Hiding in plain sight – Feminist perspectives of distance learning

Sometimes you read a post that is so insightful that it shifts your entire way of thinking and seeing. I felt this way when I first read Cheryl Hodgkinson-Williams and Henry Trotter’s Social Justice Framework for open education and Sarah Lambert’s Social Justice Aligned Definition of Open Education . Both of these articles helped me push through some of the things I was struggling with in relation to open education, namely how do you talk about the relationship between language, power, and knowledge (and colonial consequences) in relation to the goodwill gestures of putting OER out into the world.

So when I interviewed this year for a bucket list job as a professor at one of Canada’s open and distance learning universities, I positioned myself as an open education person who was increasingly grounding my work in social justice and feminist perspectives. Of course, I began my career in distance education and completed a PhD in this area as well, and both were motivated by intensely personal reasons, having seen family members struggle with access to higher ed and subsequently find new life trajectories as a result of open and distance education. But when I was asked to answer a question in the interview about what trends, research in distance education that I was excited about, I drew a blank. I tried to explain that I was more on the open research side of things and of course named Cheryl, Henry and Sarah’s work, but yes, transactional distance, community of inquiry, etc. And then I said I didn’t really feel like there was any interesting new advancements in distance education.

I didn’t get the job, probably for a variety of reasons, but I’ve reflected many times on that interview. I’ve reflected on the fact that the interview panel of 6 only had 2 women on it, and only one of them was in a professor role. This was surprising to me given that this particular open university has a strong majority of female students. I’ve reflected on my fumbling and subsequent blunt honesty in response to the question but until today haven’t been able to articulate it.

Suzan Koseoglu has a wonderful post today of her transcript of a keynote she gave recently. In it she surfaces something that has been hiding in plain sight, namely, that feminist perspectives on ODL have always been there but really haven’t gotten the same air time as some of the more familiar research themes and frameworks that ODL research is known for. This raises questions about who we cite, and whose perspectives matter in the academic spheres and how those get amplified.

As a Masters or PhD student, when you’re producing work you think you’re becoming independent researcher, but in reality you are very much influenced by the practices of the community you are part of, your academic universe (this includes mentors, advisors, fellow students, people you come across in textbooks). 

Quote from Suzan Koseoglu https://differentreadings.com/2019/11/22/odl-and-feminism-looking-back-to-move-forward/

I, like Suzan, never encountered feminist perspectives of ODL in my graduate work, nor any feminist perspectives of higher ed for the matter. A few years ago I found myself reflecting on that…how is it possible to get a terminal degree in Education without ever reading anything with a feminist perspective?

Our work clearly showed us that gender inequality in education (including issues with access, educational experience, outcome, rewards) is a global problem, including in countries who score high on gender equality indexes

Quote from Suzan Koseoglu https://differentreadings.com/2019/11/22/odl-and-feminism-looking-back-to-move-forward/

When I worked as an instructional designer in online and distance education, I used to use an access test that I called “The Single Mom Test”. I would imagine a single parent, with one or two kids living in a precarious housing situation, juggling a precarious and inflexible job, childcare, and a desire to advance their career trajectory through higher ed. When I applied this test to MOOCs for example, MOOCs failed the test because it didn’t provide the official credits/higher ed currency that are required to advance in higher ed to subsequently get a better job. When I applied the test to synchronous web conferencing sessions, it didn’t allow the parent with an inflexible job/boss or childcare and homework to participate. At some point the affordances of the technologies overshadowed the student realities and I’ve struggled with this many times.

So I asked myself: how come, in all these years in my MEd and PhD education, I had never heard of  the “third shift” in online education? How come I  had never heard about the feminist critiques of “the beauty of online education,”  flexible learning, an ODL that is centered on content and efficiency? Feminist scholars were demanding collaborative and connected learning opportunities  to support women learners; they were demanding social justice. And this was in the 1980s. In the 1990s, early 2000. 

Quote from Suzan Koseoglu https://differentreadings.com/2019/11/22/odl-and-feminism-looking-back-to-move-forward/

I’m going to interpret Suzan’s post as an important call to action to be more mindful of what we are missing, who and what we are not paying attention to, and how we amplify these perspectives.

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