There's a human on the other end of the internet

You've got a million things to catch up on and you need to send a course email, it's easy to forget there's a human on the receiving end.

There's a human on the other end of the internet

There's a real trick to doing anything online and with a computer that doesn't necessarily come naturally to us which is to remember that there's a human on the other end reading your instructions, course email or feedback. He/She might be having a really bad day and here you are with straight commanding style language saying, "do this and then do that" and thinking, "no, P off with your commands!" and switches off the whole computer.

From your perspective, you were tired the day you needed to set up that set of instructions. Your child or dog is sick, you need to tend to them every hour, it seems, and you decided to just type out something really quickly about this week's course announcement on what the students are to complete.

From the student's perspective, the instructions were rude and commanding. From the teacher's perspective, it was instructional and better than nothing. Both perspectives are valid, but neither can see the other end of the line. Neither can even really appreciate that there's a real human on the other side.

I would say first and foremost is just a mind shift of thinking about there's a human at the other end of that internet connection and how do we make sure that we are respecting their lived experience and including our course as part of that as best as we can. — Kevin Kelly

(Source: Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast, Advancing Online Teaching)

Text is less than 10% of the message meaning

If we look at how we receive and interpret messages in a face-to-face situation:

  • Reading the body language we can interpret above 63% of the intention and therefore the meaning of the message.
  • Listening to the vocal tone gives us some emotions and intentions at around 30% of the whole message.
  • Leaving the percentage of the meaning that we can correctly guess exactly and precisely from the actual words used at around 6%.

Understandably, this is all a very grey area where words and voice tone almost always come along for the ride with body language. However, it is demonstrating the point when we think of a telephone conversation in any language is often harder to guess the meaning or intention. When in text only, the message can easily be lost which is why we have whole MFAs in creative writing.

When we need to rely on text-only, more and worded with plenty of signpost language and pleasantries that we can't express in our voice or show with our body or face, is often better. This was the very reason the 🙂 was invented, to put just a little more body language back into the text-based online world. Don't be afraid to use pictures, graphics and smilies to add a friendlier tone to the text in your online course. At a minimum, always add niceties, encouragement and well wishes to your text communication in your course.

Well, tell that to the students too!

You would be exactly right to think that and guess what? You're the educator. As online educators, it is now our job to not only model the human approach to our students, but educate them about netiquette and empathy online.

In my feedback to students, I am constantly telling them to imagine the person is right across the table from them, looking at them and listening. What might the person say back? How are they reacting to your words? What are they thinking about when you phrase it that way? Is there a different way to phrase it that makes it clearer or gentler?

Be careful of assumptions

Over time of teaching online, I have assumed things about my adult students, "They were too lazy to finish this!" or "They didn't pay attention to my instructions because..." and our imagination and fear can run away with us when in reality, they didn't see your instructions or their own dog or child fell ill or some other life situation got in the way. Perhaps your instructions weren't so clear and they have so many other things to do that they put it off.

Belinda's Razor (of Online Eduction)

Let us not attribute to lethargy or malice what may be explained by everyday life situations. — Belinda Allan

Which in these strange times can include strange and unfortunate situations.

Visualising your learner through a learner persona

It can help to have an actual learner in mind, such as a Prototypical Learner persona, whenever you are creating elements and asynchronous artefacts in your online course (even down to a single course email). You could even attach a photo to help the brain recognise this is a person that I am talking to/emailing/instructing. Check out the linked article for help in creating a Prototypical Learner Persona.


I’ve been learning self-growth, productivity, online education and various eclectic interests for quite a few years now, picking up incredible, life-long lessons along that way. I have decided to document some of my insights weekly in the form of one short-form article about 2-3 minutes in reading time which is enough time to finish your coffee/tea.

I’d love to have you join us!