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Chapter 1: Subverting Virtual Hierarchies: A Cyberfeminist Critique of Course-Management Spaces
In this chapter, the authors use a cyberfeminist framework to review discussions of networked environments that focus on the potential remediation of physical space to create a virtual networked community.
In particular, they consider how current course and learning management systems (C/LMSs) remediate physical space in ways that surveil students and reinscribe notions of teacherly authority—at the expense of student learning.
Acknowledging how today’s digital writing instructors are often disenfranchised in their lack of power to design virtual institutional space, the authors call for C/LMS designs that better facilitate students’ multiple learning styles.
Historically, theoretically, and pedagogically, scholar-teachers have critically questioned the ability of electronic learning environments to foster a safer space for students who are potentially marginalized within the physical confines of the brick-and-mortar classroom. Throughout the last two decades, institutions have adopted and technically supported a range of popular course and learning management systems (C/LMSs), granting teachers the ability to deliver content to students virtually. Until recently, our home campus of Bowling Green State University used Blackboard as a C/LMS to either augment or replace physical classroom space; however, in the academic year 2012–2013, the institution adopted a new C/LMS program, Canvas. Our inspection of this shift has led us, as feminist scholar-teachers, to consider how current C/LMSs remediate physical space and may ultimately lead to a confinement of virtual space at the expense of student learning.
Just as early computers and writing scholars lamented the frequent inability to control the design of electronic writing spaces, today’s digital writing instructors are often disenfranchised in their lack of power to design virtual space in institutional settings. Thus, our chapter overviews historical discussions of computer-networked environments that have focused on the potential remediation of physical space to create a virtual networked community (Barker and Kemp 1990). These conversations have also addressed the role of the computer interface in power inequities, leading to contested sites and contact zones (Selfe and Selfe 1994). This overview will extend early discussions that problematize the proposed egalitarian potential of computers to demarginalize others in traditional classroom spaces to suggest that a number of C/LMSs—from Blackboard to Canvas to the more recent advent of massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera—remediate a physical classroom space that reinforces teacher-centered delivery modes over student-centered learning habits. Although there have been similar concerns (Blair 2007; Payne 2005), discussions of C/LMSs, both pro and con, have not engaged in feminist analysis, despite the long tradition of feminist critiques of technology. And given the increasing debate about the role of MOOCs, our discussion is a timely one.
Our framework for this analysis is inherently cyberfeminist. Faith Wilding (1998) reminded us that technology is not devoid of power relations, hegemony, or oppression; instead, all web spaces are marked by socially constructed systems (see also Wajcman 2004). Cyberfeminism, like other strands of feminism, cannot be pinned down to a single, fixed definition. However, at its essence, cyberfeminism represents “a feminist politics on the Net” that seeks to “empower women” users (Wilding 1998, 7). Maria Fernandez and Faith Wilding (2002) outlined two distinctive and “overlapping waves” of cyberfeminism: wave 1, inspired by Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” advocated (in utopic ways) for the commonalities between women and machines; wave 2 utilized critique in targeting information communication technologies (ICTs) and reproductive technologies’ effects on women’s bodies. And, more recently, Mary Hocks (2009) stressed that the following questions are essential for undertaking cyberfeminist research:
- Who has the power? How can we get it?
- What/who is invisible? What is/is not transparent?
- Where do readers and authors find the pleasures of writing/reading/performing?
- What institutional infrastructures work for and against these pleasures, pushing against bodies that must live in time and space?
Relying upon both Hocks’s (2004) questions and Wilding’s (1998) original call for empowerment, we contend that cyberfeminists must balance the critique of digital space with the design, both technologically and pedagogically, of more collaborative, inclusive spaces for writing teachers to utilize as alternatives to the limiting, primarily text-based options of current C/LMSs, in which students are inevitably positioned as subjects under the surveillance of the various technological functions and tools that enable the teacher role. To counteract these limiting positions, our chapter also includes several curricular benchmarks for writing teachers to facilitate students’ multiple learning styles in ways that have the potential to democratize virtual classroom spaces.
To be inclusive of the range of C/LMSs currently in use by writing studies teachers and administrators, and thereby relevant to a broader audience, we assume a wide-lensed approach to LMSs as spaces in need of cyberfeminist critique. While a nuanced, detailed, critique of a single C/LMS would provide significant fodder for this chapter, we find the broader approach adequately substantiates our claims about all C/LMSs as exclusive spaces in need of attention. Indeed, the goal of this chapter is to call for alternative virtual learning environments (whether they be existing spaces or newly designed) that push against the foundations of surveillance and control within the digital spaces students and teachers currently inhabit. A cyberfeminist framework encourages us to develop spaces, within and beyond the varieties of C/LMSs, to accommodate a wider range of learners, learning styles, and digital composing methods.
Even as we call for such design, we recognize that not all faculty possess the expertise or the opportunity to construct alternative digital spaces and thus include discussions of the way such feminist principles even play out within the use of a C/LMS. Inevitably, these principles, aligned with a cyberfeminist framework, allow us to provide pragmatic suggestions for “privileging decentered, multiple, and participatory practices” on the Internet (Gajjala and Oh 2012, 8).
