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Humanizing the Online Learning Environment

Humanizing the Online Learning Environment

Dr. Kathryn Kennedy has over 15 years of experience in online, blended, and digital learning in PreK-12, higher education, and beyond. Her work is focused at the intersection of research, practice, and policy. She owns and operates her own consulting firm that is currently helping inform PLTW’s current and future teaching and learning experiences. 

Over the last couple of months, we’ve shared essential components for designing an online learning environment, including but not limited to the importance of building community, providing support structures, incorporating teacher presence, and embedding opportunities for collaboration and social interactions. All of these components, in addition to meaningful learning, communication, and relationship-building, make up the research-based best practices of intentionally adding human elements in the design and development of online learning. To celebrate the implementation of PLTW Core Training, as well as the kick off of the distance learning enhancements to PLTW’s PreK-12 student courses and teacher resources, we asked some of the PLTW Programs Team Members to share their thoughts on the importance of humanizing the online learning environment. 

Dr. Alicia Stansell, an Instructional Developer for PLTW Computer Science, expressed how feedback is crucial in online learning. “Humanizing the online learning experience includes finding ways to provide the learner with specific feedback as they progress,” she shared. “Feedback is a catalyst for developing confidence, gaining deeper understanding of knowledge and skills, and future applications of learning. Feedback should be purposefully outlined and implemented in authentic and engaging online experiences.” During PLTW Core Training, there were multiple opportunities throughout the training sessions where participants could get feedback from not only their Master Teachers but also from the other training participants with whom they were learning.  

Also during PLTW Core Training, Dr. Rhonda Jones, Instructional Development Specialist for PLTW Gateway, conveyed that the team’s design approach was to keep the learning engaging and interactive. “During the design and development process for our online learning experience, the team focused on how to present the content in an engaging and interactive way,” she said. “We felt it was important to humanize the online learning experience by creating content that used emerging technologies for high impact.”

Building on the idea of designing engaging learning, April Chancellor, Instructional Development Specialist for PLTW Biomedical Science, shared the team’s focus on providing guidance to teachers using distance learning enhancements so it’s clear how they can continue these human elements when they and their students are not in school. “Embedding opportunities for students to practice skills such as collaboration, communication, and authentic, real-world learning is critical and one of the things PLTW does best,” she said. “In developing distance learning supports, our conversations center around how to give teachers strategies for incorporating them even if students aren’t together in the classroom.” 

One of the more challenging parts of the design and development process was doing so with the idea that some teachers and students might not be able to access necessary equipment and materials. Despite this, Dr. Ginger Teague, Senior Director of Instruction for PLTW Launch, emphasized that the Programs Team was able to think creatively and innovatively and focus on designing and developing for active versus passive learning. “When designing learning experiences—whether for students or teachers---it is mission critical to offer engagement in learning rather than passive intake of knowledge,” she said. “Finding ways to actively build knowledge and skills with or without equipment challenged us to dig deep and find creative ways for learners to explore concepts.” Dr. Teague also shared her favorite quote from Bybee, which her team has instilled in their design and development approach: 

…you must give students the experiences in which they apply knowledge and skills if you want them to learn how to apply knowledge and skills. STEM education should address this challenge by providing students with experiences where they apply knowledge and skills to personally meaningful and socially relevant life situations. 
(Bybee, 2013, p. 5)

Similarly, Emily Schaefer, Instructional Developer for PLTW Launch, agrees with designing for human elements, especially hands-on and real-world learning. "Young children are naturally curious about the world around them,” she said. “Taking their learning outside the classroom allows students to make real-world and hands-on observations about the content they’re learning. In PLTW Launch, we’re ensuring both teachers and caregivers are provided the guidance they need to facilitate hands-on learning with their elementary students." 

With a forward-thinking, inspirational team, PLTW is providing districts, schools, educators, their students, and caregivers what they need to be successful wherever they are learning in school year 2020-21.

Bybee, R. W. (2013).  The Case for Stem Education: Challenges and Opportunities. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

PLTW’s blog intends to serve as a forum for ideas and perspectives from across our network. The opinions expressed are those of each guest author.