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Nine Tips for Humanizing Online Learning
Effective eLearning (Special Series)

By Lori Cooper, Rick Holbeck, Jean Mandernach / December 2023

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Those teaching in an online environment must be more deliberate and intentional to foster social relationships. The research is clear: learning is a social process [1, 2]. While establishing these social connections occurs more naturally in face-to-face classrooms due to shared physical proximity of learners, with dedicated attention, online faculty can build equally powerful personalized connections in the virtual classroom. The following nine tips provide effective, doable approaches to humanize the online learning experience (and consequently enhance learning and engagement).

1. Share professional experience and expertise. Simply put, learners don’t want to learn from a computer, they want to learn from you. They want to know your professional background, experiences, and expertise. This does not imply that you need to spend inordinate amounts of time revealing everything about your professional history (there is such a thing as over-sharing), but rather that you should integrate stories, examples, and challenges that you have faced in your professional role. As online faculty members with multiple years of experience between us, we suggest it is important to make the learning real, relevant, and authentic through self-disclosure of your own experiences in the profession [3].

2. Show empathy. With the inherent barriers of nontraditional online learning, new and continuing learners sometimes struggle with time management and setting priorities in class. This becomes much more apparent when unexpected situations happen in their lives. In these situations, it is important for instructors to show empathy, and let learners know that they understand that issues happen [4]. Learners sometimes need reassurance that instructors understand their current situation and are supportive. This will lead to more of a connection between instructor and learner, where the learner feels appreciated and valued. The importance of being transparent and sharing personal experiences with learners is paramount for trust. This level of communication does not require specific skills, but rather a willingness for instructors to open up a little bit about their student/school experiences to allow learners not only perspective but assure them that the instructor has been in their shoes and understands the challenges or difficulties the learners may face. This can include words of encouragement and motivation. Sharing some of the obstacles that were overcome in the past, can help learners to keep moving forward. It also lets them know that everyone has unique challenges, but perseverance will get them to their end goal.

3. Use compassion. In addition to empathy, it is important to show compassion for learners. Again, learners will likely have situations happen in their lives that can take their attention away from class for a bit. Supporting our learners in a caring and supportive way will help them through the tough times during class. Using compassion will help to break down barriers between learners and instructors and build a foundation for a positive classroom experience. Showing compassion should not change an instructor’s high expectations, but it will help in building trust and community in the classroom. Instructors can show compassion by being flexible with deadlines on assignments or offering additional assistance to those who might be struggling. Allowing grace on late work or taking extra steps to show learners there is genuine concern from their instructors can go a long way. Doing so offers support for rapport building, where learners will feel more accountable and in turn more successful.

4. Ensure a visible online presence. An important factor for any learning experience is a connection between instructors and learners [5]. Online learning can be a lonely experience if online presence is not a focus for the instructor. Learners need to know that their online instructor is present and is a real person. Adding personalization to an online classroom can help provide this kind of connection. Some ideas for personalizing the online classroom are posting a detailed bio with a picture, adding introductory videos in the classroom, and/or sharing hobbies and interests with the class. In addition, it is important to use learner’s names in the discussion forums as often as possible. Furthermore, a constant presence in the online classroom will affirm an instructor’s engagement and accessibility.

5. Integrate videos. Videos can be used for much more than just introductions. Assignment and rubric walkthroughs can help learners gain a better understanding of expectations for that assessment. Screencast and Loom videos are effective means of providing supportive feedforward information. In addition, videos can be used for community building, social presence, and content support. Many learners enjoy having videos to support their learning experience, and when they are personalized, the videos can help to strengthen the learner-instructor connection. Videos do not need to be perfect; quick, unedited videos can make the learning feel more personalized.

6. Utilize proper welcome and goodbye. It is important to start class by making learners feel welcome. Welcomes can be done via video and/or text form. A great place to start is by including a short instructor biography that shares a bit about family, interests, and background. This should also include some expectations for the class as well as tips to be successful. Ask learners to share an introduction and provide a personalized reply to each. As important as the introduction and welcome to class can be, it is important to close the class in a positive manner as well. This can be done by using a summary, wrap-up announcement, an end-of-class video that encourages learners to keep moving forward, inspirational posts including motivational excerpts, and/or an email sent to each student summarizing the learning content and directives for future classes. A proper goodbye allows the learner closure to the class.

