Getting “Girly” Online: The Case for Gendering Online Spaces

Getting “Girly” Online: The Case for Gendering Online Spaces

Jen Almjeld (James Madison University, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1718-4.ch006
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While MOOCs and other fully online educational spaces and tools continue to proliferate at institutions of higher education, some worry over a persistent gender gap in online learning (Paul, 2014; Straumsheim, 2013). As debate continues regarding the existence of a digital gender divide, the perception of the gap may be enough to give female learners the idea that digital learning spaces are not for them. Females particularly may be silenced in MOOCs and other online spaces not by instructors or fellow learners, but by cultural expectations. I offer here reflections on two fully online girlhood studies courses interrogating notions of gender performance, norms, and scripts as successful models for positioning gender disparity as a teaching tool rather than a barrier to learning. The piece ends with six recommendations—most rooted in feminist pedagogy—for making MOOCs more welcoming to all genders and learners.
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MOOCs, like so many of the technological tools that have come before, are enjoying unprecedented popularity. By the end of 2015, more than 550 universities were offering MOOC courses and an estimated 35 million students had signed up for at least one class (Shah, 2015). But along with this massive popularity comes fear, distrust, and dismissal from educators and students alike. Lauded by many as inexpensive means to educate the masses and to erase barriers between the ivory towers of the educational elites and the general population, still others fear MOOCs are inferior in rigor and retention to traditional courses and worse still may be considered educational tools for “colonization” designed from the creator’s rather than from the learner’s perspective (Barlow, 2014). Like home computers, the Internet, and online education before, MOOCs hold promise as a great equalizer in education. Reflecting on his first encounter with MOOCs in the course CCK08: Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, considered by many the MOOC that started it all in MOOC education, Charles Lowe (2014) recalls “It seemed to me a fascinating experiment in online learning that continued a rich tradition of experimentation by educational technology innovators interested in seeing the ways in which the tools of the Internet and electronic discourse could provide alternative – or even better – methods for learning” (p. ix). MOOCs, and their digital and networked educational predecessors, promise limitless access to learning for all, a breaking down of hierarchies, and an end to discrimination of all sorts. While some of these goals were partially reached, each technology also failed to realize its utopian promise. This chapter considers ways MOOCs specifically fall short of goals for universal access to education and instead appear to perpetuate the much-debated digital gender divide persisting in online spaces. Teacher-research suggests that encouraging discussions about gender and other markers of difference in online spaces may be a key strategy for teaching critical thinking and cultural awareness, and I suggest that gendering MOOCs may also be a strategy for closing the gender gap. I offer here reflections on two fully online girlhood studies courses interrogating notions of gender performance, norms, and scripts as successful models for positioning gender disparity as a teaching tool rather than a barrier to learning. This model may provide insight on ways to invite more female teachers and students to populate MOOCs.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Gender Gap: Discussion of a digital gender gap dates back to late the 1990s and the popularity of personal computers and then Internet capabilities. The existence of such a gap has been debated almost since it was suggested that it existed, but many believe that women have less access and are differently empowered when it comes to certain technologies and particularly as they are positioned as consumers rather than producers of technologies.

DOCC: A Distributed Open Collaborative Course is a feminist retooling of the popular MOOC genre for online learning. This alternative genre was adapted by the TechFemNet group and supports decentralized and collaborative learning and the understanding that expertise is distributed through networks and among participants.

Otherness: Defined literally as the quality of being different, otherness frequently refers to minority identities seen as outside of cultural norms. Western heteronormativity often designates certain identity markers including gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexuality, and abledness as markers of difference.

Praxis: Praxis is the blending of theory and practice and can also be understood as the process by which theory is embodied and enacted. For education, praxis is theoretically grounded actions evidenced in learning environments of all types.

Feminist Pedagogy: Feminist pedagogy is concerned with challenging traditional power hierarchies in the classroom, making space for the voices of the marginalized, honoring students’ expertise and voices and de-centralizing learning and knowledge creation, among other goals.

xMOOC: Based on traditional university courses, xMOOCs are intended to offer higher education opportunities to more students, but are often criticized for being less rigorous and inferior to face-to-face courses in regards to student-teacher interactions.

cMOOC: The “c” in cMOOC signifies “connectivist” and such digital spaces support a group of co-learners creating meaning together rather than being lead by a teacher or centralized leader.

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