Online learning, or eLearning, can become rote, entirely automated—and lacking in human connection. As adult education, whether in corporations or universities, moves increasingly to eLearning and blended solutions, learners might feel isolated or lose motivation to engage. Initiatives to develop learning communities and promote social and collaborative learning are one response; an initiative in the California State University system seeking to humanize online learning is another.

The changing relationship between humans and technology, the topic of a recent eLearning Guild research report, often focuses on automation of job roles and the ubiquity of technology in our consumer and work lives. The CSU project backs the lens up a level or two to focus on how to create and deploy eLearning that, while automated and technology-rich, creates and enhances community.

“Online students often feel isolated, which may decrease motivation and increase attrition. … The end goals of humanized online learning are fostered through integrating learners' voices, engaging students in the active construction of knowledge, fostering emotional connections, and providing students with choices. Ultimately, humanized learning increases the relevance of content to learners and improves one's motivation to log in week after week,” a CSU course description says.

The initiative to humanize eLearning includes guidelines on behaviors and strategies to improve “instructor presence” in online courses, and a “humanizing tool buffet” that can help implement these strategies.

Instructor ‘presence’ in eLearning

Much of the advice about increasing presence boils down to communication and clarity. This is as applicable in corporate eLearning as it is in a university course, though the person or people communicating with and tracking learners may vary. Suggestions that could easily be adapted for corporate training to increase the feeling of instructor “presence” include:

While L&D teams might take ownership of goal-setting and presentation of content, managers can and should be engaged in tracking learner progress. Many eLearning platforms have built-in tools to collect and visualize data. These or add-on tools can enable you to collect data on learning, whether that learning occurs through an LMS, an xAPI-enabled platform, or other learning activities outside of an LMS.

Explore ‘humanizing’ tools

Interactivity humanizes eLearning by engaging learners with instructors, with subject-matter experts (SMEs), or with one another. Tools from the CSU “buffet” that can help include:

  • Video tools: Create short videos with free or low-cost editors that make it easy to add animations, still images, music, and more to your video messages. A free tool on the buffet is Spark Video, for example, an Adobe product that allows video editing and publishing.
  • Screen-capture tools: Easily demonstrate the use of tools and technologies, answer questions, and present a narrated series of images or short video. Explain—or ask an SME to explain—as learners watch you perform a process. Tools like Snagit and Screencast-O-Matic are low-cost ways to enable learners or SMEs to create and share instructional videos and screencasts.
  • Discussion forums and social collaboration tools: Spark discussion and encourage learners to collaborate using tools like VoiceThread. Post text, graphical, or video content, and encourage learners to interact with it and each other. It’s even possible to conduct interviews—with SMEs or job applicants—using these tools.
  • Digital bulletin boards: Spark creative collaboration by establishing a board or “Padlet” around a topic and inviting learners and work teams to contribute their ideas, images, videos, and comments.
  • Digital brainstorming: Ideate collectively, even with remote team members, using an online brainstorming tool like AnswerGarden. Post a question or idea, and invite colleagues to respond. The answers form a word cloud, in real time.

Explore the human side of technology and automation

Technology can augment, extend—and replace—human abilities and participation in tasks. Artificial intelligence, virtual assistants, and wearable tools offer employees, learners, and, in particular, L&D teams new opportunities and challenges. Read the full report, The Human Side of Technology & Learning, to discover the many ways that technology is transforming how people work and learn. Research reports are available to all eLearning Guild members for free download.