4 Tips To Infuse The Human Aspects Of Education Into eLearning

Why Online Learning Is More Than Data Transfer And How To Infuse The Human Aspects Of Education Into eLearning

The prospect of teaching an online course can make an educator cringe.

That’s not because it isn’t an integral part of teaching in the digital age, or because of a dislike of technology. Rather, online teaching can often be perceived as… impersonal.1 Educators frequently tell me they believe it reduces the art of teaching to a “data download”.

As an online learning producer who has helped develop hundreds of courses, I have worked with a variety of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) from many fields. Many say the same thing. University professors who enjoy the classroom experience or expert trainers who thrive on live feedback, all say online teaching means not being fully present and that means letting their students down.

What they most lament is not being able to interact and welcome students into the body of knowledge they are presenting. Ultimately, teaching is not just about transferring information, but about engaging people in a community of thought. By sharing subject matter knowledge, educators impart the identity of the group that have engaged with the topic so far. As the great teacher Parker Palmer reflected, education gives learners more than information; it gives people identity into their world.2

Not only does education bring the learner into a community of thinkers, but also (and most immediately) into a relationship with the teacher. Think back to your own education, more than likely the things that stuck with you most came from teachers you remember. People who took the time to engage you, encourage you, and assist you in the process of becoming more knowledgeable. Education is more than information transfer; it is an invitation to become part of the collective experience that has defined the subject being taught.

My experience has taught me that this lively engagement and excitement is possible outside of the physical classroom. By following a few recommendations, online education can become more than the delivery of content.

1. Along With Your Learning Objectives, Include A Social-Emotional Goal

Typically, at the start of the course development process, your team will establish learning objectives to help guide the project. These almost always focus on cognitive learning or raising awareness: What should the learners know upon completion? In addition to these objectives, include a question directly related to how the learner should feel and connect with the content or the learning community along the way. This kind of goal asks the questions: What is it you want your learners to feel about what they are learning? What are the feelings shared by this content community? How can your learners engage with this community of thought or practice? You’ll be surprised where this approach can take you.

2. Infuse Your Course With Personality

Most online learning tries at times to be fun or funny but these attempts can come across as forced or flat. Instead of trying to insert quirks into your project, insert aspects of your team’s personality. After all, your learner will be engaging in what your team has left for them – why not let this become a genuine interaction? This means providing space for your SMEs voices to speak unedited, letting your graphic artist add his own flair, or allowing a programmer to drop an Easter egg3 or two. This doesn’t mean providing an unfinished or rough product. It does mean giving your learner a chance to genuinely relate to your SME and your team.

3. Create Spaces For Human Contact

The truth of the matter is that much of online education is a volume business. The goal is to reach more learners than possible in a face-to-face setting – even more so with asynchronous modules. So creating spaces for contact with your Subject Matter Experts can be difficult and sometimes impossible. Yet the SMEs that work with you are not the only folks who know a thing or two about their subject. Creating spaces for human contact means helping learners access options to connect with others.

4. Inspire Your Learners With Real Experiences

Educators know how important it is to provide real world stories, case studies or other anecdotal ways to help contextualize learning. However we often only think of these as ways to improve the retention of the project’s learning objectives. These same experiences can also serve the purpose of helping learners engage with your team and/or with your SMEs. This means that the story should not only be contextualizing, but should be genuine and relatable. The best stories we hear not only help us understand but also remember, and endear us to the storyteller.

In my experience, making the learning relationship an important part of the development of online learning makes for a stronger product and a better process. It gives SMEs a new perspective on elearning as an exciting new space to engage learners in their subject area, and it gives learners a more genuine experience with the learning material.

Online learning is not only exciting; it is the wave of the future. Let’s change the perception about it and work to make the experience a meaningful one, more than just a transfer of data.

Endnotes:

  1. The Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education report (2012) found that the prospect of online education was difficult for faculty at colleges and universities and that it called into question their identity as educators and the teaching relationships they enjoyed. As cited in, William G. Bowen, Kelly A. Lack, and Kevin M. Guthrie, Higher Education in the Digital Age. (New York: Ithaka, 2013), 62.
  2. Parker J. Palmer, To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 21.
  3. “Easter eggs” refer to items or messages –usually of a fun nature or that allude to cultural references– that are hidden in media by content developers. See Easter egg (media) for more detail.
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