How to Keep the Human Element in Online Classes

This post was first published on EdSurge.

“Wow. I always thought my online instructors were computers.”

An online student shared this comment with his instructor after receiving an email from her that included feedback on an assignment. This story, shared with me by the student’s instructor several years ago, resonates with me on an emotional level each time I reference it. It motivates me to ensure online instructors understand how vital their authentic, human presence is to their students, and it conveys how deeply meaningful online classes can be when they are facilitated and designed with a focus on the student experience.

While teaching online certainly changes how instructors communicate with their students, the instructor-student relationship is just as vital to the student learning and engagement in online classes as it is in an offline class.

So what makes an online class feel less like it’s taught by a bot and more like it’s a human-centered experience? The following three principles and related strategies will help faculty keep humans front-and-center of their online courses:

This framework for humanized learning for the Teaching & Learning Innovations’ Online Teaching Preparation Program at CSU Channel Islands. (Available for download and non-commercial re-use with attribution here and here in html.)


Teaching a student-centered online class is a lot of work and while faculty may spend a significant amount of time setting up course content, these behind-the-scenes actions do not convey a sense of who you are as a real person to your students.

Use brief video clips to communicate with your students. Consider using video for weekly announcements and to provide feedback to students. A recent study by researchers at George Mason University and Brigham Young University showed that instructor video feedback made students feel more connected with their instructor and, in return, made students more accountable for their learning. One student also noted that hearing an instructor say her name, as opposed to reading it on the screen, made her feel like “he really knew her.”


When you’re teaching online, students may reach out to share difficult experiences with you or raise them in a class discussion. When this happens, make an effort to 1) see the situation through their eyes 2) withhold judgment 3) understand their feelings and 4) communicate your understanding. These are the four attributes of empathy, as identified in the research of Theresa Wiseman (1996).

Empathy can be more difficult when using asynchronous communication tools, but it is certainly possible. I once had an online student who was on the verge of tears while recording a voice comment in a course activity. As she spoke, she was viewing a photograph of a body falling from the Twin Towers on 9/11. I listened to that comment a day after she left it and it gave me chills. I realized this was a difficult moment for her and that she could have taken a much easier path to complete this activity. I chose to record a video comment to respond to my student (which is an option provided in VoiceThread). In my comment, I spoke softly and slowly, made clear eye contact with the webcam, and thanked her for having the courage to share her pain with us. These moments play important roles in building student-instructor relations, and they also model empathy to other students in the class.


The first week of an online course is extremely difficult for students, as well as faculty. When students are learning in physical isolation from their peers and instructor, anxieties can become overwhelming. One of the first things I have my students do is complete a “Learner Info Form,” which provides essential information to me about their needs. The form, which I create with Google Forms, asks students to choose one word to describe how they’re feeling about the class. Common responses are “fine,” “excited,” “curious.” But there are typically a few students in each class who say, “overwhelmed” or “nervous.” By scanning a single column in the Google Doc throughout that first week, I am able to identify the students who need my individualized attention. Being aware of their needs allows me to focus my time on supporting these students. Typically, once they hear from me directly and I let them know I’m available to support them, they start to feel much better. If you aren’t aware of your students’ needs, you cannot be there to support them. (Make your own copy of the Online Learner form.)

At California State University Channel Islands, my Teaching and Learning Innovations team members and I use these principles as the foundation for our Online Teaching Preparation Program (OTPP)—a series of courses where we immerse faculty in the experience of being an online student in a facilitated, active learning environment.

One course, Humanizing Online Learning, provides faculty with a safe, trustworthy environment to experiment with technologies from the T&LI Humanized Tool Buffet. I introduce faculty to tools not included within the typical LMS dashboard and demonstrate how to use these tools to cultivate a strong teaching presence. Many faculty leave the course feeling empowered and energized about teaching online. After completing the course, one reflected, “I understand how to build a sense of community and personal connection with students, even in a setting in which we do not meet face to face. I actually think that an online course has the potential to create the same if not greater personal connection between instructor and students.”

How do you cultivate your presence in your online class? Share your ideas in a comment below or on Twitter by including the hashtag #HumanizeOL.

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