7. One-to-one support. Learners can easily feel disconnected from their learning, peers, and instructors by sitting behind a computer to attend class. Socialization can be fragmented due to the asynchronous environment that creates a stop-and-go structure of interaction. Instructors can lessen this disconnect by calling (or videoconferencing with) learners when they appear to be struggling, not understanding concepts, or are missing work. In addition, instructors can hold office hours synchronously through teleconference platforms. Having structured touchpoints to check on learners can also be helpful, where instructors can send emails to learners to check in, congratulate their progress, or see if learners need additional help with assignments.

8. Establish rapport. Building rapport with learners is very important. Instructors should create an environment where discussions are open and safe while encouraging connections between learners, instructors, and content. Instructors should look for shared experiences and use these to connect learners in discussions. Instructors should ask open questions and respond by summarizing and reflecting on discussion responses. As described earlier, rapport can be built by simply using learners’ names in discussion responses. Online learners can often perceive a negative tone in online written communication that creates a negative impression of their instructors’ intentions. Learners can, in turn, lack motivation if they feel an instructor doesn’t care or have their best interest in learning at heart. One way to change this is to offer emojis if the framing of the discussion or wording seems firm or direct. Misunderstandings in online learning can leave the learner frustrated and decrease their willingness to engage in class, with the instructor, or their learning in general. Instructors should be mindful to use softer words when offering constructive criticism and to be intentional in balancing criticisms with praise. Instructors may sound condescending when they are too direct with online written messages, so intentionally softening this approach assists in building rapport. While it may not be realistic to respond to every single student in every asynchronous discussion, an instructor should distribute replies so that all students receive an instructor comment at some point in the course. For example, if there are three discussion threads on a topic, the instructor can try to reach out to a third of their learners in each discussion thread. While keeping track of learner engagement can seem tedious, it can go a long way in the learner feeling that the instructor cares about their learning and is fully engaged in this process.

9. Add a synchronous component. Some learners thrive on interacting with their instructors. Although time constraints have usually created the need for asynchronous learning, it can be valuable to offer learners a chance to meet synchronously. This can be achieved in a few ways. First, instructors might offer virtual office hours. This can be an hour set aside during the week where the instructor has a Zoom link where learners can stop by to ask questions about the class and/or content or to simply stop in to say hello.

Using these strategies, instructors can tap into the social nature of learning. The key is to be intentional with instructional approaches that address and break down the isolation that learners often feel in the online classroom. An effective online learning experience allows learners to explore content while simultaneously building relationships with instructors and peers. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, "people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care." Online instructors need to ensure they are humanizing the online learning experience to effectively support meaningful learning and engagement.   


[1] Gweon, H. Inferential social learning: Cognitive foundations of human social learning and teaching. Trends in Cognitive Science 25, 10 (2021), 1–15. 

[2] Harris, P. L., Koenig, M. A., Corriveau, K. H., and Jaswal, V. K. Cognitive foundations of learning from testimony. Annual Review of Psychology 69, 1 (2018),  251-273.

[3] Power, A.  Community engagement as authentic learning with reflection. Issues in Educational Research 20, 1 (2010), 57-63. 

[4] Owen, L. Empathy in the classroom: Why should I care? Edutopia. Nov. 11, 2015.

[5] Garrison, D. R. and Vaughn, N. D. Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, principles, and guidelines.  Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2008.

About the Authors

Lori J. Cooper, Ph.D., is a full-time online faculty member for the College of Humanities and Social Science at Grand Canyon University. She has more than 20 years servicing higher education students, with 15 of these years teaching undergraduate online psychology classes. Her research interests include classroom assessment techniques, the role of emotional intelligence (EI) in academic achievement, Autism spectrum disorders (specifically executive functioning) and management of restrictive and repetitive behaviors, efficiency of instruction and classroom management in online learning, and the relationship between student achievement/outcomes and use of video instruction in the online classroom.

Rick Holbeck, M.Ed., M.S. is executive director of online instruction at Grand Canyon University. His research focuses on online learning, student engagement, and instructional technology. He explores ways to use technologies to foster student engagement and increase teaching effectiveness. In addition, he is currently exploring ways to use artificial intelligence to support teaching and learning. Holbeck is an active researcher and presenter in online education.

Jean Mandernach, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Innovation in Research on Teaching at Grand Canyon University. Her research focuses on enhancing student learning experiences in the online classroom through innovative instructional and assessment strategies. She explores strategies for integrating efficient online instruction in a manner that maximizes student learning, satisfaction, and engagement. In addition, she has interests in innovative faculty development and evaluation models, teaching and learning analytics, emergent instructional technology, and faculty workload considerations. Mandernach is an active researcher, author, presenter, and consultant in the field of online education.

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