In a brand-new, tiered classroom, four semi-circle rows of desks cascaded downward, each chair bolted to the floor in front of a desk with just enough room to allow students to slip in and out. A pop-up outlet sat in front of each chair. This space implied a non-interactive pedagogy rooted in expert-to-novice transmission of knowledge. Situated in the middle of the classroom, a professor would deliver a lecture, while students would take notes diligently, many on their plugged-in devices. Group work and other pedagogies of deep student engagement would struggle to thrive in such a space. Here they sat, twenty-seven entering freshmen at one of the eight senior colleges at the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban, public university in the country. Paper notebooks and ballpoint pens were the only objects populating students’ desks, with the instructor’s laptop being the only visible electronic device. An ethnographer sitting in the last row, I began typing my notes, documenting these students’ first experiences with college composition and, for some, blended learning.
Blended learning (BL) encompasses teaching models that combine “face-to-face instruction with computer-mediated instruction” (Graham 2006, 5). Following recent calls to cut costs and engage students with “21st century skills,” the growth of BL instruction across educational contexts has led some scholars to call it the “new normal” of course delivery (Norberg, Dziuban, and Moskal 2011, 207). Despite its growing popularity, BL remains an understudied area compared to distance learning and face-to-face pedagogy (Graham 2013). The most impactful literature in BL is theoretical, focusing on the “definitions, models, and potential of blended learning” (Halverson, et. al 2012, 397) with the majority of empirical work focusing on student outcomes (Halverson, et. al 2012). Osguthorp and Graham (2003) identify pedagogical richness, access to knowledge, social interaction, personal agency, cost-effectiveness, and ease of revision as major goals of blended learning.
Given that BL models are relatively new, a growing segment of the empirical research on BL evaluates student satisfaction as a proxy for students’ ability to navigate new learning environments (Moore 2005). Indeed, BL models correlate positively with high levels of satisfaction (Vignare 2007; Graham 2013). Common factors contributing to student satisfaction include interactivity, convenience, flexibility, feedback, and instructor availability (e.g., Bonk, Oslon, Wisher, and Orvis 2002; Dziuban, et. al 2010; Mansour and Mupinga 2007), with interactivity, face-to-face or digital, standing out as particularly significant. For instance, Akkoyunlu and Soylu (2008) found that students, on average, identified a course’s face-to-face elements as the most significant contributors to their satisfaction. Rothmund (2008) found that learner satisfaction correlated strongly with degree of interaction. Similarly, Akyol, Garrison, and Orden (2009) found that students in BL models valued social and teaching presence.
Although student satisfaction surveys can often take the form of marketing research, interactivity and many other factors associated with student satisfaction share a critical quality: relationality. For instance, Garrison (2009) defines social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities” (352). Similarly, effective feedback, teaching presence, and instructor availability contextualize the relationship between student and instructor. Moreover, I argue that the effectiveness of such relationships, in part, relies on students’ perception of care.
An ethic of care represents one of the key elements of teaching due to its potential to increase students’ motivation and engagement across various learning environments. As a pioneer of this concept, Noddings (1984/2003), identifies caring as, “the primary aim of every educational institution” (172). For Noddings (1984/2003), caring is grounded in the relational, context-specific practice of anticipating another’s needs, fostering an open dialogue, and “apprehending the other’s reality” (16). Similarly, Rauner (2000) defines care as “an interactive process involving attentiveness, responsiveness, and competence” (7). Tronto (1993) further emphasizes the contextual and relational nature of care by arguing for the importance of direct proximity between the carer and cared-for to produce genuine and effective care. Moreover, an extensive research literature in traditional instructional models and school organization links care to better student outcomes and healthy development (e.g., Rauner 2000; Noddings 2013; Goldstein 2002; Cassidy and Bates 2005).
