Journal of Information Technology Impact
Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 11-22, 2000
Applying Feminist Principles to Internet-Mediated Instruction: A Case Study1
Barbara C. Ewell2
Loyola University New Orleans
Internet-mediated technologies are transforming the ways many of us teach. But the question of whether that transformation can remain consistent with feminist and other progressive educational goals, particularly student-centered learning, remains open. This case study reflects on the issues and concerns that emerge when courses in literature are adapted for internet delivery for adult students. The article describes strategies for creating genuine interactivity in an online environment (including the development of a course model), issues in the changing role of the instructor and instructional credit, and some assessment of the ways in which online-teaching and feminist pedagogy complement one another.
Keywords:Distance learning, feminist pedagogy, student-centered learning, adult education.
One of the many promises of internet-mediated technology has been its potential to make education more student-centered, to break down the infamous "banking model" of teaching, a goal shared by many progressive pedagogies, including feminism3. The use of email, interactive webpages, chat rooms, MOOs, whiteboards, and all the other new electronic tools seem to encourage--if not demand--precisely the kind of classroom dialogue that Brazilian Pablo Freire insisted is necessary if education is to be an "act of cognition" rather than mere "transferals of information." In dialogue, Freire argues, "the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers." These teacher-students become "jointly responsible for a process" of shared learning "in which all grow" (67). Such a process would seem ideally supported by the interactive machinery of cyberspace.
Feminist pedagogy has been deeply influenced by Freire's work, and feminist educators have been quick to recognize in the internet a dramatic opportunity to realize those principles of student-centered education. A widespread hope for the internet has in fact been its potential to equalize the power of information and disburse its benefits more widely The extensive electronic coverage of the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, for example, which provided me with an initial glimpse of that potential, was an early instance of how the web could connect women all over the world, with the proceedings daily updated on a webpage and public email for communicating with delegates. An even more specific effort to realize the educational potential of the web has been the late Madonna Kolbenschlagís "Womenís International Electronic University," a visionary project "dedicated to educating and empowering women through computer-modem technology." Such efforts firmly support the goals of using electronic technologies to teach more effectively.
But opportunity and danger are notoriously interrelated, and feminist educators have also been quick to recognize the perils of idealizing technology. Donna Harawayís "Cyborg Manifesto" was an early and eloquent elaboration of the tensions that we encounter in adopting and adapting to the conditions of cyberspace. In a 1992 interview, she reiterated the semiotic dimension of any technology: "Itís a mode, many modes, of making meanings" (Jamison 14); and she reminded us that we need to think carefully about what kinds of meanings we are making when we engage in and with electronic technologies, particularly in the classroom. Like the circling of desks or the privileging of personal experience so familiar in feminist pedagogy, the uses of electronic media in the classroom convey meanings that may or may not be consistent with our ultimate goals: the effective education of our students.
Preparing to Teach Online
Though hardly articulated so specifically, these were certainly some of the tensions that preoccupied me as I prepared to teach my first on-line course at Loyola University New Orleans a few years ago. A modest grant from the state education fund had allowed two colleagues and me to set up experimental courses in literature, religious studies and computer science for our adult, mostly part time, students. Our aim was to develop several courses for on-line delivery and to see what we could learn about the practicability and effectiveness of using electronic media across our curriculum. We were confident that the flexibility such courses could provide would be extremely popular with our non-traditional students, whose complex work and family lives often left little time for the college education they sought from us--a point they consistently confirmed in later course evaluations. We were not so sure about the quality of instruction that might result nor about the new demands on our own time and abilities. All of us had heard the tales or readily imagined ourselves reading student email into the wee hours. But we were also committed to exploring as many technical options as we could, adopting a variety of tools and techniques to match our individual disciplines and teaching styles--webpages, e mail, chat rooms, newsgroups, bulletin boards, audio-streaming.
My chief concerns in teaching that initial course were two-fold: how to make an on-line course genuinely interactive and how to provide sufficient input without simply producing full-fledged lectures, which I knew would be both impractical to create and counter to my basic teaching praxis. Having been committed for more than two decades to the de-centering precepts of feminist pedagogy, I was hardly willing to relinquish them to a machine. If I were going to be teaching on-line courses regularly, I had to be sure that I could maintain the pedagogical principles that I had come to view as essential. In the live classroom, that pedagogy typically assumed a pattern of "introductory-comments-and-discussion." Teaching, in my view, involves creating the spaces where a learning community can develop, a task often marked by providing appropriate contexts, deepening the discussion, and keeping it relevant. But I wasnít at all sure what that process would look like on a computer screen: how could I keep on-line discussions fluid and relevant, provide students with direction and information, and not become overwhelmed by the technological and intellectual demands of the course: mastering new technologies, creating webpages, filling them with thoughtful and reliable material, designing and evaluating writing assignments, and managing weekly electronic conversations with and among fifteen students? Just as critically, how would it be not to interact with students in physical space and time? The classroom is a rich learning environment, with its little in-jokes and digressions, the body language and unexpected turns in the conversation, the 'ahas' and grimaces that cue one's next move or confirm that learning is (or is not) happening. Would I (or the students) find the abstracted spaces of the internet similarly satisfying? Would the touted benefits of cyberspace as a democratizer and dispenser of information be consistent with the goals of feminist pedagogy or collaborative learning? Would the gains in flexibility outweigh the losses of live interaction?
