Teaching online… in the field of Gender Studies and Transgender Studies.

I am currently wondering how to create an online classroom (without face-to-face time due to distances and financial restrictions of the students) that is exciting and can convey a similar excitement than a face-to-face learning environment often does.

Blended learning is a way for Gender Studies in Karlstad to create a good classroom atmosphere, interesting discussions that can happen both in the online seminars as well as in the discussion forum, and also keep the group together without high drop-out numbers. This is a common problem in online teaching.

In the literature overview “Critical Factors for Implementing Blended Learning in Higher Education”, the two authors Peter Mozelius (based in Sweden) and Enosha Hettiarachchi (based in Sri Lanka) have collected 15 publications that discuss different forms of blended learning. Blended learning is a term that defines classrooms anywhere on the spectrum between a face-to-face classroom and a pure online classroom (Watson, 2008). The term “blended” refers to online communication between students and teacher or students and students, e.g. facebook group chats, online supervision, asychronous blog posts of students, etc. (Garrison and Kanuka, 2004).

The article “Critical Factors for Implementing Blended Learning in Higher Education” (Mozelius and Hettiarachchi, 2017) presents a concise analysis of critical factors of blended learning as well as potential perspectives. Among other aspects, they emphasise that blended learning can only be successful if it finds a balance between three vital aspects: the cognitive aspect, the social aspect and the teaching presence. All three elements need to be addressed jointly and in balance with each other in order to create a lively and sustained learning environment (Holland, 2016). This is especially important when considering the high drop-out rates in online courses (5% is considered high in MOOCs for instance) (p. 45). Such a low rate would be inacceptable for traditional higher education and would also make it impossible to create courses that are particularly edgy or marginalised, as for instance courses in queer studies or transgender studies.

While planning our first MA-level course in Transgende Studies “Introduction to Transgender Studies and Activism”, which is planned as an online course at Karlstad University for spring 2020 I ask myself, how I can create a good learning environment for both trans, non-binary, intersex, queer and cis students, and avoid the often problematised high drop-out rates of students from online courses?

A really imporant aspect when it comes to creating an engaged and committed classroom atmosphere is created by content that is up-dated on current debates and theoretical developments, shows the committment of the teacher as well as creates a culture of care.

Care is a political as much ethical question for me as a teacher. In neoliberal discussions on online classrooms and low drop-out rates, this aspect becomes unfortunately a “strategy” to create student happiness and committment. Independent of this, care is an important component in my engagement with students, in supporting them to learn, to submit theis assignments and feel welcome at the university which is often an extremely inaccessible space for trans and no-binary students (as well as to anybody else who is not conforming to the white, male, middle-/upper-class norms of the university as such). But in respect to nb and trans students, the first hurdle starts when submitting the application via the university admissions system. This system is highly flawed and based on binary parameters. It creates exclusions on the first level of access.

I will soon write a longer entry on this problem of gender binarism and genderism in the admissions system.

Returning to questions of care for those students who made it through the horrific admissions system, I am dedicated to creating an inviting and inclusive classroom. I find in my own classrooms, online and f2f the aspect of care extremely important for both the creation of trust between all participants in the course, including me as a teacher, as well as for the students themselves in order to feel “seen” and heard. Its an essential part of an ethical social environment. It is an amibalent terms, care – it seems to be both a term of resistance in the technologised and commodified structures of modern academia – and yet, it is also a term that is exactly helping the capitalisation of academia to be increasingly successful in including larger student numbers and thus generating profit.

However, having these critical thoughts in the back of my mind, I am committed to the valued of feminist pedagogy which is a pedagogy of care, of inclusiveness and collectivity against the prevalence of hiearchies and profit orientation in academia.

Below a few points from the article on blended learning that are more notes for myself rather than relevant to the discussion above.

10 critical aspects of blended learning:

1. Technology – is the “basic ingredient that is blended with traditional learning” (43).
2. Didactics (“attitude, teaching style, control and responsiveness are important”, (43).
3. Course outcomes – presents an essential aspect in order to achieve high learning outcomes are “[a]ctive engagement, collaboration and social presence”, discussed by Parker, Maor and Herrington 2013 as well as Garner and Rouse 2016 (44).
4. Collaboration and social presence – e-learning alone is considered non-effective due to the described importance of teacher-student and student-student interaction in the learning process (Chen and Yao, 2016). Important is also to create a learning environment that is not purely structural or functionalist but also has space for emotional and affective elements of care and support for the students (So and Brush 2008). Furthermore, it is highly important to enable interaction and social presence in blended learning environment, e.g. group work or reflective activities (Picciano, 2009) and (Garner and Rouser, 2016), (44)
5. Course design – in a blended learning environment this means a course that includes relevant multimodal didactics technologically that facilitate good collaboration and active learning for the students. The contemporary recommendation for achieving this is to create the course so that consists of a combination of “sychronous and asychnronous activities” that are enacted in steps, alternatingly (44).
6. Sychronicity and asychronicity – according to the Mozelius and Hettiarachchi, this means a blance btweeen face-to-face activities for the students (which are supposed to allow “the richness of human interaction” as well as online activities (45).
7. Learning from technology enhanced classrooms – in this part of the study the conclusion is that purely online taught courses seem to create problems, e.g. confusions for the students in the course, loneliness or boredom through the distance. Blended learning must thus aim to address this in order to avoid students’ estrangement from the course, low motivation and also high drop out rates (Keller and Suzuki, 2004).
8. Multimodal overloading – the literature overview discusses that students in general don’t seem to be so easily overloaded when the learning is dynamic and based in interative media formats. This might mean asychronous discussions, facilitated interaction, and other uploads of uselful information, e.g. graphics, audio or video files (Kim, Kwon and Cho, 2011). Due to the diversity of students and their different interests and needs also for different and individual learning formats, this is important in order to include and address as many students as possible (45).
9. Trends and hypes – two hypes are highlighted here in particular, teachign with MOOCS (massive open online courses) and secondly, the concept of “The Flipped Classroom” (Thai, De Wever and Valcke, 2017). Both are interesting but need to be further investigated, the authors conclude.
10. Economy – the problem of high drop-out rates makes blended learning courses sometimes cost ineffective. What is important and seems to have been successful is that an initial investment in the careful and timeconsuming work of a good course design pays off (46).

In the section “Global perspective” (48) the authors discuss a few aspects such as the important of locally adjusted content, etc… which stands in opposition to online teaching and the often diverse student body this creates. I would disagree here strongly as I find it firstly, important to have online courses in order to create a joint, transnational platform for discussion, secondly, in order to enable students from all over the world to take courses they couldn’t access otherwise, and thirdly, the diverse group in a transnational course is a positive aspect of teaching not a negative one.

Photo by Paco S on Unsplash

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Teacher and researcher in Gender Studies with a specialization in the field of Transgender Studies!

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