Caring in the High School Online Learning Environment

In the article, Caring in a Technology-Mediated Online High School Context Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) conducted a small study about how two teachers and four students perceive caring in the online learning environment of the Open High School of Utah. It was the goal to show that caring affects both academic and moral learning although the former was the focus of the study. Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) also note that it is important to know that all participants were Caucasian because “…care has been determined to be a phenomenon influenced by culture (Thompson, 1998)’ (p. 100). The data was obtained through three interviews for each participant and then the interviews were coded for themes. The themes identified by Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) were, “…shared experience, continuous dialogue, vigilant observation, structuring learning environment, attending to students’ individual academic needs, attending to students’ well-being, and student reaction’ (p. 102). The study found that it is very important to have caring teachers in the high school online learning environment and recommends that caring pedagogy should be included, such as Nel Nodding’s work, when designing online classes.

The theme that was surprising to me as showing caring was the theme of structuring the learning environment. I know teachers put a lot of time and effort in making class information easily available and accessible and they see it as a caring for their students’ success throughout the class. I would not have thought the students viewing it in a caring way because it is just expected that when you take an online class that it be designed to meet the students’ needs. As a college student I expect that the online class be designed effectively. It has never occurred to me that this is done purposefully so that I know my instructor cares about me. It is just the way it is. The students in the study perceived their teachers as caring because of the way the online class was structured. Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) state:

When asked how they knew their teacher cared about them, all student participants indirectly mentioned the courses’ flexibility and student options. One student mentioned how he highly valued the flexibility of working at his own rate and planning his schoolwork around his personal schedule. Other students mentioned flexibility in choosing how to complete an assignment. Most of the students mentioned flexibility in deadlines and the ability to retake quizzes and resubmit assignments multiple times in an effort to improve their grade. (p. 107)

This was not something Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) anticipated either and their interview questions were not designed to probe for this information. It was interesting that it was the flexibility of the online class structure that the students found most caring, especially concerning deadlines and ability to retake quizzes or redo assignments. This flexibility can be time consuming on the teacher’s part.

As I read how much time the teachers set aside for contact with students, at least four hours a day and then sometimes more, I wondered how this impacted their lives outside their work day. The students commented on how caring their teachers were because they could feel free to contact them anytime. The teachers stated response time was usually within 24 hours, but it was also found they monitored students online activity too on top of everything else. A teacher commented that “While being available for her students is a priority, the accessibility that the online context facilitates made it difficult for her to disconnect and find a balance between being accessible and achieving a healthy balance in her personal life’ (Velasquez, Graham, & Osguthorpe 2013, p. 111). I think caring in the online learning environment is important, but a teacher could easily get carried away with it. The teachers interviewed not only cared about their students’ academic success, but also actively sought to inquire about the students’ lives to demonstrate caring and create a connection to help motivate the student. It is a tricky balance because if students become to comfortable with the caring relationship a 10 minute phone call to help with an assignment could turn into an hour. It is necessary to connect with students because it can be a huge motivator.

One last aspect of the study that I found interesting was that the “…study suggest that K12 online education should place greater priority on learner-to-instructor instruction, rather than learner-to-content instruction’ (Velasquez, Graham, & Osguthorpe 2013, p. 112). When the teachers initiated contact this improved the students’ learning experience and created the sense of caring. The students just did not interact with their learning content, but a good portion of the time was spent interacting with their teacher clarifying material, assignments, and working on solving problems. This made it clear to me that online learning in K-12 still requires the guidance of a teacher and their presence needs to be evident. This is unlike college students in an online class who given a framework can usually function without constant contact with the instructor. It is more of a learner-to-content instruction.

So when considering implementing online learning in K-12 whether it is in a virtual school or not the caring factor needs to included in the pedagogical approach. Students need to know their teacher cares about them personally and academically. K-12 online teachers need to make it clear to the students that they are concerned about their success and are there to help and guide them through the learning process. This asks the question of quality in online learning. As Velasquez, Graham, and Osguthorpe (2013) suggest it is cheaper to just have a student interact with the content rather than both the content and the teacher. It makes me wonder what a good student to teacher ratio is in the online learning environment for K-12 because you hear of these massive online courses with hundreds of students enrolled in one class. How can one teacher implement a pedagogy that includes caring in such a situation? This may work for higher education, but if we are serious about effective online learning I think the teacher to student ratio would have to be small, but maybe not.   I could not find a definitive answer in this article or with a quick search online, but I encourage you to check out Mountain Heights Academy, formerly Open High School of Utah. It does not appear that the school has any more staff than a normal face-to-face small high school would have, but not sure what the typical enrollment is.   I found one piece of information from US News & World Report Education that the student to teacher ratio is 17:1 and it does not look like there are more than 300 students enrolled.


Velasquez, A., Graham, C. R., & Osguthorpe, R. (2013). Caring in a technology-mediated online high school context. Distance Education, 34(1), 97-118. doi:10.1080/01587919.2013.770435

9 thoughts on “Caring in the High School Online Learning Environment

  1. Bob

    You are spot on. I am just now discovering the writing and research on Emotional Intelligence. Particularly how important an indicator it is for success in life. In my work with college students I find that simply asking them about their studies, about where they went to high school, their sports, and so on, nothing really creepy, but enough to show that I am interested in them. In turn that investment pays dividends in most work performances. Am I implicitly teaching them the importance of emotional intelligence in simply asking about their studies or their degree plans? I suspect that your reminder here to remember to show that we care is perhaps likewise teaching this.

  2. Owen

    Interesting paper, Kelly. What do you think of the sample size? Do I read correctly that there were two teachers and four students? How might the results have been different if they had much larger sample sizes? Say, 1,000 online students? What about if they came from different age or socio-economic cohorts?

    Nice comment on emotional intelligence, Bob. I’ve also come to think that emotional intelligence is much more important than is generally regarded. This can also be difficult to express, connect with, or engage with in an online setting.

    1. kgebauer Post author

      Yes, the sample size is small, but I feel from my own experience that caring is an essential part of education. I guess that is why I was drawn to this article. As far as making generalization about its implications for the online learning environment it is not enough evidence because culture has a big part in how one perceives caring and that varies from place to place or even house to house. A quantitative study would be awesome to find and see if the results match up. I have a feeling the findings would be more varied and not as positive as this research because failures were not examined. The research was biased a little because the researchers went looking for caring teachers and good students. I imagine it was difficult to get permission to interview the four students that they did get. Thanks for the comments and connection to emotional intelligence too.

  3. Jenny

    I was drawn to your paper immediately and I agree that caring is an incredibly important motivator for students. I was also glad you brought up the point that accessibility could make balancing home life and school difficult for instructors when they were essentially on-call 24/7. This is a topic of discussion in my district, where all students have their own laptops and will message you at any time. I think it is important to discuss expectations with students from the beginning on what constitutes a timely response, perhaps not at 2:00 am on Saturday. I also think that student to teacher ratios must be small at the K-12 level to provide adequate feedback and support of the students. Perhaps MOOC’s can work for largely independent adults, but I think most younger students need some level of support from their instructor.


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