I have had online-classroom experiences that have varied widely—both good and bad—based on how a professor thinks a digital classroom should be constructed. There is, unfortunately, no overall standard of how to approach an online classroom, and this can affect the quality of interactions. There are many different ethical models that can be applied to this digital space, such as Rogerian or Deontological models; however, care ethics, while seen as an unusual choice for interactions that are not face to face and personal, frames the interactions in a way that weighs the care receiver’s needs heavier than the care giver’s needs.
When a professor approaches an online classroom with the concept that they are going to tell students what they know and think, they can potentially set themselves up for a more hostile digital space. They could be more abrupt with a student that has another opinion, sharp with a student that doesn’t quickly understand—or misunderstands—concepts, or not provide enough course information (expectations, deadlines, examples, etc.). However, when a professor approaches an online classroom with care ethics in mind, the professor is ethically responsible to be attentive to the students and provide an environment that fosters student learning in a way that best fits this group’s needs. A professor would approach the digital space with the understanding that it is not about them or their beliefs but rather the students’ needs and development. This could change a professor’s approach from attacking a student that presents an idea they do not like to focus on the student as a person rather than an abstract idea and exploring the concept and/or leading the student to a better train of thought with the same compassion and attentiveness that often is found in face-to-face classrooms.
Professors can also set up their online space so that way students are encouraged to approach other students’ comments the same way. By outlining behavioral expectations and explaining how comments are attached to real people, students can be encouraged to be less aggressive in their interactions. Another way to frame the digital interactions is to introduce the students to the concept of rhetorical listening. Giving students the tools they need to understand empathy in the online classroom will help for an experience that satisfies the care receivers’ needs (both professor-to-peer and peer-to-peer interactions).
Digital spaces can often cause people to relax and focus more on themselves and their feelings and ideas, but looking at the digital space through a care-ethics lens encourages both the professor and the student to see the comments and thoughts shared as attached to real people complete with feelings and needs.