ODL and Feminism: Looking Back to Move Forward

Koseoglu, S. (Nov, 2019). ODL and Feminism: Looking Back to Move Forward. Invited talk at C&I, University of Minnesota.

Today, I’m going to talk about Open and Distance Education (ODL), feminism, history, and the social construction of knowledge in academic communities. 

Thanks to my colleague Jennifer Englund, I recently came across a great post by Vivien Rolfe, written as a response to a panel prompt for #OpenEd19. 

Screenshot 2019-11-01 at 10.54.38 AM

In this post, Vivien Rolfe explores “the question of how open is evolving, and who is evolving it.” This question struck me because my recent research is very relevant to Vivien’s work, and I’d like you to see my talk as a response to her questions. Because I increasingly question how the narratives on open and distance education have evolved, and who have evolved them. 

What is it that we know about Open and Distance Education, how do we know it? What are some structures that limit the ways in which we reach knowledge and we understand and critique that knowledge? Who is at the center of research and practice, who is not? Why is this important? 

I’d like to talk about how I got here, to the point where I started asking these questions. It all started with a research project I did with Aras Bozkurt from Anadolu University and Jeffrey Keefer from the University of New York. Last year in OER19, which is the biggest annual conference on open education in the UK,  we presented a found poem based on women students’ experiences in a mega giga university in Turkey. It is mega because the university has over 3 million students enrolled in on-campus and completely online programs. 

Bozkurt, A, Koseoglu, S., & Keefer, J. (April, 2019). My Story: A Found Poem Reflecting the Voice of Women Studying in Open Education Programs in Turkey. Presented at OER19, Dublin Ireland.
Anadolu University is a giga university with over 3 million students. State school. Low cost, low(er) barriers to entry.

Here is a description of the project: 

Our work builds on the project My Story (Bozkurt & Büyük, 2018), which explored the experiences of students enrolled in Anadolu University Open Education Faculty programs. In the project, students were asked to share their stories leading to open and distance learning (ODL) via an online survey asking: What is your story leading to open and distance education?  2700 stories were collected from students studying in higher education programs from a distance. Out of these stories, 70 stories that could inspire other students were curated in an edited book (2018). … In this work, we highlight the voices of 16 women in the edited book using found poetry (Patrick, 2016; Prendergast, 2006) as a methodological and pedagogical tool. The approach is useful to show common threads in the narratives, in particular, the oppression of women in traditional and patriarchal communities.

I’ll play the poem first and then if you have any questions about the research background and methodology please ask.

The found poem represents 10 themes: 

  • the oppression of women in traditional and patriarchal communities;
  • women’s never-ending fight for education;
  • their strong desire for equal opportunity; 
  • dedication to study amongst childcare, housekeeping and other domestic duties;
  • experiencing a break from mainstream education due to external pressures/power structures;
  • socio-economic conditions leading to drop out; 
  • feelings of confinement, hopelessness; 
  • dedication to study in the face of economic struggles; 
  • commitment to learning; 
  • reaching the goal, success. 

This poem, although ends on a happy note,  is a sad poem. It shows the many struggles women experience prior to and during their education. For us, the researchers, perhaps the most striking part of it all is that we could clearly see that women knew that they were oppressed. Open and distance learning, for them, was a path for empowerment.  Remember, the narratives we looked at were curated in a book edited by the Anadolu University and these narratives were in the book because they were inspirational accounts of practice. The responses that were chosen reflected strong, dedicated women, who committed themselves to their education and who succeeded in the end. But reading some of these stories were hard (both for me and Aras). It reminded me of many struggles, situations, circumstances, things I have witnessed and experienced. Sharing these stories on an international platform like OER19 was important for me,  for both professional and personal reasons. 

The study was received positively and led me to another study with a group of colleagues from Turkey (Tugba Ozturk, Hasan Ucar, Engin Karahan and Aras Bozkurt). We wanted to understand the situation in other countries, on a global scale.  How was gender inequality studied in relation to ODL? It would be fair to say that we didn’t know much at that stage. And we wanted to combine this line of research with women empowerment, agency, existential inequality, social justice. The result was a literature review on how gender inequality is studied in publications on ODL. This was an ambitious task, and we worked hard! Finally, after almost a year we started, the manuscript is complete and currently under review.

