7 Ways to Add the Human Touch to Your Online Courses

Moira West


Michelle Pacansky-Brock works 400 miles away from California State University Channel Islands, where she teaches digital citizenship through blended learning and provides professional development for faculty who teach online and blended classes. Despite the distance, she’s managed to create classes and professional development courses infused with personality and human connections, giving learners the feeling they know her even though she’s someone they likely have not met in person.

For Michelle, online classes offer unique opportunities for learning and also expand access to education to students, who, because of scheduling, family commitments or disabilities, might not be able to manage a brick-and-mortar classroom. We asked her to share some of her tips for creating online classes with a human touch that work as well, if not better, than traditional college classes. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Have the right attitude

Michelle told us one of the first steps to teaching an online class in a personal, engaging way, is to believe a great online course is possible. If you have faith in the power of online education, it will show in the way you teach your class.

2. Plan your course in advance

“Designing your course and teaching your course are integrated, but they’re different steps. The design comes first.” Michelle suggests giving yourself a nine-month lead time to develop an online course. The additional time lets you create class materials and assessments that lead to meaningful, emotional connections with students and include opportunities for discussion. It can also help you avoid creating a class that’s just a re-hash of the textbook, punctuated by tests.

3. Embrace active learning

Why do you need so much time to create your course? You’re not just determining what you’ll teach, but finding ways to teach it that’ll stay with learners. “When we look at the research around effective learning, we want students to engage with each other, learn from each other, and to be active learners, and one of the best ways to assess learning is to have them create content.”

For example, when Michelle plans her professional development courses, she’ll often include an assessment where instructors create videos. These assignments give her deeper understanding of the instructors’ abilities to select appropriate topics or choose images and music that match the message they want to convey. At the same time, learners are given room for creativity and self-expression, as in the video below.

4. Know your students

Michelle surveys her students and uses ice breakers to connect students to each other at the start of her courses. She also makes herself readily available online, and builds student feedback into her courses to see where learners are and how they’re feeling throughout the course. The information she gets lets her adjust her course as needed, and shows students Michelle cares about their progress.

5. Don’t be a robot

For Michelle’s online classes, she films a weekly video in which she appears on screen. “Part of it is just being more than text on screen, so bringing in a video created with Animoto is a way that shows I’m a real person. And using images with music can really evoke this sense of caring.”

In addition to her weekly videos, Michelle makes sure to keep a constant social presence online, using online discussions, commenting on student work, and other online connections to let students know she’s a real person who’s there to help.

6. Decide what you want to do and find tools to do it online

For Michelle, “I think the first point is ask yourself: what is it you’re trying to do? If you’re looking to bring your students together to interact, then that has to be part of the tool.” If you want to preview a new unit or explain a concept, Michelle thinks video can be a good way to convey the information you want to share, especially if you want to make an emotional connection with students. Check out the example below, which introduces a course with plenty of information and text that gives a sense of the intructor's personality.


7. Know that emotional reactions help students learn

“Too frequently in higher education, we think about cognition and the development of knowledge, but the human brain need emotions to learn — it has to feel to learn. When the learning experience online engages all learners and engages all the different firing neuron points in the brain, then it’s a learning experience that’s more likely to be life changing and inspirational, and I like to think that that’s still something that every faculty member wants — to inspire their students.”

How are you inspiring your online learners? Let us know in the comments below.