FemTechNet

Over 50 percent of the world population is female and yet women are often still considered a ‘minority’ by some, with fewer rights and more duties and responsibilities than the male of the species. It is expected of women to bear and raise children, to carry out household duties and often to go out to work to supplement the main earner’s wages. In addition, they are considered the obvious person to care for the elderly or sick in the wider family. All this becomes even more difficult when the woman/wife/mother becomes a single parent, for whatever reason.

Although suitably qualified, women will often not be the person chosen to fill a position because of care duties or being (or potentially becoming) pregnant. Thus, many women will take any chance to use her valuable and expensive training no matter if it is only a temporary position or she is paid less than her male colleagues. To take up the financial slack she will accept other jobs, even if not close to her home. Job insecurity becomes a common feature of her life where she is now juggling several jobs together with household and care responsibilities.

A specifically challenging feature of this kind of work is that often one finds oneself without contact to a regular body of staff where one can find help and encouragement. All these aspects are additionally acerbated if one is a woman of colour or of indigenous descent teaching a marginalised subject such as black feminism. FemTechNet was founded to bring these women together and to initiate help and support using digital communications. Using Zotero (see note below) and Scalar (see note below) the collective has produced a handbook for those involved in the teaching of critical race, media and ethnic studies: “FemTechNet Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Pedagogy workbook” This is a compilation of open access material and includes syllabi, classroom and background materials available for free and which is being constantly updated by contributions by the users of the site.

Problems listed by the young people in Freeway High School in Austin, Texas (which we discussed in an earlier post), i.e. lack of adequate internet access, constant updating, inadequately equipped (ancient or instable devices), parallel those experienced by these women. Video conferencing showing them in their real life situations helps them to be together although apart, giving them a sense of belonging. They can reach each other at all times knowing that there is someone out there who understands and can probably help. Being dedicated to expanding and initiating the use of digital software, the FemTechNet collective are learning to creatively overcome technological problems in this process of empowerment.

One of their particular challenges is the lack of diversity at their colleges/universities and in the classes they teach. This is mainly due to the scarcity of women of colour and indigenous background at any level of academia. The members often work at the edge of academe (#transformDH, see note below) and their critique is designed to “build, break down and build again” as they declare in their “Collective Statement on Teaching and Learning Race, Feminism, and Technology”. Furthermore, they aim “to integrate interdisciplinary content into scholarship by developing curricula and activities that address issues of racialization, ethnicities, power, and identity.”

Materials uploaded are made available for free, and the DOCCs (Distributed Online Collaborative Course) they set up ensure that knowledge finds itself in a two-way track: users upload their changes or offer their own presentations on a topic; knowledge production, they consider, is one of the most valuable aspects of the Network. This way the DOCCs reinvent the idea of the classroom as being a location of possibility and expand it through collaborative use thereby “destabilizing pedagogical power dynamics”.

Working together enables participants to leave their comfort zones, personally and academically. The FemTechNet Situated Knowledge Mapping Project for example creates a “live, open interactive digital map that foregrounds questions of intersubjectivity and collective responsibility” and can only be carried out through individual input from all at the table. The interactivity between students permits a depth to the map full of personal experience that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

Whilst improving the chances for indigenous women and women of color in academic circles, the problems FemTechNet came across show that technologies are gendered and racialized in use and structure because the digital divide is a social problem. Especially for these women, who are already absent from privileged circles in face-to-face discourses. However, the internet can help through globally connecting and creating a chance for bigger groups that support the so-called ‘minorities’.

The work the collective is doing is important for black feminism as it uses the internet practically thereby becoming aware of the problems the internet carries for women of color because the internet resembles the same structures as the real world. There are power relations visible; in fact, visibility is one of these power relations. If there is no way a group can make its voice heard by an audience there is little hope that change will occur. It is important that those who are not part of the academic discourse can also be heard. In the case of black feminism it is necessary to leave the academic discourse and look at what is happening on social media and on the streets. Social media is an excellent medium for raising the awareness of social problems. Because not everyone has access to a computer and not everyone learns the skills of using technology in the same way, there is the problem that those who would benefit from a social media presence remain invisible. Hence, the much needed diversity cannot always be found.

