Center for Digital Learning at SUNY Geneseo

Cultivating human connection in online learning

Note: This post was co-authored by Abby Henry and CDL Student Affiliate Emma Raupp

Laptop and cup of coffee Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

As digital classrooms became the “new normal” in lieu of physical classrooms during the pandemic, many social aspects of learning took a hit. Without in-person meetings, many students came to feel isolated from their peers and instructors. Feeling disconnected from a shared learning environment lowers our motivation to participate and keeping up with coursework quickly becomes a struggle. There are many factors in this widespread sense of burn-out — a decline in mental health, political stressors, and family crises are just a few that come to mind — but one factor with a feasible solution is the lack of genuine human connection in digital learning environments. We don’t want students to feel alone if they’re struggling, but the unfortunate reality is that they often do. One solution to this problem is fostering a stronger human connection between instructors and students, in the hope of creating a more supportive digital learning community.

What instructors can do

Because we are all aware of the myriad stressors students are facing right now, as an instructor, establishing a sense of shared humanity in student-instructor interactions is critical. Students need to feel welcome in order to communicate honestly and openly with their instructors about what is going on in their lives should a crisis occur, but this is difficult to do if students have no sense of personal connection to their instructor, or even to the other students in their class.

Synchronous courses offer a digital venue for creating these connections via Zoom; however, many courses are asynchronous. Unfortunately, the ability of discussion boards to institute a sense of human connection pales in comparison to class discussions in real time. So what can instructors do to ensure that, even in asynchronous courses, students feel comfortable reaching out?

Instructors might endeavor to “humanize” their course content and communications with students. Including an “About Me” page on Canvas helps students gain a sense of their instructor as a person, not just an authority figure who creates and grades assignments. Adding a brief personal component to class-wide announcements — like sharing something interesting that happened over the weekend, some feelings about current events, or simply wishing students well — also helps students connect with their instructors on a human level. When students see their instructors as people rather than academic overseers, they are more likely to seek support from them should support be needed.

With a more open, personable online presence, instructors create a transparent learning environment where students are welcome to be just as open and honest with their instructors. In addition to this communication between students and professors being personable, it is crucial that it be clear and prompt as well. Instructors taking action and not only identifying, but supporting, struggling individuals is also a means of creating a stronger bond between themselves and their students. Making the first move to check in with those who may be having difficulty with a course, or a particular assignment, can be all that it takes for a student to feel seen and heard — especially those who may be reluctant to ask for help when they truly need it. If possible, having some sort of weekly check-in (perhaps in the form of a discussion board or email) could be the push some students need to stay engaged, motivated, and in touch.

What students can do

In order to reinvigorate human connection in a digital learning setting, students and instructors need to work together. Instructors are facing a similar increase in workload and stress as students: we are all members of the same world, after all. Because faculty are in a position of authority, students may forget that they are people facing the same hard times as everyone else. There are a few things students can keep in mind in order to treat and respect their instructors as fellow human beings.

In digital communications through Canvas or email, students should try to be mindful of their words and tone. Addressing faculty by their proper title and name when composing an email is more respectful than an empty greeting — such as “Hi” or “Hello” (with no name) — that fails to address that instructor’s humanity. Including a brief statement at the beginning of the message, like “I hope you’re doing well,” shows that the student cares about their professor as a person, not just as an instructor. These are both simple elements students can add to their communications that humanize the student-instructor relationship. The CDL micro-workshop on crafting the perfect extension request email to a professor reiterates these elements and is a good resource for students to refer to.

In a synchronous course setting, where a class meets on Zoom, students might also try (as much as they are comfortable doing) to turn their cameras on. As an instructor, lecturing into “the void” of blank screens probably feels, well, devoid of genuine human connection and interaction. The opportunity for visual connection with a class is valuable because it makes the learning experience seem more “real,” or more like an in-person class, for everyone — though it should be noted that this may not be a viable option for all students, whether that be due to their environment during class or not having access to the most capable technology. Not to mention, turning on a camera can be downright uncomfortable for some, especially if no one else has theirs on. It can certainly be intimidating to make the first move, but if your contribution gives another student the confidence to speak up, the momentary stress is worth it.

Even when turning your camera on is not possible, there are other opportunities for meaningful interaction. Adding a profile photo to your Zoom account is only one example; if you do not feel comfortable having your camera on for the duration of class, your professor and classmates can at least have something else to look at instead of the aforementioned “void.” The picture does not necessarily have to be of yourself, either! Provided that it is school-appropriate and not too distracting for others, you could use a picture of your pet, the logo of your favorite sports team, or perhaps of a character from a movie you enjoy. Gravatar is another great resource when it comes to choosing a profile photo, as it allows you to use the same image across multiple accounts on the web. In addition, sending short messages in chat can go a long way in terms of creating a sense of community and familiarity within a synchronous course — not only between students and the professor, but between students themselves.

What everyone can do

Be honest, and be understanding. Express your emotions, struggles, and triumphs to the people in your learning community. Even if we are not physically nearby, technology doesn’t take away our ability for human connection. It may even offer some surprising new opportunities.

Expressing your humanity — in respectful, thoughtful ways — reminds us all that we are experiencing this together. Most important, we will all get through this together! At the same time, keep in mind that what may be easy for you will not necessarily be easy for everyone. Despite our similarities, we all lead lives with unique abilities, settings, and challenges. We should honor our differences when it comes to online learning by coming to class with open, understanding minds.

Reinstating the sense of human connection between instructors and students will help alleviate the isolation many students and faculty in higher education are feeling right now. Forming genuine connections helps motivate students to stay engaged with their learning community, and creates a more compassionate learning environment for everyone.