Humanizing Online Engagement

Posted by Mary Hendra on February 26, 2016

As part of our "powering up" series, we wanted to share a collective inquiry into bringing a humanized approach to online engagement. Adopting technology isn't just about finding fun new tools, but how we create new models for interaction and how we use those tools for our larger goals. In Facing History's case, this means how we can use tech tools to create a more engaged, compassionate citizenry. It starts with how we engage with each other, face-to-face and online.

We spend so much time with technology these days: reading the news online, looking up information, responding to emails, or engaging on whichever social media channel is our preference (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat...)

Online spaces can be vibrant or dull, engaging or dry, stimulating or boring. Just like any other space, event, or classroom, right?

Facing History staff and teachers took some time out this year to imagine how we could have a different type of online experience - a humanized online experience. This isn't so different from what we've done face-to-face. Every year, we take a plain classroom and build an amazing community with teachers who may not have previously known each other. We spend 3-5 days together in a seminar and leave with relationships and inspiration that lasts a lifetime. Our teachers do the same thing every year in a physical classroom with their students. Why couldn't that be possible in an online space?

It's important as a teacher to be aware of our role online, create meaningful classes not just post lots of videos for student response, that we be "present," provide opportunity for students to "create" and provide a variety of ways to respond. Often students in Facing History classes can become emotional due to the nature of the topics so empathy and social presence are necessary and vital when creating and monitoring the class."

Michelle Pacansky-Brock led us through a two-week exploration of humanizing online engagement. Through the reflections of the participants themselves, we wanted to share some of our takeaways. After reading these reflections, we hope you'll join us in this endeavor to make online interaction - here on the blog, in upcoming seminars, and wherever you engage online - more humanized.

This Humanizing online course is unlike any online experience I have participated in the past. I was warmly welcomed, felt connected, clearly communicated with, and had access to my instructor for questions or concerns. Michelle modeled the key elements for effective and connected facilitation namely presence, empathy and awareness."

This was an opportunity to be a student again ourselves, to let somebody else take the rein in facilitating so that we could all truly "play" with new technology and learn alongside each other. That brought out some new reflections on teaching and learning online.

I think when we go into a classroom as a teacher, we are often thinking much of our students - good teachers listen and watch for the student experience and adapt along the way. But when we go into an online environment, self-consciousness is stronger, perhaps self-doubts since it is not our comfort zone. This class helped me think more about students....

"I've been conscious of my own reaction to tasks - surprised that I gravitated more towards the videos than the PDFs, since that seems a change in my own learning preferences. I recognized how much I anticipated and wanted responses to putting myself out there - I think that speaks to the issue of vulnerability, and the flip side of empathy. On the practical side, I've learned to be more comfortable with my voice recorded, and to deal with my discomfort at video recording in the interest of better communication."

We studied current research around online engagement and considered key elements of a humanized online experience:

Instructor presence, Universal Design for Learning (UDL), social presence, and empathy are all key components for a successful for online class. Knowing that an instructor is available several times a week to check in, respond to questions, make announcements, and give feedback helped me stay engaged and willing to complete the work. I kept thinking to myself that if an instructor is rarely present, it would have been easy to abandon this class. Having multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement kept the class fresh and providing a good variety of activities. It did not seem like I was doing the same thing over and over again. The social presence was integral for me because I felt like I was part of a community and that I am not making this journey on my own.

We learned some new tools, including VoiceThread, Animoto, Tackk, Canva, and Canvas.

As an instructor, I am most concerned about connecting with my students and making sure they're doing something creative as well as both academically and personally valuable. I found that with Voice Thread, the exercise of reacting to images was a powerful way to connect with other classmates as well as the instructor. Not only that, but with so many of my students being visual learners, I think they would really enjoy that."

It took time, but it was also an opportunity to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, try something new, and see what would happen.

My other big take away - one I wasn't anticipating - was how fun it's been to discover these different tools. I have always seen myself as an ambivalent tech user with not much confidence. I was surprised to find tools such as Animoto not only super user friendly but also helpful in opening up an artist side of me I didn't know was there! So I guess that's my other big take away. These tools are easy to use and open up all kinds of possibilities for both the instructor and student."

Where will all of this take us? There are so many possibilities!

I feel like I have a new vision for the possibilities of online learning. Empathy for the participants was a clear part of the design process going into this class and I felt very cared for throughout the course. I also see a connection between empathy and participant choice when designing an online course with specifically the learner’s experience in mind. This feels really important when thinking about future work. Sometimes as teachers we are so focused on what we are teaching that what students are learning becomes secondary. Shifting that paradigm feels important especially in an online space where motivation is such an important factor."

  • SHARE your thoughts on humanized online engagement below.
  • JOIN US for a new type of seminar - this summer we unveil an exploration of our core case study, Holocaust and Human Behavior, through a hybrid of face-to-face and online environments. 
  • READ about additional ways teachers are using tech tools in new ways in Facing History classrooms. Click here.

Topics: Using Technology, Powering Up Facing History Lessons, Tech Innovation

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