Humanizing Your Online Course

Part 2 of the Inclusive Pedagogy Series

I started teaching online in 2003 for a for-profit institution. It was two years after receiving my M.Ed. in Research and Collaboration at TCU where my focus was on online asynchronous learning. I was anxious to apply my research to my own classroom!

The realities of teaching online soon became very apparent. At that time the institution did not have an LMS. I taught the course through discussion forums. My students were lines of text on the screen, as I was to them. We didn’t have Zoom or any other video meeting software so we were confined to interacting through the discussions and email.

I realized quickly that I needed to somehow become a real person to my students; a person who cared about their experience and success. So I set about recording video introductions, using video and recorded screencasts to help them learn HTML, web design and multimedia. Soon I was asking them to post an audio or video introduction instead of text, encouraging them to share photos of pets and places they loved to travel. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was humanizing my online course.

What is humanizing?

If you google this topic, you will see quite a few results. We’ve been working on this for a couple of decades, so that doesn’t surprise me.  I particularly appreciate the work of Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a community college faculty member turned faculty developer who started teaching online in 2004. She created a wonderful infographic on this topic.  

 “Humanizing leverages learning science and culturally responsive teaching to create an inclusive, equitable online class climate for today’s diverse students.” Brock, 2020.  

Humanizing your course is how you bring equity into your course design and teaching.

 It also brings decades of research on instructor presence and student persistence to bear on course design and instruction.  Being an excellent instructor in both the physical and online classroom in higher ed is a skill that anyone can learn. So these steps can apply to in-person courses as well.

screen capture of the Humanzing Your Online Course Inforgraphic

Steps to Take to Humanize Your Course


Brock offers eight elements to use in humanizing your course:

The Liquid Syllabus: A public, mobile-friendly website that has your brief welcome video and includes “warm, non-verbal cues and hopeful language” to ease anxieties about your course and how to be successful in week one (Brock, 2020, pp107-108).

Humanized Homepage: the homepage provides a clear and friendly welcome to the course and tells the student how the course works and has a clear Start Here link to the syllabus and/or the course information module in Canvas (this is also a Quality Matters and Online Learning Consortium quality standard). Here is an example

Getting to Know You Survey: In week one, ask the students to complete a confidential survey that provides additional information about each student and helps you identify which students are going to be ‘high touch’ requiring more of your time that other students. In Canvas, you can create a survey for this purpose. If you are logged into Canvas, go to to see an example of questions to include.

Warm, Wise Feedback: I love this and always attempt to convey support and encouragement in my feedback to students. Brock states, “Your feedback is critical to your students’ continuous growth. But how you deliver your feedback really makes a difference, especially in an online course. To support your students’ continued development and mitigate the effects of social and psychological threats, follow the Wise feedback model (Cohen & Steele, 2002) that also supports growth mindset (Dweck, 2007). Support effort + ability  + action. And deliver your message in voice or video to include verbal or nonverbal cues and minimize misinterpretation. 

Self-affirming Ice Breaker: Week one of a course is full of anxiety for students and can impede their ability to start the course. Try an ice breaker that invites them to share a part of their identity. One example from the infographic is to ask them to reflect on a value that is important to them and then choose an object from their life that represents that value.

Wisdom Wall: sharing the ‘wisdom’ or advice from students who have previously taken your class. You can use a collaborative tool such as a Word file in OneDrive that students can access, or Flipgrid, which can be enabled in Canvas. You can also have studente email their success advice to you that you would add to the file, or empower students to create their own by having a link to a shared Word document by changing the edit settings to ‘Anyone with the link’. Post this link in your course to share it with your current students and then they can also add their own advice. Here is Michelle’s example of a Wisdom Wall.

Bumper Video: Short videos used throughout the course to introduce a new module or clarify a sticky concept.

Microlectures: laser-focused short videos (5 – 10 minute) that walk the students through the comprehension of complex concepts.  Before you record, identify the one or two ideas you want your students to take from the video. Write a script to make sure that you are saying exactly what you want to say in the short video.  Also, remember to produce closed captions for all videos.  If you need help with closed captioning in Panopto, please contact the help desk 

All of these suggested steps are part of the best practices in online course design and teaching. They are also steps that you can take at any time during the semester. 

