Skip to Main Content

SBCC logoWhat Is Human Presence as it applies to online learning? Dr. Douglas E. Hersh, Dean of Educational Programs and Technology at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) recently completed a study addressing this question.

He used Moodle, an open source content management system, to directly address the most pressing issue within online education: a lack of “connectedness” between the student, instructor and classmates in online courses.

In his 2009 study, Human Factors: Increasing Online Student Satisfaction, Class Completion and Academic Achievement through Human Presence Design, Hersh identified three basic limitations online learning that continue to cause problems: low student satisfaction, low levels of student achievement and high attrition rates for online learners.

Attrition rates for online learners are 10-20 percent higher than attrition rates for students that learn in a classroom.

By adding a greater sense of Human Presence to courses, students can feel more connected to their instructors and classmates, increasing their interaction with the course and the subject.

To achieve this, Hersh worked with the Moodle community through, a Moodle partner, to create modules within the Moodle environment that help increase the Human Presence factor in online courses.

An example of the Online Human Presence Interface.The result was the Human Presence Learning Environment developed at SBCC. This environment allows instructors to design courses giving online learners the ability to see and hear their instructors and classmates synchronously and asynchronously. In Hersh’s study, the higher level of human contact in these types of online courses showed a greater student success rate.

Class completion rates increased by nearly 10 percent with the Human Presence Learning Environment. Both student satisfaction and student mean grade point average also showed a similar increase.

These results are statistically and philosophically significant. A 10 percent increase in class completion reduces the 10-20 percent greater chance of attrition for online learners and begins to even the playing field between traditional classes versus online classes.

As distance education continues to grow, adapting courses to appeal to students and increase success rates is vital.

In the current economic climate, many students can not afford to just be students and must work while attending school at least part time. Online education allows them to use the commuting time it would take to get to a traditional course as prep time for their online courses.

The profile of the average online student shows that most online students are between the ages of 30 to 49 years old, female, white or Hispanic in background and average 40 hours or more working hours per week. About five percent of online students have learning or other disabilities.

As the Internet becomes an increasingly social tool, the need for online education to adapt to reflect the evolving needs and expectations of students is growing. Hersh’s design for the Human Presence Learning Environment directly addresses this change.

By incorporating social networking tools, such as Skype and Elluminate, students have a greater sense of interaction in an online learning environment. Being able to have face-to-face communication with instructors and fellow students enhances the learning experience by allowing students to read body language and visual cues that are not expressed in regular online courses.

The Wimba Voice BoardThe incorporation of Wimba Voice Board, expands traditional chat into a verbal conversation. Participants can comment and respond by typing in their text then recording their comment and posting it. This way others in the course can hear the voices and inflections of their fellow classmates.

Students can also rate the module, much like a product on Amazon, with the exception that their rating and comments are anonymous and can only be reviewed by the instructor. This helps the instructor get feedback on what does and does not work for the students in the module’s design.

Other features include a course microblog, similar to a Twitterfeed, where the instructor can post relevant information in addition to established materials. Video recordings of lectures can be uploaded. Live sessions can be held in Elluminate and recorded for any Student Services Information Accessstudents who cannot make the live session.

A box with access information for campus student services is also included. The goal of this is to help online students receive the same services as students who are physically attending. This level of access alone can help students feel like they are more a part of the school and be more informed about the services available to them through their campus.

Currently, the Human Presence Learning Environment is only available at SBCC, but Hersh hopes that it may serve as a model for other campuses as they develop their online education platforms and methods of delivery.

With the cost and limitations of proprietary content management systems, Hersh feels that the California community colleges will be migrating toward open source and public domain options in the future.<>

Jen Gednalske is a CCC Technology Center and California Virtual Campus Project Manager
and a TechEDge Editor.