Despite robust research on care in traditional instructional models, its discussion is largely absent from the BL and online education literature. The limited existing research on care in fully online environments suggests that students associate care with timely feedback, personal comments, multiple contact opportunities, personal connection, and commitment to learning (Zitzman and Leners 2006; Marx 2011). Similarly, Deacon (2012) argues that using technology to anticipate and alleviate student anxiety while building a sense of community creates a caring environment in an online course. These findings suggest that many of the factors associated with student satisfaction in BL may be associated with students’ perception of care, yet the existing literature does not engage with those concepts as such.
Through empirical analysis, this paper seeks to add to this literature by emphasizing the relational aspects of BL and the need to understand students’ experiences through the framework of care. Understanding the effects that specific online and face-to-face practices have on students’ perception of care may prove crucial in designing effective and engaging BL environments. In this ethnographic study, I explore how college students engage with and make sense of technology in the context of their first college course. The participants in this study were mostly non-traditional college students (e.g., low-income, minority, commuter), who are often underrepresented in the digital education literature. Foregrounding student voices (Cook-Sather 2002), I focus my analysis on understanding students’ values and the role of care in the voicing of their experiences in the course.
The ethnographic design of this study included multiple methods of data collection: 30 classroom observations, four 30-minute semi-structured interviews, and a class survey. Interview questions aimed to explore student experiences with and perceptions of various elements of course design as outlined by the instructor in a teaching journal and course syllabus. A 24 question survey was designed based on the initial themes that emerged in the interviews. Twelve students (44% of the class) participated in the survey. In both the interviews and the survey, students were asked about their previous experiences with digital tools, present course practices, and their overall impression of the course. Some of the open-ended questions included: (1) “How does it make you feel knowing that all your work is continuously shared with your instructor digitally?” (2) “In your opinion, are there any advantages to digital comments over traditional pen and paper comments on your work? Why?” and (3) “In what ways (if any) did you find having a course blog/forum (un)helpful?” Additionally, 15 students volunteered their course work for analysis, and the instructor provided a copy of his teaching journal. To facilitate recruitment, I introduced myself and described the project at the beginning of the course. When asked, none of the students expressed discomfort with my continuous presence in a classroom.
To ensure students’ confidentiality, all recruitment activities and communication were conducted without the instructor’s presence. Informed consent was provided for all research activities. To build a caring and productive relationship with the students, I volunteered to provide feedback on their major writing assignments irrespective of their agreement to participate in the study.
The observed course curriculum represents a supplemental model of BL (Graham 2013). A traditional 15 week 45 hour English composition course was supplemented with a course forum, a digital assignment submission and revision system, and the application of digital tools, such as Prezi. Hosted on Google Sites through an embedded instance of Google Groups, the forum extended classroom space beyond the physical room. According to the instructor, the forum served as a space of modeling and collaborative learning: “In the forum, all of my students have the opportunity to follow each other’s ideas, respond to one another, and collectively generate ideas” (Instructor’s Journal).
Another element of this supplemental model included the use of Google Docs for collaborative annotation of class readings and delivery of digital feedback. Throughout the semester, students shared their work with the instructor through Google Drive folders, which served as their final portfolios. According to the instructor, this assignment submission method and the interactivity of digital feedback, aside from being convenient, reinforced the lessons that writing is a collaborative and continuous process. The instructor required students to use Prezi to compile annotated bibliographies. As a blank canvas, Prezi provided students with the flexibility to organize their sources in ways conceptually meaningful to them while breaking the rigidity of a more traditional alphabetical structure. Overall, this curriculum utilized computer-instruction for both course management and community building purposes, while using particular digital tools for their ability to reinforce lessons about the writing process.
Twenty-seven students registered for the course. A total of 16 students participated in the study: 12 completed the survey and 4 were interviewed, with no overlap. Nine of the participants were 18; two were 19, and one did not provide their age. Twelve were female and 4 male. Out of the 12 survey participants, 5 (42%) were Latina/Latino, 3 (25%) Caucasian, 3 (25%) Black, and 1 (8%) Mixed race. Five reported working 0 hours per week, while 7 worked between 12 to 35 hours per week.