These elements will be included in the CFC’s Online Course Design Institute offered totally online this summer. If you’d like more information about the OCDI, please contact us.


Pacansky-Brock, M. 2017. Best practices for teaching with emerging technologies. Routledge, New York, NY.

Pacansky-Brock, M. Liquid syllabus.

Pacansky-Brock, M. (2020). How to humanize your online class, version 2.0 [Infographic].

Faculty Embracing Inclusive Pedagogy at WCU

Part 1 of the Inclusive Teaching Series

The 2nd Annual Teaching and Learning Day event, sponsored by the Office of the Provost, and facilitated by the Coulter Faculty Commons, provided a space for faculty and staff across campus to learn about the Fellows’ work.  

The initiative, led by associate dean Dr. Shamella Cromartie, with facilitation support from Dr. Darrius Stanley and Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford, led to a significant change in pedagogical perspective for participant Dr. Geraldine Riouff, assistant professor of environmental health. 

group of college students gathered about a table talking to each other

“It lives with me today,” Riouff said. “We evaluated who we are as an educator, how this has influenced what happens in the classroom, and considered our academic background and talked about critical theory. We worked on our syllabi, the voices represented in our syllabi, and the resources we teach from and with.” 

The program provided support from subject matter experts such as library faculty. 

“Ann Hallyburton, in the library, was incredibly helpful surfacing diverse voices and resources for my Public Health class,” Rioff said.I cover many different topics, and now I have broader representation and perspectives on subjects like traumatic brain injury, opiate addiction, and the other topics we cover.” 

The program provided support from subject matter experts such as library faculty. 

“Ann Hallyburton, in the library, was incredibly helpful surfacing diverse voices and resources for my Public Health class,” Rioff said.I cover many different topics, and now I have broader representation and perspectives on subjects like traumatic brain injury, opiate addiction, and the other topics we cover.” 

The fellowship speaks to who we are as a teaching and learning community, said Dr. Brandi Hinnant-Crawford. “Our third strategic direction says that Western is committed to creating a campus reflective of our core values and that we offer curricular and co-curricular educational programs that prepare students for the diverse world in which we live.”  

Dr. Darrius Stanely agreed. “We were really purposeful about trying to cultivate inclusive pedagogy in the faculty already here at Western. When inclusive pedagogy is employed, students will view themselves as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences. It is a central component of the learning process.” 

Other faculty in the cohort include Brandy Tiernan, Psychology; Melissa Snyder, Athletic Training; and Yiqing Yang, Sociology. 

Resources for faculty who want to pursue Inclusive Pedagogy and Course Design 

WCU DEI Community of Practice 

Join the WCU DEI Community of Practice – This community of practice is open to any and all faculty and staff at WCU. Contact Ricardo Nazario-Colon or Jonathan Wade for more information and directions on how to join.  

Inclusive Teaching: Supporting All Students in the College Classroom 

This is a self-paced course offered by Columbia University through EdX.  Estimated time to complete is 6 weeks, 2-3 hours per week. There is an option to upgrade to permanent access to the course for a minimal cost.  Topics covered include: 

  • Creating an inclusive climate in the course 
  • Setting explicit expectations 
  • Promoting DEI through course content 
  • Designing all course elements for accessibility 
  • Cultivating critical self-reflection 

Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom 

This is a self-paced course offered by Cornell University through EdX. Estimated time to complete is 5 weeks, 2-3 hours per week. There is an option to upgrade to permanent access to the course for a minimal cost.  Topics covered include: 

  • Instructors – social identities, identity development, and intersectionality’s 
  • Students – implicit bias and stereotype three, disability-inclusion, send of belonging,  
  • Pedagogy – Inclusive learning environment 
  • Curriculum – redesigning the syllabus, designing for the learner 
  • Action and Change – institutional change, what can you do now? 

The Coulter Faculty Commons is also planning the Summer Institute for Teaching & Learning this year. The in-person convening will be on May 10, which will kick off various ways instructors can participate in professional development this summer.  Check back for more details.

