by Debra Gold Hansen and Sheri D. Irvin (from FEMINIST COLLECTIONS vol. 17, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 13-15)

"I refuse to take any interactive video courses."
"If I had known that so many classes were video ones I never
would have come to this school."
"I hate being on camera; I'm afraid of sounding stupid."
"They're just doing this to save money so they won't have to hire more teachers."

After a century of feminization, librarianship is being revolutionized by information technology. The profession's educators are incorporating technology into many aspects of the curriculum, by offering courses about the Internet, advising students by e-mail, and teaching interactive-video classes. However, just as female workers often discover that technology undermines their careers, women students voice concerns that technology negatively affects them. Students feel under siege, see their personal and professional values disregarded, and fear displacement by technology's encroaching masculinization.1 As a professor (Debra) and student (Sheri) in San José State University's statewide School of Library and Information Science (SLIS), we have experienced education's technologizing firsthand. In this essay, we will draw from our experience with interactive video courses to explore how technology- driven education is affecting women faculty and students.2

Faculty Perspective

Because the majority of my students are female,3 I worry that women's communication styles hinder them in their academic and professional careers. Research reveals that women often experience difficulty in asserting authority, expressing themselves in public, engaging in aggressive debate, or having ideas credited.4 To address these issues, I have adopted a teaching style that works with women's socialization (i.e., supportive and collaborative rather than authoritarian and hierarchical)5 to instill needed confidence as students embark on their careers.

When approached to teach an interactive video class, 6 I reluctantly agreed. My fears fell into three general categories: technology, teaching style, and interpersonal relations. Technology was my immediate concern. Would the cameras, microphones, and monitors unnerve me? Would I be expected to deal with technical problems? Could my collaborative, nonhierarchical instructional mode be transferred to another medium? Since I would be dealing with different audiences (live and telecast), could I be a teacher and media personality simultaneously? Considering American popular media images, would a middle-aged, overweight, bespectacled woman be accorded the respect and authority a professor requires? Finally, could I establish any relationship with students viewed only on a TV monitor, would their educational experience be compromised, and did I want to be party to it?

Having taught two interactive-video courses, I can reflect on the legitimacy of my fears and some implications of video courses for women. Surprisingly, technology proved the least troublesome. Poor sound quality, transmission interruptions, and distracting camera shots were somewhat disruptive, but most were merely amusing, and the technology proved not as intrusive as anticipated, thanks to the strategic setup of the studio. "Real- time" interaction allowed immediate response to distant students' questions. Cameras and microphones were positioned to minimize their distraction, while a large monitor placed among the desks put both classes within my field of vision. In short, the classroom was arranged in as traditional a format as possible, and the technology was simply part of the landscape.

The microphones proved most intrusive. Students, especially at the distant site, had to be assertive to make their questions heard. Male students appeared more comfortable with this arrangement and became the primary discussants. Many women refused to use the microphone, to have their voices broadcast or their ideas recorded on videotape. As a result, traditional female reticence silenced many women. Happily, female mutual support soon reappeared, as the less inhibited students assisted shyer peers by interrupting me to indicate that another had a question.7

My teaching style was affected by the television format. In a seminar class, I sadly discovered how difficult it was to keep a discussion going. Increasingly I filled class sessions with lectures, videos, and guest speakers, capitulating to student fears. My next video class, I determined, would be a lecture course. This second class succeeded, but each session was a performance, involving elaborate preparation, careful timing, and visual aids. I'm painfully aware of how quickly, when challenged, I abandoned my feminist interactive teaching style and reverted to a traditional, hierarchical pedagogical mode. I remain most concerned about distant students' isolation and the difficulty of breaking down barriers between the two campuses, particularly when something as simple as learning students' names becomes a challenge. 8 To encourage social interaction between classes, I kept microphones "live" during class timeouts, but the microphones broadcast students' private conversations and my private student advising as well. After observing students congregate in the restroom for private conversation, I turned the microphones off. So much for recreating the ambiance of the traditional classroom and breaking down intercampus barriers!

The most effective means of forging ties with remote students proved to be travel to the distant site. First, I arranged personal meetings with students to learn something of their backgrounds and ambitions and advise them about assignments. This was very instructive, for I discovered that students' in- person and video personalities differ. In one instance, a student disability had not been revealed by the television monitor. The students, too, can see the teacher as other than a media figure. As one exclaimed, "So you're not really purple!"

Conducting class from the remote site sensitized me to distant students' experience, particularly their problems and discontents, and also reversed the power dynamics between the "classes." Despite promotional rhetoric regarding the efficacy of video teaching, there are, in reality, two separate classes, with different personalities, and the instructor can discern the push and pull between groupsÄlike competing siblings. When class is taught from the remote site, the distant students are empowered, dominate the discussion, and make local circumstances the center of attention. The home site becomes passive, reluctant to discuss, even a bit jealous. Indeed, one student commented that she felt deprived when I taught from the other site; she was not sure she would have liked the class had the sites been reversed. Her distant peers agreed. In effect, all were saying they preferred the traditional classroom and personal contact with the instructor.