Developing a Course Model
Devising a structure that would facilitate the kind of exchange I sought in the live classroom, then, became the chief objective of my course planning. What I eventually developed (and have refined over four years in three different courses ["Southern Literature," "Southern Women Writers," and a special topics course, "The Awakening and Its Contexts"]) pretty well reflects (not surprisingly) a modified version of my 'introductory-comment-and-discussion' pedagogy. It also offers an effective model of how those essential rhythms of the classroom can be recreated in cyberspace--with instructive differences, of course, not only for learning, but for teaching as well. For as Haraway cautions (following McLuhan), the media conveys its own messages, not only about student-centered instruction, but also about the meaning of instruction and our role as instructors.
The essential elements of the course model are a website (which provides a detailed and evolving syllabus; discussion questions and background notes; and miscellaneous materials, such as useful links, electronic handouts, a student album) and a class listserv (including small-group lists) through which the weekly discussions are conducted. It works like this: the class (of fourteen to twenty students) is divided into three or four email discussion groups. (I find five or six students per group to be ideal--just enough to make the postings manageable but the perspectives sufficiently diverse). In a typical week, students read the assigned text (usually a novel or group of short stories) and then respond to one or more of about ten questions that I have posted to the website. The questions, designed to guide reading and analysis, are supplemented by a page or two of informal "Teacher's Notes," in which I offer some contextual background or comment on, for example, my reasons for including Frederick Douglassí Narrative, or the notions of white southern ladyhood implied in Kate Chopin's The Awakening. Everyone is required to post an "initial comment" to her/his small discussion group (by Friday); then respond to at least two of those comments (by Sunday).
Strategies for Creating Interaction
One challenge was insuring that students were somehow reflecting on all these comments--not just posting-and-responding, more or less mechanically. I was also concerned that not everyone would hear everything everyone said--as theoretically happens in a classroom. This narrowed range of perspectives seemed to me the primary limitation of the small-group structure, one accentuated by the heavy reliance on student interaction as a learning tool.As one might guess, student-led discussions can produce very mixed results.
Initially, I tried establishing small-group moderators and requiring a "final comment" to be sent to the whole class, but neither were effective solutions. The moderating just never happened: few students really understood what they were supposed to do (I had not been very clear about their role in the first place), and more problematic, the postings simply werenít timely enough to allow the moderator to Ďsummarizeí the best insights from the small groups. While the "final comment" was a better idea, it turned out to be too labor-intensive: students were being asked to turn in a "final comment" at the same time as they had to develop an "initial comment" on an entirely new text. The work load, for both student and teacher, soon became overwhelming. In the next course, I reduced the number of these comments and called them "periodic summaries." Three or four times during the semester, students had to submit a somewhat more formal comment on the material and discussions of the previous weeks. They were allowed to revise an earlier post, incorporating the responses of the group or later readings, or develop a new, overall comment. In either case, the intention was to force a kind of reflectiveness that the more informal exchanges in the email groups did not always occasion. These also broadened the class discussions beyond the small groups--and also gave me the basis for a grade.
Using E-mail and Rethinking How Learning Happens
One important aspect of the success of these discussion groups for me--as well as an insight into how electronic media can change the nature of instruction--was the recognition (offered by a colleague at a very timely Epiphany Workshop that I didn't have to grade or even read everything the students would write.4 I had figured that a lot of student writing might be one important way to compensate for the absence of Ďnormalí class participation. But I also knew I'd be overwhelmed if I had to read every word. Certainly, one of the most inhibiting factors in developing online courses is the teacher's fear of overload: it's one thing to comment thoughtfully and answer every question helpfully for three hours a week in classes; it's something else to face five email messages from every student every week--not to mention still having to read and grade three or five or more papers and tests during the semester. The specter of being glued to the computer screen is not wholly figural. Instead, I made it clear to my students that I would monitor their discussions and record the fact of their (timely) participation as evidence of their "attendance" and that I would intervene only when directly asked (or when I thought it necessary--as when I began to notice several students mis-reading Frances Harperís depiction of white "goodness" because they hadnít fully appreciated the complexity of her rhetorical position). But I would only commit to read and grade the periodic summary.