Our Historical Quest for Safe Spaces
The history of computers and composition chronicles the early rhetorics of technology that shaped our rationale for the use of computers in both face-to-face and virtual writing spaces. Among those earliest rhetorics included the belief that the inclusion of computers in the curriculum was democratizing and established a sense of community called for by Carolyn Handa in her edited volume Computers and Community, published in 1990. Mary Flores, one of the contributors to that collection, concluded that
the issue for the composition teacher . . . is to use computers to facilitate an interactive, diverse, and collaborative writing community in which every student has a voice and can engage in dialogue with each and every other member of that community. (109)
In addition to aligning the advent of computer-mediated composition with the paradigm shift from product- to process-based writing, other connections included feminist theory and pedagogy, with scholars such as Billie Wahlstrom (1994) articulating the important role of feminism in moving the field beyond these overly positive rhetorics of technology:
Those of us who rely heavily on the computer in our writing classroom have been naïve to assume the neutrality of the computers or of any techniques we develop for using it. The nature of computer networks and network-supported software, the uses to which we put them, the ways we conceive of their abilities and describe their function—all show evidence of being part of a gender-coded system less hospitable to women than it should be. Feminist analyses help us foresee possibilities for changing this reality. Such a vision critiques technology and its uses, suggesting alternatives that are democratizing and equalizing. (184)
By 1994, the date of Wahlstrom’s chapter in Selfe and Hilligoss’s Literacy and Computers: The Complications of Teaching and Learning with Technology, early utopic rhetorics of techno-pedagogical potential were giving way to the messy realities of the shift from computer-assisted instruction to computer-mediated communication in both asynchronous and synchronous forums. Possibilities for dialogue and collaboration were tempered by “flaming” and the realization that the same cultural biases based on race, gender, and sexual orientation that circulate offline can and do circulate just as easily online.
For Wahlstrom (1994) and many others, the value of feminist critical interrogation was and is to make visible not only the politics of networks but also the politics of software and hardware, leading to questions about whether the integration of technology into the curriculum is as much about perceptions of currency as it is about actual empowerment. This distinction can lead to a “technology for technology’s sake” approach that is inevitably tied to the cultural capital surrounding technology and grand narratives of innovation, progress, and access. Given this gap between rhetoric and reality, Cynthia Selfe (1999) has long advocated the need to “pay attention” to the linkages between technology and literacy as “part of our ethical responsibility to understand how literacy and literacy instruction directly and continually affects the lived experiences of the individuals and families with whom we come into contact as teachers” (xix).
An emphasis on the lived experiences of actual technology users is equally aligned with both techno- and cyberfeminist concerns with the ability of women or any cultural group to access and deploy digital spaces for personal and political purposes (Wilding 1998; Stabile 1994). As Faith Wilding (1998) has stressed:
If feminism is to be adequate to its cyberpotential then it must mutate to keep up with the shifting complexities of social realities and life conditions as they are changed by the profound impact communications technologies and technoscience have on all our lives. (10)
These feminist critiques of technology have been diverse, from analyzing stereotypical representations of women online, to identifying local and global spaces and communities that disrupt such depictions (Blair, Gajjala, and Tulley 2009), along with ongoing scholarship that questions the extent to which technofeminist pedagogical practices can equalize digital writing environments for both students and teachers, regardless of gender. Part of the process invariably defines digital literacy acquisition in ways that move students and teachers from consumers to producers within technological spaces and that encourage both groups to be technology critics and not just technology users. As Claudia Herbst (2009) argued, “We should not settle for the mere integration of women into the male dominated world online; integration falls short of granting women full authority. Rather, women need to become authors of technology and thereby self-assured proprietors of virtual spaces” (149–150). Such concerns have led to a range of action research and community outreach initiatives aimed at women and girls to enhance not only aptitude but also attitude about technology use in order to promote early self-confidence, to better balance gender representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and to enhance economic opportunity for women and girls internationally.
Based on interdisciplinary efforts to equalize the technological landscape, our own discipline has continued to question the educational and democratizing possibilities and constraints from the earliest of networked tools, such as usenet groups, email lists, Internet relay chats (IRCs), and multi-user domains, object-oriented (MOOs) to the most recent of Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis, and the myriad of other social-networking platforms in use by students. Often the purpose behind teacher integration of these and others tools has been subversive—to disrupt the more traditional teacher-centered space of face-to-face classrooms and to allow students multiple points of entry into educational spaces (Tulley and Blair 2002). For example, a blog that collapses the binary between private journaling and public dialogue has the potential to provide opportunities for student self-reflection and collaborative knowledge-making. It is important to remember, however, that integrating digital tools does not represent a de facto commitment to empowerment and that any technology use must be aligned with curriculum and pedagogical practices that support such a goal.
The CMS Classroom
In the middle of the decades-long technological tsunami is the rise of course management systems on university campuses, inextricably tied to the rise of fully online course development afforded by the Web. Certainly, there exist many advantages to course management systems, specifically that they are technically and institutionally supported by the universities that purchase them, and that they have given equal rise to the portal-driven interface at institutions across the country, where all student and faculty services are more visible and accessible. From a training standpoint, course management systems represent ease of use; both students and teachers know where to go for what, and the need for instructors to rely on separate external tools is reduced because the system contains chat rooms, bulletin boards, and spaces for document storage, assignment submissions, quizzing, and gradebook functions. The interface of the virtual course management system mirrors the presumed interface of the face-to-face course, which may explain the early popularity of Blackboard and its classroom-based metaphor.
