Four principles for maintaining human connections in online collaboration and learning

Four principles for maintaining human connections in online collaboration and learning

Sarah Bever and Jessica Lane


Screenshot from a video conference with six people.

Around the world, people have quickly transitioned from familiar spaces such as classrooms and offices to a new frontier of online collaboration. How can they maintain human connections that are essential for working and learning online? Here are four principles for educators and global development professionals for making the shift to online spaces.

Human connections are necessary for building effective learning communities. People need support to understand content, move forward on projects, and collaborate with one another. This was true before social distancing, and it remains true now.

In fact, these connections are now even more important, as people cope with rapid changes and an uncertain world. Everyone needs to know that there is a community for them to belong to and a place for them to grow.

From our experience, we have learned that interacting in a way that allows you to build genuine, meaningful relationships is essential to success.

1. Design with intent

Opportunities for feedback and collaboration are the primary priority for designing for human connection; otherwise, trainings and curriculum risk being overwhelming or inaccessible for participants. This ensures that content is richer and more inclusive. Here is what designing with intent means:

Thoughtfully choose your platform

Decide on what platform to use. There are a range of options including learning management systems, communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom or Skype, a suite of resources such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams, and social media tools.

Think about your desired outcomes, length of course or program, participants’ communications access, and budget in order to choose the best platform for your needs. For a list of platforms and considerations, check our Online Collaboration Guide for Facilitators.

Be participatory

Gather a focus group that represents the demographics of your participants and cull information from them with targeted questions about their needs and level of access. Then design with the input of participants through an intentional feedback loop. 

For example, through Fulbright Teacher Exchanges, which are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government, IREX developed Global Education 101, a massive open online course for U.S. K–12 teachers to build global competence in their classrooms.

IREX engaged teachers at every design phase: first with a collaboration committee to brainstorm and survey their peers, second in reviewing the learning plan, and finally in testing the course before it was launched. The result was a course that has engaged over 1,000 teachers and received high recommendations.

Be inclusive

Learn who your participants are and tailor content and delivery to their needs.

Take into consideration participants with disabilities, with low-bandwidth internet connections, with diverse language abilities, and from diverse demographics (for example, people from rural, urban, and suburban areas).

Simple considerations such as increasing the size of text, using colors that are more legible, and incorporating diverse materials and activities will make your course more accessible to more people.

Keep it simple

Simplicity is key for online learning, from platform choice and design to instruction. Keeping instruction simple, keeping the formatting uncluttered, and removing unnecessary steps for accessing the content will make a better learning experience for the educator and participants. Learn about where your participants are and meet them there.

2. Communicate with empathy

You may have had to cancel your in-person conference or training, but this does not mean you should cancel your communication. Communicating with care and understanding is especially important when we are unable to be in the same physical space as the participants. Without the same social cues, the online space calls for more intentionally empathetic communication practices.

Communicate consistently

Do not abandon your learners while you pivot; instead, consistently communicate your plans to continue to build a trusting relationship. Let your participants know that you are reprogramming to meet the needs of the current situation and that you welcome their input and feedback. Continue to check in on group chats before, during, and after your learning experience. Ask people how they are and maintain an active presence in your learners’ lives.

For example, the Securing Access to Free Expression (SAFE) program continues to engage with trainees through remote mentorship. Although in-person trainings have been postponed and will be facilitated virtually, the SAFE team consistently engages in open communication focusing on organizational capacity-building and training development. 

Build an authentic space

Especially during times of crisis and uncertainty, people need a sense of constancy and normalcy. You can provide that by continuing to speak openly and honestly with participants through mobile and online tools.

In your ongoing communication, recognize the challenges that your participants are facing. Simple facilitation strategies like icebreakers and “highs and lows” check-ins let your participants know that they are part of a community.

You can facilitate sharing through these methods before, during, and after your training. This not only builds trust between you and participants, it also builds a community.

Practice patience

This may seem like a given, but it is very easy to feel frustrated by technology, bandwidth issues, or learners who may not be as digitally literate as others.

