by Margaret Rozga
Reactions to distance education among the faculty at my own institution range from vociferous hostility to quieter willingness to give it a try. At recent Women's Studies meetings I have found a similar range of opinion. Some Women's Studies scholars express a conviction that distance education technologies are incompatible with feminist pedagogy. Others are already deeply engaged in various educational endeavors involving technology and thirst for feedback, for suggestions from others who can offer them additional strategies for making the technologies work. In this article I hope to address at least some of the concerns of those at either end of this spectrum of opinion. Further, I seek to provide the benefit of our experience and perhaps give heart to others considering a similar venture.
The Women's Studies program in the University of Wisconsin Colleges, a thirteen-campus, two-year transfer institution within the University of Wisconsin System, had long sought a way to insure that Women's Studies courses could be taught on all its campuses across the state. Most campuses occasionally offer at least one course, usually the one cross-listed by the home department of the faculty member most interested in Women's Studies. Only two campuses, however, had been able to offer Introduction to Women's Studies. At campuses with fewer than five hundred students, even faculty committed to Women's Studies had to assign first priority to courses enabling students to complete their general education requirements and transfer successfully, most often to other UW institutions.
Our opportunity arrived when the Colleges' pilot project in audiographics (a system of audio connections with shared writing/graphics capability) distance education technology was funded. Our goal was to draw on the combined expertise of faculty at various campuses to offer a team-taught course. We were not interested in an inferior version of an on-campus class. Each medium offers its own potential, and those of us with backgrounds in English thought in terms of the difference between film and theater. A film produced with a static camera would be a poor imitation of a theatrical experience. With audiographics, we would lose the face-to-face contact, but the technology would, for example, allow students from Marinette, Sheboygan, and Rice Lake to think through issues for women in business with Fond du Lac's business professor, to follow up with a Richland Center professor who had done case studies of Sauk County businesswomen, then to engage in mini-projects in their own communities and report back to each other, thus acquiring a state-wide view.
Workload issues complicated the planning. What compensation was available if four of five faculty all worked equally on the course? Another setback was the administration's decision that academic staff were not eligible for the training component of the audiographics pilot. Our first choice for lead instructor was a teaching academic staff member. Another choice was a person on tenure track, but we could not subject her to the risk of possible poor student evaluations due to technological problems. At this point we were being pressed for a commitment: did we want our course listed in the timetable?
This was one of those key decision points. If we didn't go ahead now, the possibility might never be realized. I volunteered to be lead instructor. With little time to solve the problem of compensation for others involved, I decided to ask them to cover no more than two fifty-minute class periods, a responsibility not beyond the kind of university service faculty members are generally expected to do as part of their workload. I made a list of faculty members I knew had already prepared presentations on topics relevant to the concepts covered in an introductory course. Fearful that if my requests were turned down by the first few people I asked, I would lose momentum, I emailed each of the fifteen people on the list one afternoon before leaving campus. When I returned two days later, I had fourteen affirmative replies! The other person said to keep her in mind for next time.
Clearly this group of faculty was enthusiastic. One even created a home page for the course. Their enthusiasm carried me through the work of preparing a syllabus, planning an all-day faculty team meeting, and applying for an internal grant to fund the meeting. The greatest payoff for me was the opportunity to see all of them in action, teaching, each in her/his own style, each developing some new variation on the basic audiographics techniques so that my own repertoire constantly expanded, each willing to engage in discussion with students beyond their presentations.
Another morale booster was student response. Our class filled on the second day of registration - actually, it overfilled. No campus realized each of the other seven offering the course were enrolling equally well. When our Central Administration caught the process, the class had already enrolled more than forty students, too many for our pilot. Fortunately, the Fox Valley campus found someone who could teach a traditional section on their campus. The distance education section then began the semester with twenty-nine students at seven sites across the state. Twenty-two finished the course. Our administration was impressed with the degree of interest in Women's Studies, beyond what any of us had anticipated.
Our next task was to engage our newly found audience in the work of the course day by day, week by week. Some days were obviously a disappointment to all involved. Most of these were days on which I lectured.
Audiographics is a computer-based medium of instruction that allows for sending data, graphs, pictures, and lists of points from one site to all the others. It is accompanied by telephone voice connection, so teacher and students can talk with one another, but do not see each other. Scanner, pens, and a keyboard allow for ongoing creation of text or visuals during a presentation, either by teacher, students, or both. It is as though everyone is around the board all at once better than at a single site with a real blackboard. It seemed to me at first that the system encouraged presentation of a list of points and a lecture elaborating on the list. I found that deadly, and so did the students. If they were not somehow more actively involved, if some response were not called for at least every five minutes and what was projected on their monitors changed even more frequently, students found it hard to keep focused.
