Digital Feminism: Reaching Women Through Web-Based Courses

by Melissa Alsgaard

"I wanted to let you know that I enjoyed the Online discussion because it took away twenty-five pairs of eyes watching as I stutter out my point while trying not to lose track of the argument." (excerpted student's response to the first Chat Class)

"This is my first class in almost fourteen years. I am recently divorced, raising my daughter, and working. Do you have any pointers to help me succeed?" (excerpted introduction email from student in Online Section)

Online courses and Web-enhanced live courses work; they reach people who need to be reached. Both types of courses offer students numerous benefits, including flexibility, increased access to the material, several within these two particular groups of students - both nontraditional and traditional students - are my target audience for online and Web-enhanced live courses.

In 1998 when I began shifting to evening classes, I also began making use of the Internet as a complement to my live class meetings. In January of 1998, I posted the syllabi online and added discussion forums and chat room sessions. The next semester I started adding hyperlinks to articles, e-texts, and reference sites as additional resources. By the Spring 1999 Semester, I had everything except lectures notes online for four separate courses. I was holding chat room discussion periods, and using a forum discussion extensively.

In both my online and live courses, the syllabi are now online. The readings are mostly available as e-texts, but I order hard copies for the students who prefer to have a bound copy of the readings. There are two separate options for discussion - the discussion forum and the chat room. The forum is not dependent upon time; students can sit down whenever it is convenient and post their replies and queries. The second option, chat, is in real time. We have two to four sign-up times and students select the time most convenient for them. Then we all sign on and "chat" together. Online resources - databases, articles, and relevant online "exhibits" - are linked to assignments and to the syllabi themselves. Student papers are submitted as attachments to emails; I then insert the comments and grade into the text (in a different color of type using the highlight function of Word software) and mail them back. I keep copies on file in case I should need them. Students in live courses can opt to submit their essays in hard copy or to not participate as fully in the forum or chat if they compensate for that in classroom discussions. I try to ensure that my reliance on technology does not impede the success of those who are uncomfortable with the technology.

In my entirely online courses, students have a set schedule of readings, two lectures (within which are hyperlinks to outside reference materials for further clarification) per week, and discussion topics for each week. Each assignment must be completed within the assigned week unless there are unusual circumstances. My lecture notes are transcribed from the same notes I use for live sections of the class - approximately one hour and fifteen minutes when presented in class. After completing the assigned reading for each day, students proceed to the lecture. To receive full credit for class participation, students must also attend chat discussions and post to the forum at least twice weekly, just as they would attend and discuss in a twice-weekly class. I read their postings daily and reply periodically. For the remainder of their grade, students have traditional essays and exams. Their essays are submitted electronically, and exams require either attendance on campus or administration by an approved proctor. Lastly, if they need to speak with me directly, students may email, call, or come to office hours. Due to distance and time factors, I have both traditional office hours in my actual office and online office hours in our chat room.

In both entirely online and Web-enhanced live courses, the students' responses to the assignments are remarkably similar. Typically, I find the same replies to the discussion prompts and the same level of dedication in comparable members of both groups. However, two significant differences do exist between the two formats of the course. The first results from the higher number of nontraditional students in the online courses, including mothers and women who work fulltime. These nontraditional students often possess real-world experiences and a greater drive for academic success, which regularly leads to more in-depth discussions. The second notable difference is the number of female students who speak frequently and assertively. This phenomenon occurs almost instantly in the online courses, while it takes until at least mid-semester for even a close facsimile to be present in the live classroom. Female students enrolled in a live section tend to opt to participate more fully in the online discussion than in the classroom discussion.

As I was gradually moving toward more online resources and discussion, what struck me was that in forum and chat room discussions, I heard the voices of students who had never voluntarily spoken in class. In both formats, the discussion was led primarily by the women. Further, the female students also began to question and disagree with the statements of others. I spoke to several of these students, who simply suggested that they were "more comfortable" online that in the classroom. When pressed, they stated further that they had more time to compose their replies, and even to rephrase them before posting. The majority of the women in my classes began to thrive in these virtual spaces. By mid-semester, in many cases, I have seen these students transition to speaking out in the physical classroom as well as our virtual class space.

It was my interest in this pattern among my female students and a natural increase of my use of Web components that led me to offer the first Women and Gender Studies online course on our campus, a class in the development of and a basic introduction to Women's Fiction. I had some reservations about an entirely online course. I like seeing my students fact-to-face; I was intimidated by the amount of effort that seemed necessary to insure that it would be as informative as a live class, and honestly, I was a little daunted by typing and hyperlinking an entire semester of lectures before the semester even began.

The whole process has been more successful than I could ever have imagined. By the second week of class, several students had begun email and chat contact with their classmates without any direction from me. By the third week, twenty-one out of twenty-five enrolled students were actively participating in the discussions. Of those twenty-one, six were exceeding the required postings per week on the forum. They were all women. To contrast this, I have a live section of the same course, with the same syllabus and resources, but in class meetings, the discussion requires much more prodding on my part. In an average class meeting, there are three students who speak without my directing the question to them. Two of these are male. Two women in the class do participate actively in the discussion, but only by using the online forum and not by speaking in the actual class.

By week eight in the Women's Fiction course, of the enrolled students, seventeen of the twenty-six are still actively participating, and five students are still regularly exceeding the requirements. All five are women. In the live section of the same class, one of the women speaks regularly, five of the enrolled men speak daily, and four to six women speak in the course when prompted by direct questions or eye contact.

Of course, I have to acknowledge the natural objection to online courses - are they to replace traditional physical class offerings? How do we make them "as good as" the live courses? Also, as several of my colleagues have worried, "What does this mean for me?" Simply stated, it is my belief that these types of classes are another alternative; they should not replace the live meeting classes, but offer another option. They can be done in such a way as to represent a close facsimile of live classes, and most importantly, can help nontraditional students like Stacie, Trina, Greta, and Claire.

Stacie is a divorced mother of a teenaged daughter. This is her first college class after almost two decades out of school. Trina is a critical care nurse in her forties who works amazing numbers of hours, but still gets her classwork done promptly and efficiently. A career marine in the midst of a divorce, Claire is carrying twenty-one hours. Greta moved to New York this semester to be with her partner, but is still pursuing her degree. She participated in the course for the first three-plus weeks without being enrolled because she couldn't pay the tuition - she simply hoped that her efforts would convince me to let her add the course late.

The traditional students are no less remarkable. Just this past week I received a letter from a young woman in my class who missed several weeks of participation because she is manic-depressive and needed hospitalization. Another young woman has moved out of state to stay with her family because she's pregnant, but still wants to finish her degree.

These women are the most important reason I believe in the necessity of Web-based courses. The virtual space seems to offer a comfort zone enabling them to flourish and often speak more assertively than in a live section of the same course. Being able to access class materials on a flexible schedule lets them work their education in around the edges of busy real-world lives. These are the women I think about when I ask myself why I teach these courses.

[Melissa Alsgaard is a Lecturer in English at North Carolina State University, as well as affiliated faculty with the NCSU Women and Gender Studies Program. She is currently one of two members of the English Department who offer entirely digital courses. Melissa's main page for all of her coursewebs is available at]

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Mounted February 8, 2001