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Social Cues in the Online Classroom

Teaching Strategies and Techniques

Social Cues in the Online Classroom

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In a recent New York Times article, researchers point out that popular self-paced “brain training” programs have not been demonstrated to improve performance in school or work (DeSteno, Breazeal, and Harris 2017). They chalk up the problem to the lack of social cues in online teaching, such as facial expressions and voice inflections, which are a fundamental part of human interaction.

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In a recent New York Times article, researchers point out that popular self-paced “brain training” programs have not been demonstrated to improve performance in school or work (DeSteno, Breazeal, and Harris 2017). They chalk up the problem to the lack of social cues in online teaching, such as facial expressions and voice inflections, which are a fundamental part of human interaction.

While I wonder whether their position “proves too much” in that it would also dismiss books and articles as learning devices, they nevertheless bring up a good point in that text-based communication lacks the social cues that are critical to conveying the full message in face-to-face communication. Therefore, people tend to interpret email messages more harshly than intended—they lack the facial and verbal signals we use to modulate the tone of our communication. Hence, emoticons are used to recover the lost fidelity in moving from face to text.

This fact tends to be lost on online course developers in higher education. Most course developers default to text communication when developing their online content, basically transcribing what they would normally say in a face-to-face lecture and assigning readings as outside resources. Perhaps, as academics, they are most familiar with communicating through articles and so assume that all asynchronous communication, including online teaching, needs to be similarly text based. But important information is lost in that communication, so course developers should be taught first to look for ways to develop course content and activities that incorporate social cues, defaulting to text only when there is no good alternative. Several relatively easy ways can be used to incorporate social cues into online teaching.


I have long noticed that the best online teaching content is coming from the private sector and massive open online courses (MOOCs), not traditional higher education. Instead of text or voice-over PowerPoints, which simply read bullet points to the viewer as if they were illiterate, the private sector and MOOCs use videos of real people and things, so they are the go-to method for teaching outside of higher education. Their videos, thus, capture the social cues that are a key to communication.

The best source of examples of effective online teaching content is YouTube. Channels such as the SciShow release highly engaging videos designed to leave viewers knowing something they did not know before, which is the purpose of education. They do it by blending face-to-face shots with images of the topic or animation to provide both social cues and content that produces real learning. Notice how this example integrates those elements, and think about how it compares to the traditional higher education online content: https://youtu.be/GyiIBY6GO1Q.

Some faculty members think it takes a professional to create these types of engaging videos, but it does not. Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski of the University of California, San Diego, created exceptional green-screen videos for the most popular MOOC on Coursera using a cheap green cloth, a few lights, and a camera to create a studio in their basement. The focus of the video is of one of them speaking to the camera while imagery is added around them to illustrate and amplify their message. This imagery was added by inexpensive software that any instructional designer can master. The only real requirement is a sincere desire to communicate with the student. See our detailed description of the course in the August 2016 issue of Online Classroom newsletter, an example of the videos used, and directions for making green-screen videos in the June 2016 issue.

Animation is also an easy and highly effective way to deliver lessons online. Programs such as VideoScribe, PowToon, and Moovly make it easy to create animated lessons on any desktop computer combining imagery provided by the user or the program with narration. The system walks you through the steps, which means that no real instructional design skills are needed. See this example of a lesson on animal ethics from Tyler Doggett, a philosophy professor at the University of Vermont: https://youtu.be/3HAMk_ZYO7g.

Finally, a simple webcam shot can be a great way to introduce yourself and your course to students. It establishes you as a person far better than any CV, provides a glimpse of your personality, and gets students engaged in the course. Also, feel free to invite your students to shoot their own video welcomes. See this example of a video welcome for a course I teach to faculty on relationships in learning: https://youtu.be/muAI6o0FWEo.


Once again, the default for online discussion is text threads, but there is no reason that discussions cannot involve voice and face to recover social cues. Simply putting the content on VoiceThread will allow students to reply by voice or video, and many learning management systems also allow for voice or video comments in discussions. I like to provide a video wrap-up at the end of each online discussion, as seen in this (very old) example: https://youtu.be/h7vj8j_gZuQ. While the production values are not the greatest, they do not need to be. Communicating with sincerity is the most important goal.

Voice and Screencasting Feedback

Most faculty members default to margin comments when providing feedback on student work because that is how it has always been done. But there is no reason faculty members need to be wedded to methods that were used because of the lack of alternatives. Feedback, in particular, is an area where the loss in fidelity of written communication can badly undermine the message. Faculty forget that, like emails, feedback can be interpreted far more strongly by students than intended. I also see written feedback that would be interpreted as callous or hostile by students even though I know that the faculty member did not intend it that way. This is one of the reasons students often do not follow feedback given on their assignments.

Voice and screencasting feedback are exceptional ways to recover the nuances that are needed to communicate sometimes difficult messages to students. Whereas people tend to focus on what was done wrong only in written feedback, the tone of the instructor's voice and the facial expressions can indicate to the student that there is hope for improvement, and faculty members tend to move beyond simply pointing out the wrong to demonstrating the right when they move to voice or screencasting feedback. Again, the processes for providing voice and screencasting feedback are remarkably simple and are explained in the July and August 2017 Online Classroom newsletters.

Social cues can be incorporated into online courses in many ways. Try some of these, and discover how they lead to improvements in course culture and student learning.


DeSteno, David, Breazeal, Cynthia, and Harris, Paul. 2017. “The Secret to a Good Robot Teacher.” New York Times, August 27, 2017.