Compassion, Kindness, and Care in Digital Learning Contexts

Bear with me. This work-in-progress is a bit raw. I’d love any feedback that you might have.

Back in 2008, my colleagues and I wrote a short paper arguing that social justice is a core element of good instructional design. Good designs were, and still are, predominantly judged upon their effectiveness, efficiency, and engagement (e3 instruction). Critical and anti-opressive educators and theorists have laid the foundations of extending educational practice beyond effectiveness a long time ago.

I’m not convinced that edtech, learning design, instructional design, digital learning, or any other label that one wants to apply to the “practice of improving digital teaching and learning” is there yet.

I’ve been thinking more and more about compassion with respect to digital learning. More specifically, I’ve been reflecting on the following question:

What does compassion look like in digital learning contexts?

I’m blogging about this now, because my paper journal is limiting and there is an increasing recognition within various circles in the field that are coalescing around similar themes. For instance,

  • The CFP for Learning with MOOCs III asks: What does it mean to be human in the digital age?
  • Our research questions reductionist agendas embedded in some approaches to evaluating and enhancing learning online. Similar arguments are made by Jen Ross, Amy Collier, and Jon Becker.
  • Kate Bowles says “we have a capacity to listen to each other, and to honour what is particular in the experience of another person.”
  • Lumen Learning’s personalized pathways recognize learner agency (as opposed to dominant personalization paradigms that focus on system control)

Compassion is one commonality that these initiatives, calls to action, and observations have in common (and, empowerment, but that’s a different post).

This is not a call for teaching compassion or empathy to the learner. That’s a different topic. I’m more concerned here with how to embed compassion in our practice – in our teaching, in our learning design processes, the technologies that we create, in the research methods that we use. At this point I have a lot of questions and some answers. Some of my questions are:

  • What does compassionate digital pedagogy look like?
    • What are the theories of learning that underpin compassionate practice?
    • What does a pedagogy of care look like? [Noddings’s work is seminal here. Some thoughts from a talk I gave. thoughts from Lee Skallerup Bessette and a paper describing how caring is experienced in online learning contexts.]
  • What are the purported and actual relationships between compassion and various innovations such as flexible learning environments, competency-based learning, and open education?
    • What are the narratives surrounding innovations [The work of Neil Selwyn, Audrey Watters, and David Noble is helpful here]
  • What does compassionate technology look like?
    • Can technologies express empathy and sympathy? Do students perceive technologies expressing empathy? [Relevant to this: research on pedagogical agents, chatbots, and affective computing]
    • What does compassion look like in the design of algorithms for new technologies?
  • What does compassionate learning design look like?
    • Does a commitment to anti-oppressive education lead to compassionate design?
    • Are there any learning design models that explicitly account for compassion and care? Is that perhaps implicit in the general aim to improve learning & teaching?
    • In what ways is compassion embedded in design thinking?
  • What do compassionate digital learning research methods look like?
    • What are their aims and goals?
    • Does this question even make sense? Does this question have to do with the paradigm or does it have to do with the perspective employed in the research? Arguing that research methods informed by critical theory are compassionate is easy. Can positivist research methods be compassionate? Researchers may have compassionate goals and use positivist approaches (e.g., “I want to evaluate the efficacy of testing regimes because I believe that they might be harmful to students”).
  • What does compassionate digital learning advocacy look like?
    • Advocating for widespread adoption of tools/practices/etc without addressing social, political, economic, and cultural contexts is potentially harmful (e.g., Social media might be beneficial but advocating for everyone to use social media ignores the fact that certain populations may face more risks when doing so)

There’s many other topics here (e.g., adjunctification, pedagogies of hope, public scholarship, commercialization….) but there’s more than enough in this post alone!


Analysis of the data-driven MOOC literature published in 2013-2015


The tensions and conundrums of public scholarship


  1. I will write more later, but great post! A colleague at UTA and I are working on research and writing related to Digital Mentoring/Coaching (especially synchronous-based digital mentoring) and the ways it fosters reflection and nurturing support. See:

  2. Dennis Beck

    Great post! It really got me thinking.

    Has anyone done much follow-up to Nass and Reeve’s media equation research? It seems to me that to address one of your questions (“Can technologies express empathy and sympathy? Do students perceive technologies expressing empathy?”) you would want to begin there.


  3. Great post George – I am really interested in the issue of advocacy and need to look at wider social economic political cultural historical contexts -tech has very poor record on this. Tech determinism creeps in everywhere.
    Even apparently benign initiatives can have troubling contexts. Viv Rolfe traced a strand of Conversation around ‘resilience’

  4. Those are great research questions- In case you don t know, you ought to check this book, Positive Computing by Raphael Calvo and Dorian Peters/ I also think that many aspects of research on gamification for healing is connected to your topic

  5. I don’t think technologies are compassionate – people are. I’ve been convening and online facilitation course. The course leader’s guide is an OER here Course participants are staff developers, lecturers and eLearning folks across African Higher Ed. I have been thinking quite a lot about the ethics of care and how I can make it part of my teaching practice and encourage then to do the same. I was wondering if our current course model and principles fit scholarly ideas of ethics of care and what this might mean for online and blended learning educators/facilitators. The original course designers adapted Gilly Salmon’s 5 stage course model. I have been wondering about the importing of course models and adapting it to local contexts, which the current course model does. How many people are thinking about this I wonder… That course models and learning design might not always fit the contexts they are used in. We can’t be uncritical when trying to import something designed for use in one context to another. For example, in many African countries transmissive/didactic teaching is widespread. Many only learn other approaches to teaching and learning when coming to university. We teach about learning theories and our ed tech students go home and try to do things and it doesn’t work with their students or their students resist it or don’t see it as teaching because they are accustomed to the didactic. As a lecturer and hopefully caring and ethical teaching practitioner, am I serving them the best I can?

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