Humanizing Online Teaching

When I was in college I took a class on eastern religions (I loved it and still have the textbook!). Something that always stuck with me from that course (who knows why) was that that atheist religions tend to make lists. Like the Buddhists’ Eightfold Path or the Four Noble Truths.

I always knew that I wanted to dedicate my EdD dissertation to an investigation of my online students’ feelings of isolation in their courses. But did I want to focus on teaching presence? Social presence? Inclusive teaching practices? Culturally responsive teaching? There is so much out there to learn.

In exploring the literature surrounding online teaching and learning, I’m seeing lots of lists. Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Teaching. Moore’s Three Types of Interactions. Community of Inquiry’s Three Presences. Brown’s Three Phases of Community-Building. (Lots of threes!). Kahu’s Four Perspectives of Student Engagement. Quality Matters’ Eight General Standards and Forty-Two Specific Review Standards. Pacansky-Brock’s Eight Humanizing Strategies.

There’s something very tidy and comforting about a bound list. It’s a referendum on the messiness of life. A belief that chaos can be managed. Enlightenment lies this way – just follow this list! What is teaching if not a belief in the higher power of education, and that we can reach our goals if we just dedicate ourselves enough?

“Good” Teaching

What is “good” online teaching? Lengthy recorded lectures? Lots of assigned reading? Long papers? Of course not. Yet it is hard to summarize good online teaching, as it should be, because teaching is as complex as humans are.

This past week I’ve been in thrall to Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s writings on humanizing online teaching. She has lots of lists. Truly, at its core, it’s actually only a single list, but depending on which of her articles I read, it lengthens and shortens. Which is fascinating! Depending on the context, it changes. Her thinking evolves over the years.

Here’s my favorite version: Pacansky-Brock’s eight strategies for humanizing online teaching that she included in a faculty development course. You might first want to browse this infographic to get some context: What is humanizing? But the strategies are clear and easy to understand:

  1. Liquid syllabus
  2. Humanized course card & homepage
  3. Getting to know you survey
  4. Warm, wise feedback
  5. Self-affirming ice breaker
  6. Wisdom wall
  7. Bumper videos
  8. Microlectures

I plan to add a liquid syllabus, getting to know you survey, and wisdom wall to my courses. I already use short videos. I found the examples of warm, wise feedback very helpful.

Pacansky-Brock advises online instructors to send out a welcome letter to students in the week before class begins (and include your liquid syllabus!). Currently I have a self-intro tour and a course video in a “start here” module in class, but it never occurred to me to send those out in advance. They’re already on the web, anyway! The “liquid” syllabus is just a mobile-friendly version of the syllabus (though it should be simplified from the formal syllabus as well). It makes sense to create a public, mobile-friendly version that may be sent out before students get access to the course.

I love all of these concrete strategies for humanizing online courses. I’m also looking into how to implement group projects in a way that makes the process easier for students. Until now, I’ve always just thrown students into the assignment and let them figure it out (you’re adults! It’ll be fiiiine.). But there is a better way – the instructor should provide scaffolding and group-building instructions and activities to get groups started. I went to a fantastic conference session that outlined the process.

Until I read Pacansky-Brock’s work last week, I’d been focused on group work as a means to build community, but I’m seeing that there are a lot of strategies that I can try!