Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Human Touch in the Online Course

This week's MOOC readings introduced us to the idea of "human touch" and asked whether or not technology allows us to "reassert the human." In "Heart to Heart," a commercial for BT, two sons worry about their mom - first, they talk to one another (and their mom) through chat, and then one son calls his mom and talks with her over the telephone.

Because this is an advertisement for telephone service, we're lead to believe that the telephone brought the "human touch," making communication more intimate and useful. Even though the mother and son cannot see one another, they are made more comfortable through their voices. I must ask: Does this mediation - the telephone - increase the humanity of the situation, though? Does "hearing" someone make them seem more real.

This question is particularly important for online courses. In "The Human Touch," Steve Kolowich argues that using audio and video in online courses, specifically faculty creating streaming lectures, comments, and taking office hours virtually, increases student retention because the students feel more "connected" to the professor, as if they were in a face-to-face class. If the online class is to mimic the face-to-face class, it is through these virtual, spoken lectures and conversations that it happens. In "One Class, 36,000 Students," Elliot Holt describes to us the sensation of watching Al Filreis's discussions with graduate students that were taped for a MOOC on Modern Poetry.

Holt writes: 
In the videos—there is one for each poem on the syllabus—Filreis and his band of TAs sit      around a seminar table in the Kelly Writers House at Penn and read each poem closely. I’m not in the room with them, but I feel like I am.
The experience of watching these videos was enough to make Holt "feel" like a student in the classroom.

I admit, I am not currently using recorded lectures nor am I holding office hours in Skype or through Google Chat's video streaming. Instead, my interaction with my students is through text - discussion boards, emails, typed and posted lectures and notes, GChat.

The strange thing is, at times, I feel like I know some of my online students better than I know students I see in class everyday. They seem more willing to share personal experiences, for instance, and in a course about race and gender, they seem to be more willing to talk about those issues freely. Rather than feel like I have lost "touch" with my students, I feel connected to them through the letter. I reflect on the importance of mail and letters throughout the last three hundred years, as literacy grew and mail service (in all of its guises) was important.

This connection, however, is lost to me in the environment of the MOOC. I participate in discussion boards, I watched the Google Hangout from week one, and plan on doing so this week. But, like Holt, who explained "There is so much I want to add to this conversation...but the truth is, the online forums don’t satisfy me the way a live discussion would." Moreover, "the rapidly multiplying emails—they arrive at all hours—make me resentful and reluctant to join a discussion forum again. This is the drawback of online education: on the one hand, you can fit the coursework into whatever space you have in your life; on the other hand, the course will follow you into all the other spaces, so you never really have a break."

I too made the mistake of not unclicking the box that says "email me when a new comment is added" in my first reply, and I still receive dozens of emails a day.  The course wants to take over my inbox.

For those who teach online courses without audio-visual material of yourself - Do you feel you have lost "human touch" with your students? If you are a student, is that aspect of visual and sound important to maintaining a connection with the faculty and other students? Do you wish you could connect in that way?  


  1. Once again, Danielle, I really feel like I'm learning a lot by reading this. My institution is slowly moving toward online classes (nowhere near the Massively mass of masses in an actual MOOC), and so I find all of this to be really useful.

    Do you find it difficult to have to type out everything you might simply say in a classroom? I know that when I'm typing, I tend to be much more selective with my words and I also tend to say more than I would actually just speak in other contexts. Written feedback is, then, much more time consuming.

    I wonder if this pressure fades with more experience in the MOOC.

    1. Danny,
      I'm finding my online classes (this semester marks class #3) to be more time consuming in general than my face-to-face classes. I haven't yet taught the same class twice (next fall will be when the rotation starts over), so that may cut down on preparation time.

      But, yes. It is difficult to type out *everything.* And individualized comments on all writing is important - and time consuming. If my students do what they're supposed to be doing, they produce a lot of writing over the course of the semester, and I can't *not* comment. All announcements, discussion, comments, small things said in class, lectures (where notes would suffice in class because I wouldn't say *everything* have to be typed out in what I hope is lucid prose and complete sentences.

  2. Hi Danielle
    I am just to embark on teaching online and are currently undertaking some induction training online so this is a new journey for me.
    It certainly made a difference to me seeing a photograph of fellow participants, or seeing the lecturers in the MOOC Hangout last week. I felt a closer connection to the person which was for some reason more fulfilling than just reading a name of a person. The connection is with the 'human' not just the machine which sits in front of me.

    1. Hi Bambi,
      Thank you for your comment. I wonder if some of this discussion has to do with learning styles. I am not an auditory learner, which may be why I prefer text. I am playing around the with idea of having my students create avatars (whether those pictures are of themselves or something important to them) for my own classes. The MOOC hangout was distracting for me (but that, again, may be learning style or simply the nature of having 5 or 6 different people on the screen all at once.

  3. In my online MBA classes, recorded video lectures and live Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate) sessions were the exception rather than the norm, although I very much wish it had been the other way around. Not so much because I missed the human touch*… it has more to do with the fact that it would have made the material easier for me to learn. However, since your class is SO theory-based, relative to the other classes I have taken (accounting, finance, statistics, etc.), I’m not sure if it makes much of a difference.

    I consider myself to be an auditory learner and I don’t doubt that this factors into my preference for video recordings and live online class sessions. Even in your class, I occasionally find myself copying the text from some of the discussion board posts and pasting them into a Word document so that I can then use the “speak selected text” command to make the computer recite the post to me. Somehow, hearing the text out loud enhances my understanding of the different viewpoints shared in the discussion board. Honestly, I am amazed and impressed with how you manage to read AND respond to almost everyone’s posts each week, given the vast spectrum of writing proficiency exhibited by my classmates.

    I think the format you’ve chosen to adopt for our class is appropriate, given the nature of the subject matter. When we communicate through writing, we have more time to mull over and fine tune our thoughts before we present them to others. On the other hand, like you’ve pointed out, it does seem like the class is one massive never-ending conversation.

    * I do appreciate the human touch in the classroom, virtual and physical alike. I think it enriches the experience. That being said, it does seem quite possible that some of the students in our class have opened up more than they otherwise might have in an on-campus class, due to the “anonymous feel" of online classes. Hard to say for sure, though. I consider myself to be an open book so I don’t think it would make any difference in my case.