This substitution of more writing for less time in class (and the concomitant recognition that I could not evaluate student writing in the usual ways) highlights precisely the kind of rethinking that electronic media occasions. Just what kinds of work do produce learning? How are we going to measure it or give credit for it? In fact, what usually governs the educational value of a college course--the number of credits awarded--is merely the time spent in class. When that familiar (if highly questionable) measure of "contact hours" disappears, one effect is the shift of instruction toward the student: her willingness to do some other work that will produce at least as much learning as sitting in a lecture. Such a shift certainly buttresses the ideal of student-centered instruction. However, students (like teachers) donít always embrace this different balance of responsibility. Despite its provision of greater flexibility, my students generally complained that the online format placed greater demands on their time than most other courses. In assessing how well they actually learned the material, however, I concluded that the "extra time" and alternative activities did produce something more or less equivalent to contact hours. Judging from their email comments and formal papers, studentsí understanding even of challenging texts like Absalom, Absalom! and the issues that I thought were critical to the courses, such as the complex interdependence of race and gender roles, were quite on a par with that of students I taught in live classrooms. And by the end of the course, most students agreed; as one wrote in an evaluation, "I learned the most about literature and various genres in this class than in any other class I have taken this semester" (Class Evaluation, LIT 465, May 1998). But if there were no substantial losses in content, there were definitely shifts in how students were learning and in how much that learning depended on their own exertions. In their final evaluations, nearly seventy percent acknowledged that the intellectual challenge and learning were as high if not higher than that in comparable on-campus courses, while eighty-four percent indicated that the amount of effort required by students was greater (Franz ii).
Re-evaluating "Class Time"
One manifestation of this adjustment in how we "count" learning time lies in the grading. For just as we donít really "evaluate" the specific learning that occurs from studentsí physical presence in a classroom (despite typically giving them Ďcredití for just being there), our responsibility for grading--or even reading--the intensive writing or other work that students might do in order to learn something similarly alters in an electronic context. Of course, the notion that student writing doesnít require a teacherís evaluation to insure learning is one that composition instructors have implemented for years in pre-writing exercises and journal requirements. What electronic media do is make explicit the arbitrariness--or at least the variability--of what constitutes the appropriate "work" of the classroom. Obviously, there are more rooms in that educational mansion than we have yet imagined. And especially for adult students, whose learning styles and needs are quite different from those of children and adolescents, these new media encourage a long-needed re-assessment of what universities count as creditable learning.
Using Email to Foster Student Dialogue
In addition to substituting for class time, intensive writing was also a crucial means of reproducing the pattern of comment and discussion of my regular classes. The email discussion groups, structured by open-ended questions and a required rhythm of comment, response, and summary, compelled students to engage with the material and with each other--explicit goals of feminist as well as of other student-centered pedagogies. When given even just a little direction, students proved quite capable of articulating the same issues that I would have tried to elicit in a live class. At the same time, the interactions among students were quite intense and often better informed than the classroom exchanges that are so critical to this kind of pedagogy. Students did get involved with the texts, occasionally seeking out on their own the biography of Richard Wright or background information on the Ya-Ya fan clubs of Rebecca Wells that they shared with their (grateful) colleagues. Their email conversations were often lively and no less thoughtful than similar discussions in class. And students did form personal relationships with each other (and with me) on-line: our characters and personalities often emerged quite vividly in our interactions. Students commented that "I loved the contact with peers," and "The class offered more interaction with other students than any other class I have taken" (Franz 3).
At least some of that vigor can be attributed to the medium itself. As one student observed: "Email represents a change in the way students learn to communicate with each other" (Class Evaluation LIT400 May 1997). Required to respond specifically to each other, they can no longer simply talk back to the teacher, despite a roomful of other people. It is, by now, surely redundant to observe (as I did and I do) that students frequently participate in these asynchronous discussions with greater involvement and more equality of access than in the classroom, where the extroverts and quick thinkers have distinct advantages over those who prefer to formulate their ideas more slowly or those who do not relish the spotlight. A thought can be pursued until the respondents themselves weary of the chase, rather than be cut short by the disinterest of others or by the fifty-minute clock. Students often wrote long and elaborate responses both to the texts and to each other's comments, such as an involved discussion of the notions of family in Eudora Weltyís Delta Wedding. And while many of these were written by the same students who were also lively in "regular" classes, some were contributed by students who participate in discussion only when they are called upon.