Overall, they were representative of the college’s freshman class, of whom 43% were male and 57% female, 42% were Hispanic, 25% White, 14% African American, 12% Asian and 1% Native American. Ninety-three percent of the entering class received federal financial aid. Eleven out of 12 students reported having access to a computer and Internet at home. Yet, class observations data showed that only 3 students brought laptops to class and 2 students used tablets. Other students used their mobile phones to engage with digital elements of the course during class time. Out of 16 participants, 4 reported having no prior experience with course websites, 5 reported no prior experience with Prezi, and 3 reported no prior experience with Google Docs. To protect student identities, I use pseudonyms when referring to their responses.
Following Braun and Clarke’s (2006) framework for thematic analysis, I employed a data-driven inductive approach to identify themes present in students’ qualitative accounts of their course experiences in the interviews and open-ended survey questions. I focused my analysis on themes associated with student values and elements of the course that they identified as important. While student responses were the primary sources of data, I used field notes and student work to supplement and contextualize these data.
Consistent with existing literature, a majority of participants (15) expressed overall satisfaction with the course. Students found the course to be “outside the box” (Jessica), “very different from any other class” (Maria), and “awesome” (David). A thematic analysis of student experiences revealed that, in their discussion of the digital elements of the course, students tend to put the most emphasis on the elements of care, convenience, and interactivity. Within this analysis, care characterizes students’ interactions with their instructor, convenience is understood as a product of a course designed with careful attention to students’ needs, and interactivity is conceptualized as an opportunity to foster caring relationships among students. Furthermore, a detailed exploration of these themes suggests a complex interaction among the elements of course design, digital tool use, and students’ relational experiences.
The theme of care, broadly speaking, characterizes students’ interactions with their instructor. As a multi-faceted concept, elements of care manifested in the themes of feedback, instructor availability and involvement, and freedom of expression.
Value of Feedback
In online learning environments, students tend to associate timely feedback with care (Zitzman and Leners 2006; Marx 2011). In their interviews, survey responses, and reflective letters (one of the course assignments), students in this study placed value on their ability to receive feedback, suggesting a perceived value of care. When asked about their attitude toward having their work continuously shared online with their instructor, six out of twelve survey respondents mentioned feedback as a key element of this practice. Jean wrote that sharing work online with the instructor “gives me an opportunity to receive feedback.” Similarly, Dana reported being “comfortable [with sharing work] since he is able to always give me feedback.”
Availability and Involvement of the Instructor
Moreover, receiving digital comments and sharing their work online made some students feel like their professor was available and involved, experiences often associated with caring. Expressing that she valued her professors’ availability, Heidi wrote, “he is my first professor but he moves out of his way to meet with us and discuss our papers.” Similarly, Rose noted that digital elements of the course made her feel like the instructor was “very involved in the class” and all the elements of the course were “linked all together.” David clarified this perception of care by interpreting the instructor’s intentions behind digital work: “he probably designed it that way to get a more intimate view of the progress.” According to David, interactive feedback and instructor involvement represented a contrast to the “separate and detached assessment” in other courses. In her survey response, Maria implicitly related digital sharing and comments with care: “I feel like it’s helpful because I know that my instructor is actually reading my work.” Likewise, Bill found digital affordances to be supportive: “it encourages you more when it is so easy to get feedback.” He maintained that the interactivity of digital feedback allowed for an agentic dialogue between him and the instructor, saying that “usually I do respond to his comments or let’s say he’ll have a question and if he is unclear sometime I’ll clarify to him like this is my motive for writing that.” Such dialogue, fostered through digital feedback, became an important experience not only for the students but also for the instructor. In his journal, the instructor noted that digital commenting “emerged as one of the more rewarding digital experiments this semester.” He acknowledged the development of an ongoing dialogue where “students were generally consistent about responding to my feedback in the comment bubbles, and I was therefore able to read their comments and respond yet again” (Instructor’s Journal).
