Using educational technologies to create relationships that enable student learning and thriving

Peter Felten, Elon University, North Carolina

The tagline of this year’s conference ‘reconnect’ is the perfect word to describe the spirit of late 2022, at least from my perspective on the east coast of North America. Campuses are buzzing. Restaurants are packed. Reconnection is in the air.

Reconnection is in the air

Image from: people – including higher education students and staff – are eager to leave behind lockdowns, social distancing, and day-long Zoom marathons. We want to reconnect with each other in person, to rebuild human relationships that have been strained or broken by the pandemic. We also want to reconnect with the lives we lived before early 2020, to recreate the practices and routines that shaped our daily existence – in the classroom, the coffee shop, the neighborhood.

In our zeal to reconnect, however, we should not lose sight of:

  1. The innovations of the pandemic. Far more rapidly than many (including many of us) thought possible, higher education staff, students, and institutions changed and adapted. Not everything worked, of course, but we collaborated to develop new ways to learn, work, and connect – to humanize our technology-mediated lives. What lessons should we learn about reconnecting by giving critical attention to what enabled meaningful interactions and relationships even when the pandemic burned hottest?
  2. The traumas of the pandemic. Covid-19 caused deep pain and irreparable damage. Even individuals and communities that seem relatively unharmed often under the surface show signs of significant declines in well-being and learning compared to 2019. Many students and staff are exhausted and burned out. And at higher education institutions around the world, budgets have been slashed and devoted staff have been forced out. How can our approached to reconnecting honor the traumas and harms that have profoundly shaped us, our institutions, and our world?
  3. The persistent inequities of our institutions and our communities. In the United States – and in many other places – higher education is persistently and profoundly inequitable. As we strive to reconnect, we need to shun the nostalgia of returning ‘back to normal’ – because injustices permeated and animated the pre-pandemic ‘normal’. How can we reconnect in ways that center equitable practices and systems, that design for a more just and humane higher education and world?

In short, the current moment presents us with both an unusual opportunity for change and very significant barriers to success. We now know that significant change is possible in higher education, and we have new models and processes to guide our actions. We also exist within a fundamentally inequitable and unjust system that cannot be remedied by individual efforts alone, no matter how well intentioned. And our world faces existential crises related to climate, peace, and inequality – crises that cannot be addressed without the concerted and collaborative actions of higher education staff, students, and institutions. To borrow a phrase from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, ‘we are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.’

How, then, to reconnect?

I’d like to be able to tell you that I have the answer, that I’ll reveal the answer in my talk in Sydney, and that we just need to do one simple thing to transform. I don’t, I won’t, and we don’t.

In my ASCILITE session, I’ll invite us to think together – with me, with your colleagues in and beyond the room – about how we can use educational technologies to create relationships that enable student learning and thriving. We’ll also consider how doing this could help us reconnect with each other and with the transformative purposes of higher education. I’ll draw on interviews with hundreds of students in U.S. higher education from my own research with colleagues (2020, 2023), and on the fabulous 2021 book Connecting in the Online Classroom by Rebecca A. Glazier. I’ll emphasize the importance of humanizing everyone in online spaces, creating opportunities for personalized feedback, and centering pedagogies and technologies that enable meaningful student-student interactions.


Felten, Peter and Leo M. Lambert. Relationship-Rich Education: How Human Connections Drive Success in College. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Felten, Peter, Leo M. Lambert, Isis Artze-Vega, and Oscar Miranda Tapia. Connections Are Everything: A Student Guide to Relationship-Rich Education. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2023 (forthcoming).

Glazier, Rebecca A. Connecting in the Online Classroom: Building Rapport Between Teachers and Students. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence. New York City: Riverside Church. 4 April 1967.

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