The Blackboard metaphor, however, is not merely an object-based one; it is a spatial one as well, suggesting that, not unlike the traditional classroom where desks or computer workstations face the front of the room (presumably where the teacher is located), the space within Blackboard and other systems is teacher-centered, and ultimately much more difficult for students and teachers themselves to subvert. Blackboard becomes a space in which teachers upload content for students to consume, and thus aligns with Freire’s (1970) concept of “banking education” in that education is one-directional, from teacher to student. Students are inevitably positioned as more passive receptacles in an information transfer model, as opposed to a more genuinely dialogic, interactive model in which students have more coequal control of the space and their learning. Similarly, Doug Brent (2005) distinguished between knowledge-making as dynamic interaction as opposed to knowledge and teaching as a static enterprise, a “thing” that becomes separate from participants and that transfers knowledge through primarily textual processes. As Brent noted, this viewpoint also includes students who think that education is merely the transfer of knowledge through texts. These are the sort of students who regularly ask me at the end of a face-to-face class why I can’t put my course notes on the Web so that they don’t have to come to class.
Since Blackboard’s ascent into the course management hierarchy, there are numerous platforms that attempt to compete: Desire2Learn, Canvas, and even open-source options such as Moodle and Sakai. As Kristine Blair (2007) discussed elsewhere, both online learning and the course management systems that support it respond to more contemporary rhetorics of technology that include convenience, or the model of anytime/anywhere, 24/7 access to learning. While certainly this model is convenient in terms of access to the course among diverse learners, such access does not automatically foster more feminist, democratic pedagogies. For instance, as Darin Payne (2005) argued in his critique of Blackboard, “Pedagogical practices in Blackboard become homogenizing spatial practices that contribute to (re)inscriptions of normalized identities and ways of knowing privileged and maintained through dominant cultural modes of production and reception” (485). Thus, the ability to control the design of online space, including teaching and learning spaces, from a feminist standpoint, is limited. Participants in Blackboard are both controlled and contained by its teacherly template, and the teacher function is one in which surveillance technologies monitor student behavior and overall performance of the student role in ways that reinforce differential power relations between teacher and student. This ultimately leads to a migration of traditional teacher-centered hierarchies from brick-and-mortar classroom space to digital classroom space.
The Search for a “Safer” Space
C/LMS spaces are not solely responsible for reinforcing ideological hierarchies and preventing users’ agency. In fact, Selfe and Selfe (1994) revealed how the Macintosh interface “presents reality” by upholding “the values of professionalism,” with their use of “manila folders, files, documents” (486). According to Selfe and Selfe, this design choice prevents our students who do not find familiarity, let alone comfort, in a white-collar-driven interface, not only from developing beyond functional users of technology, but also from subverting ideologies of class and power. In an attempt to move away from the institutionally controlled spaces of the C/LMS, many faculty have experimented with social networking in the classroom, tools that often provide students with more control over the design of both course space and their identities within such virtual locales. But admittedly, blogs, wikis, and Web 2.0 online communities can and do suffer a similar fate, with limited ability to move beyond the standardized look and feel of a profile page or a WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogger theme. For Kristin Arola (2010), the belief that design is simply a “vessel” or a “container,” and that content is the real meat of the Web, threatens to make the effects of design invisible: “Those of us committed to engaging with modes of meaning . . . need to work to bring design to a discursive level so that we, along with our students, become attuned to the ways in which design encourages users to participate in online spaces” (13).
No virtual space is ideologically neutral, and as a result space may limit participation and the performance of identity. For instance, while a social-networking application like Facebook may encourage a sense of belonging to a community, both groups and individuals represent themselves and respond to one another in limited ways—Like buttons, status updates, and timelines that do little to move beyond the universal profile. Identity is ultimately reduced to a predetermined set of alternatives (Almjeld 2014).
Regardless of whether it is in consideration of a C/LMS or a more “social” network, a cyberfeminist perspective calls for “an awareness of how power plays not only in different locations online but also in institutions that shape the layout and experience of cyberspace” (Gajjala and Oh 2012, 1). In her theoretical overview of feminist geography in digital space, Yeon Ju Oh (2012) contended that “looking at cyberspace in terms of gender relations is an attempt to unpack the power played out in the space” (252). While certainly there are inhospitable spaces for women and other cultural groups within cyberspace, and while there have been strong critiques such as Arola’s (2010) and Herbst’s (2009) regarding the inability to control the design of space and thus the development of digital identity, the explosion of virtual subcultures has led to both local and global advances for women and other cultural groups within social and educational settings through the use of these free and open-source tools that potentially afford more opportunities for self-expression and social solidarity. For Oh (2012) and other cyberfeminists, the emphasis has been on the concept of a “safer” space (Tulley and Blair 2002), not only for women but also for students whose life experiences and learning styles may be disenfranchised within spaces that reinforce differential student-teacher power relationships.
Our own cyberfeminist analysis of course management systems mirrors these contemporary and historical discussions, drawing on long-standing calls, such as Pamela Takayoshi’s (1994) query whether “computerized communications tools . . . offer the possibility of dismantling these confining roles or are they, as Audre Lorde (1981) says, ‘the master’s tools?’” (21). And just as course management systems may confine students and teachers, to what extent do new tools provide an opportunity for “dismantling the ‘master’s house,’ in this case traditional classroom discourse patterns?” (21). The remaining sections of this chapter address visual and textual power structures within course and learning management interfaces, including MOOCs, and the ways tools within the C/LMS surveil and restrict student identity and participation. In conclusion, we call for more opportunities for both students and teachers to interrogate the existing spaces they inhabit and collaboratively work to align learning spaces with the curricular and cyberfeminist goals of accessibility and inclusiveness.
