Human Connection in Online Learning

S02 E03: When accessibility meets good design, with Neil King and Chris Edwards (Podcast)
September 17, 2019

Human Connection in Online Learning

A blog from Victoria Rosa Sturley @ The Learning Hook

I have recently joined The Learning Hook as a Project Manager / Learning Designer, which is an exciting time for me, and also a time where different points of view are coming together, based on my experience and The Learning Hook’s trajectory. In this blog post I want to share some of my thinking and experience around how to bring human connection into several forms of digital learning delivery, at a time when I think it is especially needed.

One thing that has been quite central to the conversations around learning lately is human connection. We know that in therapy the rapport and connection between the therapist and the client is the most significant factor when it comes to the therapeutic success – to creating change. I think it’s similar within learning. We can all think of a teacher at school that had a big impact on us. Most often, it wasn’t only the way they explained things, but the feeling they created in us – how they saw us and how we felt connected to them. The feelings of connection, understanding and belonging are crucial ingredients to learning effectiveness.

As humans, we are inherently social. COVID times have plunged us into a work-from-home scenario and into social isolation, which is not a very natural state for us. We were used to working together in offices and having training in classrooms. The elearning industry has traditionally been a bit outside of the general trend of togetherness around work, and it’s been based on mostly self-study modules. However, during COVID we were all stuck at our home in front of our devices and screens, and there were high degrees of Zoom and screen fatigue. Part of that was the lack of social connection. Now more than ever, on the back of lockdowns, we see an increased need for us to connect with one another and just have that social contact. Many people have also changed jobs in this time and may not have met their colleagues face-to-face or have done so in a limited way, with hybrid working being the norm for office environments.

What does this mean?

The way I see it, it means that we might find that there is a secondary objective to learning programs and that is to create connection and networks. Traditional learning programs create connections between people that not only make us feel good in the moment, not only embed our learning, but create networks that will persist over time and will help us throughout our working lives. This is important for established employees, but it’s especially important for new employees. If we think about induction programs, we can see how crucial it is to create those networks. I remember fondly how I am still to this day friends with a colleague I met on my first day of induction about 10 years ago. She worked in a completely different department and was a bit of a different personality for me. Had it not been for those roundtable discussions and the encouragement to have a coffee together in the coffee break, as well as the explicit invitation for us to keep the coffee meets going once the training was over, I wouldn’t have learned about how the PR department at Deloitte worked. And now I know everything about what it’s like to be an officiant in Glasgow, as she has since changed careers and moved.

During Covid, learning budgets were slashed, partly because of a move to 100% online delivery. Learning departments have not got their full budgets back, as the leadership has seen how we can have huge efficiencies through online learning. However, when you talk to participants about what they want, they want a face-to-face experience. It’s not so much that they want to sit in a classroom, it’s mostly about the human connection.

However, do we want to stop doing online learning?

Well, some love it, some hate it, and some feel the ‘meh’ … but it’s not going away, especially for our employees.

Many of us benefit from the flexibility of elearning and not having to be away from their job for lengthy periods of time or travel away from family/friends. However, they do want that human connection. So, how can we offer that human connection within online learning and, especially, within elearning?

I want to separate online learning from elearning because I see them as two quite different things. Online learning or digital learning encompasses elearning but it also includes things like hybrid classrooms, virtual classrooms and workshops using technologies like Zoom, Adobe Connect or WebEx. And it might include using digital technologies that support learning, like ePortfolio tools, and collaboration tools such as Miro, as well as a range of other digital technologies that support and enhance learning. Obviously, Zoom, webinars and virtual classrooms offer a high degree of human connection because we are able to see each other on the screen and interact with one other. However, these also have the potential to be very passive experiences if all participants have their webcams turned off and they hardly ever talk and the facilitation doesn’t encourage constant participation. I’m thinking back to that big lecture theatre of 100 people where you didn’t really get to have much of a word in. This is still the predominant model in virtual classrooms. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can:

  • set up small groups
  • build frequent interactions into our virtual classroom design
  • use breakout rooms
  • create virtual lobbies where participants do networking activities
  • use icebreakers
  • give participants group activities to do within the virtual classroom or in between virtual classroom sessions.

There are many, many possibilities. If we’re looking at blended programs or learning campaigns that happen over time, the possibilities for human connection are even greater, since we can use things like:

  • Buddies: pairing up two people to have discussions over time around the topic.
  • Office hours discussions and clinics: where our SME is available to participants in certain hours to solve their problems when it comes to application and transfer of learning. These can be incredibly useful for learning transfer and not just for that connection, but to our point, it gives them direct access to the subject matter expert, which includes visibility and networking.
  • Champions: you can have a new person (new to the organisation or to the process) reach out to somebody who is more experienced or has just chosen to take on the champion role.

How about elearning?  There really is no way to do that, is there? Think again!

Learning designers can bake in tasks that require that human connection in any medium it’s delivered, including elearning.

Platforms that include social collaboration tools can allow us to build interaction and social connections, but this can also be achieved through other channels, such as Slack or Teams. We can also use the tools I discussed earlier: champions, buddies, study groups, group activities, pair work and real world take action activities.

In the course of an elearning module, we can have prompts to “Reach out to your buddy to discuss this topic”. “Reach out to the champion to suggest this thing”. We can auto populate an email invite from a button i.e. making it easy for learners to book a time with a champion. We can also have action plans. For example, “talk to your manager about two ways in which you’re going to implement this over the next month”.

I hope this has given you some good ideas about how you can make your learning programs more connected.

So how are you going to build human connection in your online learning? Feel free to reach out to us for support with this.


We love what we do… oh, and how we do it. 

Come visit us for more on elearning, learning portals and blended solutions.

Leave a Reply