But if the medium encourages broader class participation, it also exposes more sharply and more promptly those who perform minimally--the ones who write fifty-word comments about what a long book they have been assigned this week. Silent students often pass unnoticed until the exams are turned in. But on-line, the brevity and vacuousness of what they post is an immediate giveaway. At the same time, their shortcomings have a greater negative impact on the class as a whole. When other studentsí learning depends so heavily on the caliber of the exchanges--on thought-provoking comments and genuine responses--weak students, especially in small sections, can seriously detract from the quality of the learning experience. This is one of the places where the teacherís absence can be most acutely felt.
Timing Appropriate Intervention
For if the medium does encourage students to take greater responsibility for their own learning, it also requires teachers to develop new ways to help them fulfill that responsibility. In the live classroom, we can promptly intervene when the discussion goes flat or takes a wrong turn, or when students become frustrated or perplexed by the material. But asynchronous discussion requires a different cadence of intervention. Problems may take longer to reveal themselves and may also require more effort to correct. You can't just go in and fix things at the next class meeting. When we read Flannery O'Connor, for example, many students were more disturbed by her quirky perspectives than I had anticipated, and, as one of them complained after posing a string of unanswered questions: "When we read stories like last week's and this week's--it is then that I miss being in class" [Student email (22 March 1998)]. So did I. For while I tried to respond with more elaborate comments about OíConnorís Catholicism and theological notions of grace, and then invited further discussion that week, the instructional moment just took too long to develop and was pretty much lost. Only one student responded further, despite widespread interest just a day or two before. There is definitely an art in knowing when and how to intervene in electronic discussions; at least we can try to anticipate when such cruxes might arise and then learn from experience how to adjust our timing.
Another way in which the media required that I partially re-invent my role as a teacher was in providing the information and alternative perspectives that would generate new insights. As bell hooks argues, even in the student-centered classroom, teachers neither can nor should relinquish their authority to challenge their studentsí presumed ignorance and typical "mono-vision" (53). No amount of valuing each individual abrogates the need to keep challenging students to see beyond their accustomed--and often very narrow--perspectives.
The profound de-centering of the classroom that electronic media encourages indeed often left me worried (especially in the first course I taught on-line ) that students were not getting enough of the information (and presumably the wisdom) that as a teacher I could (and wanted to) provide. Accordingly, I tried to find ways to remedy that gap, particularly my ability to help shape student discussions. One effort was my insertion of a "reflections on discussion" component in the weekly schedule. Despite my vow not to read every email message, I was inevitably tracking the conversations. So as part of my informal reviewing, I began selecting comments that I thought were particularly interesting or useful. I tried to make this a simple cut-and-paste operation only correcting egregious errors to reduce embarrassment and provide some unobtrusive instruction. Sometimes I simply posted representative comments; other weeks, I was more active: correcting false impressions of the texts, filling in a missing point, or even taking sides in a discussion on whether one of Kate Chopinís characters was self-consciously seductive. Students clearly read these postings, commenting on something I said or responding to a question raised in another group. For my own part, the summaries provided a way to take a more active role in the discussions without undermining the studentsí control of the conversations.
Another way of insuring that students encountered additional perspectives--and not just mine--was simply to require them to post their periodic summaries to the whole class. Reading this broader range of comments was clearly useful, though the substance remained uneven, since students tended to maintain the informal (and often half-baked) style of the weekly comments. Such an assignment needs some shaping to function effectively: specific guidelines about length and topic, for example, and possibly some further "public" feedback from me, in addition to the usual personal comments that I give each student with his or her grade.
My efforts to increase interaction did include some failed experiments. I had hoped, for example, that the electronic chat-room would encourage some of the immediacy and exchange of the classroom. Accordingly, I set up an optional, late-night time for weekly chat sessions. It was pretty much a disaster--on several counts. As others have found, chat really is not an appropriate medium for sustained intellectual discussion. Writing oneís thoughts instead of speaking them changes the pacing dramatically (especially if one isnít a good typist), and the lag time between reading a comment, writing a response and sending it awkwardly disrupts any conversational flow. Where chat was useful was situations where my authority was necessary: explaining assignments or occasionally clarifying a difficult reading, such as untangling the chronology of Absalom, Absalom! All tools may not, in fact, be equal; certainly they produce distinct effects.