In 2009, an Educause white paper showed the ubiquitous nature of course management systems with 95 percent of the respondents reporting using some form for distance or hybrid purposes (Arroway et al. 2010). After all, with the electronic distribution of content, along with conducting projects, providing feedback, and assessing work, it is no mystery why course- and learning-management systems are popular among institutions and faculty members. Course management systems, and arguably learning management systems, let the instructor control the content. On the other hand, there are elements in the C/LMS that allow students to scaffold their experiences through creation of wiki modules or participation in discussion board posts; however, the controls the instructor has at her or his disposal are much greater than the panels the students have access to within their interfaces. This control led us to consider how the design of the overall interface of Blackboard, Canvas, and Coursera link to gender and class. Given the history of computer programming as an exclusive boys’ club, where middle-class men shaped the technology and left out the women (Abbate 2012; Wajcman 2006), it is no surprise that certain ideological values are present within certain C/LMSs. For example, C/LMSs not only reflect middle-class distinctions through the use of icons associated with white-collar labor practices like business cards and manila file folders, but the platforms also have embedded power differentials that affect how students and teachers interact and react in those spaces. This gendered and classed space, once appropriated into institutional spaces like C/LMS technologies, becomes a norming platform where restrictions upon gender, race, and class mark nonwhite males as other, but also all student-learners who do not identify with the value-laden designs, iconography, and infrastructure the platforms provide. These factors, left unexamined, contribute to an overall ethos suggesting familiar scripts of patriarchal influence and hegemonic practices. While learning-management system providers, like Canvas, suggest they have built the online space with learners in mind, we have found through our analysis that C/LMS spaces reinscribe power dynamics through surveillance practices, constraints upon identity expression, and limited student participatory action.
Cyberfeminist Stance on Surveillance Practices in C/LMSs
The ability to use surveillance techniques to monitor behaviors suggests an authoritative relationship, and it is present in the C/LMS platforms, especially in Canvas, where teachers have the ability to use surveillance technologies to track students (see figure 1.1). This disturbing trend of providing these features can highlight spatial dominance and marginalization through Michel Foucault’s (1979) notion of panoptic power. Namely, the types of surveillance tools available to teachers within these platforms reinscribe the types of oppressive workplace conditions that mark workers’ bodies as sites of observation and classification to document behavior.
Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson (2000) argued that Foucault’s metaphor of the panopticon helps draw attention to contemporary surveillance; however, the metaphor has gaps in understanding how human bodies are abstracted from their physical, social, and cultural settings. Thus, Haggerty and Ericson theorized that a “data double” equivalent occurs in online spaces from hundreds of data points about a user. The actions and behaviors that the data points reveal about users are divorced from the social and political contexts that people embody in real life, nor do the data reveal ways people learn and engage with online spaces. We apply this perspective to C/LMSs and the analytics and surveillance practices of those environments. Our concern rests with the potential to other our flesh and blood students if teachers take action based upon the data, as the data do not give a full portrait of the ways students engage, interact, and learn from online learning spaces.
Using surveillance tools to observe online behavior and act upon those interpretations may reinscribe power differentials that may lead to subjugation instead of empowerment. An illustration about the claim regarding behavioral expectations and the practices that frame them occurs through the “assessment” feature in the control panel within Blackboard (see figure 1.2) and the “view course analytics” selection in Canvas. Both tools allow the course instructor to view the site activity and actions taken by students in both spaces. For example, Blackboard’s assessment feature allows instructors to view when and how long students engaged in the course space. Canvas, on the other hand, allows teachers more information. Not only can instructors see the number of page views per student, but the information is conveniently color-coded as green, orange, and red in Canvas (see figure 1.3). These behavioral practices of surveilling student electronic activity in Blackboard and Canvas, taken further, create a reinscription of power differentials, with the teacher being the “authority” and the students being subordinate to that power.
Ultimately, our concern with this type of surveillance offered to teachers lies with marking students’ “data double” bodies as sites of classifying student participation in ways that perhaps enforce and reinscribe authorial roles in virtual spaces, especially if the course instructor acts upon the data both C/LMSs provide. The potential to silence or marginalize students by acting upon the data may occur because the social and political matrices students bring with them in online spaces are not captured by the algorithms that collect user clicks, downloads, and time spent in a module in the course space. The act of Blackboard and Canvas tracking certain movements online accounts for a fraction of student engagement in C/LMSs and the course material overall. The data from the analytics simply do not consider the full portrait of student engagement in virtual spaces.
Constraints upon Identity Expression
Along with the surveillance made possible by C/LMSs, this chapter examines the embedded class and gender markers within the interface, which represent a type of learning space corporatization. In some ways, this corporatization is reminiscent of corporate entities with a top-down managerial approach with white men predominately at the helm, and workers busily performing tasks that aptly describe the ways the C/LMSs under discussion operate. Indeed, there are an array of tools and tracking technologies at the instructor’s disposal, but students are left with truncated access to the platform. Thus, Mary Hocks’s (2009, 251), “Who has the power?” leaves us acknowledging that the power rests with the teacher, and not the students in these course spaces.
