- Civic Engagement, Cyberfeminism, and Online Learning:Activism and Service Learning in Women’s and Gender Studies Courses
Over the past fifteen years, both online education and civic engagement have experienced exponential growth in postsecondary settings. Many studies have addressed the ways in which feminist pedagogies can be successfully utilized in online learning environments, and the activist groundings of women’s and gender studies have positioned the interdisciplinary field as one of the most committed proponents of civic engagement through service-learning and activist projects (Balliet and Heffernan; Naples and Bojar; Orr). Recent scholarship has also expanded understanding of cyberfeminisms, and the ways in which increased access to and use of technologies has enhanced the reach, scope, and quality of feminist activism in virtual and real/face-to-face settings (Puotinen and Falcon; Schweitzer). In this article I will explore the intersections of civic engagement, online learning, and cyberfeminisms, drawing upon recommended practices and examples from my work teaching online women’s and gender studies courses. A review of literature and my own teaching experiences demonstrates that the social justice aims of civic engagement can readily be achieved within online courses, especially when utilizing feminist pedagogies.
Feminist Pedagogy Online
In Fall 2010, 6.1 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in a postsecondary institution, and “thirty-one percent of all higher education students now take at least one course online” (Allen and Seaman 4). I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman report that over 65 percent of chief academic officers believe that online education is “critical to their long-term strategy” (8) with private for-profits more invested in this strategy than public and private nonprofit institutions. Feminist teachers have found benefits and challenges with online teaching and learning, both for pedagogical and programmatic reasons. While one would hope that pedagogical desires would be most prominent, this is not always the case.
I admit that I offered my first online class in 2000 in part because the women’s studies program at my campus was relatively new, and by joining in on the pilot project for online courses I was being a good “team player” on campus. I was [End Page 233] also hoping to enhance student exposure to the course and program and envisioning this as an opportunity to expand enrollments. I also believed that an online course would expand my own and my students’ comfort with and use of computers (an area in which female faculty and students were known to trail males), would afford some students access to the course who couldn’t take it during the daytime hours it was normally offered, and could help me to incorporate emerging online feminist resources into my courses. Although I feared that economic class issues would prevent some students from taking the course, I hoped that I would be able to better serve student-parents, those who worked full time, and those who lived a distance from campus or didn’t have regular access to a car to get to campus. My hopes were realized, even if concerns remained about possible economic barriers to participation. I continue to teach online because there are programmatic benefits to participating, but primarily because a more diverse group of students is able to interact in more diverse ways as we utilize a variety of educational and social technologies to achieve course learning outcomes and students’ own developmental goals.
Kryn Freehling-Burton and Susan M. Shaw claim “going online with women’s studies can actually be a confirmation of feminist ideals, since access is increased for all women” (44), and my own experience validates this. I teach at California State University Stanislaus, an Hispanic-serving public institution with a large proportion of Pell Grant recipients and first-generation college students. Although a majority of our students are engaged in paid work and unpaid family responsibilities, my online students appear to work more hours, have more school-aged children, live more miles from campus, spend more hours per week caring for parents or other family members, and have more reported physical and learning disabilities than do my students in face-to-face courses. The ethnic diversity of my online courses...