By using online courses instead of classrooms FemTechNet can guarantee a higher interaction with the participants. More ideas and problems can be exchanged. Participants who are not mobile or have no flexible time frame can still join in and by that the diversity of the group increases. Finally, the internet allows the creation of an international network that is stronger than a small group of locals. The strength not only derives from a larger number of participants but can also lead to more reflection. As FemTechNet described this situation when they thought the US American approach they took when designing their practices could be taken as a blueprint for all their global offices but experience showed that this blueprint could not be transferred to other cultures and societies. This is an aspect that can easily be overseen when putting one’s own perspective as a universal one.

In conclusion, the learning effect of the group increases by seeing the situation of others. It is difficult to take the perspective of another group than one’s own, and thus the capability of working on problems of other groups is always limited. Considering this aspect the internet and social media can help to create the missing diversity that is lacking in traditional discourses. With the self-reflection FemTechNet highlights in their text, they are giving an example for others and show a possible future for a more diverse and integrative way.

Notes:

  1. #transformDH is an academic guerrilla movement seeking to (re)define capital-letter Digital Humanities as a force for transformative scholarship by collecting, sharing, and highlighting projects that push at its boundaries and work for social justice, accessibility, and inclusion.” (#transformDH Tumblr)
  2. Zotero /zoʊˈtɛroʊ/ is a free and open-source reference management software to manage bibliographic data and related research materials (such as PDF files). Notable features include web browser integration, online syncing, generation of in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies, as well as integration with the word processors Microsoft Word, LibreOffice Writer, and Google Docs. It is produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 
  3. Scalarwww.scalar.me; use of Scalar for born-digital scholarship and cutting-edge, collections-based digital pedagogy on their campus as well as those who wish to develop their own projects showcasing institutional collections editorial and copy-editingfeature.

Digital Natives, Empowering Agents, and the Great Digital Divide

When we talk about distance learning or online learning, most of us take the perspective of the student (or parent) side. We often lose sight of the perspectives of teachers, professors, and other school/university staff to even make online learning possible. This week we changed our angle and debated how things might have to change to achieve a good online learning experience, not only during times like this, but also in the future.

The article “Facilitating Digital Access: The Role of Empowering Agents” by Zoë B. Corwin and Antar A. Tichavakunda, published in 2018, discusses the idea of digital natives, the inevitable digitalisation, and empowering agents on the bases of a study in American high schools. Part of their study was the implementation of an online game, helping the students figuring out college education, into the classroom. The teachers were supposed to help the students with the game while teaching with different media, such as laptops and computers. Two things were striking: first, there was a huge variety in the knowledge of students; second, there was a huge variety in how teachers taught the class.

The students normally considered “digital natives”, were not that ‘native’ to begin with. Not all students had the knowledge on how to use a PC or laptop for academic purposes. Many knew how to use social media but writing a formal e-mail, finding the right resources for financial aid online, or use the right and helpful tool to complete schoolwork. Even though this is the case for many students, quite a few have found a way to overcome the problem by using their social ties to older students, family members, or on social media sites to ask the questions they otherwise would not know how to find the answers to. 

For teachers, on the other hand, the approaches on how to teach with media and technology were differing widely. Some were happy to use the technological tools to help students broaden their knowledge and learn something about college. Others were uninterested and completely ignored helping the students, may it be because they were not comfortable with using technology or media themselves, or because the teaching style did not suit their pedagogy. Teachers who had a positive impact on students by providing aid in the chaotic world of technology and media are called “empowering agents” by Corwin and Tichavakunda. By the definition of the authors, these are the teachers who realised that digitalisation is inevitable, and that the only way to come to terms with this change is by transforming pedagogy, using the tools we have to help the students and fellow teachers to overcome the digital divide. 

