The thing I miss most about the way school was before COVID is the human-ness of it all. Even though I'm pretty introverted, I miss the sounds of voices in the hallways, the smiles and waves and hellos and laughs and handshakes (remember those?). I miss the moments of electricity when you connect a young person with an idea they've never seen before, and all of a sudden their world has expanded. I miss sitting down in a quiet classroom after a day's work, the social parts of me happily fatigued the same way my legs are after a long walk.
So here are the critical questions:
- How do we humanize school when we aren't in-person any more?
- How do we humanize online-only classrooms?
I'm not just asking selfishly, either. These are questions of equity, of outcomes, of mental health. These are a piece of the root of whether our online learning spaces are places that promote the short- and long-term flourishing of our students.
And in a world drowning in bad news, take heart! I have such good news today: many educators have gone before us, and the field of humanizing online learning spaces is not new. Best practices exist — let's explore them.
Below, I'll share all that I've learned from folks far more expert than me in this realm of humanizing a distance education. Like usual, we'll lay some grounding principles first — because great teachers are great understanders — and then we'll get practical.
(And for an excellent complement to this post, consider last week's “How to Build Strong Relationships with Students if You're Starting the Year Online: Principles and Practices.”)
Grounding Principles for Humanizing the Distance Learning Classroom
Principle 1: Human beings are mostly hidden.
This principle cohered for me recently while listening to a talk by a late USC philosopher named Dallas Willard. Human beings are invisible creatures, Willard claimed, in the sense that we have bodies, which are visible, but these bodies are only a fraction of what a human is. The body cannot be subtracted from any definition of what a human being is, but the body is a different thing from the invisible thoughts and feelings and intentions and social relationships that compose the fuller picture of who we are.
Principle 2: Humane environments are those in which less of who we are is hidden and we feel less of a need to hide.
A humane classroom or school is a place where students feel warmly seen — like they are known, valued, and respected — and feel like it is unnecessary to remain invisible — as in, they feel safe in being seen.
We could say that these are four hallmarks of a humanized learning space: feeling valued, known, respected, and safe.
In such an environment, our students are far more likely to be eager to learn and to persist in learning.
Principle 3: The humanization of a learning environment is difficult because A) there is much I don't control, and B) humans vary in what makes them feel valued, known, respected, and safe.
Difficulty A: There's much I don't control.
In a public high school classroom like the one I teach in, creating a humane environment is a high, high bar. While I do have great influence in my classroom environment — indeed, no one in that space has more — there are many things I don't control. For example:
- Whether a student has been insulted or snubbed by a classmate in the previous class period.
- Whether a student has had a good meal recently.
- Whether a student resides at night in an emotionally or physically safe environment.
- Whether a student's teacher last year said or did anything that damaged that student's sense of safety or value in classrooms like mine.
- Whether a child enters my room with an identity facet that minoritizes them in my setting or makes them suspect that others may view them through a stereotype lens rather than as an individual (i.e., stereotype threat).
- Whether a child has experienced past successes or failures in the context of the discipline I am teaching.
And to top it off, many of these variables are hidden — especially at the start of the year.
(Deep breathing may be helpful at this point in the article.)
Difficulty B: Humans vary in what makes them feel valued, known, respected, and safe.
(If the deep breathing isn't helping, just skip to Principle 5 for now.)
While there are huge consistencies in how students learn (see Daniel Wilingham's book [paperback | Kindle | audio] for the most readable treatment of these), there is significant individuation in how students come to feel valued, known, respected, and safe. Some are introverted and prefer less personal attention from the instructor; others are extroverted and would take 100% of the instructor's attention if they could get it. Some students want us to know everything about them on the first day of school; others are much slower to feel this degree of comfort. Some like to be called upon; others are terrified by it (a problem, by the way, that a humanized classroom helps to remedy; more on that here).
Principle 4: These same difficulties exist in an online learning environment, only for most students they are heightened.
(If you're still reading, now's the part where we laugh so that we don't cry.)
Remember how there was much that I don't control in the physical classroom environment where I am with my students for an hour each day? All those variables? Multiply those variables by a lot and you've got students learning from home.
