Humanizing Online Teaching and Learning: The Quest for Authenticity

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In one of his more philosophical ponderings, David D. Thornburg [] crafts the metaphor of digital social platforms as campfires, places where humans gather to socialize, to teach, and to connect with others.

This symbolism lends itself to a discussion of human nature, and namely, our desire for meaningful interaction. It echoes of the timelessness of human ritual and social organization. Most importantly, however, it suggests our basic need for something profound: authenticity. A fire, or any authentic gathering space, whether physical or digital, lends itself to the sharing of ideas and learning of new concepts.

Second language acquisition — my primary field — regards authenticity as nothing new. As far back as the 1980s, SLA theorists were proposing authentic language use in classrooms to usher learner motivation and proficiency development. The most heralded claim in this line of reasoning is that authenticity of tasks and classroom discussion prepares the learner most effectively to transfer their developing language skills to the outside world. It also motivates a learner to know that they are engaging in practices that will be directly applicable to real life as soon as they walk out of the classroom. Finally, authenticity creates a sense of community among students who are collectively engaged in the construction of meaning.

As I went through the steps of the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative course, Humanizing Online Learning and Teaching, I found myself returning to one question repeatedly. To me, the question of how to humanize digital pedagogy is not solely based on collaboration, but also on authenticity. My central theme of inquiry, then, was not “How can I inspire collaboration in my online course?” but rather, “How can I inspire authentic collaboration?” Here are some of my thoughts, as both a student and a teacher, while sifting through the modules:

Establish Instructor Presence

  • Storytelling works. In each class I’ve taken, whether face to face or online, a teacher’s genuine ability to tell a story always evokes my attention and makes me feel closer to them. As a teacher in face-to-face classes, I can feel the collective alertness rising in the room when I embark on an anecdote. It is important for online teachers to use available tools not simply to introduce themselves or to convey course content, but also to tell the stories which inspired them to teach or pursue careers in their fields. Stories are what make campfires special.
  • Show your true self. Students will appreciate any form of storytelling, but they want to see your face. You don’t have to go to extremes, but filming a few videos or hosting a few synchronous meetings throughout the course will add authenticity to the online experience.
  • Be involved. As a teacher, it is easy to set everything up and walk away from the computer until the next deadline. Instead, make it an active goal to check your course website regularly to monitor your students’ progress. Ongoing interaction through discussion posts, announcements, and emails provides valuable feedback and shows students that you are attentive. If you interact regularly, they will be more likely to log in regularly because they know you are out there.

Develop a Social and Cognitive Presence

  • Design campfire activities. This is the challenge of all teachers, whether they are working in face-to-face or digital environments. During the first weeks of the course, explore your students. Engage with them. Find out what triggers them, and use this information to develop spaces in which they can explore and share their stories authentically. The endless challenge of teachers is meeting each new batch of students where they are, without expectation. Find them, and engage with them to understand how to inspire them to engage with each other.
  • Navigate collaboration. If your students seem shy, lean toward group blogs, discussion posts, and asynchronous activities. If they seem more outgoing, consider hosting real time presentations, group meetings, and social media platforms. Students might be busy or living far away from each other, or they might be in the same city, on the same campus. Know your audience, and plan accordingly.
  • Grant autonomy. Be flexible with your students. Provide several options for group work. Set task goals and invite your students to draft their own proposal as to how they will proceed as a group. Giving students a chance to work through the details together will provide a meaningful and authentic experience. It may also lead to more creative projects.

Be Tech Savvy

  • Take baby steps with tech. With all the choices available today, it is easy for an online instructor to find themselves awash in the sea of technology. Instead of overwhelming your students, and possibly yourself, focus on one or two new tech tools for each course. Master them before moving on or expanding your repertoire.
  • Use technology to meet learning outcomes. Ask yourself: “how will this using this technology help my students learn what I want them to learn?” In our excitement over a new tool or task, it is easy to forget that technology should be strategically integrated into the curriculum, and not used simply for the sake of experimenting with a new tool.

Learning is complex and often messy. It does not always follow a distinct trend or create a clear pattern when measured. One thing that has been clarified through years of measuring learning, however, is that it is best done in the company of others. Online learning is a considerably new platform in the field of education, and educators are still trying to figure out how to blend the online, often asynchronous, learning experience with the social tools that we have been wielding since we began sitting in front of campfires, trying to make sense of the world.

While the debate, at times, is complex, the answer can be quite simple. To humanize online teaching is to create a situation where strangers can meet by the campfire, discuss what is important to them, and depart with the sense of connection, despite the darkness, and a feeling of community. It is that feeling of authenticity.

Nicole Schmidt is a PhD student in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona.