Shepherding Through Online Learning

Michael Marland in his seminal book titled ‘Pastoral Care’ (1974) highlighted that educational pastoral care meant more than merely being ancillary to academic work. It played a fundamental educative purpose, which involved looking at the overall welfare of students. In an article by Babatunde Taiwo Ojewunmi (2019), he draws attention to the many benefits of educational pastoral care. Notably, there has been an increase in attendance and retention rates among students. Also, the learning setting helped helm an equal and equitable environment for both learners and educators alike. But then again, many of these benefits were seen in pre-pandemic face-to-face interactions. So, when Covid-19 happened, it saw world educators migrating overnight to digital platforms for teaching and learning (T&L) purposes.

The underlying issue, however, was that most educators and learners were treading new waters with online learning (even though it wasn’t a novel concept, to begin with). Educators were caught up trying out tools and apps to engage students to learn while students tried to adapt themselves to remote learning. Yet, many educators may have overlooked humanising the online T&L platform (for example: Blackboard Learn, Moodle, and more) as a way to preserve the human connection and human emotion. The question asked then perhaps would be, how could pastoral care be embedded in T&L platforms?

Humanising the Language of Instruction

In online learning, educators use various modes of communication such as texts, audio, videos, and images to deliver lessons and engage with learners. An important aspect would be to personalise the language used in these platforms. In the age of secondary orality, spontaneity and interactivity are made possible but in a controlled form. The Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) list found on almost all online sites well exemplifies this.

Most often, the tone used is conversational and rather less formal, yet informative and instructional at times. Drawing from this example, educators could also model their instructions to the syntax and semantic arrangements just as in the FAQs. Additionally, should an educator choose to adopt the FAQ style as the language of instruction, learners will find themselves able to navigate tasks online devoid of the course facilitator’s presence. Hence, the student still experiences being supported in one’s online learning albeit having to work independently.

Humanising the Course Platform

Many studies have proven that learners suffer anxiety and stress due to prolonged screen contact. This holds especially true when involving online learning which was exacerbated due to the pandemic. Stanford researchers found that today’s learners in particular are experiencing online fatigue owing to excessive use of digital media. Thus, an important aspect of educational pastoral care should be initiating a check and balance on the mental health state of these online learners.

A simple yet effective way would be to include counselling-related information in one’s course platform(s). It helps learners who require assistance gain easier access to mental health support-related matters. Hence as the semester or term progresses, from time-to-time educators could kindly remind their learners of the existence of these important numbers or information on their course platform(s). In more advanced settings, an avatar could be incorporated to interact with those seeking help. The aim is to offer the presence of support constantly for those who need it, be it for personal or academic matters.

Humanistic Class Management

It is necessary to ensure that mutual respect is maintained at all times particularly as learners are made up of a diverse group. Justly, learners in higher education possess a variety of skill sets; at the same time, there has been a growth in learners with a spectrum of learning disabilities in higher institutions today. Keeping that in mind, educators should aspire to be inclusive and non-judgmental through role-modelling empathy to their learners.

Educators have to understand that internet (dis)connection and batteries dying off have become legit reasons for learners to lose out on their lessons. Some others suffer from photo strobe effects and auditory sensory issues as well. Henceforth, educators will need to embrace and begin empathising with online learners on such grounds. On a positive note, this eventually leads to better engagement due to trust building between the learners and their course educators.


Priyadharshini Ahrumugam
School of Arts