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3 Ways to Humanize Online Learning in Higher Ed 

  • 6 Min Read

Get tips from D2L webinar panelists on how adding synchronous elements, building real relationships and making data-informed decisions can make online learning more human.


Online learning has many advantages. It’s flexible and can give students more control over when, where and how they learn. It can also help institutions reach a wider audience of students. Plus, it can act as an educational sandbox, giving educators a space to experiment with new teaching and learning modalities. 

But for all its benefits, there’s something that users may feel is missing—the human connection. Without working with and getting to know their peers and professors, it can be easy for students to feel isolated and hesitant to put their hand up and ask questions when they’re lost. 

Does that mean online learning will always be devoid of authentic, spontaneous person-to-person interactions? No.  

There are many meaningful yet simple ways you can make online learning environments feel a little more human. In this blog, we’ll discuss three ideas from D2L’s Future of Education: Reimagined webinar. Read on to learn more.  

The Future of Education: Reimagined

As educators, we know that the recent upheaval of a once well-established “normal” exposed gaps and injustices and provoked reflection in higher education. Individual and collective resiliencies were tested in…

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1. Add More Synchronous Aspects  

Today, two things are happening simultaneously: Campuses are reopening to in-person classes, and online learning is finding its footing in higher ed. It’s time to refine how to supplement the digital world of academia with more human aspects. 

Colleges can learn from their own experiences as well as from others—including those that have been operating in an online environment for some time, like Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). 

“There’s a real opportunity for us to look at the mutual areas of opportunity for learning. As an organization [that’s] been operating in the online space for some time, there are definitely best practices to be shared and opportunities for learning from mistakes that we made in our early days,” said Amelia Manning, chief operating officer at SNHU.  

“That’s everything from how we think about the data that we’re able to collect on student and instructional behavior … and how it then informs the way that we construct the learning experience.” 

In looking at the data, one takeaway SNHU came away with was that students were craving more synchronous opportunities—like video—in their online courses. 

“I think one of the things that’s been really interesting about some of the learning that came out of that transition to remote instruction during the course of the pandemic is … a demand for more synchronous interaction than we have historically provided,” said Manning. “That’s a tremendous area of learning opportunity for SNHU and for others who have gone with the maximum flexibility of a fully asynchronous model.” 

Phil Hill, ed tech consultant, also sees video as being valuable and engaging for students in a blended learning model. 

“I’ll tell you a simple [idea]. And that is the usage of synchronous video conferencing, not for the live lectures but for the ability of small [groups of] students to work together or [take part in] office hours with the faculty,” said Hill.  

Relating to Manning’s sentiment on iterating online learning tactics implemented in the early stages, Hill also believes it’s important to reflect on what did and didn’t work online. 

“I think one of the main things schools could do is say, ‘Don’t pretend like we had this figured out in 2019 and we could just go back to that.’ Instead say, ‘What have we actually done well? What is the student feedback over the past two years, and how can we blend some of these new tools and experiences?’ I’ve heard students say that they appreciated the live interaction as a method to [learn online].” 

What’s most important is giving students a voice on what’s leading them to success.  

“There are different tools that can be applied, but the key is we’ve got to listen to what students are saying,” said Hill. “Are they perceiving that they’re reflecting on the lessons? That they have the ability to ask questions? To interact with their peers and feel connected to what they’re doing? The technology’s there.[The question is] how do we actually apply it in course designs?” 

2. Build Real Relationships 

When students are learning in a digital environment, it’s important to make sure they’re still able to build connections with peers, faculty and staff.  

Just because students aren’t seen all the time doesn’t mean they won’t require the same amount of support. 

“Be careful about the assumptions that you have, particularly if you’re looking at first-generation students. It’s not safe to just say, ‘Hey, they’ll figure it out. Their roommate will help them out if they don’t know what to do,’” said Hill. “You really need to think, ‘Do they have the people outside of class to draw upon, to get help, advice or even counseling?’ … Understanding students’ time constraints and how that’s changed dramatically from a face-to-face traditional basis is probably the most common theme of how to rethink where you’re serving students.” 

Manning also made the point that younger generations can be more focused on mental health, and these needs should be reflected in the academic support for online learners. 

“They’re changing the nature of the classroom because they are younger and have different expectations for what that learning experience should look like and should provide to them,” she said. 

SNHU has responded by increasing support services for learners and thinking of it as an area of opportunity to reassess best practices for emerging student demographics. 

3. Use Data to Connect With At-Risk Students 

It won’t always be human-to-human relationships that need to be supported. Human-to-technology connections matter too. When used properly, technology can give valuable insights into what is and isn’t working to help educators and institutions strengthen all elements of online learning—including the highly personal ones. 

“This is really what has grounded SNHU’s bias from almost the beginning of online [learning] in terms of how we thought online should be delivered and ultimately what we needed to be able to enable it to its best effect. And it is really tied between the technology that enables our people and that relationship between the two,” Manning said. 

An example that Manning provided was how technology and the data it provides can help academic advisors enhance their relationships with students.  

“When an advisor logs into our systems, they are served up a group of students who are prioritized for them. That’s based on years of data, which helps to inform risk levels based on student behaviors and attributes that tell them, ‘These are the students on any given day that you need to be prioritizing in terms of your outreach,’” said Manning.  

“They have a number of tools and different ways in which they attempt to connect with those students and identify what the student is or isn’t doing, which is leading to an indication that they need our support.” 

After technology connects the advisor to the right students, they can use their human connection to help figure out what the learner needs. 

“How do you leverage all of the behavioral data we have from successful students and the intervention data that we have from our advisors and instructors around the things that they themselves are doing, which actually make differences in student outcomes?” she asked. 

Ultimately, SNHU wants to be able to help the intervention data inform tactics and strategies that can be shared more widely.  

Keeping the Connection in Digital Classrooms 

Building in synchronous aspects to online learning, providing opportunities to make human connections and acting on data are three ways to make online learning a little less isolating and a little more human. 

Whether courses are fully online or take a blended learning approach, maintaining a human element in the online portion has many benefits for everybody involved. 

Eager to continue the conversation? Watch our webinar, Meeting Today’s Learners: Reimagined, where our panelists discuss how institutions can break the mold of the “traditional” learner to meet diversifying needs of student populations. 

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Table of Contents

  1. Add More Synchronous Aspects
  2. Build Real Relationships
  3. Use Data to Connect With At-Risk Students
  4. Keeping the Connection in Digital Classrooms