Virtual School Meanderings

March 26, 2013

SITE 2013 – Technology-Mediated Caring: Building Relationships Between Students and Instructors in Online K-12 Learning Environments

site-conf-logo-2013The third session that I am blogging from the Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education (SITE) International Conference is:

Technology-Mediated Caring: Building Relationships Between Students and Instructors in Online K-12 Learning Environments

Jered Borup, Brigham Young University, United States, Brigham Young University, United States
Charles Graham, Brigham Young University, United States, Brigham Young University, United States
Andrea Velasquez, Brigham Young University, United States, Brigham Young University, United States

Caring is an important component of K-12 teaching and learning. An increasing number of K-12 students are enrolling in online courses. The physical separation of students and teachers in the online medium requires a change in the way caring relationships are formed. In this paper we examine how teachers worked to develop caring relationships with students at the Open High School of Utah, an online charter high school in the United States. Findings indicate that teachers were able to implement all aspects of Nodding’s model of moral education in ways unique to online contexts, and at times with more depth than experienced in a face-to-face context.

Jered began with an overview of the general purpose of education, and that it has two sides: an academic side and a human side.  And the human side is often more difficult to do, particularly in an online environment (citing Repetto et al. and Murphy & Rodriguez-Manzanares).  The framework that the researchers used was Nodding’s Ethic of Care, which has two participants: the carer and the cared-for.  These participants engage in dialogue until they reach a stage of engrossment (which Jered described as basically empathy), which led to a sense of motivational displacement or a place where the person would go out of their way to help the other person, even if it was not convenient for them to that.  This would lead to a state of reciprocity, where the sentiments are acknowledged from one party to the other.  This ethic of care was embedded into Noddings four components of moral education: dialogue, modeling, practice, and confirmation.  Caring requires “total presence” (Noddings, 1988, p. 220).  What is total presence online when the teacher and learner are displaced by time and place?  Jered and his colleagues believe that social presence is the key to caring online.

The study was conducted at the Open High School of Utah and was designed to simply explore this notion of caring and what would that look like in a K-12 online environment.  The OHSU at the time had 381 students and 22 teachers.  The data included interviews with the 22 teachers.  The results were presented through the lens of the components of moral education


  • teachers were able to achieve a greater and deeper sense of connection with their students (possibly because teachers had more time to focus on interaction, the teaching loads were quite reasonable compared to most cyber charter school).
  • it was often focused on one-on-one tutoring (allowing for the sense of engrossment to occur quicker)
  • teachers scheduled their four office hours during times more convenient to the students, as opposed to being convenient to them (an example of motivational displacement)
  • OHSU created specific, planned experiences to allow for social dialogue (e.g., OSHU’s Shepherding Program)
  • on the flip side, it was a little easier for students to ignore the teacher and their attempts for interaction online than in the face-to-face environment


  • much more difficult to do online due to the low fidelity in the communication medium
  • it was less observable for both the students to observe, but in particular less opportunity for them to observe other’s being cared for


  • students were provided a social forum
  • teachers used social media extensively (e.g., Twitter, Scribbler, etc.)


  • teachers provide positive feedback or cheerleading
  • also occurred after negative behaviours, with teachers trying to attribute a negative behaviour to a motive of ignorance (not necessarily excusing the behaviour, but trying to put a positive spin on it)

Overall, teachers felt they were able to engage in more one-on-one dialogue and reflect on student actions more deeply.  It was more difficult to model in the online environment, and there was also the issue of students being able to disappear in the online environment.

If you are interested in this topic, there is a Distance Education article that will be coming out next month with Andrea Velasquez first author (volume 34, issue 1) and there is also a book chapter that will be published with Jered Borup as the first author (e.g., Emotions in School: International Perspective on the Functions, Process and Products of the Hidden Curriculum).

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