Student's Perspective

Students' responses to educational technology reflect not only their expectations but society's ambivalent expressions about where technology is taking us. Certainly my classmates and I were aware that the use of interactive technology in our classes was consistent with larger socioeconomic trends, but we still questioned how it would directly benefit our education.

I have participated in three interactive video classes and witnessed the reactions of other women students. Most were not comfortable with distance education and expressed some specific, sometimes passionate, opinions. Many felt that communication between distant students and instructor was awkward, dependant as it was on interactive video and e-mail. They worried over technical and equipment problems, such as using microphones and being televised when speaking in class.

Part of distance education's lack of appeal has less to do with the technology per se, and more with students' perceptions of how class should be conducted. Wedded to the traditional classroom learning environment, students expect that interactions with the instructor should be face-to-face in a discrete space of four walls. Students feared that technology would impersonalize communications and displace their relationship with the professor.

Student interaction also proved problematic. For example, in one class the distant students effectively argued with the teacher to change the class syllabus because of their access to special computer equipment. We campus students thought the distant students demanding and rude, the distant students thought we were "not with it." Supposedly we were taking the same class, albeit eight-hundred miles apart. Were we not supposed to be having the same experiences?

That situation also illustrates what researchers have observed: that although distant students interact with the teacher less than do the campus students, they interact with each other more.9 Students at the campus end seemed to have a less developed group identity and were more emotionally invested in maintaining the status quo. This suggests that the traditional classroom structure may actually foster more passive student behavior, while the distant education model may encourage students to be more active participants in learning.

What I understand now is how dynamic interactive video classes can be. Each classroom develops its own social structure or group dynamics, based primarily on location. So, not only does individual interaction occur (via video and e-mail), there is a group sensibility that influences interaction as well. The implications for regional, national, and even international exchanges of ideas are potent. This is one of the most exciting aspects of interactive technology and could be serviceable in communicating significant women's issues.


Preliminary research has shown that interactive video classes do not interfere with learning, that students at both sites have the same rates of academic achievement. However, one should differentiate between the learning experience and what is learned. Students at both sites can demonstrate the abstract or technical knowledge learned in class, but are they gaining the experience and confidence to apply that knowledge in a professional setting? This is a crucial issue that has yet to be fully considered.

Despite lingering reservations, we believe that through mindful classroom design and lively interaction, video courses can be positive for women. True, interactive technology is changing communication channels and forcing new forms of expression. Yet compared to the traditional, male-defined classroom -- where instruction is teacher-centered, hierarchical, and noncollaborative -- the prospects for productive collaboration between students and faculty are very promising. If within this interactive context new educational partnerships can be forged, feminist pedagogy just may survive.

[Debra Gold Hansen is associate director of the San José State University School of Librariay and Information Science (Southern California Campus). She has her Ph.D. in women's history from the University of California, Irvine, and recently published Strained Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society (1993). She is currently working on a new manuscript tentatively titled Shelf Lives: Women Librarians and the Pursuit of Professionalism. Sheri D. Irvin is completing her MLIS at San Jose; State University School of Library and Information Science (Southern California Campus). She has her B.A. in English Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was employed for eight years as head of circulation and reserves at Honnold- Mudd Library, Claremont Colleges, California. She recently served on the California Library Association's "Future of the Library Profession" task force.]


1 Ruth Perry and Lisa Greber, "Women and Computers: An Introduction," Signs v.16, no.1 (Autumn 1990), pp.74-101. For an assessment of technology's impact on women librarians, see Roma Harris, Librarianship: The Erosion of a Woman's Profession (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1992).
2 In this paper, we will use "distance education" and "interactive video courses" interchangeably, although interactive video courses are a small subset of the entire range of distance-education options.
3 Despite the computerization of many library functions during the last two decades, recent statistics on graduates show that women continue to comprise eighty percent of the library profession. See Fay Zipkowitz, "LJ Career Survey: Placements and Salaries," Library Journal (October 15, 1994), p.29.
4 The standard work on the topic is Mary Belenky et al., Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986). Deborah Tannen's works on this topic have relevance here. See, in particular, Talking From 9 to 5 (New York: Morrow, 1994).
5 For a recent overview of this feminist approach to teaching, see Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, The Feminist Classroom (New York: Basic Books, 1994).
6 This was a course I developed on "Women in Librarianship" covering the origins, consequences, and current status of the profession's feminization. It seemed fitting that this class, which discusses the impact of technology on women librarians, should be among the first courses to be taught in the interactive mode.
7 Other studies have documented that distant students turn to peer collaboration in the absence of an on-site instructor. See Kathleen J.M. Haynes and Connie Dillon, "Distance Education: Learning Outcomes, Interaction, and Attitudes," Journal of Education for Library and Information Science v.33, no.1 (Winter 1992), p.43.
8 For a thought-provoking discussion of women's isolation within distance education, see Terry Evans and Margaret Grace, "Distance Education as the Gendered Privatization of Women," Journal of Curriculum Studies v.27, no.3 (1995), pp.299-315.
9 Haynes and Dillon, "Distance Education," p.43.

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Updated May 17, 1996