The digital divide is still a huge part of our society, although we live in the ‘digital era’. Teachers and students alike face the challenges that digitalisation brings. Even though the study was conducted at a high school, we can still apply some of the ideas to the current situation at the university in Kiel. Besides the obvious challenges everyone faces right now with their internet connection, we should look at the problems all of us face in digital learning, which is a very new situation for the German education system. 

In our class, we discussed that the German educational system forgot to jump on the train when the digitalisation began in the 1990s – now we face the problems head on, instead of preventing them in the first place. If we give students and teachers the right tools and the proper education for these tools, digital distance learning could be a great addition to face-to-face education in the future. Online learning does not mean that it is the only way to educate, however, it could enrich it.

One more aspect I want to mention is that teachers are in a good position to help their students with overcoming the digital divide by being empowering agents, taking the time to explain useful tools, leading with confidence and showing their own flaws. Many parents cannot help their children with many educational programs, but maybe teachers, already being in the business, can provide support. I know that most of them do their best and we should not forget that teachers are humans as well. If the curriculum would comprise aspects like helpful tools for educational purposes, how to apply to a job or internship online, further education, the financial part of studying, a broader spectrum of what to expect after the Bachelor or Master, and the idea that there are also jobs in the humanities and not just the natural sciences, maybe many students (at school and university) would not feel the constant pressure and fear of the uncertain future. 

I want to conclude with an idea we had in our class. We can learn a lot from the current situation – let us embrace the change. This might not be the last pandemic of the century, so we should be prepared. That can only happen if we change the current system – giving teachers and students the right tools, the right education, and especially the confidence to use the tools to enhance the ‘normal’ school or university routine with the help of technology and media.

“Digitally Drunk”

In his blog entry “Digitally Drunk” (March 28, 2020), Simon Strick describes the challenges of digital teaching and learning as students and teachers all over the world experience it right now. He depicts how he and his colleagues suddenly become nervous before teaching an online class. The safe and usual space of the classroom is now transferred online, a realm that no one really can assess. According to Strick, we all, teachers and students, get “digitally drunk” because there is no other way than to immerse ourselves in digital spheres.

Strick draws a negative picture of online teaching. He seems to be desperate and worried about how digital learning might shape the future. From his point of view, online teaching is doomed to fail. Here, it is important to consider his profession as a teacher of humanities. He can only refer to his personal experience as someone who mainly engages with a field like media studies, cultural studies, and is, thus, far from representing a global attitude.

Nevertheless, Strick raises questions that are interesting to look at, especially from our perspective as teachers and students of humanities at Kiel University. For example, Strick is afraid of cognitive capitalism. Right now, governments and universities provide millions of Euros to improve the digital infrastructure to prepare universities for online teaching. Kiel University, for instance, announced to invest €2 million in digitalization. This money is, first and foremost, used to buy licenses for online conference tools like Zoom or Adobe Connect. Most of these companies providing programs for online meetings are profit-oriented. Strick is, therefore, afraid of the commodification of digitalization and, consequently, education. Most students do not seem to share this fear. They rather wonder if there is a way around these companies if you want to conduct an online class. The answer is yes. DFNconf, a video conference platform that is used by teachers at Kiel University, is run by a non-profit organization. Also, BigBlueButton and OpenOLAT, which are mainly used at Kiel University, are open-source products. Thus, there are alternatives to the big players. Even though they might not be as optically appealing as their commercial options, they are also preferable in terms of privacy policies.

Another point Strick raises in his blog entry is his fear of the effects of digital learning on how classes deal with difficult topics. We all agree that teaching is emotional. Especially cultural studies are highly affective. They live from discussions within the community in the safe space of an offline classroom. Here, we often deal with challenging issues like racism. Such demanding topics need a realm in which students and teachers can tackle them together. These topics require the mindfulness only physical presence can provide. Online teaching makes discussions like this awkward since you cannot see your fellow students and their reactions. It is difficult to transfer the needed mindfulness of an offline class to an online seminar. The safe space that is invoked by the collective that students form in the classroom is lost.