One obvious means of increasing the instructional input is just to strengthen the website itself: more extensive "teacher's notes," additional online readings, relevant links, critical backgrounds, clearer and more detailed assignments (such as the website evaluation assignment I eventually incorporated once I realized how inadequate the students were at winnowing the wheat from the internetís prolific chaff). Indeed, like any class, the web-based course benefits from the increments that repetition and experience can provide. Once the basics are in place, one can begin to add greater depth, such as more and better links to relevant texts and authorial sites. The web continues to add resources that can profoundly enhance the richness of a literature course: out of print texts, manuscripts, essays, visual resources, hypertextual experience. Many of the improvements that I have made in each subsequent course reflect my own increasing mastery of the media, a process that simply requires time and some technical support.
The Basics: Website and E-mail
But while I personally enjoy exploiting the mediaís bells and whistles, a basic website and a listserv are finally sufficient for teaching effectively in this medium. The website can shape a rich instructional context; email can be structured to generate exchanges that replicate many of the qualities of classroom discussion: the on-line environment can, in fact, support many of the goals of a student-centered, feminist pedagogy. There are differences, of course. Both teaching and learning are altered by the media, no less than circles of chairs or large lecture halls change the character of a class--how one prepares as well as how one is engaged by the material. On-line teaching highlights the structural role of teachers: how we must make information available to students and construct the models and environment that will enable them to understand it. The difference is in the often unfamiliar tools that one employs: hypertext and asynchronous discussion instead of (or at least in addition to) textbooks and lecture notes; changeable websites instead of paper handouts; virtual rather than physical connections. More significant is the necessary re-consideration of the kinds of activities that inspire learning and ways of evaluating their success. Class time has to be translated into other learning processes: writing, research, exercises, internships, group projects. But that particular shift inevitably transfers the burden of education onto the student--and that might require a more mature learner.
The adults in my courses may be in fact be better suited to on-line education than the traditional-aged student. More goal-oriented and self-directed, they are often readier to assume the responsibility for their own learning; indeed, they frequently demand it. Even so, the discipline thatís required to do the readings and contribute to the discussions in a timely way challenged many of them. Knowing what they would be in for seemed an important prerequisite for success. The payoff in terms of flexibility was clearly worth it, but it is important for students, as well as teachers, to recognize that the changes in the medium do affect the ways that one learns.
Learning to Use Information Technology
My experience with on-line teaching has yielded, I think, promising lessons. Electronic media are in the end simply tools that we can use to enhance our teaching. The experience and wisdom of the instructor, not only in providing information but in structuring ways to assimilate it, are still entirely necessary. The administratorsí dreams (and teachersí fears) that the internet will do away with instructors is as illusory as the notion that printed books would destroy authority. For the vast majority of people, learning will always require some kind of structure, some organization of information and some means of testing oneís awareness against and within a community of other learners. The new media offer us different ways of shaping that community and of presenting information, but they do not alter our essential roles--although, admittedly, here at the beginning, the differences can make us feel as though we are taking up a whole new profession. Instead, I think we are simply having to re-assess what is critical to learning and how--when its appearances change--we will be able to evaluate it. When we abandon "contact hours" as the measure of credit, what can we count? What kinds of contact matter? With whom? What activities help people learn? How do we measure their equivalence in awarding college credit?
At the same time, we are having to learn the best uses of these new implements in the classroom--which, as electronic equipment proliferates, is itself becoming a strangely metaphorical space. Faced with a daunting array of teaching tools, we are having to acquire new technical skills as well as develop the experience that is finally indispensable for knowing just what works when and for what purposes. We cannot, of course, especially as feminists, fail to approach these media critically, appreciating the implications for isolation and abstraction that electronic communication also promotes. The usefulness of any tool depends as much on its appropriateness to the task as on the skill of its wielder. Just as circled desks and dialogue donít automatically produce transformative or even engaged education, neither will a website or a listserv insure that students are learning more effectively.
But given the benefits of flexibility for our students (especially the working adults that more and more of them are) and the decentering of learning responsibility these tools at least encourage, I think there is more than enough to merit optimism about their use in the classroom, feminist or otherwise. For finally, our role as teachers has always been not simply to understand our material (which is challenge enough), but also to recognize and adapt the technologies that help others to learn it. Whether it be with writing slates or laser pens, lectures or listservs, our job has always entailed choosing the right pedagogical resources. Electronic media offer tremendous educational potential; figuring out how to make the genie serve us may take some time, but the learning will be well worth it.
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1 An earlier version of this article was published in Bass et al. (1998), pp. 99-114
2 Dr. Barbara C. Ewell is a professor of English and a co-director of the Women's Studies Center at Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at 6363 St. Charles Ave., New Orleans, LA 70118, USA. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Phone: (504) 865-2160, Fax: (504) 865-3883
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