Losing the personal touch in online teaching?

One of the best things (IMHO) about the Facilitating Learning Online workshop (offered regularly by BCcampus and Royal Roads University) is the emphasis we place on building a sense of community for learners and a sense of being “seen” by the instructor and other participants. Previous studies of the experiences of learners online highlighted the sense of isolation that they felt and the importance they placed on receiving timely feedback on their actions and assignments from instructors.

Personalized Learning DesignerI just finished tracking down a tweet that mentioned a webinar on the potential value of using a Personalized Learning Designer in Moodle. I was curious how Moodle would “personalize” learning. I reviewed some back-and-forth discussion about what it was and why it wasn’t available in current versions of Moodle (https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=224834) and found the actual description of how it works. If I’m understanding it correctly, you (the instructor) devise a series of “rules” that states something you want to do or respond to a student doing (events, conditions or actions); the rules automate the instructor-student communication process so you never miss a beat, particularly during the crazy-busy times at the beginning of courses when you’re teaching several courses with large cohorts. You can find some examples of rules in this article from Moodleroom: “Three rules you can’t live without

While I can see the benefit to some instructors, I have experienced the “fussy-ness” of rules – if you don’t set them properly they end up causing confusion, miscommunication and additional work to correct. If you have a team of learning designers or instructional technologists, this may not be an issue (or if you’re good at writing rules and setting consistent conditions). But I wonder how much of the “personal touch” would be lost and how the development of a sense of “instructor presence” might be hampered by using a tool that intends to “automate facilitation” and make your course run like “a well-oiled machine.”

I guess my concern is that so many of the new apps and tools are intended to take away the need to focus on our learners; to get to know them and to develop a relationship that is mutually respectful and provides support and encouragement at times and in ways that best suit each student. By automating that relationship we may ensure that we never miss responding to something that we pre-identify as expected and important but we may lose the unexpected opportunities to emphasize “learning moments” or suggest alternatives or simply acknowledge and praise our learners when they may need it most.

I’ll be curious to hear what intructors find when they use this new tool (and to hear what participants think) although I understand it’s only available to a limited group for now (“the Personalized Learning Designer is a feature of joule, the Moodlerooms distribution of Moodle available only to Moodlerooms hosted customers“)