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 (see for example Gender Inequality Index), especially if we think intersectionally (thinking about different but intersecting factors that might disadvantage women, such as class, age, ethnic background, sexual orientation, family circumstances, etc.).

For example: 

In Germany: “geography and isolation,” “lack of mobility due to physical disability or private circumstances,” and “social barriers, such as exclusion from education on the grounds of class or ethnicity, gender or age” as some common barriers to women’s access to traditional education” (Von Prümmer, 2015, p. 32). 

In the UK: “Deep structures, including poverty and class and gender inequalities, shape the lives of families and individuals in ways that are not easily changed by educational intervention” (Barker & Hoskins, 2016, p. 73).

In Finland, Iceland and Sweden: Factors like class and gender have an adverse effect on students’ academic progression and career paths (Nylund et al. 2018). 

In this study, just like how Vivien Rolfe explored “the open education published literature to look at how critical we were as a field of study,” we looked at the ODL literature to see how gender inequality was studied (we used Therborn’s inequality framework as a conceptual framework). The articles we reviewed were striking because we could clearly see that from Canada to India to Papua New Guinea, women had major barriers to education. I felt strongly connected to the studies, as a woman, and as a human being. 

Some of the studies we reviewed were also striking because, again just like in Vivien’s experience, we came across historic works from the late 1980’s, none of which I had heard about before. 

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. 

Just to give you some examples of these early critiques of ODL: 

[Women] serve a first shift at work outside the home and a second shift as primary caretakers of family members. The only way they can accomplish a third shift–their education–is to fit it in when and where they can. … While DL allows women to squeeze in their studies around the seemingly immovable barriers of family and work life, this evades any general social discussion of how time and responsibilities, both in the workforce and the home, might be reconfigured to make fulfillment of educational goals a more humane and less taxing process. Instead, women make individual compromises and choices–as family members, workers, and students– to fit all of these activities into short days. While an insomniac lauds late-night studying as ‘“the beauty of online education,’” other women accustomed to more regular hours report that the third shift of education cuts into their already-scarce hours of leisure or sleep time (Kramarae, 2001, p. 16-19).

…in the transformation of education toward more egalitarian models,  it is essential to make authentically visible any group which has been heretofore  ignored, distorted and/or vilified. For example, students must find themselves accurately represented in course materials. It is relatedly essential that gender inclusive language be the norm (Faith, 1987, p. 75).  

ODL should provide social connectedness and opportunities for networking (von Prümmer & Rosie 1988).

The persisting androcentrism, which … sets the male experience as the norm to which women have to adapt, limits the benefits which women can derive from the educational opportunities offered through open and distance learning (von Prümmer, 1994). 

These were the kinds of things that feminists scholars in the 80s and 90s talked about, and perhaps earlier, and I hadn’t come across any of those. This is shocking. Now I know that there are many studies talking about gender issues in open and distance learning and many scholars theorizing, offering practical solutions to address these inequalities over the years. Yet you don’t get to hear about them. You hear about the “transactional distance,”  but not the “third shift” (search for both on Wikipedia). You hear about self-directed learning, but not about connected learning experiences, as these feminist scholars understood in the 90’s.

I voice my reaction in my most recent work: 

What kinds of transformation is needed in today’s higher education to address gender inequality? From a feminist perspective, this is not a new or original question. As I presented here, feminist scholars in the late 1980’s  and early 1990’s identified many issues with women’s education and provided important theoretical and practical solutions in response to those issues. Yet, this humane approach that puts women’s lived experience, their struggles, aspirations, emotions, and needs into the center of educational theory and debate, unfortunately has not become mainstream. What has clearly become mainstream during the two decades after Kramarae’s observation of third space, is massification, neo-liberalism, the emergence of educational technology and platforms as a profitable market in education.

Again, how come, in all these years in my MEd and PhD education, I never heard of  such critiques? Maybe I did hear some, but then how is it possible that I forgot about these?