Supporting Students in Challenging Times: Trauma, Grace and Two Freshman Classes


I think we can all agree that the last couple of years have been tough for educators.  The sudden shift to online teaching in the spring of 2020 was followed by months of uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus, shifting guidelines from the CDC, and politicization of how individuals, communities, and schools should respond. Our coping skills have been put to the test and many of us are justifiably worn a bit thin.   

male college student in front of laptop with textbook open and hands on head expression of stress

Now imagine that you are a young person, away from home for the first time, bereft of the support system that has created a sense of stability for your entire life.  On top of that, your last year of high school was not the triumphant culmination of your primary educational journey that you anticipated.  You’ve arrived at the university feeling unprepared and unsure of what to expect. 

As you acknowledge that you are dealing with unprecedented circumstances in the classroom take a moment to step back and recognize that your students are struggling as well and there are some things you can do to help them out.  Here are a few ideas your fellow faculty members came up with during the January Teaching and Learning Day sponsored by the CFC.


Recording of Supporting Students in Challenging Times

Here is the recording of the main presentation of recommendations faculty can use to support students in their courses.

Explicitly prioritize student well-being 

  • Provide a check-in at the beginning of each class to let students share what they are dealing with.   
  • Record classes for students that can’t attend and for review by those struggling to absorb content. 
  • Suggest students take fewer classes.  The delay in program completion will be rewarded by a richer learning experience. 
  • Plan for more office hours.  Your students need more opportunities to talk about their concerns and challenges. 

Provide flexibility with your coursework or course delivery plan, without overextending yourself 

  • Grant extensions frequently while having a “no late work” policy.  This allows students to take ownership while also providing a timeline for communication. 
  • Let the students decide the due days of their assignments.  The Canvas default of Sunday at 11:59 pm is less than optimum.  If a class can’t agree on a day and time, propose the worst possible option to encourage compromise. 
  • Let the students choose between a few major exams and more frequent quizzes.  

Connect institutional support with the classroom 

  • Remind students of the CAPS service. Share the information in class.   
  • Discuss the available resources at the beginning of class.  
  • In Suite 201 (CEAP Student Success Center), advisors frequently discuss campus resources with students and provide links to these resources on their advising records every semester.  

Remember that language matters 

  • “Is Jean okay?” vs “Does anyone know why Jean didn’t come to class?”  Choose words that demonstrate concern for well-being rather than demanding what the excuse was for not being in class.   
  • Use attendance to identify students who may need additional attention vs punitive grade action. 

Take care of yourself and find a support network 

  • Ask a colleague to go for a walk together on campus to discuss what happened and is happening – share the load on the road.   

Infuse music, poetry, humor, and storytelling into your course 

  • Students do a weekly Word document (turn in every other week). They get an assignment document and they add to it. The document has creative sketches, ideas for mindfulness, expressiveness, favorite song, make a class playlist. 
  • I always play music in class. 
  • My students write a letter to Covid so they can express feelings. 
  • I try not to talk about Covid so much in class, because there is more to our life than Covid. I want class to be a time for them to be away from stress, to be present, discuss their use of time, ways to use technology (and not), to create balance.
  • Think about writing a SLO that is related to caring.  

Share your own story 

  • Will share an image of my art / work, also a reflection of that time in my life, what I was going through. That should encourage students to share more. I then asked them if this helped, and they said, yes, they liked seeing me fill out mine.  
  • Develop strong student relationships – they will maintain relationships after college.  
  • Instructors share their stories with their students and for them to communicate through art, vulnerability, creativity, innovation. 

Help students tell their stories 

  • Bardo provides exhibition tours and asks classes of students “what do you see?” It results in a freeform discussion, where they talk about how they interpret a work of art. This leads to further discussion – why is this object there, and how we all see different things. 
  • The method used at Bardo is called “Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS)”. The exercise rooted in sensory awareness, and students enjoy how the modality and experience is different than sitting in a classroom. Any faculty interested in exploring how “art is therapy” can contact Denise Drury Homewood, to schedule a tour.  
  • Consider an inquiry-based teaching method (helps students learn, describe, and observe…fosters collaborative discussion, diverse points of view, empathy).  


Centre for Mindfulness – –  

Else-Quest, N., Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022, January 18). How to Give Our Students the Grace We All Need. The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Imad, M. (2021, July 8). Pedagogy of Healing: Bearing Witness to Trauma and Resilience. Inside Higher Ed.