The teacher-student relationship within these platforms runs parallel with the managerial style of the white-collar/blue-collar dichotomy we see in corporate workplaces. As Shoshana Zuboff (1988) said of the roles of the bodies in these two spheres, “Blue-collar workers used their bodies in the service of acting-on, to transform materials and utilize equipment. White-collar employees use their bodies, too, but in the service of acting-with, for interpersonal communication and coordination” (98–99). The design of each platform allows the power to flow through the teacher as a body “acting with” information through the interface to the students who “act on” that information through task-making of assignments and activities. For example, in the Coursera spaces, the design of the interface, in many cases, is little more than videos of talking heads (see figure 1.4), usually professors sitting in their university offices, providing short informational lectures. They are “acting with” the information and disseminating it to the thousands of students who in turn “act on” the lecture by taking multiple-choice quizzes or by participating in discussion board posts. Functioning as a teacherly template, the interfaces vest power with the instructor through the medium of a machine, which transmits material to students who then consume and perform rote-learning tasks. This approach does not leave much for students to work with in terms of expressing material in ways that may make more sense for them.
Additionally, closely examining the design of C/LMS interfaces reveals the embedded power flows of the corporatization of online learning spaces. As Manual Castells (2000) contended, power has shifted from organizations and institutions to the network, and while networks allow for decentering and defragmentation, the network has embedded the cultural codes and power in itself. As Radhika Gajjala and Yeon Ju Oh (2012) noted, this has become a question for cyberfeminists: “How must we respond to the pleasing discourses of women’s empowerment through blogging, networking, financing, or entrepreneurship when we suspect that digital technologies, intertwined with neoliberal market logic, exercise subtle, indeed invisible, power?” (2).
In examining the design interfaces under discussion in this chapter, the iconography and hierarchal structure reveal the kinds of capitalism and class privilege that Selfe and Selfe (1994) noted. As an example, some of the icons in the Blackboard platform—like the computer screen, paper, and business cards (see figure 1.5)—link to associations with which corporate codes of middle-class white men stereotypically engage. The most egregious example of embedded power is the icon of the business card. Certainly, a business card provides ways for those in the middle to upper classes to hand off a contact card for networking opportunities. Yet the business card implies a certain cultural code and identity marker about a person’s class and standing more so than their personal information. The card can be a status symbol, depending upon the organization the person works for, or can work for, and acknowledges a person’s rank within an institution. To associate an icon of a business card to personal information in a C/LMS platform works to inscribe cultural codes of identity, class, and standing upon the student.
The association promotes an unspoken hegemonic practice of suggesting what types of identity markers are appropriate for and allowed within such a space, while at the same time silencing or ignoring the types of personal information or expression about identity the student may want to express. Erica Kubik (2012) emphasized that “cultural codes of conduct are organized around patterns of identity, which, while possibly inclusive, are also very rigid in definition” (137). Kubik suggested that the corporate cultural code of the business card forms a narrowed conception of identity. Additionally, the lack of student expression may lead to less participatory action on the part of students because the iconography and hierarchy designs may not be understandable to students who aren’t part of or do not engage with those identity markers.
Limiting student Participatory Action as Seen through MOOCs
While both Blackboard and Canvas are primarily used in conjunction with institutions to provide distance and hybrid learning to their enrolled students, there has been considerable movement in the area of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, since Dave Cormier first coined the term in 2008 during an invited talk with George Siemens and Stephen Downes (Cormier 2012). Since then, organizations like Coursera, edX, Udacity, and Udemy have split from the early model of a MOOC—now known as a cMOOC—into what has been termed an xMOOC. According to Dave Cormier (2012), the MOOC emerged as a response to having large amounts of information at our disposal through distributed networks; the MOOC isn’t just a course, it’s a way to connect with others and share information. Thus, a MOOC is participatory: its very nature facilitates engagement with the material that the course facilitators provide; ideally, the cMOOC could be fashioned into a cyberfeminist space. In contrast to the cMOOC, the xMOOC (which Coursera and other companies have capitalized upon) moves away from the connectivist roots of MOOC and instead promotes video lectures and quiz taking as methods of learning material. Indeed, as George Siemens (2012) noted of cMOOCs versus xMOOCs:
Our MOOC model emphasizes creation, creativity, autonomy, and social networked learning. The Coursera model emphasizes a more traditional learning approach through video presentations and short quizzes and testing. Put another way, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.
Although there is ample discussion board space dedicated to just about any group formation from asking questions, providing more information from outside the course, or even talking about topics unrelated to the course, the Coursera platform operates as an institutional learning management system providing content to thousands of students. In short, the xMOOC is a significant departure from the founding ideas of the cMOOC.
With the variation of the xMOOC, the types of behaviors students must engage in to be successful within the course and its space reflect the types of power differentials and templates of the C/LMS spaces of Blackboard and Canvas. Yet this variation goes one step further by revealing how limiting student participatory action is within the space of an xMOOC, especially with the Coursera platform. Given that the origins of MOOCs valued networked learning with autonomy and creativity, the type of participation needed to achieve those goals suggests that students are culling large amounts of data from the Internet and sharing that information with their peers in an effort to learn more about a subject. Coursera’s platform allows teachers to disseminate content with little connectionist work on the part of the student; thus, the xMOOC spaces continue to reinscribe power differentials that favor the instructor(s) and not the students. The Coursera xMOOC space has become a virtual representation of the traditional model of face-to-face lecture and test, mirroring Freire’s (1970) banking concept of education.