(Good news side note: As we saw in the Spring 2020, there is a small percentage of students who feel safer learning from home and are more confident in an online learning environment.)
Principle 5: With all these things acknowledged, humanizing online learning spaces is completely possible.
So what we've done so far is we've faced the brutal facts. It's the Stockdale Paradox: prisoner-of-war Jim Stockdale's observation that the prisoners most likely to survive were both realistic (“I'm in hell”) and optimistic (“I will prevail”).
So, Dave, what about the optimism part?
Right. So the really good news is that even though it's challenging, teachers humanize learning spaces every day all around the world in millions of classrooms; they do a ton of this unconsciously, and they have done so for a really long time. It doesn't require superhuman effort; no 90-hour workweeks like we see in the Hollywood teacher movies. This is one of the miracles of teaching — that despite all the obstacles, learning happens and always has.
And if you're teaching online this year due to COVID, this humanization work is totally possible in online learning spaces, and again it doesn't require super strength or abandoning your sanity to a screen 22 hours per day.
But don't take my word for it — enter Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a faculty mentor for community college instructors who specializes in humanizing online learning spaces.
Simple Practices for Humanizing the Distance Learning Classroom
What follows is an outline that is entirely from Michelle Pacansky-Brock's “Pocket PD Guide” on “Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning” at Online Network for Educators. I first learned of Michelle's work through teacher/writer John Robert Reynolds. I am very grateful to John for sharing this with me, and I am very grateful to Michelle for making this work accessible to us all through a Creative Commons-Attribution license.
To humanize online learning spaces, Michelle recommends that we:
- Cultivate our human presence
- Identify high opportunity students
- Be warm demanders
1. Practices for cultivating your human presence when teaching from a distance
The first step to humanizing an online learning classroom is to humanize yourself. The following practices make you a presence and a person in your online learning space rather than just a name on a screen.
1.1 Tell your story in a friendly, introductory video
When I say “story,” I mean it — make a short video explaining how you became the teacher of this course.
Some questions to consider answering in your intro video story:
- How long have you been teaching at your school?
- Where did you grow up?
- What was your first job(s)?
- What was your college journey like?
- Why did you select the major you selected?
- What job(s) did you have during college? Did any stand out for what they taught you?
- What did you do after college? Where did you go?
- When did you decide that you wanted to teach?
- Where has your teaching journey taken you?
- What do you love about your current job?
If that seems like a lot, it is! But then again, it's not — I took it all from this two-minute instructor welcome video by Dr. Sarah Williams.
If you don't have much time until you start your online teaching journey, go for something less polished. Take ten minutes to write down the bullet points you'd like to cover, get out your recording device, point it at your face, and go — keeping in mind that you want this to be brief! (After all, there's no need to demonstrate to students in your first video to them that you are not aware of how stories or minutes work.)
If you do have a little more time, here's the workflow Dr. Williams used for her brief video.
- Create a 2-3 minute video using Adobe Spark (free for this kind of use).
- The benefit here is that you can use photos and background music to liven up the video a bit.
- Download the Spark video to your computer.
- Upload the video to YouTube.
- Once the YouTube auto-captions are available, edit the captions for accuracy.
- Embed the YouTube video into your online learning management system so that it greets your students when they first enter your course. (Here's Michelle Pacanksy-Brock's video on how to do that within the Canvas LMS.)
While Dr. Williams' approach takes more time, I think it's worth it if you can afford it. It's our first impression, so we want to treat it like we would the first day of school.
1.2 Use brief, imperfect instructional videos featuring you, the teacher.
For most of us, it's tempting as an online instructor to find and use videos in our courses from teachers who are more adept at video production or explaining things than we are. I mean, come on — predicting the outcome of the battle between me and Bill Nye the Science Guy isn't difficult. But while it's not necessary to make sure that all of the videos in our online courses are made by us, it is hugely helpful (from a humanization standpoint) to make many of them from scratch. And they need not be perfect!
Here's a video that exemplifies the “done is better than perfect” vibe that we're going for with our instructional videos. In it, Michelle Pacansky-Brock gives seven tips for recording instructor videos with your phone.
- Use frontal lighting.
- Don't mimic a robot.
