Humanizing Online Learning

by Charlotte Jones-Roberts,

Humanizing your online course is advantageous for everyone: teachers and students alike. To bring energy, empathy, and equity is to create a learning community which connects and learns together.


When transitioning to an online environment, a predominant concern of educators is losing the human “connection” with their students. This connection can occur with the other students, with the content, and with the instructor. How does one go about creating this connection in an online course? In this snippet, we will offer a few tips to humanize online learning, as well as showcase the TOPkit 2020 Workshop’s Keynote, Michelle Packansky Brock.

Michelle Packansky-Brock is the go-to guru of Humanizing Online Learning. Watch her Keynote at the TOPkit 2020 Workshop:

What is Humanized Online Learning?

Teacher Presence

In live video students respond to humor, emotions, self-disclosure, and interjecting allusions of physical presence (Paquette, 2016). One way to employ this was featured in Michelle Packansky-Brock’s keynote as digital postcards. Here, a teacher includes a small snippet of instructional material integrated into their everyday “on-location” life (ie: at home, at Disney World, or at the gas station).

Social Presence

When learners experience a high degree of social presence, they are more likely to engage in higher order thinking, actively participate in online discussions (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). In addition, they are less likely to drop out of their classes and are more satisfied with their learning experience. One way to increase social presence is to utilize video discussions which allow students to apply their learning, rather than robotically address the requirements of a rubric.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culture and people are inextricably intertwined. Culture contributes to the way knowledge is constructed in a given group of students. As such, culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that creates full and equitable access to education and fully acknowledges and celebrates the cultures of all students (Brown University, 2021).

How to Humanize Your Online Course

Empathy. View your course through student eyes. What do students want when they open your course? They want to know where to go (how to start and navigate course), what to do (content and assignments), how to do it (clear, complete instructions), and how their work will be evaluated (scoring criteria). If you design your course so that students know where to go, what to do and how to do it, they will be able to focus more effectively on your content, activities, and assessments without the anxiety that comes with not knowing where, what, or how.

Where to go

Home page: Design your course home page so that when students open your course, they feel welcome and can orient themselves quickly. Make sure the home page tells them where they are (course and instructor) and where to find what they need (e.g., course introductory materials and learning modules);

Organization: Use your LMS’s structure framework (e.g. modules) to organize your units of instruction (e.g., chapters, weeks, topics). Design modules so that students can intuitively find the learning goals, content, assignments, and assessments in the order you intend for them to encounter and use them. Organize your modules for smooth flow for the students so that they run into what they need when they need it, minimizing back and forth navigation and hunting for what they need.

What to do

As the instructor or designer of a course, you know without instructions where to find your content components (e.g., documents, ebooks, videos), what students are intended to do with them, and what students are intended to learn from them. Students do not know this crucial information when they open your course, and no two instructors design their courses the same way. Every time students open a course for the first time, it is like walking into a new classroom; and every time they open a new page, it is like walking into a new class session. Course files should not be lumped together and students expected to rummage for the file you want them to read. Videos should not be lumped on a page and students expected to watch without knowing what to watch for and what to do with content after watching.

  • Use the LMS structure (e.g., modules, pages) to guide students through your course content (e.g., documents, ebooks, videos) and activities (e.g., discussions, assignments, assessments) in the order you intend them to encounter and use them.
  • Provide clear, complete instructions WHERE students will use them, even for recurring assignments. Even if you have instructions in the syllabus for a recurring assignment, copy and paste those instructions in the assignment tool where students will do their work. They will not have your instructions memorized like you do, and they should not have to locate the instructions in another part of the course. Provide specific instructions where they will use them.
  • When providing content, do not merely upload or link to a file, ebook, or video, much less multiple files, ebooks, or videos. We wouldn’t engage with content without an interesting title, description, or relevant goal, and students aren’t likely to either. For each content component, provide it where students will have to run into it at the appropriate time; point to it and highlight it with, title (formatted as a heading), brief description, what they should expect to learn, and how they will be expected to use it.

How to do it

You know how you want student work to be done, formatted, organized, and submitted, but students don’t unless you tell them, because every instructor wants things done differently from any other instructor. Providing instructions for assignments once in the syllabus is not sufficient, including for recurring assignments. Students don’t know your instructions by heart like you do, and they shouldn’t have to (and often won’t) repeatedly hunt for the instructions that are at a different location than the assignment portal where they will use them. Provide clear, complete instructions right where students will use them. If you have a recurring assignment, paste the instructions at each submission.

How work will be evaluated

Students want to submit work to you the way you want it, and they will do their work the way they think you want it. If you don’t tell them (teach them) how their work should be done, you will not get what you wanted or expected, and students will be frustrated and confused with lower resulting scores. Communicate clearly (teach) your expectations for student work and how it will be evaluated. Specifically, provide criteria (e.g., a rubric) for scoring that communicates how they can succeed and even excel. Communicate the criteria that will yield mediocre or unacceptable scores. 

Some instructors have argued that scoring criteria such as in a rubric will limit student work; rather, a well-designed rubric will communicate and give value to what you really want students to demonstrate and extend their achievement. When designing scoring criteria, ensure that the scoring system (e.g., point values for criteria and achievement levels) yields appropriate total scores.

Student activities

After presenting content or teaching a skill (e.g., problem-solving strategy), provide low-stakes opportunities for students to reflect, recall, apply, or practice and receive timely feedback. For major assignments such as papers, projects, presentations, or exams, provide clear instructions for each component and evaluation criteria.

Technology Tools

In addition to the tips listed above, Jones-Roberts (2018) offers some easy suggestions which integrate technology to humanize online learning and especially social presence include:

  • Self-Reflective Topics to Break the Ice
  • Personal Disclosure and Reflection in Online Discussions
  • Instructor-Created Videos
  • Asynchronous Video Discussion Boards 
  • Audio or Video Feedback on Student Assignments


Humanizing your online course is advantageous for everyone: teachers and students alike. To bring energy, empathy, and equity is to create a learning community which connects and learns together.


Brown University. (2021). Culturally responsive teaching. Education Alliance of Brown University. Retrieved from:

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. 

Jones-Roberts, Charlotte A. (2018) Increasing social presence online: Five strategies for instructors. FDLA Journal, 3(8). Retrieved from:

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2013). Best practices for teaching with emerging technologies. Routledge. 

Packansky-Brock, M. (2020). Humanizing online learning. Keynote presented at the 4th Annual TOPkit Workshop, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from:  

Paquette, P. (2016). Instructing the instructors: Training instructors to use social presence cues in online courses. Journal of Educators Online, 13(1), 80-108.

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Charlotte is an Instructional Designer, who has been working at UCF since 2017. She has taught grades K12 and adults on three continents. Her research interests include: humanizing online learning, social presence in online courses, cohort programs, and online quality.