Taught by Humans

A few months ago, I decided to take a Javascript course online. I thought knowing a bit of coding might come in handy one day. The last time I did any real programming was back in high school where I learned C++. I fared quite well back then. After digging around a bit, I decided to take the Javascript Fundamentals course offered on Udacity.com. Backed by a strong community of tech innovators, Udacity felt like a good choice.

In spite of the stats against learner success with MOOCs, I did manage to complete the course. Not only that, but I was also pleasantly surprised by the learning experience. What made the Udacity course a success for me? I can think of a number of things, one being a great use of technology, which comes as no surprise for Udacity. But what surprised me was the impact the instructors had.

At the start of the course, the instructors, Julia and James, introduce themselves in a short video. Their guidance, warmth, encouragement, and youthful passion would reappear frequently and pervaded the entire course from beginning to end. Although their video appearances were scripted, I still felt in a sense they were walking with me on the journey to learning how to code.

Yes, human instructors appearing in video training is nothing revolutionary. What I learned, however, is that having great personalities, a great script, knowing your audience, and using a more human way to deliver instructions can go a long way in virtual learning. And if you can connect with the instructors through forums and other social platforms, even better.

For much of our history, humans learned mostly by interacting with other humans. We learned from our parents, our siblings, our mentors and peers. What our teachers imparted to us was not just information, but the distinct flavours and tones of another human’s experience of the world. The shared experience of learning added a richness to our own understanding as both learners and teachers. It is that resulting richness that allows us to come into our own, which is the only way one can truly become successful.

As someone who is more a psychologist than a technologist, I investigate ways to exploit technology for human benefit. It is a shame that our great technology is often misused to conceal and distort the qualities that help us to connect. No, not that kind of ‘connect’, but to truly connect. I believe what people connect with is authenticity, not the personas and avatars we fabricate for the world. If I show you my true face, will you be more willing to unveil yourself?

When it comes to learning, I believe forming connections is important. Even though the learning experience is virtual, I think part of us still wants to learn in an environment that is safe, with and from someone we can trust, and who will also push us to finish despite whatever challenges come our way. With more social tools available, it is possible to recreate the teacher-student dynamic in a digital environment. Integrating more human aspects into digital learning content can only make the course come alive. Virtual does mean taking the human out of the game; it entails bringing the human back in a more economical way.

Perhaps one day, we would all be taught by AI, machine-learning-powered instructors who seem like real people and can tailor the learning experience to each individual – but we’re not there yet. Until then, I hope we can continue to explore ways to make our digital experiences more human. It is encouraging to see many organizations already beginning to explore these possibilities.

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