- Film in landscape (sideways phone) rather than portrait (vertical phone).
- Share the non-academic, as appropriate. (In the video, her dog makes a cameo.)
- Look into your camera (not at your face on the screen).
- Consider using a basic, affordable phone tripod (here's an example).
- Accept your imperfections.
That last piece is a big block for folks in making instructional videos. Like we covered in the grounding principles, humans are mostly hidden creatures, and it's tempting in the unfamiliar realm of online teaching to hide ourselves even more. I know it can be freaky to put yourself out there on video for an online course; my encouragement is to do it nonetheless.
Here's an instructional video I made during the initial COVID lockdowns in my state. Notice at the start how you can hear my kids in the background, and notice that I sometimes stumble over my words. And also, notice that the garbage truck was rumbling through the neighborhood.
Do I look or sound dumb at points in this video? Are parts of it distracting? Sure! But the risk is worth the reward of another small investment toward the humanization of my online learning space.
1.3 Send video postcards.
This is an idea that many of us may have stumbled upon during the lockdowns of Spring 2020. You're out for a walk and you see something neat and you get out your phone and film the neat thing along with a little note saying that you are thinking of your students.
Or you're enjoying the day's first cup of coffee, sitting there taking in the aroma, and your students come to mind. You bust out the phone, take a quick “thinking of you” video, and place it in the announcements section of your course.
Michelle Pacansky-Brock says periodic video postcards like this work because they
- Show a non-academic side of you, which heightens your social presence (i.e., it makes you feel like a real person).
- There's actually an interesting study on this. In Borup, West, and Graham's 2012 article for The Internet and Higher Education, they found that “a large majority of students indicated feeling that the video-based communication made their instructors seem more real, present, and familiar, and several students indicated that these relationships were similar to face-to-face instruction. Video communication impacted students’ social presence in similar ways, although to a lesser degree than they believed it impacted instructor social presence.” And note that the video communication being examined in the study was asynchronous — that is, just the kind of things we've looked at in practices 1.1, 1.2, and 1.3.
- It demonstrates care — a key component of teacher credibility.
- It makes you relatable, which in turn increases the odds that students will lean in and ask for help when they need it.
1.4 When possible, leave voice or video feedback on student work.
Four researchers in 2007 surveyed their students in asynchronous classes on their perceptions of audio- vs text-based feedback (Ice, Curtis, Phillips, & Wells). They found that students were significantly more satisfied with audio feedback and three times more likely to apply the contents of audio feedback to subsequent work. In their exploration of the reasons behind their findings, they discovered four themes.
- Audio feedback was perceived to be more effective than text-based feedback for conveying nuance.
- Audio feedback was associated with feelings of increased involvement and enhanced learning community interactions.
- Audio feedback was associated with increased retention of content.
- Audio feedback was associated with the perception that the instructor cared more about the student.
I'll go first: I've not used audio commenting before on student work. Ever. I'm ashamed to admit that because I can remember seeing a video of Jim Burke, years ago, sharing how easy it is. But in light of this study's evidence, you can bet I'm going to give this a try (with a strong helping of Matthew Johnson's Flash Feedback on the side.)
Here's how to leave audio feedback in several learning management systems.
- In Canvas: View the “Media Comments” section of the Canvas Guide, How do I leave feedback comments for student submissions in SpeedGrader Canvas Guide.
- In Google Classroom: Here's how to use an extension called Vocaroo.
- D2L/Brightspace: Here's an explainer page.
- Schoology: Here's a video walkthrough.
2. Identify high opportunity students
As we said in our grounding principles, not all students need the same level of attention or intervention in order to feel valued, known, respected, and safe. Since our time is finite, we need to use that to our advantage and identify the students for whom more targeted humanization efforts are likely to yield the greatest benefit.
2.1 Survey your students in the first week, being sure to ask a few specific questions while also not doing a survey bomb.
Michelle Pacansky-Brock recommends using a short survey in week one “to illuminate the psychological barriers and real-life scenarios that may interfere with your students’ success.” She specifically lays out three questions you want to make sure to ask.
