Sometimes, the most valuable thing we can offer our students is genuine care for them, their well-being, their happiness. Not just their grades. Not just their learning. But their whole selves.

This article is inspired by a discussion with a friend who suggested that medical ethics should not be about “do no harm” but rather about caring. As one who comes from a family of doctors, I often hear about how medical people sometimes focus on the body and forget to look at the whole person. The same reductionism can be found in education. bell hooks critiques this, calling for educators to engage with students’ whole selves, with their souls. Inspired by her, Jesse Stommel and I recently wrote that in seeking to empower students, “teachers must…show the kind of care for the work that only comes when we make ourselves at least somewhat vulnerable.”

It is one thing to do this in small classes, but a totally different thing to do it in larger classes, or even online on a massive scale in MOOCs.

I’d like to share a story from my personal experience teaching small classes of eight or so students, then compare it to connectivist MOOCs (aka cMOOCs, where learner engagement is distributed over multiple sites like blogs, Twitter and Facebook) in order to clarify the amount of effort that goes into a cMOOC facilitator behaving in caring ways and maintaining a caring pedagogy.

One day, my student Riham blogged that the most important thing she had learned in class that day was how a teacher can show care for her students. I had been late for class, attending the funeral of a friend’s mother. I asked a colleague to meet my students before I came. I made sure not to tell them where I had been (they knew my friend so needed to know) until after class was over. Why? Because I knew that this particular student’s mother had recently passed away, and I knew hearing news would affect her; I wanted to be there to hug her when she cried, and not put her through two hours of class time afterwards.

So let me step back from this situation. First of all, I had to know about this student’s situation, because she had shared with me; I had to empathize with how it would make her feel, I had to imagine her reaction, and respond in a certain way, and I had to be ready to hug her.

Nel Noddings calls this attentive and receptive “engrossment” of a carer towards others. It also requires action from the cared-for to affirm they feel cared-for.

Now take this to a massive scale.

No, wait.

Even in a small class of eight, I would not normally know if anyone has lost a parent recently, especially on our second meeting of the semester. I actually only knew about this student’s situation because I had taught her a year before and we got back in touch before the new semester started, and she had told me. In a normal situation, I would not have known.

Care requires personal knowledge of people. How do you achieve that in a MOOC?

Empathy. I had to recognize that the impact of news of someone else’s mother might affect her the way it did. This might sound obvious to many people, but I honestly have to say that I did not fully realize what it meant to lose a parent until I lost my own father. I did not break down when it happened but a part of me was changed forever by the experience, and every time I hear of another person’s parent’s passing I feel it more profoundly than before—like one hundred times stronger.

Care requires sharing.

I think the reason my student felt comfortable sharing personal information with me is that I do the same. I know about my students’ children because I talk about my own child, for example.

Care requires sharing and empathy with others different from ourselves. How do you achieve this at a massive scale with diverse others?

I also needed to couple my empathy with action: behavior based on what I imagined her reaction would be. Empathy was imagining how she might feel, while compassion was acting in a way to support her.

Care requires choosing the most appropriate response in the context at hand. How can you envision this on a massive scale?

And then, this one last thing which cannot be ignored or underestimated: the power of physical support. The power of the hug. Because in our culture it is not inappropriate for me to hug a female student, and also because I knew her well, I could hug her. I could not do it with a male student. I could not do it with a Western student.

Expressing care is sometimes physical. That part is not possible to do online.

But I am writing this article to suggest it is, in fact, possible to practice a pedagogy of care online, in a MOOC. And I will show you how I have experienced it.

You will know if you ask, and you will know if you listen.

In Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum (aka #rhizo14), some tension occurred during the Europe/Africa time zones involving, coincidentally, participants from that region. I remember Dave Cormier, the course facilitator, finding a long Facebook thread, and asking, “What’s going on? Is there bullying happening here? Can someone email me what happened while I was asleep?” The participants had been trying to handle the tension amongst themselves (they were, after all, adult autonomous learners), but it still mattered that he cared to ask what was happening. Dave also surveyed participants midway through the MOOC to get feedback on how it was going.

In another MOOC, Connected Courses (aka #ccourses), Howard Rheingold (a co-facilitator) asked for participant feedback. He did this via two different synchronous sessions at different times to listen to participant suggestions on how to make the MOOC better for them, and made changes to the design and running of the MOOC accordingly.