Finding Safe Spaces
Understanding when C/LMS platforms limit student learning and participation is crucial to conceiving how to usher in alternative online platforms or programs that foster feminist practices of expression, engagement, and sharing, as not only women, but all sexes and genders, interact in an online space. While we admit that any online space has the potential to limit expression and participation, we also see merit in finding spaces that do so in the fewest possible ways. Another characteristic we suggest looking for when choosing an online space for educational purposes is how amenable the space is for identity formation and expression. Ability to alter colors and information display is one thing, but being able to reorganize a space to suite learner needs and desires is another. Finally, we might also reflect upon the theoretical position of the cMOOC—to create open lines of participation and creativity, and to foster engagement and autonomy as we search for and use spaces to share information with each other. With that said, we also acknowledge the pioneering work that the contributors of FemTechNet are doing with their instantiation of a “DOCC”—that is, a distributed online collaborative course that allows institutions, researchers, and students to participate in a collaborative themed course that departs from the xMOOC model by integrating feminist principles in the model (see Juhasz and Balsamo 2012). We look forward to the developing work the DOCC offers our intellectual communities. Finally, by analyzing and reflecting upon course spaces and by moving to more egalitarian spaces, we come closer to lessening some of the constraints we unintentionally place upon students and ourselves.
Taking Back the Spaces
As we have sought to elucidate in previous sections, the limitations C/LMSs place upon users (both teachers and students) offer the potential for users to feel disenfranchised. And although Carol A. Stabile (1994) contended that critique is essential to upholding a feminist agenda, critique in and of itself is not enough. Instead, we must attempt to move beyond critique to envision alternatives or “possible futures” (Stabile, 156) for writing spaces. Heeding Stabile’s advice, in the following section we seek to offer alternatives in the form of two interconnected, pragmatic suggestions; we argue that by implementing these interrelated approaches, writing teachers can foster the cyberfeminist goals of accessibility and inclusiveness within virtual learning spaces.
- Space must be made: Students and teachers develop beyond functional users of technology into critical users (Selber 2004); they respond to the possibilities and constraints of the virtual classroom space and the technologies used for digital writing.
- Knowledge is coconstructed: Students and teachers collaboratively create and share knowledge. This means that the virtual space must allow all users to have the authority and responsibility to edit and publish information, as in the case of platforms like wikis and blogs.
As we see it, both suggestions are useful for not only elucidating the politics of C/LMSs’ power structures to users but also for encouraging and equipping users to consider the potential for subverting such power in the virtual spaces they occupy. Furthermore, the alternative we seek to encourage is for teachers and students to be more creative within (and beyond) C/LMS spaces since, for many of us, C/LMSs are institutionally required and institutionally designed.
Developing Students’ Capacities for Making Space
Students and teachers must develop beyond functional users into critical users of technology (Selber 2004) by acknowledging and responding to the barriers and affordances of virtual classroom spaces and the technologies of digital writing. First and foremost, an awareness of the barriers inherent within template-driven spaces of C/LMS platforms is crucial for both teacher and student. Stuart Selber (2004) offered twenty-first-century teachers and students a comprehensive, multidimensional approach to contemporary literacy practices. Selber’s “postcritical” approach to the teaching of technological literacy warns us, as Selfe and Selfe (1994) did before him, that teachers who “fail to adopt a postcritical stance” consequently cheapen student success as well as student ability to perceive “computers in critical, contextual, and historical ways” (13). Moreover, Selber posited that if students are not educated or afforded the opportunities to critique and manipulate the designs of computer environs, our best intentions for providing students the opportunities to develop their technological literacies run the risk of “simply perpetuat[ing] rather than alleviat[ing] existing social inequalities” (13). Thus, Selber’s multiliteracies approach encourages students and teachers to “use, question, and produce” in technological environs (25).
Although we acknowledge and stress that all digital spaces run the risk of limiting the inclusion and accessibility of some users and that no space is apolitical, we also argue, like Selfe and Selfe (1994), that as teachers we must be attuned to and proactive within these spaces. As Blair (2007) argued, C/LMSs can be seen as “gated communities,” in that they privilege teacher learning styles at the expense of student access to learning. Due to the various barriers C/LMSs construct, it is our responsibility as educators to elucidate these obstructions to students, concurrently equipping them with the ability and authority to recognize such barriers in the other template-driven spaces they occupy. As Arola (2010) argued, recognition and analysis are integral to the eventual subversion of barriers to learning and access. Furthermore, the ability for students to recognize barricades in digital and technological environments develops their skills as critical users of technology (Selber 1994), equipping them to be prepared and successful within the composing situations of the twenty-first century.
Joining Forces, Gaining Ground
Students and teachers must work together to create and share knowledge in online spaces. Virtual space must grant all users the authority and responsibility to edit and publish information, as in the case of platforms like wikis and blogs. Although wikis and blogs are still template-driven spaces, unlike C/LMSs, wikis and blogs can be set to allow all users the ability to edit (somewhat) the form and content of these spaces. Choosing settings on wikis and blogs that allow all users to modify, edit, and upload content is one small but important technique for feminist pedagogues to subvert hierarchies in virtual classroom spaces, thereby allowing students to develop beyond functional users into critical and rhetorical users of technology (Selber 2004).
Grohowski has been using wikis for her first-year writing courses in the way her other colleagues engage the institutionally offered C/LMSs (of once Blackboard and now Canvas) for the last two years. Grohowski modified the wiki’s settings to allow all users the liberty to edit content. In addition, Grohowski sets aside class time to instruct students in modifying content and altering the design of the course wiki, assuring students that the wikispace is an opportunity for students to share the responsibilities of authorship and engagement with one another and with course content. Using the template-driven spaces of Web 2.0 in the forms of blogs and wikis upholds the feminist agenda for decentering authority and fostering community. Torrens and Riley (2009) argued that “the very tall and idealistic charge feminist pedagogies take seriously [are] the effort[s] to empower students, to challenge them personally and academically, to share responsibility for learning, to shape activist thinking, and to engage with the self, with the material, with others, and with one’s community” (213).
