Can Technology Make Learning Experiences More Human?

Concurrent Session 4

Brief Abstract

In the midst of the ongoing pandemic, how are instructors using technology to create more engaging – and even more human – learning experiences? This panel will bring together faculty and administrators to discuss how emerging technologies are helping foster peer-to-peer interaction and create community even in an online context.


Dr. Amy Johnson is a Core Faculty member for the Associate of Arts in Early Childhood Education degree program in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC). She earned a Doctorate of Early Childhood Development and Education from Texas Woman’s University, a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from Chapman University, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Creative Writing from San Diego State University. Dr. Johnson began her career teaching elementary grades in the Cajon Valley School District. She transitioned into higher education in 2010 and enjoys the diversity of University of Arizona Global Campus students. Dr. Johnson lives in the Ft. Worth, Texas, area with her husband and two daughters.
Heather Olson is a Professor of Cornerstone Experience, a First Year Experience Student Life Skills course, at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Lee Campus. Prior to her teaching experience at FSW, she taught high school for more than eight years. She earned her MA in English Language and Literature from Florida Gulf Coast University and is currently working on her Ph.D. in General Psychology at Capella University. She is a certified Mental Health First Aid Trainer, True Colors Facilitator, Ayurvedic Yoga Specialist, and Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT 200).

Additional Authors

Ben Watsky is Chief of Staff at Whiteboard Advisors.

Extended Abstract

As we continue an uncertain fall after a complicated and exhausting year of online instruction, many college faculty are increasingly skeptical about the changing role of technology in the classroom.


Tools that use artificial intelligence to streamline processes like scoring quizzes or reviewing grammar were already on the upswing before the pandemic. These technologies do an effective job of automating some of the processes that used to be an inextricable part of the teaching experience. Now, in a new era of remote learning, some research suggests that technology is more popular than ever.


For many instructors, the rise of technology tools in the classroom during the pandemic has resurfaced longstanding concerns about what role those tools should play in the learning experience. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, those concerns manifest as a fear of being replaced by robots (not likely). But there are more reasonable concerns as well—particularly given the increasing effectiveness of artificial intelligence in classroom settings. Will ubiquitous video lectures, AI-based grading tools, or platforms that provide students with real-time writing feedback make traditional teaching obsolete?


The answer, as it turns out, is yes. And that’s a good thing—because as this panel will demonstrate, our collective opinion about what constitutes “traditional teaching” is overdue for an overhaul.


This panel will feature insights from instructors and online learning leaders at the University of Richmond, Florida Southwestern State University, and the University of Arizona Global Campus — three very different institutions that are, paradoxically enough, using technology to make online learning experiences more human.


A robust body of research indicates that quality online discussion can lead to better discussion quality and interaction, greater faculty satisfaction, and improved course outcomes. Pedagogy that supports intrinsic student motivation—by supporting robust peer-to-peer interaction, asking students to formulate and pose inquiries, and encouraging them to assume a kind of teaching role with peers—can be especially powerful. 


At the same time, facing increasing course sizes and shrinking budgets, the bulk of many faculty members’ jobs focuses on the rote delivery of content, the performance of administrative tasks, or the minutiae of grammar correction and answering similar questions over and over again. These are the parts of teaching most likely to be replaced by technology. They’re also the parts that get in the way of what teaching should be. Can online discussion tools help to address this challenge — enabling faculty to engage more deeply in substantive and meaningful ways with their students?


At all three of these institutions, instructors used an inquiry-based discussion tool, powered by artificial intelligence, with the aim of boosting engagement in online classes. What they found was that this approach didn’t just improve students’ participation. It also enabled them to build meaningful and engaged communities that kept learning going even outside the context of specific assignments. The discussion platform’s instant feedback tools to help students edit their contributions in real time, as well as its ability to encourage students to cite sources and ask deeper questions, led to deeper engagement in discussion -- and, in turn, a sense of understanding and respect between students who were able to understand and reflect on one another’s viewpoints.


Participants at the panel will learn about the challenges that all three institutions have faced over the past eighteen months and the way that new technologies have helped them to both respond to students’ needs during a challenging time, and encourage the creation of new and enriching communities through discussion.