Online teaching also requires forms of presentations that work digitally. But is it possible to convey critical knowledge with those? Interestingly, students report that they expected to feel more comfortable discussing challenging topics in an online class due to spatial distance. This impression has changed completely. Now, online classes bring difficult issues to students’ homes. University and personal life are intertwined. This also supports Strick’s claim that there is no such thing as a home office but only a home where you usually eat, sleep, relax, and now also work. In every online class, we experience that those spheres cannot be separated. There is always some factor that interrupts the flow of an online class.

Strick consequently questions if the epistemology of teaching subjects like culture or media studies is restricted by technology. Maybe digitalization is too young to predict how teaching humanities will develop in the future. Nonetheless, a commentator on Strick’s blog entry wonders why someone who deals with media studies for a living does not come up with more creative approaches to teaching. At Kiel University, students think that smaller classes with about 10 people improve the experience of online teaching since students are then more willing to respond to questions. There are ways to enhance the online collaboration of students and teachers, for instance, using online discussion boards, integrating whiteboard, or writing collaborative essays. Yet, ideas like this need more time to be implemented.

Strick mentions that after being drunk, there often follows a hangover. Only the first month of this digital semester is over and students and teachers in Kiel already seem to be digitally hungover. Online teaching is perceived as tiring since everyone hardly gets away from the screen. But despite all the challenges digital learning and teaching provide especially for classes of humanities and which Strick is worried about, there are still ways to cover challenging topics in an online class, even without commodifying education.

Digital Confusion

In Bryan Alexander’s “Beyond the Virtual Learning Environment”, a central chapter of his Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education (2020), each little subchapter deals with another digital experience one can find in the academic world. From online learning and the different modes one can find there to the utensils that are being used at the time of writing, everything is mentioned with specific examples as well as the pros and cons. The text shows how often digital media can be found in academia today and lists advantages and disadvantages that come with all of them. Here, Alexander tells the audience about different technologies such as learning management systems, social media, gaming, videos, virtual reality and 3D printing. These technologies are supposed to make learning and access to it easier for many people.

In the current situation, people have the unique opportunity to test a lot of these technologies without having a choice as no one can leave the house and professors, teachers, staff, students, museums, libraries, etc. have to work with the digital format and technologies available to them. One prominent example that we here at Kiel university have to deal with at the moment is, of course, online learning. For the students in Kiel this seems to be somewhat problematic as there are many different platforms they have to use. An integrated solution would make usage easier. In Kiel there is one platform where the students can look at their classes and interact with their classmates and professors in writing. This can happen in certain forums where little discussions might be held or via E-mail directly provided over the platform. Then there are different platforms that can be used for video or audio conferences. Here, the professor will decide which one to use, so you might have different tools in different classes. This brings with it the experience of many new tools/systems that have to be learned to be used, both by students and staff. During the discussion in our class it came up that this might have to do with the type of situation we have to deal with now since this is a “we have no other choice; getting thrown into cold water”-situation no one could have anticipated beforehand. Another problem that universities now have to deal with is finance. To get the best of the best and get one integrated system where students and professors alike can find all functions needed to learn successfully is expensive. Most universities just don’t have the means to immediately start online learning with a functioning platform where everyone knows exactly what to do and how to use it.

For students in Kiel, this obstacle of having various platforms to use and also working entirely from home brings another problem with it. Motivation and enthusiasm are lacking for many of the students. To get up and start working is different when you’re at home where you get easily distracted and quickly find something you would rather do. Enthusiasm is lacking for many because they find it exhausting to work with so many different systems and platforms and that there is not one way to do it. Each professor might use another platform and another style to teach online which can become stressful and off-putting for many.

So, is online learning a good alternative for students? Here, the opinions differ. Some like to work from home and don’t see a big difference towards studying at university. Others have more problems adjusting and try their hardest to not give up. For the future, when the pandemic is over, I would like to see some techniques of online learning combined with normal teaching. The best of both worlds so to speak. To get open access to various publications is something that is very nice as well as the possibility of working more independently and getting to choose the time to work more freely. However, for this to happen there is still some room to grow at the university in Kiel. One integrated platform for everything would be one step into the right direction.