Freedom of Expression
As a part of this dialogue, students valued the freedom of expression that the course’s structure and digital tools fostered. Rose spoke about the freedom of structuring work in Prezi, of it being “like a board so you can zoom out; you can change the shapes of things; you can put many things into that one board, and you can’t do that in a Word document.” David echoed her sentiment, “it’s easy to use; it’s fun the way I can get creative with it, how I want things to connect. When I made an annotated bibliography mine was like the most different from everyone else, like, I saw. Instead of white pages, I had like a galaxy and it was moving around.” Referring to the traditional format of annotated bibliography as “rigid,” Bill stated that, “Prezi allows me to do more because it’s not as rigid as traditional one.”
Valuing freedom of expression also appeared in students’ discussions of the course assignments. In his reflective letter, Peter wrote, “[the proposal] was my favorite project to do because I chose a topic that was very important to me and something that I had an enormous experience with.” When asked about their favorite project, three out of four interviewed students named the literacy narrative, citing its personal nature. Centered on student experiences, the literacy narrative assignment resonated with the students because “it was so personal” (Bill). Bill continued to emphasize that overall the instructor allowed student voices to be heard in the class: “he let’s us voice our own opinions; like today, I shared [an] interview. So I really liked that he like is really open minded and he really listens to all the students in a class.” Juan shared this sentiment in his reflective letter: “I don’t like to participate at all in my other classes, but it was different in this class, you were never really wrong when you said something.”
It is evident from student responses that digital components of the course, namely the digital sharing of work with the instructor and digital commenting, were largely perceived and valued as elements of care. Students valued the opportunity to receive feedback and engage in a dialogue with their instructor. Prompt and interactive feedback afforded by the digital comments was perceived as caring, conveying instructor availability and involvement. Moreover, the emphasis on student expression, whether through digital tools or classroom discussion, can be seen as another element of caring.
In addition to these elements of care, students also valued the ease and convenience associated with the digital aspects of the course. In their survey responses, students reported that using Google Docs and the course forum to submit assignments “was easier and more convenient” (Ann) and that it “saved time and money on train rides to [College] and ink” (Beth). Digital submissions made “it easier for me to be able to share my work,” wrote Andrea. For Mary and David, convenience rested on the ability “to type it on the computer and just hand it in through the computer” and to “submit anything at any time,” respectively. While six of the students reported seeing no particular advantages of digital feedback over pen and paper comments, all of the students who found digital feedback more advantageous listed convenience as one of those advantages. With digital comments, students found it easier “to find grammatical errors, spell check, etc.” (Beth) and “to make corrections directly into the work” (Valerie).
While convenience presents itself largely as a utilitarian concept, it can also be conceptualized as an anticipation of students’ needs, a key aspect of caring (Noddings 1984/2003). In this course, the instructor’s knowledge of the student population informed many course design choices, such as requiring digital submissions, providing digital feedback, and avoiding a costly textbook. While reflecting on the digital feedback practices, the instructor wrote, “While time consuming, this structure brings a conversational feel to the revision process without requiring additional in-person work, an important consideration at [Institution], where many students commute long distances and work long hours outside of the school” (Instructor’s Journal). Echoing this sentiment, Rose stated, that “it would take more time for me to go to him and talk to him about the comment and then him reply to me.”
Interactivity and Its Complex Layers
Students also valued the interactivity afforded by the digital elements of the course, a value central to the students’ experiences. Interactivity aids in classroom community building, promoting a caring environment among students. This value represents a complex combination of the perceived communication affordances of the course forum and face-to-face interactions.
Students’ discussions of the course forum focused on communicative and interactive features. For Jessica, having a course forum “made it easier to communicate with the whole class outside of the classroom.” Mary liked “the interaction with everybody.” Reinforcing the value of communication and collaboration, Bill described the course forum as a “really collaborative space.” Similarly, Rose indicated that one of the strengths of the course forum was the ability to share work and “to talk to each other about it.”
