Humanizing Online Learning: What I Learned from OLC Ideate

Published by Cathryn Mattimore
on May 13, 2020

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend the OLC Ideate virtual conference recently. After participating in several collaborative sessions, I found it interesting to see common themes weaved in throughout the different sessions.

As you might have guessed, examining the continued impact of COVID-19 in higher ed and what our season of “social distancing” will mean for traditional on-ground programs was at the top of most discussions. Presenters and attendees alike collaboratively reflected on the future of online learning in this transitional educational climate. The consensus that successful learning experiences are made possible by connection, compassion, and a sense of community had us asking – how do we “humanize” the online learning experience in light of these necessary factors? Some ways to accomplish this are to embrace trauma sensitive instruction as well as to incorporate technology with a learner focus.


In “Radical Openness”, Karen Costa, a leader in trauma awareness instruction, presented the effects trauma has on the learning process. Essentially, when a student has undergone trauma, their executive function and ability to retain information is drastically impacted. Now more than ever, online learning will need to provide support to students; teaching practices that are sensitive to each student’s unique situation will be key. Compassion, awareness, and honesty are the cornerstones to this practice. Karen went on to highlight the five principles of trauma-informed care: Safety, Choice, Collaboration, Trustworthiness, and Empowerment. She underscored the idea that, as educators, we have an obligation to humanize online learning to meet the needs of all learners. Because great learning is made possible when students feel supported, safe, and empowered, these crucial elements should be incorporated into online curriculums.

Similar ideas were found throughout “Humanizing Technology in Online Learning Technology” led by Angela Gibson, a faculty member at Texas A&M University- Kingsville. While technology and education are intertwined, it’s important to use technology as a catalyst for connection rather than letting it become a barrier to successful online learning. Skillful use of technology has the ability to create and strengthen a sense of community among online learners, while also humanizing the learning experience. Recommended practices for connecting learners online included hosting virtual office hours, providing recordings of lectures, hosting live sessions whenever possible, consistent communication through email and course announcements, and providing personalized feedback.

As both a Learning Experience Designer and first semester student for my Master’s in eLearning and Instructional Design, I found OLC Ideate to be a thought-provoking and valuable experience. The unique ideas and perspectives from leaders in higher education will now become part of my learning going forward. Ultimately, by using technology skillfully and cultivating an online environment conducive to a “radical openness,” which lends itself to students’ meta cognizance and heightened inquiry, educators are able to manifest meaningful learning experiences and serve as a needed support to students in these trying times. As an online student and future educator, I appreciate this shift towards a more compassionate and humanized approach to online learning. I look forward to connecting virtually, practicing compassion, and learning all along the way.

Cathryn has been at ODL since 2015 and has worked in production, market research, marketing, and most recently as a learning experience designer. She’s currently enrolled in a Master’s program at Northeastern University studying eLearning and Instructional Design. Her passions include education, writing, meditation, and her two cats Bella and Belinda.

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