How To Solve Loneliness In Online Learning
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How To Solve Loneliness In Online Learning

There is one persistent challenge in online learning. It is not a technological problem but a human one. It’s learner loneliness. “The perennial problem with remote learning is the sense of isolation,” said Colin Madland, manager of Online Learning and Instructional Technologies at Trinity Western University (TWU) in BC, Canada. Madland is part of a team at TWU who are helping faculty and students overcome the challenges of isolation and many other aspects of online teaching and learning, at a time when online learning is increasingly relevant.

Madland admits that isolation is a real problem—students feel it and so do faculty. “Remote learning presents that geographic and temporal distance between interactions,” he said. He noted that the length of time that the pandemic has persisted has only added to this burden.

Putting People Before Technology

To counteract feelings of learner loneliness and isolation, the TWU Online Learning team promotes ways of teaching that employ technology while remaining human-centered.

One member on the team is DeAnn Adams, Director of Faculty Services and Development. She describes the team’s approach succinctly, “Technology doesn’t teach. Teachers teach.” In fact, Adams’ sentiment represents the vision of the entire TWU Online Learning team, who seek to create student-first learning environments, where both learners and professors can thrive.

The ability of the TWU Online Learning team to deliver on its goals was tested and proven earlier this year. In March 2020, it was the this team who helped the University transition entirely to remote learning in a matter of days.

After having successfully navigated the fast-tracked transitions of 2020, the TWU Online Learning team have learned many valuable lessons. Here below are some of their best advice for how educators can help students thrive in remote learning environments.

1. Start With Empathy

Madland understands the challenges that learners are facing in remote contexts. Speaking on the switch to online learning, he said, “It’s easy to see this whole transition as a technical problem. But it’s a very human problem.”

“The trauma that people have experienced is human trauma,” he explained. “People are thinking, I can’t connect with the people that I’m used to connecting. Zoom isn’t a good substitute for that connection.”

When the problem is a human one, so is the solution. Hence, Madland remarked, “It’s critical to start with empathy in these strange and wonderful times.” As an idea, he offered, “Start with presuming that the person you’re talking to has had a really bad day.”

2. Practice Active Listening

As part of a human approach to education, listening is key. Scott Macklin, TWU’s Executive Director of GLOBAL Online Learning noted that active listening plays a key role in helping students switch from a transactional mindset of learning, to a relational one.

“For many students education is transactional,” he explained. “They have been professionalized to think about the grade and the degree as the thing.” In contrast, Macklin advocates for changing transaction-based education into transformational education and relationship building. He believes this happens through active listening.

Active listening can be as simple as the instructor asking students a check-in question. For example, “On a scale of 1-5 how excited are you to learn today?” Macklin believes that personalizing the education for the student, through the practice of active listening, can open doors for learner transformation.

3. Let The Expert Leave The Room

Unmonitored student conversations can be more enriching for the learners. “It’s important for faculty to structure those reasons to talk, particularly when a faculty member might not be listening in,” said Macklin. Many instructors have reflected to Macklin the benefits of strategically stepping away, reporting that the conversations were richer when they were temporarily absent.

Macklin explained that this is because educators are considered the expert, and hence, the authority figure. “There’s a certain level of deference to the expert in the room,” he said. Occasionally giving space for students to interact with one another as peers may provide an added dimension to their learning experience.

4. Provide Cognitive Apprenticeship

One strategy that the TWU Online Learning team employs is grouping students together for support. Students are paired into learning partners, and two pairs are then assigned into a learning pod.

Learning pods provide the opportunity for students to talk about course content, offer peer advice, and review assignments together. The groups are designed for students to work together. “I want them to be looking at each other’s assignments and offering peer-reviewed advice,” Macklin said.

He went on to explain, “It provides cognitive apprenticeship. It not only deepens engagement with content, but it provides a sense of community because there’s a reason for students to talk and work together.”

When building community, Macklin noted that it is important to combine the intentional with the spontaneous. “We also want to give students opportunity to self-organize,” said Macklin. It’s the professors who set up the learning pods, but they themselves are not present. Yet these unguided community discussions can be an effective part of course learning.

5. Start With The End In Mind

Macklin further advised starting with the end in mind and aligning course content with course objectives. “Start by asking what is it that you hope students would learn and take away from this course,” he offered. “Let the learning goals drive the design of your course, learning environment and activities.”

After establishing the objectives, professors can add course enhancements incrementally. Macklin called this the “plus one approach.” He challenged educators to choose one new addition weekly, “Add a discussion this week, or add an interactive assignment.”

6. Recreate Rituals—Prepare For Best Performance

Certain habits are associated with the beginning of a class. This is one regular part of teaching and learning that is sometimes lost in a virtual environment. Rituals could be something as simple as walking from one building to another. These familiar practices help prepare learners and educators to settle into the mindset of starting a lesson.

With online learning, the convenience of access can sometimes eliminate the space for ritual. “The immediacy of arriving to an online class—there’s something wonderful about it,” said Macklin. “But I had to learn to give myself 15 minutes between what I’m doing and what I’m about to do.” This intentional segment of time gives a person space to prepare to perform their best.

Macklin recommended educators to recreate these rituals for remote learning. He recommended to educators, “Take a walk. Take a moment to get into that space so that you can be mindful and responsive and know that you’re really here for the learner.”

7. Discover Surprising Advantages Of Remote Learning

There are advantages to learning in a virtual classroom that sometimes go unnoticed. “In face-to-face learning, we tend to privilege the extrovert,” Macklin observed. However, when the professor is able to see every student through an online platform, students who receive less attention in a classroom may gain the opportunity to be heard.

“Online learning provides other modalities and access points for people to participate in very meaningful and deep ways that they might not otherwise have had, if face-to-face is the modality that is privileged,” Macklin said.

The small group discussions that happen online can also benefit less outspoken students. “I have been privileged to be a part of very meaningful break out chat rooms with folks who may not have said anything otherwise in a face-to-face classroom,” Macklin said.

Recovering The Human Face Of Online Learning

By shifting from thinking about transmitting knowledge to transforming lives and building relationships, educators can bring the focus back to the human face of education and the priority of the learner’s experience.

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