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Online Done Right: The importance of human interaction for student success

By Jayson M. Boyers / September 2013

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In 2011, nearly 7 million Americans received instruction through online courses, a number that reflects the growing interest in more flexible learning options in higher education. Though more connected than any previous generation, many online learners report feeling something is missing from their educational experience. For all the convenience and flexibility online instruction offers, too many programs have been designed without an appreciation for the necessity of human connection and collaboration in the learning process. Even proponents acknowledge there are risks associated with the popular distance-learning model known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Widely touted as a revolutionary development in higher education, MOOCs enable thousands of enrollees to move through an entire course with little to no direct communication, either with the instructor or with fellow students. While it may be tempting to embrace the promise of MOOCs—widespread exposure to educational material, simultaneously, for an unlimited numbers of students—the distinction must never be lost: Distributing information is not the same as teaching.

When we begin to view education merely as a hurdle to be overcome or a box to check, we run the risk of reducing it to a commercial transaction. Too often, the latest online education model will offer reading material, lists of the more salient points, and presentations from a one-dimensional speaker, while the opportunity to engage, ask questions, and participate in small-group discussions is nonexistent. I fear a backlash. Most students are social beings, who require partnership and active participation to be optimal learners. A course as intriguing as "The Art and Science of Leadership" begs for student participation and interaction, as learners dialogue about how best to motivate others or debate the various qualities shared by effective leaders.

This is not to say that distance learning is destined to fail. Online education, when executed correctly, offers as much of an opportunity for the vital human connection that is at the heart of a quality education found at a brick-and-mortar institution. But what does quality online education look like? How does it differ from the MOOCs model? Let us start by examining the "massive" aspect of MOOCs.

A quality online course provides the scheduling flexibility of distance learning, but does so with a reasonable student-professor ratio that makes interaction and connection possible. Unlike MOOCs, which can have as many as 100,000 enrolled students. Quality online learning builds on an exchange of ideas by providing and encouraging regular, consistent interaction that is so vital to mastering new concepts. Well-structured courses, with high levels of interactivity, enable students to expand their horizons beyond their geographical constraints and the limits of a brick-and-mortar classroom. Students in online courses here at Champlain College share a virtual classroom with an average of 19 other students and their professor. The tools that unite them are already woven into the fabric of their daily lives: social media networks, group chat and video conferencing sessions, messaging, and online advising with instructors. The technology facilitates the education, but it does not unilaterally define the education. This model is actually creating community where none existed: It represents a bona fide revolution in higher education.

Why Engagement Matters

The level of engagement found with quality online learning stimulates cross-cultural exchange, exposes the student to new ideas and approaches to learning, and forges relationships that can significantly increase their understanding of the material, and, ultimately, their likelihood of success.

When properly engaged in an online course, students experience the following:

  • Regular, consistent, meaningful presence from the faculty member.
  • Creation of a learning community and connection with fellow students.
  • Feedback that creates and encourages growth.

Not only do students form emotional bonds that enhance and deepen the learning experience, online education levels the playing field for different types of learners. Here, the introvert is encouraged to contribute to the conversation and to voice his or her opinion in an open, welcoming atmosphere. The extrovert is not in a position to dominate the classroom discussion and instead must carefully consider others' input. Each student is given the chance to interact with peers and professors, creating an opportunity to be heard and understood in a way that might not be possible or likely in a traditional classroom setting.

Professors also benefit from quality online education. No longer bound by stringent office hours, they may now be reached via email, Skype, and through various social media channels. The feedback and interaction provided through such methods in many ways trumps that of traditional face-to-face communication, as those interactions may, out of necessity, be rushed or logistically challenging for both parties.

Because online education is evolving in different directions simultaneously, it is imperative that advocates in the higher education community remain judicious when faced with the latest innovation. Viewing education as a process that can exist apart from the community of learners is a grave misstep. By creating an online education model that recognizes the value and necessity of human interaction, I believe we demonstrate both a reverence for the traditional Socratic method and an appreciation for the innovation that so clearly shapes the age in which we live.

About the Author

Jayson M. Boyers is the managing director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for third-party components of this work must be honored. For all other uses, contact the Owner/Author.

2013 Copyright held by the Owner/Author. 1535-394X/13/09



  • Thu, 26 Sep 2013
    Post by George

    MOOCs have simply brought fully online education  which has been going on for about two decades  more prominently into the mainstream. The only thing that is really different about MOOCs is that they are massive, with thousands of learners in attendance, instead of an online course with 20 to 30 students, for example. The massiveness, however, makes them very impersonal with a massive lack of interaction and sharing between students and with instructors. The term MOOC was actually coined by Professor David Cormier in 2008 in an large online course called "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge" that he was teaching with colleagues Bryan Alexander, George Siemens, and Stephen Downes  all online education experts for many years. Cormiers vision of MOOCs entailed that they be collaborative and participatory (see  an online teaching and learning experience where people could work and talk and learn in a structured online course. Instead, many of the MOOCs we are seeing are not interactive at all.

    The creators of MOOCs realize that more interactivity needs to be incorporated into these large courses in order to get more people to actually complete them. So we will surely be seeing more educational technologies incorporated into MOOCs that will bring people together in a more exciting and dynamic online environment that is closer to a physical class.

    One of these technologies is video chat, whereby students and faculty can actually see and hear each other through their webcams. A large MOOC, for instance, can break up the huge numbers into smaller groups, each monitored by a teaching assistant, similar to how it is done in large face-to-face lecture courses. The TA and students can all see and hear each other, share documents and resources and basically come close to mimicking what a real face-to-face teaching and learning environment is like. A new player for the facilitation of this kind of live, synchronous environment is a company called Shindig, a video chat online learning platform based out of New York City (see You can also check out a YouTube video about their new online learning platform

  • Thu, 12 Sep 2013
    Post by Paul Jacobelli

    Well said. This is a message that neds to be repeated often lest we get all caught up with the bells and whistles and the latest fads.