From students’ perspectives, the course forum successfully served as a source of modeling and validation. All of the participants valued the ability to see other students’ work to help generate ideas when not sure how to proceed. In her survey response, Linda wrote, “It helped me see everyone’s ideas which I could incorporate into my own.” Similarly, on the forum, Ann was able “to view my classmates’ opinions on the assignment and get a clearer understanding of it.” Beth wrote that, “the course blog helped me do my homework because I got to see examples of others’ before doing mine.” In his interview, David echoed these sentiments: “I do use it to get ideas if I am completely completely stuck.”
Paradoxically, little self-directed collaboration or communication actually occurred on the forum. Communication between students only occurred on the forum when the instructor asked students to comment on each other’s work. Outside of these assignments and contrary to their own responses, students did not engage with the forum as a space for communication. For many, “it was just a homework” (Rose). Further supporting the “just homework” attitude, David responded, “I don’t see it as a thing to reply to; I just see it as just homework.” Because “no one else responds to these posts,” Mary assumed that, “we don’t have to or we should not.” In fact, although students reported communicating with up to 7 classmates sometimes as often as 3 times a week, such communication took the form of emails, text messages, face-to-face communication (in and outside of class), and social media posts. However, none of the 12 students who took the survey listed the course forum as means of communication with their classmates.
Although none of the students reported engaging in self-directed communication with others through the course forum, students reported it as a useful mediator of student interaction that facilitated face-to-face communication. Ten out of 16 participants reported communicating with fellow classmates in person outside of class. Eight of these 10 also reported communicating in class. Some of the students reported that the course forum served as an ice breaker for approaching fellow classmates. For instance, Bill reported that, “sometimes like we will see something on the blog and then we won’t comment about it on the blog directly, but like I’ll see them in class and say ‘hey I really liked your topic.’” He described the forum as giving “us a little bit of incentive especially in like a city school like to communicate more with like your peers.” Similarly, Rose discussed how the course forum allows students to “make friends after a while even by doing homework.” Seeing and engaging with one’s peers’ work online provided a reason to initiate contact “because you are not going to ask someone for their number randomly in class; why would you want my number? So after commenting on your work, you can email them privately if you want and see if you want to meet up.”
Indeed, approximately half of participating students voiced an explicit preference or desire for face-to face communication. For instance, when asked whether in-class peer review can be effectively substituted with an online alternative, 9 out of 13 students responded “No.” Out of those nine, five explicitly stated a preference for face-to-face communication. Beth suggested that online peer review may create more room for miscommunication and would not work “because sometimes you really don’t understand what a person is trying to say.” Bill saw merit in the online peer review model, but still maintained that, overall, face-to-face communication is an important form of classroom interaction because “you are able to see in the class like the emotion of the people or you can see like the enthusiasm of like a person with their topic.” For Bill, the ability to see someone and communicate with them in person corresponded to the ability to “relate to them like physically or their past experience.” The disadvantage of online communication, according to Bill, lies in the potential of losing “your own voice, like the physical voice, not just the words but like someone’s actual personality […] which is why I feel like it’s better to talk in person.”
Overall, students saw perceived interactivity afforded by the course forum as an important part of the course. They emphasized deeply relational aspects of the course design, such as an ability to connect emotionally and intellectually with others. However, at times they contradicted themselves by praising the communicative affordances of the course forum while indicating that they did not engage in self-directed communication through it. Thus, these findings suggest that the true value of the course forum lies in its role as a moderator of student relationships with each other, suggesting its potential effectiveness for building community grounded in mutual caring relationships.
