Caring and Technology

Tonight, I had the pleasure of seeing Nel Noddings speak at Lewis & Clark College on “The Ethics of Care in a Social Justice Framework.” Noddings presented several ideas, of which the following resonated the most with me.

  • The “golden rule” is essentially self-serving. Instead of doing unto others as we would have done unto ourselves, whe should do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. The golden rule may reinforce a paternalistic attitude of imposing one’s own values on others.
  • A critical component of caring is the capacity to detect the feelings of others.
  • Natural care is more meaningful than ethical care. Natural care happens as a result of our (maternal) instinct to respond to others. It is immediate and powerfully motivated. Ethical care happens when we make a conscious decision based on a principle. It takes more effort and can be less effective.
  • The contributions of the care recipient to a caring relationship are not given enough significance by many. The care recipient sustains a caring interaction through their own reaction to the care they receive.

Though the presentation was centered on building an ethic of care in others, with references to standardized curriculum design and the war in Iraq, I found myself thinking about school technology departments. We spend our days responding to requests for help from our fellow employees, students, alumni, and parents. This week, we did a small self-study and estimated that we receive nearly 100 requests for support each day. Most of these involve some problem that the individual is having and cannot solve on his or her own. Our role is to understand and respond to that. We become experts at listening, asking questions to better understand the problem, observing the problem first-hand, sometimes sympathizing with circumstances that cannot be significantly improved, and then devising and implementing a solution to make things better. We do other work as well, but our core work is motivated by directly responding to the needs of people.

Why do individuals go into school technology support? If it were really about the technology, we might be better off in a pure technology company whose objective was simply to make the technology as run as well as possible for its own sake. I know that some tech professionals find their way to school because the environment is kinder to them. Some even find the range of work more varied and interesting than a narrowly-defined job in a large company. Still, anyone who lasts in a school tech department is oriented first to people and second to technology. Schools are human institutions first. I routinely observe my staff go above and beyond the call of duty to help a user get a technology to work for his or her purposes.

Why do people often think that technology staff don’t care? Despite our best efforts, technology staff often gain a reputation of caring more for machines than people. This is more difficult for me to understand. With rare exception, technology professionals I meet are all about people. Perhaps we have a heavy workload and give the impression of disinterest while trying to keep our enterprise moving forward. Perhaps we give off the wrong impression when we immediately start talking about potential solutions when a person articulates their problem. Perhaps we get stereotyped because we work in a realm of knowledge that a lot of people do not comprehend. I don’t have any good answers on this one.

What happens when technology professionals get negative feedback from the person they are trying to help? What if this happens repeatedly? One of Noddings’ points is that the care recipient is an integral part of a care relationship. If one cares and the response is either bland or negative, then the carer needs support to be successful. This may take the form of regular department meetings, good supervision, professional development, and an open door and ear ready to listen to the support stories of the day.

What happens to our efforts to build a culture of care when interactions enter the digital realm? If detecting the feelings and needs of individuals is paramount to caring, does this become less effective in online forums, blogs, and chat rooms? Online conversations are certainly more effective when you have already established a face-to-face relationship with an individual. Should we try to limit email to information exchange? That doesn’t seem practical. How do some people build entire long-distance relationships (presumably very caring ones) with people whom they have never met in person? Can electronic communication vehicles help us build a stronger affinity to people in faraway places that we may never have the opportunity to visit in person?

Many models for caring include the physical world. How can this body of work inform our efforts to help students and teachers care for their computers? It is not an impossible leap to make a link between caring for people and caring for physical objects. We encourage children to care for the physical spaces in which they live, such as their bedroom and classroom. People develop lifelong attachments to small objects of special meaning. Technology professionals are often the best at taking good care of their machines. Certainly, taking a computer apart or — a popular student hobby — putting a new machine together, appears to give many a better appreciation for and more caring orientation toward the computers they use. How do we encourage care for the virtual space out there: keeping our files in order, our virus protection up-to-date, and our system software well-tuned? Why do people devote all of their free time to cleaning Wikipedia of vandalism?

There’s a lot more here — maybe tomorrow. Please leave a comment.

4 comments

  1. Ben Casnocha says:

    Many issues raised here…I would note that while IT folks in schools may care about people more than machines, many engineers I know are truly enamored with machines. And find playing with a new piece of software more interesting than talking with a human being. Most "geeks" are introverted. So, I don’t think "It’s about people" is true across most people in the IT profession.

  2. rkassissieh says:

    I agree with you. My comments are specific to education.

    Richard

  3. Jim Heynderickx says:

    The trap that many schools get into is that the tech support staff is too comprehensive. They are "too nice" about doing things for users, instead of enabling users to be independent. In some ways, even some tech support want this, because it is job security. Instead of solving problems and moving people forward, the problems are "maintained."

    Anyway, I hope that doesn’t sound harsh. In a good school environment, there’s a sense that we are all in this together (teaching, using computers, etc.) and there isn’t "job separation" in that " you put in the toner cartridge, but I don’t." If you really care about someone in an educational environment, you’ll decide that it’s all about seeing it from the other’s perspective and helping them move forward. Doing too much can prevent this.

    Thanks for the interesting post!

    Jim H

  4. Peni Seru says:

    Let me ask a question:..What does Ethical Care mean??