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Volume 10, Number 5: April 2004

Women's Studies, Student Learning, and Technology
How Online Teaching Can Complement Feminist Pedagogy

by Helen Klebesadel,
UW System Women's Studies Consortium
with Tammy Kempfert,
Teaching with Technology Today


When the UW System Women's Studies Consortium and the UW-Madison Women's Studies Program received funds for creating a statewide workshop on feminist pedagogy and technology, a fundamental organizing principle emerged. First and foremost, organizers sought to plan an event that placed pedagogy at the forefront. What would happen, they asked, if feminist pedagogy drove the use of technology, and not the reverse? The culminating mouthful, "Incorporating Hybrid Web-Enhanced Course Development into Women's Studies Pedagogy," which took place in Madison in January, challenged participants to do just that. By sharing the expertise of nationally and locally admired feminist teachers, experimenting with the technologies our administrators promote, and making student learning the priority, participants came away with some new skills and some new ideas for thoughtfully integrating technology into their courses.

Pre-Workshop Exercise: Trying out the Technology

One of the objectives of the workshop was to give women's studies faculty, some of whom had no prior experience with course management systems, the opportunity to test and evaluate various technologies. For this purpose, an online course environment was established in Desire2Learn, which is the common e-learning system for University of Wisconsin schools. Beyond learning to use D2L, navigating the online course helped participants assess whether or not this tool fit with the feminist pedagogical goal of effectively engaging students in their learning process.

Two pre-workshop readings served as a starting point for the online experience. The first article, "What is Feminist Pedagogy?" by Carolyn Shrewsbury, calls for "a participatory, democratic process in which at least some power is shared." Feminist pedagogy, Shrewsbury writes, must give students agency, involving them in their own learning rather than merely transmitting knowledge to them. To accomplish this, she urges teachers to use a mixture of pedagogical methods, such as:

  • Encouraging students' self-reflection to emphasize the relationship between course content and their lives;
  • Facilitating collaboration to enhance students' knowledge;
  • Breaking down prejudicial barriers; and
  • Engaging classes to their communities to effect social change.

Pamela Whitehouse, one of the invited presenters, authored the second pre-workshop reading, "Women's Studies Online: An Oxymoron?" which articulates many of the organizing themes of the workshop. The article compares the benefits and shortcomings of both face-to-face and distance education courses, taught from a feminist pedagogical perspective and designed to enhance student engagement. Whitehouse's research findings indicate that, from a student learning perspective, using distributed methods that draw on the best of both approaches obtains results that are better than either approach used alone.

Having read the materials, workshop participants were invited to take part in an online learning community to discuss them. UW-Barron County's Nancy Chick, Assistant Professor of English, hosted a vigorous discussion in the password-protected Desire2Learn environment. Modeled after the online courses Chick teaches, the pre-workshop activity allowed participants not only to experience the technology as their students would, but to see how a veteran of online teaching crafts a course website that builds community and facilitates active learning. Participants emerged from this discussion with some context for the face-to-face workshop--and with some new friends.

The Workshop: Meeting up in Madison

The three-day face-to-face workshop opened with presentations by Pamela Whitehouse, Principal Researcher, Technology Specialist, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Susan Ressler, Professor of Art and Design, Purdue University, who together articulated the philosophical umbrella for the event. Whitehouse shared her research on student learning, professional development, and technology. She encouraged participants to reflect on their own online teaching and learning practices, particularly thinking about what might be gained and lost in distributed learning environments. Ressler, an artist and art historian, discussed the development of her web site Women Artists of the American West: Past and Present, which serves as a fine example of an internet course and interdisciplinary resource featuring the vital contributions women have made to the art and history of the American West. Her book of the same name was published in 2003, and resulted from the work she did to develop the course. Besides treating participants to a personal tour of her website, Ressler also described her efforts at integrating feminist pedagogy online and at creating successful learning communities.

Both speakers reappeared--together and separately, as presenters and participants--throughout the workshop. They encouraged participants to examine the political and practical issues surrounding digital technologies. While web-based forums (both synchronous and asynchronous) seem amenable to feminist pedagogy, critics argue that a "hidden curriculum" exists in online learning, one that reinforces gender, class, and racial stereotypes. According to some scholars, the computer science field has remained a "men's club" where women have been conspicuously absent as architects and designers. Both Whitehouse and Ressler believe that if women's perspectives--along with other under-represented perspectives--are to influence the field, feminist teachers need to encourage their students to engage in emerging technologies.

Post-Workshop Goals: Reflection, Action, and Dissemination

Workshop evaluations were strongly positive and urged that the discussions surrounding the issues raised there continue. In particular, participants wanted more hands-on faculty development opportunities enabling them to adapt specific courses to hybrid models where such models appropriately further larger course pedagogical goals. A number of faculty say they have already integrated concepts and strategies learned through the workshop; others are adapting courses for next year.

Several collaborations resulted from this experience--notably, approval for the creation of a UW Colleges women and science course with hybrid components. Two of the workshop attendees from the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County--Nilhan Gunasekera, Assistant Professor of Physics, and Holly Hassel, Assistant Professor of English--have been selected to be one of the national teams at the UW System Women and Science Summer Institute in June. There they will focus on developing an effective pedagogical structure for their course to make it more accessible to students who are historically under-represented in the sciences. UW-Colleges faculty who attended the workshop are exploring a similar course, using hybrid methods, and focusing on women in the visual arts. As well, women's studies programs from several campuses are now exploring the possibility of using hybrid and distance education technologies to collaborate on inter-institutional courses and programs.

Due to the success of this effort, the Women's Studies Consortium will strive to maintain the learning community that emerged from the workshop. The online course will remain active through the semester, so that participants can continue their discussions and have access to the resources for reporting purposes. Likewise, the Consortium will continue to encourage discussions about how to introduce technologies in critically appropriate ways, guided by learning objectives, as well as to seek ways to support faculty development opportunities to that end.

Packed as it was with presentations and discussions of feminist strategies for using distributed learning approaches to interdisciplinary women's studies courses and issues, the complete workshop agenda can be found online at the Women's Studies Consortium website. In this special women's studies issue of Teaching with Technology Today, readers are encouraged to examine related articles that originated with the workshop:

  • TTT is pleased to have permission to post Pamela Whitehouse's article, "Women's Studies Online: An Oxymoron?" this month in our Teaching Scholars Forum.
  • Nerissa Nelson, UW-Steven's Point Librarian, contributes a summary of her session on information literacy titled "Integrating Information Literacy in the Hybrid Environment." As a direct result of Nelson's presentation, faculty around UW System have already begun incorporating information literacy into existing women's studies courses. As well, Nelson is preparing a more detailed version of her presentation for the journal Feminist Teacher.
  • Tammy Kempfert outlines Nancy Chick's suggestions for hosting effective online discussions. Besides hosting the pre-workshop Desire2Learn forum, Chick held a session at the Madison meeting that explained her strategies in greater depth and offered some tips gleaned from her extensive experience with online teaching.
  • Marilyn Lombardi of UW-Madison's Division of Information Technology discussed existing technologies, as well as introducing some technologies under development as a result of multi-institutional efforts. She recaps her sessions in "Croquet, Anyone? Designing a more Responsive Online Learning Environment."

The Women's Studies Consortium and the UW Madison Women's Studies Program would like to thank UW System's Office of Learning and Information Technology for supporting this program through its Curricular Redesign Grant Program.