Humanizing Your Online Course

Why “humanize” your course?

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 reported 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

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 their instructor, that negativity will present a barrier to their cognitive engagement and their learning.

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

  • First, it has to do with the nature of the environment. Online asynchronous communication is often completely text-based, and can easily suffer from a lack the facial expression, tone of voice and body language that conveys care and attention. And it’s easy for instructors to sometimes set a course in motion and check out for a while, letting the hard work they put into design carry their course for a while. It’s also harder for instructors to feel connected to and get to know their students, so feeling a part of community is hard for everyone.
  • Second, online courses are quite popular with students who may be non-traditional, who have outside pressures and schedules, and who 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 course and that will go along way to humanizing your courses through building a relationship of trust, emphasizing your presence in the course, building awareness of your students and responding with empathy.

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).

How to get started

Michelle Pacansky-Brock identifies four interwoven principles of humanizing your online course:

  • Trust. Trust is foundational the a humanized online course – notice in Pacansky-Brock’s image at left, it creates all four vertical strands. When a student trusts their instructor, they know that their instructor has their success as a key goal, and that they won’t be judged for making mistakes or taking intellectual risks. They know they will be respected and listened to.
  • Presence. If it’s clear that an instructor is there with their students throughout the course, responsive to student needs and struggles, and an active participant in the learning community, students will feel less isolated and more supported.
  • Awareness. Awareness involves getting to know your students 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 so you can support their learning.
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

Use informal video

Informal videos are a humanizing workhorse. These “brief, imperfect” videos, filmed on a Smartphone and full of everyday experiences, show instructors as authentic and relatable. Simply seeing a face and hearing a voice helps see the teacher 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 share things about yourself outside of academia, letting students see some things about you, even when you fear that doing so might shake the image that you have it all together. Students need to see successful people as people with struggles and with 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

Learning about your students builds your awareness and makes empathy possible.

Decide ahead of time how your can respond with empathy. For example, can you

  • 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 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.

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 Mid-semester evaluations from the Office of Faculty Excellence.


Informal Video

As you watch the videos below, consider: What about the videos makes the instructor relatable, and thereby build trust? How do the instructors use the video to demonstrate their presence in the course, even though it’s online? How do they 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.


Humanizing from Michelle Pacansky-Brock

Making “brief, imperfect” videos from Michelle Pacansky-Brock

5 tips for increasing social presence in an online class – video from DELTA’s LearnTech YouTube channel