You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Shaunak Roy is the founder and CEO of Yellowdig, a learning platform adopted by over 200 colleges and universities, K-12 schools and corporate training clients. Shaunak and I last caught up in this space in 2021, so I thought it was time to revisit our conversation.

Q: You often talk about how Yellowdig’s mission is to bring human connections to every learning environment—online, offline, or hybrid. Why is “human connections” an important topic in learning?

A: The U.S. Surgeon General recently declared an “Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” He highlights the widespread lack of critical social connections among the population, particularly among students. He underscores the significant impact this has on higher education, noting that many students leave their programs due to a lack of human connection.

Institutions have the power to enhance learner success by embracing opportunities that foster meaningful human connections. A review of studies by the Teaching + Learning Lab at MIT supports these claims, demonstrating that a sense of belonging improves academic outcomes and increases continuing enrollment, suggesting a long-term impact on academic success.

The idea that people naturally desire interpersonal connections is well-established. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places “love and belongingness needs” as fundamental once basic requirements are met. These needs precede self-esteem and self-actualization in the hierarchy. In their foundational work, “The Need to Belong: Desire for Interpersonal Attachments as a Fundamental Human Motivation,” Roy F. Baumeister and Mark R. Leary identified two key elements of belonging: first, regular, positive personal interactions, and second, the need for long-term, emotionally connected bonds.

Over the past five years, we have partnered with institutions to understand student behavior within supportive learning communities that foster belonging. One example is a study conducted by our partner, Online Education Services, in 2021. By using Yellowdig to form communities, students connected and built a sense of belonging. Surprisingly, students showed authenticity and vulnerability, discussing challenges such as being online students while juggling full-time jobs and family responsibilities.

The most remarkable finding was the tangible benefits of enhancing belonging. On average, pass rates increased by 9 percent, and 7 percent more students progressed to their next study period. Notably, the improvements were most significant among at-risk students. For institutions facing significant losses due to student dropout, a 7 percent increase can justify the investment. Moreover, interactions were primarily student-driven, requiring minimal administrative intervention.

Q: In our conversations, we’ve talked about how student isolation seems to be on the rise. And, yet, students are asking for more online options. Are we creating a path for a mental health disaster in the country?

A: The mental health situation in the U.S. is alarming to start with. As of 2021, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately 22% of US adults grappled with various forms of mental illness, and another study shows more than half are consistently lonely. Given the ongoing challenges, it’s plausible that this issue has intensified over the past three years. Therefore, any efforts to offer courses and programs must include a thorough analysis of their potential impact on individual mental health.

It’s important to understand that the mode of course delivery—whether online, offline, or hybrid—has less to do with its impact on the learner’s mental health than the design of the learning experience. Sitting in a lecture hall does not inherently lead to more human connections and a sense of belonging, just as an online course is not inherently devoid of connections. The difference lies in the pedagogical and behavioral design behind these courses and programs, which should prioritize human connections and a sense of belonging. For example, small group discussions can create a sense of cohesion and immersion in learning, and a carefully designed online learning experience can achieve the same effect.

We often advise our clients to carefully consider student agency, mastery and connectedness when designing their online experiences. These aspects are deeply rooted in the learner’s motivational factors, making learning both joyful and productive. However, integrating these elements into the overall learning and delivery process requires more than just lip service. It necessitates constant measurement and fine-tuning to ensure that critical assumptions are continuously tested and refined. This approach makes instructional design and delivery more akin to engineering than merely creating a pretty classroom or website.

As I have previously mentioned, addressing this issue requires a multidisciplinary approach and a robust private-public partnership model. It’s encouraging to see many leaders we work with making these efforts, and it is increasingly accepted as a priority for institutional leadership.

Q: The introduction of AI in teaching and learning is undeniable at this point. What can we do to ensure we are addressing the human connections issue through AI/automation?

A: Recently, Yellowdig organized a Human Connections Summit in collaboration with one of our incredible partners, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, focusing on the topic of Human Connections in the Age of AI. You can view recordings from the event here.

During the summit, we explored many topics related to AI innovation, including its numerous opportunities and associated challenges. Institutions cannot afford to stand still in this evolving environment, and AI offers many opportunities to enhance education. At Yellowdig, we are making strides in this area by introducing several AI-powered features to improve the overall experience for faculty and students. Additionally, we decided to create an AI manifesto to guide our work and future initiatives related to AI.

My personal position on AI is that it will drive significant efficiency and effectiveness in education, such as providing an AI tutor for every student, like the Khanmigo by Khan Academy. However, education is not only about efficiency; it is also about connecting with other humans, communicating, and solving problems effectively. This is why we created university campuses—not only to deliver knowledge but also to help curious minds connect with one another and shape the future.

None of us wants to live in a dystopian society where we are learning and living individually. We aspire to a world where human potential is maximized through technology, prioritizing all aspects of our human needs, including the need to belong. This is where my personal passion and our collective efforts at Yellowdig come in. Our goal is to embrace AI to help instructors and facilitators create meaningful communities where human-to-human interactions happen.

AI is the “helper” to make their time spent in the community more effective, easy, and impactful—not a replacement for human insights, feedback and connections. We aim to work with innovative institutions to bring this reality to life and have been very fortunate to have amazing partners on this journey.

Next Story

Written By

More from Learning Innovation