Do we need humans in education?

Students now have many ways to access information – digitized textbooks, YouTube videos, free online asynchronous content such as Khan Academy and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), and adaptive learning software.  Educational companies are constantly developing online content to serve to students – it is less costly than paying for a teacher or tutor.  These options beg the question as to whether students are achieving deeper learning or an equivalent level of learning by interacting with non-human resources as one of their key vehicles for learning.  Is human interaction a necessary and productive aspect of online learning?

Neuroscience tells us that one of the key components of deeper learning (learning that we retain and are able to access and apply) is engagement or interactivity.  The more one can question, analyze, describe, explain, and extrapolate material, the more likely one is to thoroughly grasp the content. Although students learn in different ways and practice through drills and repetition can solidify learning, “distributing information is not the same as teaching”( Boyers, 2013, p.1).

There have not been many studies about the efficacy of interaction in online learning. However, those that exist arrive at similar conclusions.  In one study,  conducted with undergraduate students,  researchers looked at academic interaction (where the learner interacted with web resources), collaborative interaction (where a group of learners worked together on a specific project or assignment) and social interaction between learners and instructors (Jung, Choi, Lim, & Leem, 2002).  The results of the study indicated that “the social interaction group (interaction between learners and instructors) outperformed the other groups; the collaborative interaction group expressed the highest level of satisfaction with their learning experience.  The study concluded that “even for adult learners, social interaction with instructors and collaborative interaction with peer students are important in enhancing learning and active participation in online discussion.”

Another study reported in New Learning Times which reviewed the same types of interactions plus student/technology interactions concluded that “learner-instructor/learner interaction was the most consistent factor influencing learners’ performance in the discussion forum, group project, and final exam” (Lan, 2015).

Human beings motivate us, challenge us to analyze, question, and draw conclusions.  They also provide focused feedback and support to encourage the growth of confidence as well as learning.  Although highly motivated students can learn in many different environments,  both neuroscience and research on interactivity seem to indicate that we should whenever possible retain and enhance human involvement in online learning if real comprehension and retention of information are our educational goals.


Boyers, J., (2013). Online done right: The importance of human interaction for student success. eLearn Magazine. September. Retrieved from

Jung, I, Choic, S., Lim, C., and Leem, J., (2002). Effects of different types of interaction on learning achievement, satisfaction, and participation in web-based instruction. Innovation in Education and Teaching International, v39, n2, p. 153-62.

Lan, C. (2015). Why social interaction is important in online learning. Retrieved from


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One Response to Do we need humans in education?

  1. Insightful UX August 5, 2017 at 9:27 AM #

    The continuing evolution of chatbots and their use in businesses for sales and customer service, it wouldn’t surprise me if they started finding their way into education. Your post highlights thought the need for 121 engagement for truly deep learning and this is where I feel the tech isn’t yet ready. A core part of learning is to draw out detail from life experiences, as you say humans challenge us, I can’t see bots or online tools getting down to this level of detail or ‘experiential learning’.

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