Of course, they also had to observe, recognize that something needed to be done, and that is the hardest part of all, because at the potentially massive scale of a MOOC, you can only pay attention on so many platforms and to so many people. You cannot possibly know every individual or see every blog post, comment, or tweet. This often means that you will miss some things, and in missing them, miss entire consequences built upon them. So there will also always have to be a humility of “knowing we do not know.” It is possible that someone enters your space and disrupts it in some way. And you need to realize as a facilitator that this could happen. If brought to your attention, you would probably want to act if it poses danger to participants and they are unable to handle it. Fortunately, most MOOCs and cMOOCs in particular target adults who are able to handle themselves.

Actually, cMOOCs are often more flexible than for-credit courses and are better at a form of care Nel Noddings emphasizes: “Caring teachers listen to [learners] and help them to acquire the knowledge and attitudes needed to achieve their goals, not those of a pre-established curriculum.”

Responding in a MOOC

There are some incredible facilitators of MOOCs who somehow manage to keep their finger on the pulse. For example, in eLearning and Digital Cultures (aka #edcmooc), the team of facilitators often referred to participant posts by name during the weekly Google Hangouts. Some cMOOC facilitators like Howard Rheingold and Alan Levine in #ccourses make a point of commenting on blog posts of many participants. Some, like Mia Zamora, actively amplify participant posts via Twitter, and I try to mimic their practices when co-facilitating similar experiences. It is time-consuming but also very rewarding—it makes my participation so much more valuable to me even. The key thing about doing it regularly is this: You begin to know each participant as a person and not just as a blog by a faceless writer. You begin to know more about their background, personality, interests, and you get to also ask them more questions about themselves. I have found in MOOCs with many facilitators it is quite possible to have enough people who manage to do this, and amongst them, to cover a wide range of participants. But in a MOOC facilitated by someone alone, it is probably not humanly possible. Because even though in a MOOC like #ccourses only a few of the facilitators engaged fully with participants, the others were handling other parts of the course. I have often seen MOOC participants step in and take facilitator-like roles (this is not strange since I join MOOCs where participants are themselves educators in some other context).

Sharing in a MOOC

If you want students to share of themselves, to make themselves vulnerable, you need to start with yourself, as bell hooks suggests. And I have seen MOOC facilitators do this. Dave Cormier blogs about explaining #rhizo14 to his son, and it made me comfortable to blog about my own parenting. Alan Levine blogs about his late mother and it makes me comfortable to blog about my late father. Mia Zamora blogs about her thinking behind her teaching, and I do something similar. It is both a kind of modeling, and a kind of opening up. If I feel I know them personally, I feel like I can open myself up to them, too.

Empathy is much more complicated, and for a MOOC with diverse participants, I think it requires sustained engagement with individuals and the building of one-on-one relationships, possibly through private conversation. Thus, it is probably impossible to empathize with hundreds of people of different cultures and backgrounds.

We all make mistakes.

I remember a mistake I made with regards to empathy in a small face-to-face class of around ten students. I am Egyptian but was mainly raised in Kuwait in British schools. I was teaching a class for teachers about the ethics of educational technology. One student (a senior science teacher in her school), talked about how traumatizing the secondary school exams had been for her and that she had cried once during an exam because it had been so hard. My immediate reaction was dismissive: “Why would you cry at an exam? So what that it’s hard?” And I failed to recognize the sociocultural complexity of the anxiety these secondary exams imposed on people in Egypt. They were the one and only gateway to college for the majority. I had heard of it, but not experienced it first or even second hand. I couldn’t sleep that night because of what I had done, and I sent an email to students apologizing for my reaction and promising to give the student time in the next class to tell her story more fully.

I have seen this in MOOCs as well—a facilitator doing something and later apologizing publicly. I have also admired facilitators who show their vulnerability and their recognition that they don’t have all the answers, that they learn from participants. This post by Mimi Ito exemplifies this.

And so this is the thing: In caring, we won’t always know all the answers, and we will make mistakes. In a small class we have easier opportunities to rectify our mistakes. In MOOCs, the scale and distances make it much more complex and complicated to show how we care. We will make mistakes. It will hurt us when we realize we have made them and hurt others. Very often, we do not realize we are making mistakes or hurting others, and in the massive scale and high speed of an active MOOC with diverse participants we are just starting to get to know, it is very difficult to notice everything with just two ears and two eyes and no extrasensory perception. Not everything is visible, some people prefer to keep some things private, and some messages are too subtle or nuanced for us to interpret them as intended. It helps if someone enlightens us when something is going wrong or we are making mistakes, to help us understand how we can make it better. But what if they don’t, and we don’t recognize this ourselves? Well, we are all only human.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Valerie Robin and Rolin Moe.

[Photo, “Curl”, by Fio licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.]