Communication & design motivates student learning

Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa demonstrates how online teaching and its face-to-face counterpart have a similar impact on learning outcomes in Part Three⎮4 min read
Communication & design motivates student learning

In Part One of this five part series, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa reviewed the factors teachers should consider before transitioning classes to online courses, while in Part Two she explored how student attitude and the quality of materials contribute to successful online learning outcomes. Tracey now demonstrates how communication and good design motivates students to learn in Part Three.  


Fourth, there is a strong argument that nothing replaces the face-to-face experience due to the human need for social contact (Hodas & Lerman, 2014). There is a large body of international evidence that shows that teacher-student relationships are highly influential in supporting student learning outcomes (Hattie & Anderman, 2013). This would suggest that the ability to “connect” plays a very important role in student motivation to learn, and consequently in outcomes. Despite the popular belief that being face-to-face is necessary for the benefits of socialisation to be felt, there is research that shows that social contagion - the ability of an individual to “infect” others at the emotional level and spread to define the learning environment - is equally impactful in online contexts as it is in face-to-face contexts (Johnson, et al., 2011). 

Others go so far as to suggest that social contagion is actually augmented in online settings because of member visibility (Bowers & Kumar, 2015). In synchronous online meetings, people see everyone’s faces all the time, whereas in a face-to-face-classroom people often have their backs to one another. The ability to see others’ faces speeds up the rate of social contagion experienced by the group. This means that an excited and motivated group becomes even more excited and motivated, but the opposite can also be true. This is why managing groups in virtual contexts takes on a magnified role. Good online classroom management is the key to leveraging social contagion in favor of the good learning environment. Furthermore, in videoconferencing settings, learners also see themselves, which makes them even more aware of their body language, facial expressions and overall communication towards the group. This enhanced self-awareness changes group dynamics, and if leveraged well by the instructor, can advance learning significantly.

There is an additional phenomena in online learning which is just beginning to be explored, and that is the disinhibition effect, or the way online learning creates a level of “protection” and thus, a higher level of social engagement (Pytash & Ferdig, 2017). Authors suggest that learners are more willing to share ideas and engage with each other online because they feel protected by not being in a physically shared space (Salter, et al., 2017).

Online Learning: Beyond “MOOCs”

Fifth, “online” learning is a global concept that encompasses distinct learning experiences, ranging from MOOCs to webinars to virtual reality laboratories to K-12 supplemental classes to 100% online university classrooms. This broad range of sub-types of online learning makes it difficult to qualify what is meant by “taking your class online” as this could mean simply offering a holding repository for documents or a place to receive uploaded homework, to a “high-touch” life-altering technologically-assisted learning experience.  

There is now a large body of evidence on the ineffectiveness of Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs (Mayer et al., 2020). MOOCs came onto the learning scene in force in the early 2000s and promised not only to democratise information at a low cost, but also captured the imagination of many educational leaders who quickly devised certification schemes through which income could be derived. The reality of MOOCs, and their effectiveness, however, is that they have an extremely low level of completion rate, require a very high level of self-control, and do not yet have an agreed upon evaluation scheme by which to measure student learning outcomes (Weinhardt & Sitzmann, 2019). While successful in democratising open access to knowledge, MOOCs are far less successful in guaranteeing deep learning, have little or no contact from learner-to-learner or teacher-to-learner, and do not have a robust or universally agreed upon way of providing evidence of learning.

Not all online learning consists of MOOCs, despite their being the most studied format of online learning. Many people jump to the conclusion that “online learning is ineffective” and point to statistics of MOOC completion rates and/or the solitary nature and results of studying alone (Ejreaw & Drus, 2017). While MOOCs may not be an effective replacement for a course, other well-designed online experiences suggest the equal or even superior nature of online learning (Bazylak & Weiss, 2017).

Many universities around the world have invested heavily in the past decade to structure high quality learning experiences in the online modality leveraging the most up-to-date technology (He, et al., 2019). Good online design, similar to designing any learning experience fact-to-face, requires extensive planning to leverage the right tools and strategies at the right time for the right audience.

In Part Four, Tracey talks about how to manage the transition to online teaching, what resources to provide, and the support systems to consider. 

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