In my early attempts to flip my high school biology classroom, I was achieving remarkable content gains. We covered multiple chapters a week and were posting laudable exam scores on national assessments. Yet my enrollment numbers were falling. Each year my scores improved—and I had fewer students.
I was forced to the realization that all humans are emotional beings first. My online spaces were sterile environments focused only on information density. I meticulously organized study guides, discussion forums, and formative assessments—I’m certain a robot would have loved my course structure! Research has shown that organization and attention cueing aren’t enough, though. Students need social prompting.
The Man Who Lied to His Laptop describes how people often respond to computers the same way they do to people. We will do them favors, tell white lies to protect their feelings, and form social circles with “in” computers and “out” computers. People note that it’s silly to treat a computer like a person, yet we can’t escape our humanity when we use them.
Build Online Learning Environments to Be Social
Our physical classroom space is powerful because we can connect with students there. I bubble with energy, and my students respond with their own enthusiasm. I signal when it’s time for seriousness, and my students respond with an increase in focus. The timing of my jokes, my gestures during a lecture, even the T-shirt I wear on spirit day—all contribute to building a human connection that makes my classroom a great place for student learning. We must find ways to provide a spice of humanity in online material as well.
On my education podcast, Two Pint PLC, I discussed a recent study in the Journal of Educational Psychology that showed that when researchers added a simple animated teacher character to a piece of digital multimedia, student performance improved. Students were trying harder and understanding more when the material included a little humanity.
Simple Ways to Improve Flipped Classrooms
The good news is that social signaling is all about the subtle cues we give each other. You don’t need to make sweeping changes to add humanity to your online environment.
1. Humans respond to faces: Discussion threads are a staple of most online coursework. Why is it that it can feel like pulling teeth to get students to engage in an online discussion, yet my Facebook page blows up with chatter when I post a picture of my breakfast? Make the online members more visible as humans.
If students are responding to a prompt, consider letting them talk instead of type. Ed.VoiceThread is a subscription product that is great for lettings students see each other as they contribute. If a subscription service is tough for your building, students can record simple response videos and upload them to most forums with free software like Open Source Broadcaster. The more students can see that they’re interacting with humans, the more socially invested they’ll feel in the work they’re doing.
2. Relationships are about give and take: Online interactions too often feel like a student is simply dumping information into a box so they can strike something off their to-do list. Expecting students to respond to each other’s posts is an easy first step, but if the response never gets read, neither participant ever sees a payoff for their contribution to the relationship. Humans respond to reciprocity.
Building a culture of reciprocity takes time, but you can be creative to get the most out of that investment of time. Let’s say Jane writes an original post about protein structure. I might expect John to make a comment on Jane’s post, but I can make it clear that John should add new information in his response—for example, he might connect Jane’s remarks on protein structure to protein regulation. That expectation that responses should move the conversation forward extends to Jane, who can respond to John’s response with her reaction and mention how protein regulation compares to DNA regulation.
Students should experience the give and take of a real-world social interaction when they’re working online.
3. There’s no replacement for real-world connections: Flipped classrooms really shine when they move the less social components of learning out of the classroom, and that creates space for improving the human interactions within the classroom. My early attempts to flip my biology course assumed that students could read about a topic and I could do completely different things in class. My students saw the disconnect.
It’s better to start the conversation with students during class. Students can explore a debate in class that identifies the major points of each side of an argument—why someone would be for or against electric cars, for example. Between classes you can then flip an examination of two sources that provide new information for the discussion. Reading an article or watching a short video works fine without classmates, and when students return to class the link between their online work and their in-person experience will demonstrate the value of that work between classes.
Technology is advancing rapidly, but it should still serve human needs. Remembering how vital our social connections are to human motivation and behavior will help students get the most out of their online experiences. And I should know, because after I started taking the steps above my enrollment numbers went back up.