of several dozen students at once, requires strict discipline and a lot of energy. And for those of us who did not grow up digital natives, it can still take some mental gymnastics to look into a camera as we would into a human eye — not to mention to perform the multitasking required to manage a good platform in real-time.

But after immersing ourselves in this modality for a few years, we do have several practical ideas that might help you get the best out of this medium and create a compelling, engaging, enjoyable learning environment for students who might need that more than ever.

Use your students’ exploring, editing, and creative skills. As you plan assignments, think about what students do so well in the digital environment, and build their work around those skills and behaviors. For example, in the online environment students go from consumers to producers of content very quickly. In a face-to-face class, the instructor is usually the only audience for students’ assignments. In an online class, their ideas, and productions can be widely shared more easily. So others can see and comment, too. The shift in audience may have an impact on the quality of their work. Additionally, students are used to interacting in social media spaces, commenting on each other’s posts, co-editing documents, or writing critical reviews on content that matters to them on Twitter, Instagram or YouTube, to name a few.  These skills can certainly be useful in their classes. Activities that invite them to peer review each other’s work, to co-create content, and to respond to student-generated questions will be using those skills that they use in their day-to-day communication and make learning activities meaningful.

Emphasize group projects. Figure out what students should be practicing and create exercises that help them reflect on their own perspectives and learn from one another.

Interact with students as they work. Whether it is commenting on a document as it is drafted online, dropping into a chat room or simply acknowledging students in live sessions, make the journey with them. This environment is very appropriate for the constructivist role of “the guide on the side.” Let them know that not only are they looking at you, you are looking at them.

Solicit questions. Hold online office hours and encourage students to come and bring their questions. The barrier to entry is lower than it would be coming to your physical office, and it is one of the best ways that faculty members can create relationships with students.

Mix it up. In class, think of what you are teaching in smaller “chunks” — micro-lectures, interspersed with silent activities and group work.

Highlight students’ individual experiences. Unlike a physical classroom, students online are in different places, living different lives. Encourage them to share those distinct experiences and help them tap such experiences for their coursework.

For those of you venturing into online education for the first time, we should share one more secret: The distinct engagement and bonds we build online don’t just enhance the student experience. They breathe a whole new life into the teaching experience, as well.

All three authors work in the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business iMBA program, where Larry DeBrock is dean emeritus and professor of finance and professor of economics, Norma Scagnoli is senior director of eLearning, and Fataneh Taghaboni-Dutta is professor of business administration.

Read more about Gies on our Partner Publisher page.