Pacansky-Brock also shares an extended survey example from the Canvas Commons (accessible even if you're not using Canvas) created by Mike Smedshammer, a distance education coordinator at Modesto Junior College in California. Smedshammer's survey has ten simple questions, which I've modified for my use below.
- What name would you like me to use?
- Do you have any pronunciation tips for saying your name? (Optional: try an audio or video recording of your answer. Use the button that looks like a black and white YouTube Play button to activate your audio and webcam options. Note that this option does not work on the Canvas app.)
- What is the best way to reach you? (If email, text or phone, please provide.)
- How long have you attended Cedar Springs Public Schools?
- Sometimes I provide feedback using video. Would this be okay, or would you prefer written feedback every time?
- Note the connection to Practice 1.4.
- When you use Canvas (our online platform), will you mainly use your phone, a laptop, a computer, or something else?
- What do you know about how you learn? What has worked for you in the past? What hasn't?
- The original version talks about learning styles, which I won't ask my students because of the lack of cognitive science evidence for doing so (see this article by Dan Willingham; even better, see Ch. 7 of his book). But I do want to know about their beliefs about learning, and these questions give me some early angles into that.
- In one word, describe how you are feeling about this class.
- What is the one thing that is most likely to interfere with your success in this class? (open-ended)
- Is there anything else you would like to share at this point? OPTIONAL: try an audio or video recording of your answer. Use the button that looks like a black and white YouTube Play button to activate your audio and webcam options. (Sorry — this option does not work on the Canvas app.)
Make special note of questions 8 and 9, as these will give us insight into who our high opportunity students are. We'll talk more about that next.
2.2 Identify students who will benefit most from your individualized, high-touch communications.
Using the data from our student survey, we can now identify our high opportunity students — our students who will benefit most from individualized, high-touch communications. We want to look at answers to two specific questions.
- In one word, describe how you are feeling about this class. Make note of students who responded to this question with things like “nervous” or “overwhelmed.” Send them an individual message right away, making it audio or video if you're able as per practice 1.4. Let them know that you hear them, you see them, and you are there to support them. This is a brief, powerful intervention that will supercharge the humanization of your online classroom right out of the gate.
- What is one thing that is most likely to interfere with your success in this class? For now, just copy these real-world challenges down in an easy to access place. You can probably do this inside of your learning management system (here's how to do it in Canvas), but if you need to, just go old school paper and clipboard style.
So notice what we're doing here — we're picking certain students for higher-touch (but still efficient) interventions. Why? Because not all online students need this kind of contact and we only have so many hours each day for work.
3. Be a warm demander
Warm demander pedagogy is an older component of culturally responsive teaching. It was coined by Judith Kleinfeld's “Effective Teachers of Eskimo and Indian Students” for School Review in 1975, but a similar idea is present in Diana Baumrind's 1966 article “Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior” for Child Development. (Here's an Ed Leadership write-up on Kleinfeld's work, and here's one from DevSci.org on Baumrind's. The Baumrind connection is in the authoritative parenting style.)
The idea of warm demander pedagogy is that in a humanized space where relationships are strong, the most effective instructors challenge students to push themselves and grow from dependent to independent learners. High support, high challenge — that's warm demander pedagogy in a nutshell
To put this into practice, as you track student performance or engagement throughout an online teacher semester, note the dips and respond with a personal message to students that takes into account any real-world challenges the student has identified.
Here's an example from one of my courses last spring:
- Anita, are you all right? I noticed that you haven't completed the last two assignments. How are things with your living situation? Are you still watching your siblings for six hours each day? Please reply with an update so that I can help you get back on track with the course. I know you can do this! I believe in you and I want to see you succeed.
Deep breaths + one step at a time
At the end of writing this post, I gave a mighty exhalation. It feels like so much. Even though the practices above are all aimed at high-leverage, high-efficiency intervention, it still looks like work and change and exhaustion compared to those bustling hallways and flesh-and-blood relationships that I started the post with.
But the work is worth it. What we do matters. And amidst these new challenges, we'll continue to do it, one step at a time.
You may also be interested in the series I'm writing about how to sustain our own motivation amidst so much change and turmoil and fear and pain. How do we sustain the will to teach amidst trying circumstances? The posts in that series so far are below.