Although these Web 2.0 tools can enact the decentering of authority and facilitation of engagement and community building that feminist teachers try to uphold—and while Grohowski has designed this space using the institutionally approved logo and branding color students are familiar with from other online contexts they inhabit—this pedagogical agenda is not warmly received by all students. Grohowski has experienced some backlash from students expressing their frustrations with Grohowski’s departure from the “traditional,” in her intentional avoidance of the institutionally available C/LMSs to which many students have grown accustomed. In end-of-semester evaluations, students press Grohowski to reconsider the familiar space of the C/LMS.
These reactions could be attributed to Selber’s (1994) and Arola’s (2010) claims that if students are not instructed in how to critique such spaces, students remain functional users of technology, unable to manipulate or contribute within diverse online spaces. Furthermore, if students are not first made aware of an instructor’s rationale behind using (or avoiding) a given online space, let alone specifics of how the “design of the space shapes understanding” (Arola 2010, 12), students may be less willing to accept alternative learning spaces. What’s more, the conveniences the C/LMS affords the functional user (e.g., a student needs only to log into the C/LMS to access several course shells; the student does not need to remember the course URL in order to access content) can allow students to see alternative spaces as a barrier to their access to course content. Perhaps students rely on the convenience of being functional users of C/LMSs and other template-driven spaces in ways that may preclude their willingness to embrace the alternative spaces teachers provide.
As Pamela Takayoshi (1994) noted, upholding feminist agendas in teaching with technology runs the risk of oppressing the very students she sought to empower. In fact, as Paulo Freire (1970) contended, “We must never provide the people with programs which have little or nothing to do with their preoccupations, doubts, hopes and fears—programs which at times in fact increase the fears of the oppressed consciousness” (96). Freire stressed that only through dialogue can teachers and students gain awareness of the “structural conditions in which the thought and language of the people are dialectically framed” (96). As a result, feminist teachers run the risk of further oppressing students if they try to enact a decentered classroom authority that is not fully desired (or understood) by their students. Due to what Freire (1970) terms “the structural conditions” for which student “thoughts and language are framed” (96), some students have come to expect the familiar, teacherly centered space of the C/LMS.
It is not just undergraduate students that rely favorably on the familiar, authoritative space of the C/LMS. As Blair has found in her teaching of graduate students in a Computer-Mediated Writing Theory and Practice seminar, when given the choice of multiple platforms for delivering course content during student-led facilitations, some students deliberately choose to utilize the affordances of the C/LMS platform. Blair provided “instructor” status to those students so that they could customize and integrate a range of media content for their facilitations. Blair begins her seminar by explaining her rationale for not using the traditional C/LMS platform (Blackboard) as a course space and providing students with a copy of her 2007 chapter “Course Management Tools as ‘Gated Communities’” as an optional reading. This article serves as explanation for her teaching philosophy and rationale for not primarily engaging the C/LMS for disseminating course content. However, Blair provides students a variety of online platforms—including C/LMSs—in addition to blogs (WordPress), wikis, Second Life, VoiceThread, Adobe Dreamweaver, and Google’s suite of programs.
Because an objective of her course is to instruct teacher-scholars in myriad ways for engaging multimodal theory and practice, it is essential that students be afforded opportunities to employ a broad range of technological tools and platforms. Thus, as the students who chose to use Blackboard demonstrated, all tools are malleable by users. Ultimately, C/LMSs, like any tool or medium, can be used from a feminist standpoint and, as these graduate students demonstrated, C/LMSs can be engaged to subvert structural powers they otherwise uphold.
As students in Blair’s seminar, Martha Wilson Schaffer and Mike Salitrynski used the affordances of a C/LMS (Blackboard) in three very pragmatic ways. First, they used the “pages” feature to share resources with classmates, such as links to relevant websites and information; second, they engaged the “discussion board” tool to facilitate a constructive discussion among their classmates. The use of the discussion board was strategic in that it afforded the potential for both asynchronous and synchronous dialogues to occur among colleagues, as well as the ability for the multiplicity of voices and perspectives to be considered that may not have been accommodated within the time constraints of the typical face-to-face, in-class discussion. Third, Schaffer and Salitrynski creatively used the C/LMS by uploading a short (i.e., thirty-second) welcome video, which informed users of the purpose of the space and how to navigate within it.
As Salitrynski’s and Schaffer’s use of the C/LMS demonstrated, C/LMSs can be utilized in creative and constructive ways for the benefit of both teacher and student. Thus, the alternative we seek to elucidate is more of an approach than the recommendation of the engagement of a particular tool or software. It is often the case that instructors either do not have a choice in the C/LMS or are not aware of alternative spaces for delivering course content. Additionally, in the case of online education, C/LMSs are invaluable to accommodating learning for teacher and student.
