Human Connection and Online Learning: How Caring Amplifies the Impact of Educational Technology

By Paul Cochrane, PhD, Director of Online Teaching and Learning, University of Southern Maine

Paul Cochrane, PhD, Director of Online Teaching and Learning, University of Southern Maine

These are challenging times for higher education. Beyond the well documented concerns of colleges closing, punishing student demographics, increased competition, and student debt, rising inequality in who participates in and who succeeds in higher education is an issue that impacts many higher education institutions. Studies by organizations such as the Pell Institute show an alarming disparity in college completion rates between America’s wealthiest quartile of students and its poorest.

Institutions that have been the most successful in leveling these inequalities point to personal connection with students as one of the levers that has been particularly impactful. Their success underscores the importance of caring and human connection in how we adopt educational technologies. When coupled with our emerging understanding of the relationship between technology, motivation, and student success, caring and connection can amplify the impact of our educational technologies. Students quickly recognize when a technology is being used to replace human connection. Much like a self-serve kiosk at a restaurant, these applications of technology can feel cold and impersonal, undermining a student’s sense of connection to the learning. But when an engaged instructor uses learning technologies to motivate students and personalize the learning, the impact is often profound.

If you ask students what differentiates an exceptional learning experience from a merely adequate one, caring and connection often feature prominently in their responses. Exceptional learning experiences immerse the student by making them feel like an integral part of the learning. These immersive experiences are built on content that is personalized to the students, that prompts critical reflection, and that offers students choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. They offer timely feedback that is detailed, specific, and constructive. Exceptional learning experiences are also active, in that the student feels like they directly affect the learning culture. Active learning experiences create a community that feels collaborative and cohesive and that is built on robust communication. They offer engagement that is deep, critical, and inquiry-based, and where active reflection is an integral part of the learning.

"In a world where smart AI agents can take on the work of tutoring students, answering questions, and grading student writing, the question of what the human role is in learning will become increasingly urgent."

Students will also tell you that it is often these same faculty who create active and immersive learning experiences who also understand how to use educational technologies to deepen the learning and increase student success. Consider simulations, for example. Students often challenge the value of a simulation when used as a substitute for engagement between students, peers, and content. But when a simulation builds from the community that the course has cultivated to promote deeper engagement with the content, students recognize how the technology has helped expand their learning. It is the difference between using technology to replace connection and using technology to deepen it. In a similar way, technology can help instructors deepen their connection with students by personalizing the learning, identifying and supporting students who may be struggling, and making content more motivating and engaging. How faculty express care for their students is the ultimate determiner of whether a learning experience is a student’s painful slog toward three credits - if they even make it that far - or a step on their pathway toward a transformative experience that changes their view of themselves, their place in the world, and what they can contribute to it.

Connection is particularly important for online students, who often enroll in online programs for very practical reasons related to convenience, flexibility, and career advancement. By the end of their educational journey, these students are often surprised to discover that their educational experience has transformed them by deepening their confidence and broadening their sense of personal potential. While transformation is rarely discussed as an element of quality, it is quite possibly one of the most important outcomes of learning. It is also the most fundamentally human, building from the work of caring faculty and staff who push their students to new levels of understanding and mastery.

As we look ahead to a future where we increasingly co-exist with smart technologies, it is these fundamentally human questions that will determine what the future looks like. In a world where smart AI agents can take on the work of tutoring students, answering questions, and grading student writing, the question of what the human role is in learning will become increasingly urgent. Will students be satisfied with educational experiences where an algorithm simulates caring? Or will it be evident where the human touch is missing? In a 2019 TED interview, philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari shared his belief that “we have reached a point in human history where technology is forcing us to do this inner spiritual quest, or we are going to pay a much higher price for not knowing ourselves than ever before.” As Harari’s words suggest, the core question that must guide our work is how we make technological decisions that preserve our humanity in the face of an increasingly technological future.

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