Humanizing Your Online Course

Humanizing your course means taking intentional steps to create a human connection with and between learners in your course. Contrast this to learners interacting only with content and the computer interface, without a sense that there is a thoughtful, caring teacher behind what they see in Moodle or elsewhere.

Humanizing any course is important, but needs a bit more attention in an online, particularly asynchronous, environment for several reasons:

  • Online asynchronous communication with learners is often completely text-based, and can suffer from lack the facial expression, tone of voice and body language that convey care and attention.
  • It’s easy for instructors to set a course in motion and check out for a time, letting the hard work they put into design carry their course for a while.
  • It’s difficult for instructors to get to know their online students, so feeling a part of community is hard for everyone.
  • Online courses are quite popular with students who are non-traditional, and non-traditional students often have outside pressures and schedules and may not have as much time to cultivate relationships by coming to in-person office hours, for example.

In this article, you’ll find some tips about high-impact practices that you can easily incorporate into your courses that will build a relationship of trust, emphasize your presence in the courses, build your awareness of your students and respond with empathy.

Why “humanize” your course?

Emotional engagement is key to students learning. If a student feels uncared-for, unsupported, isolated, neglected or otherwise negative about coming to class or about their relationship with you, that negativity will present a barrier to their cognitive engagement and their learning. Consider the following:

  • Human connection is the antidote for the emotional disruption that prevents many students from performing to their full potential and in online courses, creating that connection is even more important.”1
  • Online students report that they “often felt isolated…but [the teacher] helped ensure we had a community of support to enable [us] to succeed.”2
  • “Emotional engagement is critical for effective online teaching.”3
  • “In humanized online courses, instructor-student relationships are the connective tissue between students, engagement, and rigor.”4
1From Jaggars, S. S. & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance? Computers & Education, (95), 270-284; found at Humanize Your Online Class.
2Melissa Fanshawe, Katie Burke, Eseta Tualaulelei, and Cath Cameron, “Creating Emotional Engagement in Online Learning,” Educause Review, August 3, 2020.
3Elizabeth Reyes-Fournier, Edward J. Cumella, Michelle March, Jennifer Pedersen, and Gabrielle Blackman, "Development and Validation of the Purdue Global Online Teaching Effectiveness Scale," Online Learning 24,  no. 2 (2020): 111–127.
4Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., & Vincent-Layton, K. (2020). Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Current Issues in Education, 21(2).

Principles of a humanized course

Michelle Pacansky-Brock identifies four interwoven principles of a humanized online course:

  • Trust. Trust is foundational. Notice in Pacansky-Brock’s image below, all four vertical strands are labeled “trust.” For a student, trusting you as their instructor means knowing that you care about their success, won’t judge them for making mistakes or taking intellectual risks and will listen to them and respect them.
  • Presence. Students need to feel their your active presence in the course. If you are responsive to student needs and are an active participant in the learning community, students will feel more connected to the course and supported by you.
  • Awareness. Awareness requires getting to know your students and understanding what they bring to the learning environment so you can better support them as individuals.
  • Empathy. Once you’re aware of students’ needs and situations, you are positioned to see through their eyes and offer support and flexibility that will support their learning and success.
Four vertical threads labeled "trust" are woven with three horizontal threads labeled "empathy," "awareness" and "presence."
Four interwoven principles of humanizing your online course

High-impact practices for humanizing your course

Use informal video

Informal videos are a humanizing workhorse. These short, friendly videos, perhaps filmed on a smartphone and full of everyday experiences, can show you as authentic and relatable. Simply seeing your face and hearing your voice helps students see you as a person. Informal videos are great opportunities to respond to current events, offer collective feedback, talk about what’s been happening in the course, and give updates. Find examples of informal videos in the “Examples” section below.

Share things about yourself outside academia

NC State lecturer Mary Estrada says, “Do you want to meet your students from the high ground, or find common ground?” In an article entitled “Re-engage with your students by being more authentic and showing your humanity!” she and colleagues cite research on a phenomenon called the Pratfall Effect which shows that interpersonal appeal increases after an individual in high esteem makes a mistake. Michelle Pacansky-Brock talks about how “selective vulnerability” builds trust.

Essentially, find ways to selectively share things about yourself outside of academia, letting students see some things about you, and not fear that doing so might shake the image that you have it all together. Students need to see that successful people have everyday problems as well as interests and lives outside of their work. It’s important that they have role models who have outside lives and face challenges, but still succeed.

Want to give it a try? Consider sharing your academic and career journey with your students. Or share something as simple as your music interests, which can open doors for personal connection, as described by Dr. Marion Martin from the NC State Department of Chemistry.

Check in with your students

Learn about your students to build your awareness and make empathy possible.

Decide ahead of time how you will respond to them with empathy. For example,

  • Refer them to appropriate campus resources
  • Adjust some expectations / due dates
  • Take time to discuss a source of stress
  • Offer an extra review session for an upcoming exam
  • Extend a deadline
  • Invite them to office hours

Offer life-flex options

You have probably had students in your course who are dealing with one or more of these very adult challenges: personal financial challenges, caring for a sick family member, caring for a child, dealing with a broken vehicle, managing a disability or medical situation, managing a mental health challenge. Sometimes these very real situations are simply more urgent than getting a homework assignment completed or reviewing for an exam. Should this disqualify a student from succeeding in college and earning a degree? Not if we believe that education should be for everyone, and not just the privileged.

At left, you can view Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s informal video she uses to explain due dates, their purpose, and how to approach them in her classes.

Consider this language from Dr. Donna Petherbridge, which lets her students know about their “life-flex options” in her syllabus:

  • “If you need up to a week later than scheduled to do a given individual assignment in any given week through April 26, you will not lose points. For the end of class activities; the paper and presentation, I do need those between May 7 (paper) and May 10 (presentation) so I can grade them by the end of the course!
  • Quizzes have flexibility built into the due dates; it is strongly suggested that you finish the quizzes during the week they are due, in order to keep a steady pace in the course work, however, you’ll be able to take each quiz up to a week later if you need the flexibility in your schedule.
  • Teamwork elements do need us to stay on a schedule in order to work together. So pay special attention to the group work!
  • In all cases where you are going to LifeFlex individual activity due dates, do give me a heads up if so I’ll know you are taking a bit more time on something than is on the schedule.  I want to help you succeed in this course while navigating any personal challenges you face during the semester.”

Use mid-semester evaluations

This is a specific type of check-in with your students, but it’s focused less on their personal feelings and stress levels and more on their experience in your course. Unlike end-of-course evaluations, you can share what you’ve heard from your students, letting them know that their opinions matter. You can also adjust how you might be doing something in the course if possible. See the Mid-semester evaluations Teaching Resources article for more information.


Informal Video

As you watch the videos below, consider: What about the videos makes the instructor relatable, and thereby builds trust? How do the videos demonstrate the instructor’s presence in the course, even though it’s online? How do the instructors display awareness of their students’ situations or perspectives and respond with empathy? See more videos on Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s website.

Example informal video from Denise Maduli-Williams of UC San Diego.
Example informal video from Fabiola Torres of Glendale Community College.