Blending the Human Side

Suggestions for Virtual Instructors and Students

October 16, 2011

Distance students willingly forfeit face-to-face instructor interaction for independence. However, while distance students might not seek a personal relationship with an instructor, they might need personal interaction for a successful learning experience. Distance learning encompasses the continuum of education and training that ranges from a more traditional instructor-led course delivered via satellite to a higher tech web-based course. At no point on the continuum is the human side eliminated. So how much 'human' should be put into the mix?

Studies have found that even though distance students preferred to learn on their own, they sought out others to solve a problem when they struggled or failed. But it may not be obvious how to reach out to others since many adult learners have been educated in a predominately lecture-based environment.

Instructors need to ensure that the proper support is given to students on two dimensions, from the curriculum design perspective and from an instructor behavioral perspective.

Designing for the Virtual Environment

First, the curriculum design for distance courses should address all three levels of transactional distance, which is defined as "the distance in understanding between teacher and learner." This distance is bridged based on the relationships between: (1) student and course content, (2) instructor and student, and (3) members of the student group. Common examples of how to engage and support students at the various levels are listed below.

Relationship Level Objective Sample Components
Student & Course Content Knowledge acquisition Interactive multi-media, practice exercises, self-reflection prompts, assessments
Instructor & Student Knowledge transference & support Real-time learning & communication platforms, e.g. Blackboard, webinars, live discussions, study halls, email
Members of the Student Group Knowledge sharing & collaboration Online discussion forums, group assignments, reading blogs, collaborative software

Becoming an Effective Learning Facilitator

Secondly, virtual instructors must learn how to be effective learning facilitators rather than effective teachers. A facilitator provides a constructivist learning environment where students explore, discover, and build knowledge. Facilitation takes a different skill set and a different set of behaviors. Studies, primarily done of university students, provide insight for professional adult learning programs in general.

In the International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education article, "The Importance of Being Human: Instructors' Personal Presence in Distance Programs," the authors documented that most students report "the need for engaging, passionate, and understanding instructors who show these attributes through self disclosure, relationship building, humor, and individualized feedback." Students were clear that these elements should all occur within the context of the course material.

For example, students aren't interested in personal stories, only to the extent that an instructor's personal experience relates to the subject matter. Students don't want to befriend an instructor; they do want an instructor to understand and acknowledge their individual situation and their personal challenges in light of the course expectations. Neither are students looking for stand-up comedy; however, the humor found in real life application of the course content can enliven 'book' knowledge. Lastly, students stressed the importance of individualized and timely feedback. They value an instructor finding something positive in their work even if other parts aren't so good. They appreciate a timely email response that isn't a form letter.

The Soft Stuff is Hard

None of these findings are particularly surprising. Yet, as more and more organizations and institutions move to Blended Learning, which combines the elements of online and classroom learning, the broad public discussion of best practices for the virtual learning environment is still not happening often enough and in enough detail.

While recently sharing coaching insights, one of our business partners commented, "The hard stuff is easy; the soft stuff is hard." The soft stuff gets easier if we approach it like we do the hard stuff --- develop operational definitions and specific actions that support our objectives. Sound like a How to Be Human for Dummies recipe book? Hardly.

We do, however, need to better understand how to best separate the very things that make us human. As students, we need to clearly articulate our expectations and, as instructors, we need to effectively humanize the virtual environment. The result: instructors who train better on new technology, and students who retain and apply the knowledge better than ever before.

Ellen Milnes

Background references:

Caspi, A., & Blau, I. (2008). Social presence in online discussion groups: testing three conceptions and their relations to perceived learning. Social Psychology of Education, 11(3), 323-346.

Giossos, Y., Koutsouba, M., Lionarakis, A. and Skavantzos, K. (2009). Reconsidering Moore's Transactional Distance Theory. European Journal of Open, Distance, and E-Learning.

Gorsky, P. & Caspi, A. (2005). A critical analysis of transactional distance theory. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6(1), 1-11.

Gorsky, P., Caspi, A., & Trumper, R. (2004). Dialogue in a distance education physics course. Open Learning, 19(3), 265-277.

Gorsky, P., Caspi, A., & Tuvi-Arad, I. (2004). Use of instructional dialogue by university students in a distance education chemistry course. Journal of Distance Education, 19(1), 1-19.

Zach, L. and Agosto, D. (2009). Using the Online Learning Environment to Develop Real-Life Collaboration and Knowledge-Sharing Skills: A Theoretical Discussion and Framework for Online Course Design. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(4)