Marilyn Joslin Sklar
My ten-year-old daughter worked quietly on her math one evening. She lifted her head and asked me to help her with a geometry problem. While she was satisfied with my assistance, she said she needed a bit more clarification. So, my daughter went to her online textbook for more guidance. She clicked on a box, and a disembodied voice slowly explained a problem with graphics and text. 

After my daughter completed her homework, I was curious about her experience with technology in her educational experience. She said she loves the games she plays to learn multiplication. She likes videos she watches for science sometimes. My daughter says she wants to create more things. “That would be fun,” she smiles, “but, I want my teacher to be there, too. She helps me learn.”

This MOOC explored the concept of humanness and technology in learning. I found the videos and technology to be most relevant to my family’s experience in online education. Learning achievement for us has been personal, but success was made possible by the human element. 

Kolowich (2010) argues that “presence-oriented learning” is a key for successful engagement in online courses. The human presence, he says, can be both visual contact with the instructor as well as other classmates. I agree with his argument, and I use my family as a case study. 

After two failed attempts at graduate school in traditional classrooms, I almost gave up on an advanced degree. I had switched careers, but that was not the problem. As an introvert, I sit in the back of the classroom, observe, and listen. I will participate in discussion, but it takes awhile as I am quiet and afraid to say the wrong thing. 

In 2009, I stumbled upon the master’s of arts degree in museum studies at Johns Hopkins University. This online program was made for me. I took to it rather quickly. I had to discuss, but I did not have to face other students. I could observe and read then respond without fear. If disagreement happened in a discussion, I had time to reflect, respond, and feel okay about it. At the same time, I learned many new technical skills necessary for today’s world. 

The program provided a safe environment to learn. Yet, the human element made me grow. The program surveyed its students and found something surprising; students indicated that community was one of the most liked aspects of the program. The community was created in a number of ways. Instructors had one-on-one video chats via Skype with each student once or twice each semester. There was a closed Facebook page only for students where discussions of every sort took place. Current students and alumni had contact with one another on this platform. Students had group projects each semester, and hours were spent in group chats in discussion forums or audio chats on Skype. There were often live lectures, too, where students, instructors, and guest speakers interacted. So, synchronous and asynchronous methods created the community, and that community provided moral support, developed friendships, and created a fabulous networking system. 

At age eleven, my son was bored at school. He needed something more, especially in math. The traditional classroom was not working for him. My son tested into the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University and soon began taking an honors algebra course online. The course was designed with a recorded lecture followed by problems. The quizzes all had instant feedback, yet the tests were taken at home and faxed in. My son liked this design, but he also liked contact with his instructors. Although he had two during the course, he spoke with them by phone weekly and e-mailed them more often. He liked the instructors and trusted them. That course was followed by a geometry course, which was more of a correspondence class. He loathed this design because of the lack of any human contact, whether live or recorded. 

Finally, my husband is working on his master’s in business administration currently in online program. The former average student is now an excellent student. The online degree provides a new way of learning. My husband’s new academic success is not just from the online design but from the contact with classmates, other working professionals, and instructors. In his situation, the contact comes from discussion forums, conference calls, and emails. He thrives on instructor discussions and feedback and classmate conversations. 

Technology is embedded in education in the United States today. Elementary school students record and edit their own videos and podcasts. High school students and university students take some or all of their courses online. Professionals complete advanced degrees online. Engagement and success, however, are dependent upon the human presence. 

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