C/LMSs are not going anywhere, and we are not arguing that teachers should stop using them all together—such is not a practical or realistic argument. Our intention, like that of cyberfeminist Mary Hocks (2009), has been to offer a cyberfeminist-informed analysis of C/LMS spaces and offer a perspective on these writing spaces that elucidates, among other things, the “institutional infrastructures work[ing] for and against these pleasures, pushing against bodies that must live in time and space” (Hocks 2009, 251). Thus, we recommend the two cyberfeminist-informed, interrelated suggestions that began this section:
- Teachers should encourage students to critique online spaces and digital writing tools; doing so will not only subvert the power inherent in such spaces, but will also foster student development—beyond functional users into critical users of the technologies of writing.
- Students and teacher are cocreators of classroom content. Teachers should facilitate such collaborative teaching and learning by affording greater student access to manipulating and creating course content in virtual spaces. Certainly, this can become problematic in the C/LMS if the teacher is using the space to manage grades. However, the proper adjustments can be made to prevent students from access to all C/LMS content areas. This inclusion can foster the cyberfeminist goals of inclusivity and access to a broader range of student abilities and learning styles.
Given that many course and learning management systems (C/LMSs) reinscribe teacherly roles in virtual spaces, the need to critique such spaces must be balanced with the need to design technologically and pedagogically supported virtual spaces for diverse student learning needs. If students are continually positioned as people under surveillance and control, they may learn to privilege authoritative models over their own needs and opportunities for growth. Although the responsibilities of teachers are increasing in today’s market-driven university models of higher education, writing instructors must use their historical and pedagogical knowledge to shape both the discourse and production of C/LMSs for students in their classes. Educators already rely upon a range of existing websites available to democratize the virtual classroom, but may also collaborate with a community of programmers, marketers, and communication experts to design student-centered learning spaces.
Computers and writing scholars have generated pragmatic, collaborative approaches for subverting virtual hierarchies for well over two decades. For example, Selfe and Selfe (1994) offered three recommendations for challenging the power structure of computer interfaces that we see as upholding a cyberfeminist critique and negotiation of online learning spaces:
- Teachers must “recognize and teach students to recognize” the ideological assumptions technological interfaces privilege and squander (455).
- Teachers must “work with students and computer specialists to re-design/re-imagine/re-create interfaces” that afford diversity and inclusion (455).
- Teachers must seek out collaborative opportunities with others who possess other expertise and work together to “revise interfaces as texts by identifying desirable features generally unavailable in primary interfaces” (499).
Selfe and Selfe’s (1994) recommendations are clearly aligned with the goals of cyberfeminist critique and action in online spaces, in that they connect strongly to Hocks’s (2009) questions regarding the identification of power relationships. Hocks (2009), along with Selfe and Selfe (1994), urged educators to question how such relationships control the ability for students, regardless of gender, to construct personal and professional identities; share responsibility for the format and content of the virtual classroom as a collaborative knowledge-making space; and do so in a range of design modalities that meet the learning styles and information access needs of a broader range of learners.
Certainly, virtual learning spaces should provide students with opportunities to compose in a variety of modes while simultaneously experiencing a variety of teaching methods, enabling greater inclusion and accessibility to a range of student learners. Thus, our goal in this chapter has been that our critique, analysis, and call for alternative virtual learning environments (whether they be existing spaces or newly designed) push against the foundations of surveillance and control within the digital spaces students and teachers currently inhabit, as both Hocks (2009) and Wilding (2004) encourage us to do in order to make room for a range of learners, learning styles, and digital composing methods.
We also see merit in working with colleagues to create learning management systems that allow students to use online spaces for their own learning needs and goals. Future research and projects with computer programmers, writing instructors, business-marketing experts, students, and educators from various disciplines will encourage development of C/LMS platforms and tools to transform online curricular spaces. In creating these spaces, we encourage educators to think big—design C/LMSs for both alphabetic and multimodal compositions, and circulate such virtual spaces to large national markets for the benefit of many students and educators. The design of a transformative learning management system, most importantly, rests with student feedback and input. Thus, any work in designing such spaces must include student engagement at all stages of the project, a process inherently feminist in principle. That said, with the intention of being inclusive of various options for subverting existing C/LMS platforms in use by our writing studies colleagues, Tiffany Koszalka and Radha Ganesan (2004) remind us that our efforts to subvert virtual spaces must move beyond the well intentioned to the well conceived. In other words, as Koszalka and Ganesan posited, integrating sound instructional design principles that work well in classroom-based courses may not be successful in online courses if course philosophy, learning expectations, and online features are not well matched. Using learning goals and an understanding of the value of C/LMS features can help inform distance education in ways that are more likely to support learning, rather than impede it (255).
Important in Koszalka and Ganesan’s approach to C/LMSs use is their attention to designing and using online spaces in ways that support both learning goals and an instructor’s course philosophy, as well as foster accessibility for diverse learning preferences and needs. Thus, we share Koszalka and Ganesan’s (2004) work to further substantiate our claim for the need for cyberfeminist pedagogues to be mindful designers of online learning spaces, in order to effectively best facilitate student learning and one’s instructional goals regardless of tool. Indeed, as Takayoshi (1994) stressed, students and teachers require encouragement, freedom, and multiple opportunities to use the “master’s tools” for their own curricular and pedagogical purposes, and in ways that are potentially transformative. Such use of the “master’s tools”—whether C/LMSs, MOOCs, or Web 2.0—subverts more managerial and hierarchical power structures, proving that all tools and all spaces can be shaped by user values. In this way, we encourage both current and future educators to uphold Takayoshi’s eloquent, early cyberfeminist call that teachers offer students “technology as a tool with which to build new houses—houses with open doors and windows and space for everyone” (1994, 33).
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