In response, Vivien says, 

“As an open education community – or any research community – the poor searching and citing of the literature is one of several factors behind the creation of inequalities in knowledge production … We tend to cite others we know and from their locality.”

Going beyond the process of searching and citing literature, the structure of academic scholarship has also a great influence on the work we do.  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).

The following is from Pat Thompson’s blog, on academic universes:

Stephen Pinker argues that academics live in two universes – one is the world of the thing that they study– and the other is the world of their profession: getting articles published, going to conferences, keeping up with the trends and gossip. Pinker says that most of a researcher’s waking hours are spent in the second world and it’s easy for him (sic) to confuse the two. (p 40-41) … Instead of writing directly on their topic, he says, they discuss the workings and interests of what he calls their ‘guild’ – other researchers and their obsessions. … While there is a case for writing for graduate students or insiders in a disciplinary community, Pinker argues, a lot of academics actually aim to make a difference in the world but write in a self-serving way. The work is inward-looking, rather than looking out to the world which it hopes to influence. It constructs a kind of echo-chamber which is alienating to potential readers who are interested in the substantive topic, not the state and scope of the literatures. It looks in the rear vision mirror, so to speak.

So sometimes you write because you want validation from the scholarly community, and, without realizing, you write for other academics and ignore or forget the real world. Of course an academic community could be a marginalized community, but this is unlikely in Educational Technology in general. Often what we see is that ed tech communities are male dominated and they tend to ignore, overlook or simplify marginalized perspectives,  one of which is feminism in open and distance learning (this is often a structural problem, not intentional).  It also doesn’t help when feminism is reduced to gender differences, when it is not intersectional. 

A related issue I think, we tend to separate the professional and the personal and don’t see how they can inform one another.  We need a re-imagining of education, a sociological imagination (this is by C. Wright Mills) in education, more than a psychological structuring of education based on rigid principles and methods*. 

Mills argued that sociologists should be able to connect the personal experience with the wider society. The personal, lived, historical experience should inform sociological theory and social transformation. Just like that, we need to look at scholarship from a more empathetic, personal and reflective place to inform the field. This place doesn’t have to be a place of struggle or pain. It can be a place of happiness too! And that way we can better understand deep and unresolved problems around gender,  race, ethnicity, abilities, etc., and challenge some common narratives. The moment where I connected with women’s experiences in my work with Aras and Jeffrey, that was a transformative moment. I was truly connected to the stories, their stories, and looked at my own life in a way I had never done before. 



Going forward, especially for those who are studying open and online learning (or ed tech), I have three suggestions: 

  • We should recognize and question ontological assumptions in any program of study: What is there to be known? What are its limitations, its boundaries? What is available to you? What is hidden, ignored? For example, check the index section in any history book on ODL or ed tech: how do they include feminism, gender or any related key concepts? How are feminist views represented, to what extent?
  • We should recognize and question epistemological assumptions in any program of study: the ways in which  knowledge is constructed. How do you construct knowledge, how are you expected to construct knowledge? For example, which methods/methodology is your adviser suggesting for you to use in your research study? Why? Who can you reach with that method? Who do you exclude? Or if you are going to the same conference every year, maybe try a new one with different people.
  • We should be able to connect the personal with the professional, direct experience with issues in wider society. We should recognize and listen to our voices, inquire into how we or people we know have been disadvantaged, or advantaged, by our/their gender, race, ethnic origin, abilities, age, family situations, class. I believe the scholarly inquiry is more powerful when it is personal at the same time. When it is emotional. Because our personal troubles are situated in a particular history of time, in a particular socio-cultural context, and thus are shared experiences.

Thank you!

*Re-sociological imagination in education: I’m not the first one to say this and won’t be the last for sure! There is a lot written on this and I’m just beginning to explore them. Connecting personal troubles with wider issues in society doesn’t mean you are self-centred in your professional work. You use these experiences to make sense of theoretical frameworks, to better understand the world around you. This I learned from Dr Anna Carlile from Goldsmiths, University of London. 

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