Instead of letting frustrations turn into conflicts, be patient with learners, schedule more one-on-one sessions to help them learn the digital platform, and encourage all learners to practice patience with one another.

3. Adapt and customize content

For your program’s or course’s content to be effective and long lasting, flexibility and a mindset of adaptation are essential. Anticipate that shifts and redesigns will need to occur. This simple mindset will help you be prepared.

Is it relevant?

This begins with the curriculum or content design to ensure that it is relevant for participants. Use examples and case studies that will resonate with your students or participants and draw from their culture and reality.

Is it appropriate for the context?

Prioritize differentiation and contextualizing. This means incorporating diverse readings, videos, quizzes, group discussions, and opportunities for independent reflection throughout your virtual program.

Acknowledge and meet the current needs of participants. This demonstrates a culture of care, which opens participants up for a more sustainable experience.  

For example, the Global Solutions Sustainability Challenge is a human-centered design challenge that uses virtual collaboration between higher education classrooms in the U.S., Jordan, and Iraq. Recently, schools closed or moved their instruction online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This means that classrooms could no longer connect as a group, so Global Solutions students had to engage individually through Zoom and Slack from home and demonstrate extra dedication to the project.

The relationships that were established during the program kept students motivated. Throughout this stressful time, students shared photos, childhood memories, and favorite foods all through Slack to keep their spirits up and encourage each other. They even played video games together! The IREX team adjusted the program design and reached out individually to faculty and students to support this transition. They also responded through adapting the program’s requirements, making a video of self-care tips, and opening up a community space on Padlet for students to share inspiration during the pandemic.

4. Facilitate authentically

Have you ever zoned out, checked emails, or used your mobile phone during an online learning session? We all have!

It is imperative that we create an authentic learning space that stays true to the classroom or learning culture you would create in-person. This means deciding if you are creating a learning space that is casual or formal, relationship-driven or content-driven, instructor or participant-led. How exactly do we do this?

Show your personality

Listening to a monotone voice and seeing a presentation on a screen makes it difficult to keep participants attentive. Instead, as a facilitator, do not shy away from sharing your unique personality.

If possible, always use your video camera. Understand that you are the main reason why people will pay attention. Practice your vocal cadence, add in humor when applicable, use body language like you would in-person. Encourage participants to stay engaged by using their microphones, emoji, and video when possible.

Create group guidelines

For people to feel safe in a virtual space and show their personality, the facilitator should establish group norms or guidelines for interaction.

What should participants use the chat box for? When should they turn on their video and microphone? Will this be recorded and who will it be shared with? What guidelines should be upheld in group discussions if there are breakout rooms? Establishing these norms together (and allowing participants to share any norms they want to add) helps build community in a virtual space.

For example, the Community Solutions Program (CSP) team hosts a monthly virtual discussion session where fellows openly share updates from their project implementation and provide each other guidance and support. To encourage active participation, facilitators establish a culture of open sharing rooted in the four CSP Guiding Principles, which were created in collaboration with CSP fellows and alumni: Exercising Care and Consideration, Practicing Integrity, Fostering Inclusion, and Engaging in Lifelong Learning.

Let go of perfection

There is no such thing as a perfect learning experience in person, and there is no such thing as perfection online. There are always different ways of presenting and sharing information. The goal should not be perfection—the goal should always be getting engagement to meet your learning objectives. Letting go of perfection creates a fun, authentic learning environment that allows learners to show their humanity online.

Just like adapting to any new culture or environment, we can similarly adapt to virtual spaces through adjusting our strategies. Through designing with intent, communicating with empathy, adapting and customizing content, and facilitating authentically, we can maintain and strengthen our human connections in today’s increasingly virtual world.

The Community Solutions Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by IREX.

Fulbright Teachers Exchanges are sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and administered by IREX. Fulbright Teacher Exchanges are governed by policies established by the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

The Global Solutions Program is funded by the Stevens Initiative, which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, with funding provided by the U.S. Government, and is administered by the Aspen Institute.