Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Creating a Context of Care in the Online Classroom

Academic journal article The Journal of Faculty Development

Creating a Context of Care in the Online Classroom

Article excerpt

This essay addresses the affective and social components on online teaching, components that have been neglected in much research on distance learning. The essay offers accessible and practical advice for online teachers to create a "context of care" in their classrooms, thus minimizing student anxiety and maximizing student learning.

I've taught writing classes online now for six years. Some semesters I've taught exclusively online, and when I reveal this to people - both inside and outside of academia - they tend to give me the same reaction. "Oh. . . . that's interesting," they usually say. This is generally followed up with a tentative, "Um... but don't you miss the classroom?" So many conversations about online teaching are often centered on the idea of loss or "missing out," as if the classroom, and all that is inherent in "classroom learning," is primarily a brick and mortar concept.

Even if people are convinced that academic rigor and quality of instruction can be equally delivered online, the idea of online teaching as a deficit model still lingers a bit, both within and outside university walls. I've concluded that this perceived deficit is often believed to fall primarily within the affective domain of teaching and learning - the way teachers are able to create a safe, welcoming, comfortable classroom environment that brings out the best in students. As Kay Johnson Lehmann has argued, the perception that online teaching is "cold and impersonal" is a myth (p. 1). However, it's a myth that is powerful and pervasive, especially among those who tend to associate online instruction with the old model of the correspondence course where students are on their own to learn pre-packaged content and have "no interaction with other students in the class, little interaction with the professor" and receive feedback which is "weak" and "not generally helpful" (p. 6). In short, online instruction is often perceived as incapable of fostering the necessary interpersonal relationships or sense of classroom community that leads to effective student learning.

Composition instructors and researchers Joan Piorkowski and Erika Scheurer (2000) have argued that "As writing teachers, we are familiar with students... who cherish their independence and resist using outside resources" for assistance; yet, they note, students must develop a "social view of the writing process in order to become confident, responsible writers" (p. 73). The ability to develop a social view of the writing process, according to Piorkowski and Scheurer, is predicated on students understanding that learning generally is a social process. Yet this lesson is a difficult one, particularly for new or inexperienced college students - no matter in what class or discipline - who often lack the self-advocacy skills to seek out answers, assistance, or resources to help them succeed. In their research, Piorkowski and Scheurer found that developing these self-advocacy skills and adopting a social view of the learning process is largely contingent upon students' perception "that the person they are seeking feedback from cares about them," as well as their work (p. 73).

In fact, additional research by Susan McCleod (1997) has suggested that college students' motivation and success often manifests itself in two sets of behavior, depending on the context of care they perceive in the classroom environment. The first type of behavior is "origin" behavior, where students feel confident and comfortable in the classroom setting and thus assume control over their learning and take responsibility for their actions (p. 49). When students exhibit "origin" behavior, they feel empowered to ask questions, participate in class, and see themselves as active agents of their own learning; as a result, they are more likely to hold themselves accountable for their successes and failures. The second type - often familiar to online instructors - is what McCleod has called "pawn" behavior, where students lack confidence and comfort in class and begin to slip away, taking no responsibility for their actions and seeing their success (or lack thereof) determined by external forces outside of their control (p. …

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