Discussion and Conclusion
In this analysis, I demonstrate how concepts commonly associated with student satisfaction in BL environments can be conceptualized and theorized through the framework of care. Overall, the results of this study are consistent with the existing literature on student satisfaction in BL. For instance, students valued convenience and flexibility, which are almost universally identified as benefits of a blended learning design, both by definition (Graham 2006) and in student responses (e.g., El Mansour and Mupinga 2007). Interactivity — in the form of social presence, community building, and collaboration — represents another element of blended learning commonly linked with student satisfaction and improved outcomes (Garrison 2009; Akyol, Garrison and Orden 2009). However, these findings also reinforce the existing framework of care. Both Noddings (1984/2003) and Rauner (2000) situate care in responsiveness, anticipation of other’s needs, and open dialogue. In this case, the instructor’s pedagogical choices demonstrate an awareness of students’ needs, contributing to students’ perception of convenience. Overall, the instructor created assignments that encouraged interactivity and freedom of expression, building a culture of care and a sense of community in a classroom. These practices resist the static physical design of the classroom and the implications of that design on pedagogy. Care, in turn, represents an important component of student experience by fostering trusting relationships and encouraging student perseverance, particularly in students at risk of dropping out (Cassidy and Bates 2005).
Implications for the Instructors
Emphasizing care in BL course design shifts the discussion from cost effectiveness to human relations. It foregrounds both the importance of considering students’ needs and the deeply relational nature of the learning process, regardless of the mode of delivery. Moreover, emphasizing care takes on greater importance when working with non-traditional college students, particularly first-generation, low-income, and minority students, who might have limited social support. For instance, Roberts and Rosenwald (2001) found that first-generation college students often experience “value clashes and communication difficulties” (99) with their parents, other family members, and friends. These fracturing social relations may take a psychological toll and impact students’ retention. Pedagogies that project care may go a long way in encouraging perseverance by helping these students genuinely engage in the learning process.
In practice, instructors should begin by learning about students’ needs and the local institutional context. Consulting available institutional data and/or conducting a brief survey prior to or during the first week of class to learn about students’ prior experiences with instructional technology, access to technology, and outside-of-class obligations might help instructors adjust their course design to better address the needs of a given class. For example, at CUNY, many students use their cell-phones to engage with the digital elements of their courses (Smale and Regalado 2014). This trend is not surprising considering that CUNY largely serves working class and low-income students. According to Pew Research Center’s project on Internet, Science & Technology, working class and low-income youth often rely solely on a phone data plan for Internet access (Smith 2015). The level of access within a given class, however, may be difficult to predict. In an institution as large and diverse as CUNY, class-level access to technology may vary based on college, time schedule, and program of study, among other factors. Fortunately, in this study, nearly all of the surveyed students had access to the Internet and a computer at home. Yet, throughout the semester, the vast majority of the class as a whole used cell-phones to engage with digital elements of the course during class time. In cases like this, using platforms that are not readily compatible with a wide range of operating systems may impede students’ ability to successfully engage with their class.
Students’ personal access to technology should also be evaluated in light of resources provided by the institution. Digital labs on campus and laptop loan services may supplement personal access, allowing instructors to utilize a larger range of platforms. Moreover, students themselves may be unaware that such programs exist, and instructors can bridge gaps between institutional affordances and students’ awareness. Nevertheless, an instructor teaching an evening class, for example, where most students work full time should be mindful of some students’ inability to take advantage of campus resources. Thus, a care-centric pedagogy must always specifically engage with the context of the individual classroom as well as the local institution.
Instructors can foster interactivity and build community by designing assignments and choosing platforms that promote an open dialogue among the students and extend interactive classroom spaces rather than digitally replicating individualistic, isolationist homework. In this study, students did not actively engage in the forum as a communication platform, but were able to relate each other’s posts to classroom discussions, a practice potentially fostered by the free choice of study topics. In other words, a successful BL curriculum accounts for the interdependence of various elements of the course, where the ethics of care and strong pedagogical principles are supplemented and reinforced by digital tools, but not replaced by them. The potential effectiveness of such a curriculum reaches beyond the immediate learning objectives of a course and may contribute to college success and degree completion. Developing a pedagogy of care offers great potential to foster student development, and blended learning environments possess substantial affordances to develop and enhance such a pedagogy.