In online education, who is my neighbor?

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed several standards to serve as a framework for those working with ed tech to do so responsibly. Whether one implement a single standard or focuses only on some, they give plenty of opportunity for self-reflection and assessment.

Recently I’ve sat in my big recliner in my study, sipped some Laphroig 10, and pondered ISTE Standard 7a:

Inspire and encourage educators and students to use technology for civic engagement and to address challenges to improve their communities.

Certainly none of us are strangers to online civic engagement right now – it’s pretty much all we see in October 2020 when we turn on our devices! Fair enough. Onto the second part of the charge.

What does “their communities” mean specifically in online education? Couldn’t the community be everywhere, potentially? And wouldn’t a community that large render any efforts by a university too diffuse to be of use to the community?

The next question, then: Who is my community?

Since I grew up in Sunday school, I thought about a similar question relevant to deciding with whom we should love. In the gospel of Luke, Christ is asked by a legal expert what people must do to inherit eternal life (10:25). Christ answers the question with another question – he asks the legal expert. His answer is to quote the Jewish law – love God (Deuteronomy 6) and love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:8). The legal expert, as us attorneys are wont to do, asks for further clarification – he wants to know who his neighbor is. In other words, who is inside the circle of obligation, and who is outside the circle of obligation?

Christ, also very lawyer-like, doesn’t give a straight answer. Instead, he tells a story – the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, New Living Translation):

Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. A Temple assistant[walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

“Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

“Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

There are a few relevant lessons here. The first, regarding civic engagement posture, is to treat others well, even if they are different than us. In a spiritual or good-will sense, than expands our idea of communith to an extent. Additionally, the story teaches us that our “community” involves anyone we see needing help that we can give. This is similar to Proverbs 3:27-28:

Do not withhold good from those who deserve it
    when it’s in your power to help them.
If you can help your neighbor now, don’t say,
    “Come back tomorrow, and then I’ll help you.”

In other words, our community is anyone we encounter that we can help, and we have to treat people in our community with a spirt of good-will.

In online higher education, then, the “community” that we help includes all of the communities we encounter. I sat down and made a non-exhaustive list of communities impacted, and saw the reach is far:

Higher Ed Level Communities Touched
University Regional accreditors, Secondary accreditors, Physical location of office(s), higher education general), alumni, current students, faculty, staff, any entity with contracts
College Admin, faculty, staff, Board, various programs and schools, students, adjuncts, secondary accreditations as applicable
Department Faculty, students, alumni, any field or disciplinary organizations in which faculty participates
Professor All of the above, neighborhood, my church, family, social media, friends, “Capitol Crowd”, State Bar of Texas, local indie businesses (coffee shops, record stores, book stores, bars – places I frequent and support). UT Law, UT Law alumni, UT Law mentor program, Volunteer Legal Services, ACU alumni, my “social club” from ACU, Guy Coffee Group at church, SPU
Students Depends on Student

Each level, from broad to specific, has specific communities with which it interacts and therefore specific obligations to use technology responsibly to improve the specific communities. In one sense, this is a very broad charge if you look at the table. In another sense, though, since everyone is uniquely charged, it’s also very narrow. It’s a bespoke obligation.

Not everyone works at a Christian university, though, so that advice may not work everywhere. My colleague Yanira located a paper from Cobigo, Martin, and Mcheimech (2016) in which they undertook a review of academic literature across several fields and located themes common among definitions of community. Several broad themes emerged (think of “categories” or “tags” on blogs when you think of themes)

The most common themes found were physical proximity, shared, group, bounded, interaction, and belonging (p. 190). Interestingly, focus groups came up with similar themes, although they included support in the top six (p. 191). To me, that makes even more sense in the online “community” environment, as anecdotally it seems that we’re likely to seek out like-minded folks online (to our gain and loss).

Personally, the exercise of listing my “neighbors” and my “community” was helpful, both for realizing the scope of my ISTE obligations and also for reflecting on whether my emotional posture towards my neighbors and community is appropriate for that of an aspiring servant leader. I do recommend reflecting on the “Who is my community?” and “Who is my neighbor?” questions. Then, once you have figured that out, however you define it, figure out how you can responsibly use technology to help them.


Cobigo, V., Martin, L., & Mcheimech, R. (2016). Understanding community. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. 5(4). 181-203.

International Society for Technology in Education. (2020). ISTE standards for coaches.

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