The online instructor as shepherd

….from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people …. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them. Psalm 78:72-73

Much of the conversation about the role of an instructor in online learning falls out generally along the line of teacher vs. coach, or facilitator. But an essay by Dafina Stewart suggests another model, or metaphor, that may be instructive.

Writing in the Journal of College and Character (September 2007) Stewart suggests that the instructor’s role in the ethical development of undergraduates in a face-to-face environment mighty be that of a shepherd. Although Stewart is not specifically interested in online learning, the model suggests some of the limitations of that environment and some strategies for success.

Stewart does not mean the negative images that shepherds and sheep may invoke, of authority and obedience and dumb sheep, people unable to make good decisions for themselves. Rather, referring to Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach, Stewart plays off his notion that the classroom is a sanctuary, not a theater, and that teachers and students join to go deeper into knowledge, interpretation and meaning.

The shepherd, Stewart points out, not only makes sure the herd stays together, what we might think of as classroom management, or that the sheep are sheared at the appropriate time, what we might think of as the whole objective/assessment enterprise, but that they are also responsible for providing a safe environment where the sheep are watered and fed.This is, of course, the condition, and in fact the substance, for learning.

While Stewart is specifically concerned with ethical development in undergraduates, in my discipline, communication, everything is at some level about ethics. And at any rate, the deep thinking Stewart might hope to encourage is something to which we all aspire. As Stewart points out, this is the difference between Locke’ s “blank slate” and Freire’s notion of students as deep wells, reminding us that the Latin root educere means “to draw out.”

How suited is the online environment for drawing out of a student’s deep well, or even of encouraging him or her to dig a new one? Stewart suggests a framework of identity, relationship and accountability, all of which provide special challenges in an online environment. The transactional distance of online learning might seem to mitigate against such a model.

For online learners, many of whom are adult learners and mid-career professionals, identity may seem to be fully formed. But in any degree program, the issue is not their social identity, but their professional one. How do they fit their worldview into the context of their discipline, especially in an environment that makes it so easy to hide who we are and project who we want to be?

The issue of relationship is perhaps better studied. Cohorts and scaffolding are only part of a picture which is usually more intentional in good online programs. Everyone has something to say in an online classroom. It’s required. But are these relationships authentic? If not, how do we encourage them to be more so?

Accountability may be the area where instructors have the most leverage, but what matters is not that instructors make sure students do the work, or even cite the sources. What matters in the context of shepherding is that the instructors go deeper into the connection between the student and the material, and online structures can limit this. Quite frankly the thing Stewart wants to encourage most often happens around a cup of coffee, and calling our online discussion board a cafe doesn’t make it so.

A phone call might help, but online faculty already have a sense that doing online instruction well requires more work than an face to face class.  Sensing a student’s need as they linger after class is quite different that arranging phone calls with 18 students. On the other hand, I have had the experience of making a significant connection with a student by hanging out in a chat room just a few minutes after the formal discussion was finished.

Residency requirements might be another way to get at this, although the process is expensive for the student and most online programs also use faculty who are not on campus. But residency certainly provides the opportunity for that physical cup of coffee.

Capstone projects may be the most likely place for true shepherding to occur. Working with a faculty member on a thesis committee over time requires a deeper engagement with ideas than many other online experiences. Reflection papers are the shorter, less intense version of this, and should be commonly required and uncommonly processed if we hope to shepherd in any sense at all.

Stewart concludes by noting that “faculty act as shepherds by being willing to have deep discussions and conversations around deeply complex issues.” Deep discussions are the signature of thoughtful engagement in asynchronous discussion boards, one of the crown jewels of effective online learning. Unfortunately, deeply complex issues often are not.

As shepherds, online instructors will have to find those holes where the water is still but deep, and the grass is not only plentiful but green. But it requires more than this; it requires a shepherd’s heart, not just a scholar’s head.

Wally Metts is the director of the online graduate studies in communication program at Spring Arbor University.


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