One of my better class periods resulted from a comment made by another member of the faculty team during his presentation. He said that one reason women were devalued was their association with children, and that when men were associated with children a similar devaluing effect took place. I began the next class asking for examples of men associated with children, and students quickly began brainstorming. The pens were going on each campus, each picked up by another student as soon as it was set down. When we stopped, we had a full screen, with names ranging from Ronald McDonald to President Clinton to one of the students' dads. An intense forty-minute discussion ensued, which included the faculty member making the original statement, arguing over what each of the examples might mean and how to sum them up. Students really liked to hear faculty engage in discussion of the ideas with each other, especially, but not only, when one was pushing the other to clarify or defend a position. Picking up the pens and adding to the list hooked students into the class discussion. Reflecting on this class period, I also realized how important it is to focus the discussion. More unstructured questions tended to elicit one-word responses that went nowhere. Beginning with the list of students' own examples and building from there a more inductive approach encouraged almost everyone to contribute.
Some class sessions made use of a scanner, and this was the first time most students had used one. They liked the variety the images added to our repertoire of classroom strategies. Another effective strategy was use of small group discussion by site. Students at each site frequently caucused among themselves during the class, something I didn't realize until I visited a remote site while another member of the faculty team presented. Once we were aware of this phenomenon, we began to structure more caucusing into the class plan.
Another class used the pens in a different way. In a segment on images of women in literature, we read the poem "Night Wind Woman" by Joy Harjo. As we were discussing the images in the poem, I had a copy projected on the monitors. I picked up the blue pen and circled several images that develop as the speaker progresses from a sense of powerlessness to a feeling of greater power due to her identification with Night Wind Woman. When a student asked about the volcanic and fire imagery in the poem, she used the red pen to circle those terms she wanted to call our attention to. I felt a much greater sense that the students were taking possession of this poem, getting a handle on it, delving into it, than in regular classrooms where we each looked at our own copies and made our private annotations. In fact, the student who picked up on the fire imagery, as it turned out, was an art major who liked working in clay. I suggested that for a final project she might want to create a clay figure of Night Wind Woman. She jumped at the chance.
Students could choose to do a final project or take a final essay exam. They had this choice because they insisted on it. When I mentioned the final, one of the students said, "We don't want a final." Before I knew what happened, half the class joined her in arguing for the opportunity to do a final project rather than take an exam. I loved it. Given the nature of our course, with so many different voices and so few tests, I could understand that though they knew what kinds of issues Women's Studies is concerned with, they believed that knowing what to study would be difficult. The project offered them another option.
We are offering the course by distance education again during the 1997-98 academic year. Once again our course closed - in fact overenrolled - very early in the registration period. The faculty team are all eager to be involved again, and two additional faculty members asked to join the team. Furthermore, all agreed to a greater commitment to the course.
Among the modifications we're making to the course, we are requiring a final project from each student. We also learned that we have to insist on regular email communication and provide students with access to computers to fulfill that requirement. Thus I have asked that another computer be placed in the distance education room on each campus. Access to computers for email contact with me or with other students was a problem on some campuses, almost impossible on others. Without email or telephone communication, students with no one to answer their questions outside of class find the going tough and it is these students who end up dropping the class. Faculty team members on campuses that are sites for the course have also volunteered to attend the first sessions on their campus, so that students have a greater sense from the beginning of someone closer at hand who can be a resource.
The development of this distance education course has been good for our program. Since demonstrating the extent of interest in Women's Studies, we have been able to offer on-site sections of the course on two additional campuses. Several members of the faculty team have plans to develop other team-taught courses.
There were times during the semester when I wished I could push the machinery aside and face my students, times when I thought if we could just see each other, half our questions would be answered. What surprised me more than anything else was that the following semester, when teaching in a regular classroom, I found myself longing for a way to insert some focus for the students' attention other than me. I began to write much more at the board, to invent ways they would focus more on each other, to want them to think in visual terms and project their images for the rest of the class to see. Offering the Introduction to Women's Studies course in a team format by distance education was an experience that made me examine teaching in a new set of terms. In the long run I think my teaching both by distance education and in the campus classroom will be the richer for it.
[Margaret Rozga is Co-Chair of Women's Studies and Professor of English for the University of Wisconsin Colleges system. She is headquartered at UW-Waukesha and may be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org. She invites you to check out the Colleges' home page: http://rock.uwc.edu/uwcwmst/uwcwmst.htm ]
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Mounted January 14, 1998.