Supporting the Social and Emotional Needs of Online Learners

By January 21, 2021August 24th, 2021No Comments
Written by Rich Lewis, Client Training Coordinator

The spring of 2020 produced a singularly unique time in the history of education. Everyone delivering instruction – from K-20 institutions trying to complete their year to corporate organizations needing to maintain a trained workforce – needed to quickly find a way to address their learners’ educational needs in an environment that wouldn’t allow close contact with others. This forced the hand of institutions that had perhaps experimented with online learning, or had a relatively small online learning program in place, and tossed those with no online learning experience into the deep end of the distance learning pool.

Addressing Social & Emotional Needs in Online Learning

Nearly a year later, great progress in online learning has been made. Yet a general malaise about its effectiveness remains. And as more people have accepted that online instruction will play a significant role alongside – if not replace – traditional face-to-face instruction for the foreseeable future, more concerns have been voiced. One of the biggest concerns has been meeting the social and emotional needs of learners in an online environment.

It’s a valid concern. It doesn’t take research studies to let us know that there is a social/emotional component to being successful in an online learning environment. Learning is often a social process. Many learn best when they’re interacting with others. It’s the conversations, the exchanges of ideas, and the support found in the shared experience that can help a learner become comfortable and grow as they move through the course. For many, online learning is the antithesis of all of this. They view online learning as a solitary, isolating experience. And, yes, it can be this way. But, no, it doesn’t have to be.

The Social & Emotional Learning Webinar Series

Remote Learner recently held a series of webinars that addressed how online learning programs can support the social and emotional needs of online learners. There was a lot of ground to cover over the course of 5 one-hour webinars but the conversations had and ideas generated were enlightening.

Building Your Online Campus

We began by examining suggestions for Building Your Online Campus. When moving to a strictly online learning program, the LMS may become the only campus that learners have access to. As such we wanted to discuss how the LMS can serve some of the social and emotional needs that would normally be served for learners if they had a physical presence together on campus. Unlike physical face-to-face classrooms, online classrooms can feel like they’re always on: they don’t have the traditional space and time boundaries that separate time spent within the online class from the rest of the campus experience. There is no sense of “before” or “after” class, and that’s when most of the community-building of a campus often occurs. To that end, one idea discussed was the conscious construction of “outside” spaces that are separate from instruction and assessment. These can serve to remind students that they are a part of larger campus culture.

Developing an Online Professional Learning Community

While the notion of fostering a campus culture does gravitate to supporting K-20 learners, adult learners in corporate training environments have similar needs. Our second webinar, Developing an Online Professional Learning Community, sought to specifically speak to the social and emotional issues encountered in online professional development. For example, training is often episodic and disconnected from practice. This requires that learning be developed with a big picture perspective, and provide mechanisms to cultivate and sustain knowledge-sharing even after the “training” has concluded.

Personalizing Learning

It is all too easy for an online learning experience to be impersonal in nature. One where the content and activities the system presents are identical for every learner. While to a degree this is necessary – the instruction is the instruction after all – it must be remembered that every learner is unique and humans have an emotional need to be “known” and recognized by others. A learner can easily sense it when a course does not address him or her as an individual, and this can quickly lead to that learner disconnecting from the instructional experience. Luckily Personalizing Learning, the focus of our third webinar, is something the LMS is well equipped to support if we only take the time to leverage the available tools and techniques. Providing content in multiple formats, offering learner choice in how knowledge is demonstrated, providing detailed feedback specific to student work, and making just-in-time content available based on learner performance are just a few examples.

Fostering Social and Emotional Learning in Online Courses

And while the personalization of learning is a significant issue, it is only one facet of Fostering Social and Emotional Learning in Online Courses, which was the focus of our fourth webinar of the month. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has defined a widely used framework of competencies for social and emotional learning. We took a look at those five competencies through the lens of online learning to address how to support a learner’s self-awareness, promote self-management skills, foster responsible decision-making, build relationship skills, and encourage the development of social awareness.

Reflections on Learning

Finally, we closed out our month-long series on social and emotional learning by examining the segment of the learning cycle that is often the first thing dropped when there are time constraints. That is to provide and promote the means for learners to generate Reflections on Learning. As John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” So often, though, once a learner completes a summative assessment, that is considered the “end of that learning” and the course just moves on to the next topic. We know though that deep learning comes from reflection on that learning. Reflection allows learners to make sense of their experiences, build metacognition skills, consolidate new learning, and gradually broaden knowledge. And once again, there are a number of activities and techniques available within the LMS to support reflection on learning.

Our intention with these series of webinars throughout the month of September has been to shine a light on the importance of integrating social and emotional learning into your online instruction. It can be done, and it’s important that we take a critical look at our online course environments through the lens of social and emotional learning.