Maricela Bañuelos, School of Education

Historically, online learning was intended to increase underserved students’ access to educational opportunities. These students include students who are financially disadvantaged, English language learners, or disabled, or who come from rural areas (Campbell & Storo, 1996). While online courses may have expanded educational access to historically marginalized students, studies have found that students from marginalized groups are less likely to succeed in online courses (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019). For instance, the difference between White and Black students’ academic performance and persistence was exacerbated in online courses compared to the already existing differences in face-to-face courses (Xu, 2013).

Humanized online teaching is a practice that seeks to promote equity by recognizing the importance of interpersonal connection in the classroom and students’ socio-cultural realities (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019). It stresses the importance of social presence, culturally responsive teaching, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which are associated with positive student outcomes, particularly for students from marginalized backgrounds. Implementing all three can help humanize online learning and promote equitable outcome.

Instructors Can Actively Increase Social Presence

Social presence refers to the extent that individuals in an online course feel connectedness and see others as “real people” in an online environment (Richardson et al., 2016; Shea & Pickett, 2006). Here are a couple of ways of promoting social presence:

  • Instructors can show concern for students’ success and empathy for students by reaching out and supporting struggling students (Richardson et al., 2016; (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019).
  • Instructors can share asynchronous videos of themselves to explain course content, while simultaneously disclosing aspects of their personality, showing warmth, and presenting themselves as real people (Pacansky-Brock et al., 2019).
  • Instructors can provide opportunities for community building, such as group projects or requiring students to respond to each other’s posts (Baker, 2010; Kilgore & Lowenthal, 2015).

Instructors Can Incorporate Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

“Culturally responsive teaching can be defined as using the cultural knowledge, prior experience, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students. It is culturally validating and affirming.” (Gay, 2018, p. 29).

Recognizing students’ socio-cultural realities humanizes students’ experiences in online classrooms. Here are a couple of ways to incorporate culturally responsive teaching:

  • Have assignments that ask students to connect their socio-cultural background to the course content.
  • Make sure that respecting each other’s socio-cultural backgrounds is explicitly stated in the netiquette guidelines. These are guidelines on the proper ways to communicate with their peers and instructor.
  • Implement icebreakers that encourage students to share how their cultural or social background may serve as an asset in this online class.

Instructors Can Incorporate Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) consists of providing multiple ways of representing course content, providing multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding, and providing multiple ways of engaging in learning (Barteaux, 2014; Hofer, 2015). UDL recognizes that students work best when engaged and when their needs are met. Thus, UDL provide a variety of options to promote student learning. Here are a couple of ways of implementing UDL:

  • The instructor can provide course content material in textbook readings, videos, animations, and graphic organizers etc. (Hofer, 2015).
  • The instructor can measure student learning through a variety of ways, such as through reflection assignments, having students create films or scripts for a play, essays, and through exams.
  • For more ideas on how to promote UDL, see this post.

By humanizing online courses, we can move closer towards meeting online learnings’ initial mission of increasing educational equity for historically marginalized students.


Baker, C. (2010). The impact of instructor immediacy and presence for online student affective learning, cognition, and motivation. Journal of Educators Online7(1), n1.

Barteaux, S. (2014). Universal Design for Learning. BU Journal of Graduate Studies in Education6(2), 50-54.

Campbell, P. B., & Storo, J. (1996). Reducing the distance: Equity issues in distance learning inpublic education. Journal of Science Education and Technology5(4), 285-295.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Hofer, M. (2015). UDL: A systematic approach to supporting diverse learners.

Kilgore, W., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2015). The Human Element MOOC. In Student-teacher interaction in online learning environments (pp. 373-391). IGI Global.

Pacansky-Brock, M., Smedshammer, M., Vincent-Layton, K. (2019). Humanizing Online Teaching to Equitize Higher Education. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Richardson, J. C., Besser, E., Koehler, A., Lim, J., & Strait, M. (2016). Instructors’ perceptions of instructor presence in online learning environments. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning17(4), 82-104.

Shea, P., Li, C. S., & Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. The Internet and higher education9(3), 175-190.

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2013). Adaptability to online learning: Differences across types of students and academic subject areas.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 5th, 2020.