The latest discussions on the #rhizo14 Facebook group got me thinking about my “ethics of care” when I’m teaching a class. I had not really thought about it before, so I’m glad for the discussion at this time – as tomorrow I launch a free course (http://shouldiblog.org). I found myself asking, what are my responsibilities to reduce the likelihood of harm to the participants in my course?
Initially, I approached the course with a view that my job as the course facilitator was to provide information and ask leading questions – to prompt the learners in the course so that they think about what they want to do before they do it. I took quite a few lessons from Dave Cormier and Rhizo14 – creating short videos that I hope provide a sense of both a personal touch but also a motivation for the course participants. But, I’m also providing a fair bit more content than was created for Rhizo14. The learners in my course are not necessarily professional educators. They may have never taken an online course before. They likely need some scaffolding to help them. But also, my intent with this course was to develop actual course content – to use my experience as an online teacher to help those who wish to blog about cancer. I had never thought about how I, as the course facilitator, also had a responsibility for the emotional well being of the participants in my course.
This got me thinking about my own journey – and made me realize that I needed to provide a couple more options for how people interact with the course. I realized that when I started blogging about breast cancer (http://bcbecky.com), I needed to write but I was not ready to read. I was not yet in a position to open my heart to other people who had breast cancer – people who might die from breast cancer. This is really an uncomfortable place to be, and not the place I want the learners in my course to be. The course isn’t about sharing our journeys, as much as it is about helping participants to figure out if blogging is right for them, and if they do decide to blog, to help them figure out how to get started.
Some would argue that with a free open online course, the facilitator cannot take on the responsibility of caring for the learners within the class – or at a minimum that the responsibility is less than it would be for a face-to-face class. I’m not so sure there is really that much of a difference. As educators, we are responsible for doing what we think is best, and we are responsible for reducing any harm that might occur as a result of our lessons. But, learning is messy and so is teaching. The roles of both the facilitator and the learner cannot be simplified such that there is one ‘right’ way to teach or one ‘right’ way to learn. What works for some learners will not work for others. What initiates learning in some may very well initiate discomfort in others. The best that I can do, as a course designer and facilitator, is be aware that some content may cause discomfort for the learners, and to give them options and support through the journey. At the moment, my enrollments are not so large that I cannot do this. I can offer all the learners in the course the option to interact with me privately, if they don’t feel comfortable interacting publicly.
I cannot be responsible if a learner experiences discomfort and disengages from the course. I can only reach for the learners that are willing to engage with me. I don’t have the ability to reach out to anyone by any means other than the emails they provided. They have a right to disengage for whatever reason they want. I cannot be held responsible for those that choose not to engage. This may seem like a ridiculous statement, but some would argue that I do have that responsibility. Sorry, but in my view, I have a responsibility to be mindful about how the content that I provide may cause discomfort, and to do my best to reduce that discomfort, but that is where my responsibility ends. There really is only so much an individual can do!