Women, Information and Communication Technologies, and Lifelong Learning

Women, Information and Communication Technologies, and Lifelong Learning

Catherine J. Irving, Leona M. English
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-906-0.ch022
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This chapter arises from the authors’ research interests in gender and adult learning in the community, with a special focus on how gender is enacted in communities of practice such as nonprofit women’s organizations. These organizations play a key role in adult learning—nonformally through workshops and programs and informally through mentoring, collaboration, and information sharing. They also work informally and incidentally through advocacy work for social change to redress systemic gender-based discrimination. This chapter assesses how well the services and learning that happen in this context have evolved with the adoption of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) by women’s groups, in this case organizational websites. The authors place this discussion within the context of a small but growing literature examining the integration of ICTs within community development. In addition, we draw on feminist theoretical understandings and critiques of technology as it affects the lives of women. Although ICTs provide opportunities to further the cause of gender equality globally, inequalities persist to limit the realization of this potential.
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Those who work in the nonprofit sector acknowledge that much of the informal learning for women happens in and through community interactions. Through myriad organizations and nonprofit groups, women engage in mentoring, tutoring, and various forms of continuing education. Nonprofit feminist and other women’s organizations, ranging from craft guilds to charities, play a key role in community-based lifelong learning. For the purpose of this chapter, feminist organizations are broadly defined as those groups and agencies that typically have a political mandate to work for women’s rights and to change the inequalities that exist in civil society (Ferree & Martin, 1995). Feminist organizations provide structured and unstructured learning opportunities and share information on issues ranging from self-esteem and personal development to advocacy on structural injustices that perpetuate poverty and violence.

This chapter revisits the role of women’s organizations in community-based lifelong learning and examines the place of ICTs in the services and activities these groups engage in. The authors draw from a spectrum of current research to develop the intersection of nonprofit organizations, women’s learning, feminist theoretical contributions to the study of gender and technology, and community development, notably the recent contribution of community informatics to lay out an understanding of the use of ICTs specifically in communities.

Although definitions of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) vary, most refer broadly to the range of technologies created to facilitate communications and information sharing. Typically these technologies are computer-mediated forms such as the Internet, including email and the World Wide Web (popularly called the net or web). They also may refer to mobile phones, handheld computing devices, or even pre-computer technologies such as community radio (Hafkin & Huyer, 2006).

While learning occurs informally throughout a person’s life, it is rare to see a focus in the literature on informal learning through initiatives promoting ICT skill attainment (Faulkner & Lie, 2007). Most of the available literature that deals with the potential and usage of ICTs in education focuses on formal learning environments—classroom technology as a supplement face to face interactions, distance e-learning, instructional methods, performance assessment, course evaluations, and so on.

Nonprofit literature draws out the particularities of what makes nonprofits distinct from business in their use of ICTs and focuses on the issues that charitable—often volunteer-led—organizations face in adopting complex technologies as they fulfill their service mandates. Many feminist organizations now use ICTs to communicate to women, educate and lobby about relevant issues, provide information, and promote services and events. ICTs have the potential to be an integral part of this overall mandate of education and learning for women. Feminist analyses of technology have ranged from the utopian to dystopian. Proponents champion the opportunities ICTs can bring to women’s organizing potential, while critics highlight the inherent masculinist biases that serve to ensure the majority of women remain excluded, or at best, restricted to the “consumer-end” of new technologies. While this gendered analysis helps to uncover hidden biases, there is the concern that some critiques simply reinforce gender stereotypes, as writers such as Hayes and Flannery (2000) note in their studies on women and learning. This ambivalent relationship clearly affects the ways women’s groups take on ICTs in daily practice. Community informatics is useful in this context as it is an interdisciplinary field studying the practical application of ICTs at the community level. The focus of informatics is on multiple layers ranging from the technology itself (design, bandwidth), through the ability to use technology (training, access), to the underlying issues including the policy environment, and on through to funding. Community informatics strives for a critical understanding of the challenges and opportunities faced by the adoption or adaptation of ICTs to further the work of communities (Gurstein, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs): The range of technologies created to facilitate communications and information sharing. Typically computer-mediated forms such as the Internet, including email and the World Wide Web (popularly called the net or web), they also may refer to mobile phones, handheld computing devices, and earlier technologies such as community radio, particularly in the Global South.

Community Informatics: The ways in which information technology can be and is used within the field of community development.

Feminism: Any political movement to work to end the oppression of women. There is, however, no single definition of feminism as theories run the gamut from liberal feminism that emphasizes the need for equal opportunities for women within society, to radical feminism, influenced by Marxism which seeks an end or transformation of institutions and social structures that collude in the oppression of women.

Women and Learning: How women learn; it pursues epistemological questions of the particularities of women’s learning and of the pedagogical practices that might facilitate this. In this line of inquiry, there is a persistent tension between essentialising women as being all the same, and of negotiating or recognizing difference among women and between men and women.

Resource Centres: Provide information support for community development. They are seen to be more directly connected to the work of community development than other information centres such as libraries. Resource centres are often tied to a specific social movement such as those for the environment or women (see Adams, 2005).

Nonprofit Organizations: Exist in the social sector mainly and are usually geared to grassroots activity and to improving societal and economic conditions of the population.

Gender: A sociological term that refers to the ways in which men and women are socially conditioned to take on constructed male and female roles in society.

Lifelong Learning: An all encompassing term that refers to the spectrum of learning that we all engage in as human beings. Lifelong learning encompasses informal (everyday), nonformal (short courses and workshops) and formal (schooling and higher education) learning. UNESCO favors the term lifelong over adult education—in 2006 the name of UNESCO’s Institute for Education was changed to the Institute for Lifelong Learning, to reflect this shift in preference.

Community: A contested term since definitions of community vary with the speaker and the context. For the most part, in this chapter, at the term is used in the context of how geographically located community-based organizations function.

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