How One University is Working to ‘Humanize’ Online Teaching

Digital Learning

How One University is Working to ‘Humanize’ Online Teaching

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 6, 2017

How One University is Working to ‘Humanize’ Online Teaching
Michael Berman (left) and Michelle Pacansky-Brock, of Cal State Channel Islands

For those teaching online courses, professors at California State University at Channel Islands have some advice: don’t be a robot.

It may sound obvious, but it addresses widespread concerns from many professors that online teaching will be impersonal and transactional. No one wants to feel like a cog in the wheel, especially not when it comes to something as personal as learning.

To address these concerns, Cal State Channel Islands offers a two-week online training course for professors at the university called Humanizing Online Learning, with tips and strategies for forging personal connections with remote students. It’s an unusual professional-development effort that focuses on the emotional side of teaching more than the content. There’s even a related podcast that launched last week, called the HumanizEd Podcast.

For this week’s EdSurge On Air Podcast, we sat down with two folks behind the Humanizing Online Learning effort: creator and instructor Michelle Pacansky-Brock and the university’s vice president for technology and innovation, Michael Berman. They share how teaching online can involve a surprising amount of passion—and even some tears.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. We encourage you to listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app.

EdSurge: I wanted to talk about your Humanizing Online Learning training course. How would you articulate the problem you’re trying to solve? Are you saying online teaching wasn't humanized enough?

Michael Berman: We are a new and relatively small Cal State campus, and an important part of the culture was the connection that faculty built with their students. As soon as you started talking with professors about teaching online, the immediate reaction was, "I don't want to do that." We’d ask, why not? They’d say, "Because I value the connection I have with my students. Online is going to take away from that. I'm not interested in dehumanizing what I do.” That led me to think about what online would like look for an institution that really values its bond with students. That's where I found Michelle.

Michelle Pacansky-Brock: I had been teaching in the California Community Colleges System and very much embraced the student-centeredness of teaching and learning in that environment. When I started teaching online, I felt exactly the way that those instructors probably perceived they would feel. I felt disconnected from my students. I was teaching in Blackboard, teaching art history and art appreciation in a text-centered environment. There were so many issues. Then I started dabbling with this new space called Web 2.0 and found myself able to create some interesting content and use tools that could engage students more directly.

I think the turning point for me was when I was able to hear their voices. I was using asynchronous voice and video conversations in a tool called VoiceThread, which I still use. I literally remember the moment I heard my first student talk about a work of art. I pushed myself away from the table, and my eyes filled out with tears. I was like, "I never realized how much content there is in a student voice.”

Even when the voices were asynchronous on a recording streamed over the net, you didn't lose that?

Pacansky-Brock: No. For me, that asynchronous part is powerful—especially for underrepresented students who feel a lot of self-doubt. They don't often feel included in academic culture. They have a lot of fear about speaking up. But when you have the opportunity to stop, record again, listen to it and then see yourself develop over time, that's where things really popped for me.

Berman: We talk about the student voice. Yet for you, it was literally hearing the student voice that was the a-ha moment and the moment of connection.

You've been on the speaking circuit and on social media talking about these issues, and you mention creating an online presence for your students. Can you talk a little bit about a specific example that illustrates how in an online environment, where you're not physically in the same classroom, you can provide a sense of presence?

Pacansky-Brock: With learning, we focus so much on [the content they learned]. What about the affective domain? That's part of learning too. As humans, we feel. That dimension in learning is huge, and we have to foster it—especially online. And I think it's true for the classroom too.

What I have found is that so often professors don't want to create vulnerable places. They don't want to go to vulnerable places and they don't want their students there because there's a lot of anxiety around, "How do you handle that online?" I find that using voice makes those vulnerable moments an opportunity for connection. When you start a class with these kinds of emotions, the trust begins to be built so quickly, especially when it's facilitated effectively. That's a really big part of humanizing online education.

Can you tell us about the online training course you teach for professors?

Pacansky-Brock: It's a two-week online class titled Humanizing Online Learning. We talk about things like empathy. Professors learn about what empathy is, but then it's up to me to model that and have them experience what it feels like to learn in an online environment with an engaged instructor who is empathetic.

Berman: If you think about it, most of the instructors we have right now never had an online-learning experience as a student. They've probably had some kind of online instruction module for some state compliance where we do these 45-minute courses. It really is just checking the box. If that's your model of online, then of course you're going to dislike it. On the flip side, I think if you talk to anyone who is an instructor, they had formative experiences in the classroom with instructors that they loved. You ask them about, "What was the moment when you realized you wanted to be a professor?" They’ll say, "I had this wonderful teacher in 11th grade," or "when I was college, I was so nervous in a class, and this instructor put me at ease.”

I guess the question is, Can that be replicated online?

Berman: Michelle was having those kind of connections online, and I said, "Okay, this is the kind of online teaching that will motivate the faculty who love their students and love to teach.”

Pacansky-Brock: There's this assumption that learning online has to involve content and things that you're doing online, but it doesn't. You can have your students go do anything. When I was teaching the history of photography, I had students who were building camera obscuras in their bedrooms. I gave them steps or they figured it out on their own. They did that, and they documented it and then shared the documentation with us. One student made a video of him actually making a little camera obscura. These experiences that happen offline can be part of an online class.

Berman: It's not like online banking, right? Online banking, you're sitting there online doing your banking, but online learning is not necessarily taking place while you're online. It doesn't happen right there at that moment.

Do you worry that it actually is evolving into this more banking-like structure out there in the wider world of higher education?

Berman: It's interesting that the banking metaphor came up because the idea that learning can be strictly measured is an accumulation of something like Bitcoin concerns me. To me, that's not what learning is about. It's not that I'm opposed to competency-based learning or other methodologies. I'm not opposed to doing assessments, but I think if we think learning is only that, I have a problem with that. I think many of us in higher education are really resistant to giving up the idea that while there's value in what you can assess, there's also value in things that are really hard to assess.

Pacansky-Brock: I think a lot of it has to do with the role of the professor. A lot of times there are professors who don't even realize it, but they have so much armor on to be this professor. I think by getting them to understand that you don't have to be all-knowing.

It starts with something as simple as speaking to a webcam [and not worrying if the video isn’t perfect].

So you’re saying to professors that they shouldn’t stress out about making video feedback to students perfect?

Pacansky-Brock: If it's a class conversation, why does it have to be this flawless, polished thing? Conversations don't happen that way. There should be some spontaneity.

That's a hard thing to get a professor to embrace, but I think once they can do that, it starts to change things. They're more approachable to their students. Then you start to have more small conversations after class if you're teaching in the classroom. Those hallway conversations are really meaningful.

This podcast episode was sponsored by DreamBox Learning. DreamBox Learning is an adaptive, online K - 8 math program designed to complement classroom instruction and proven to positively impact student outcomes. Go to for more information.

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