Saturday, March 8, 2014

Technology and Caring: One “Digital Immigrant” Crosses the Border

Guest Blogger:  Catherine DeCourcey

The role of caring in higher education appears in conversations regarding student retention and satisfaction – think of the Academic Advising workshops with Mrs. Kenner, or administration’s urging faculty to mentor students. For over a decade, researchers report that today’s students value relationships with faculty; they perceive accessibility as an attribute of caring (Mangold, 2007; Thomas, 2002). Concurrently, these students who populate our classes expect, even crave, immediacy. Prensky (2001) observes, “They grew up on ‘twitch speed.’ … They’ve been networked most or all of their lives.” How do we, as faculty members, communicate caring to this generation of students in a manner meaningful to them?
Previously in Teaching Matters, Leaman(2009) noted removal of phone access in class to maintain a sanctuary of sorts.  More recently, the question was posited regarding cell phone policy for the university (Kwame, September 21, 2013). However, the use of technology has also been lauded. Donohue (2014) discussed the use of Jing to promote communication with students. Snider (2013) highlighted technology available for students and teachers. These blogs might provide insight into the generational differences in perceptions of technology. 
Like many other professors, I have policies regarding technology use in class. I am a digital immigrant, as described by Prensky (2001:technology is an add-on that occurred after I was an adult. However, I recognize that my students live, sleep, and eat with their technology, most notably their mobile phones. I decided to take advantage of that resource. 
Thus, I shared my mobile phone number with my classes. Aware that boundaries are an important consideration, I provided a few guidelines: No phone calls between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., emergency calls only please. Conversely, they were welcome to text me as needed.
After the first month, I had to change my mobile plan to include unlimited texting.
Freshmen who were adjusting to university life would reach out with questions – clarification on content, guidelines, procedures, and such. Sometimes they just seemed to need to know that someone was there. More experienced students would check in regarding assignments. Students who were going to be late or absent would let me know. (I strive to make attendance about knowing students are well and engaged, thus request the courtesy of being informed in advance should they be late or absent.) In return, I would respond – providing academic and/or affective support.
As the semester progressed, small conversations would be shared. For example, a freshman texted late one night about a doctor’s note and missed class.

CD: “Did you read your Lincoln email?” [It included a reminder about times for phone use.]
Student: “I just read it sorryyyy! [sic]”
CD: “Not a prob. Am up listening to the DNC speeches.:)“
Student: “LOL so am I, I have to write a paper on it”

That seemingly inconsequential conversation provided a faculty connection for the student outside of the immediate classroom setting. Those connections are key to retention, key to student success. Face-to-face conversations with students reveal that the accessibility afforded through technology makes them feel cared for, which enhances the probability that they will remain at the institution.
Of course, one might worry that texting fails to provide documentation of communication. There’s an app for that! Yes, there are applications available that log and record text messages. The application that I use sends logs to my gmail account. Thus, the communication with the chronically late student—it’s documented. The texts exchange regarding assignment deadlines – it’s documented.
Over the two years that I’ve implemented texting as a communication tool, students have used it for academic and affective support. 
Finally, from my personal experience I feel compelled to acknowledge that caring is not a one-way street, even in higher education, at least not with our students. Last fall, when my father was dying, students used texts to check in, share prayers, well wishes, and finally condolences during that difficult time. Those texts were gifts for which I remain grateful.
Technology indeed can be a tool to demonstrate caring. Even “digital immigrants” like me can use it to cross borders to communicate effectively with our “digital natives” - today’s students.

Donohue, W. (2014, January 17). Teaching with Jing. Teaching Matters at LU.
Kwame, S. (2013, September 21).  The use of cell, mobile or smartphones in the classroom. Teaching Matters at LU.
Leaman, M. (2009, October 2). Cell phones and chatty students. Teaching Matter at LU.
Mangold, K.(2007). Educating a new generation: Teaching baby boomer faculty about millennial students.  Nurse Educator, 32(1), 21-23.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9 (5). Retrieved from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
Snider, B. (2013, November 23). Tech tools for students and teachers. Teaching Matters at LU.
Thomas, L. (2002). Student retention in higher education: The role of institutional habitus. Journal of Education Policy, 17(4), 423-442.


  1. Catherine, CD, thanks for your insight. Here, below, are two comments:

    1. I agree: "Technology indeed can be a tool to demonstrate caring;" but so can others, such as, talking to students, eating with them, cooking for them, inviting them to your house, and even sleeping with them (if teachers who are caught having sex with their students are to be believed). Like all tools, however, they can be abused or misused.

    2. It is true: "These blogs might provide insight into the generational differences in perceptions of technology." They may also provide insight into the generational differences in conceptions of education. One conception of education, typically associated with the older generation, involves learning something new or that you did not know before (including difficult readings and boring lectures or the use of basic or low-level technology); another, typically associated with the younger generation, involves learning nothing new or just getting credit for what you already know (e.g. use of computers and smart phones).

    Safro Kwame

  2. Hello Dr. DeCourcey,
    I agree: "that seemingly inconsequential conversation provided a faculty connection for the student outside of the immediate classroom setting." Whereas I do not give my cell phone to students, they are allowed to email me anytime,even during the holiday breaks. Importantly, they can visit with me in the LRC at their convenience and we just talk. I can't describe the rich feeling that it gives when students just come to share, eat, and even gossip!! During this semester I have introduced the use of twitter to teach vocabulary.The twitter handle is, @ReadingMaria.Those who participate love the idea.

  3. Cathy, you raise a really interesting question. What is the role of caring in teaching and how can technology be used in that regard? I just read an article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Practicing Affection in the Academy" by Robert Elder in which he argues for "an ethic of affection" in education. He writes, "An ethic of affection would dictate that students must be taught by professors and learn alongside peers with whom they can form relationships. We all know adjuncts who manage to be wonderful teachers despite the odds, but an ethic of affection would resist the reduction of a human being to a conduit for content delivery as an injustice to student and teacher alike. Online learning and MOOCs might be in some ways less obviously offensive on this front, but the very scale and abstraction of these innovations violate a bedrock requirement—that for any true learning and growth to occur, an education must conform itself to human limits and relationships" I think it is really important to explore the role of technology and how it can either hinder or help human relationships and the education those relationships help to foster (and how much it might differ among digital immigrants and digital natives.) So I hope your blog is the intro to your next book!
    (See more at: )