Claske DIJKEMA, November 2003
A shovel in the information age
Online courses as tool in articulating women’s knowledge.
“If they’d give me a shovel in this communication age maybe I’d have kept my mouth shut and done something today”, said an American songwriter (1). Let this text not refer to us. Let’s both open our mouths and to do something today!
The ‘digital divide’ is usually thought of in terms of the gap between those who have access to digital information and those who do not. Information accessible on the Internet increases at a rate of 8 million pages per day. An essential part of new information that we receive is taken from the internet and, if we did not receive it from there, then those who are responsible for the information source, which is transferred by more traditional media, have likely retrieved their information from the World Wide Web. However, the percentage of all information, which is put on the Internet by providers in developing countries, is currently smaller than the percentage of all information downloaded from the Internet by users in developing countries. Within this context of the information society, the global North is shaping our current views of the world. There is an enormous lack of online information that is premised in the insight and experiences from women and organisations in the South. Providing increasing access to information for groups that are currently left out is not enough. They should not only be at the receiving side, but we should be looking for ways in which groups that are currently left out can help to make themselves heard. By articulating their knowledge and making it part of the information society, a part of society becomes visible that up till now remains unseen. Given the fact that we are addressing at this conference gender matters specifically, the main question of this paper is: “How can online courses help articulating women’s knowledge?".
The Network University (TNU) has recently developed an online course on gender and conflict transformation that aims to be a tool for participants for creating knowledge and not for only receiving knowledge. The statements in this paper are based on my experience developing and moderating this course. Before going into the course design, I will first give some background on The Network University.
The Network University is a virtual university, with its roots in the University of Amsterdam. It works with an extensive network of institutions in the North and South and has recently developed and held an online course on gender and conflict transformation. In its course, The Network University promotes the active interdisciplinary exchange of information, knowledge and practices at the international, regional and local levels in order to spearhead social transformation and make a difference in the lives of local communities.
The course on gender and conflict transformation is designed to allow participants to tap into their ‘tacit’ knowledge’, i.e. that which has not yet been written down and only exists in the heads of people. Furthermore the design of the course allows an interaction to take place between this ‘tacit’, experiential and theoretical knowledge. TNU engages participants to constantly shift from their own experience to existing theories and best practices. Eventually, The course brings participants into direct contact with a host consisting of institutions, individual experts and scholars from different universities. Together they build a shared knowledge base that provides opportunities for dissemination of the course results. Figure 1 shows such a network of individuals and types of organisations that are involved in the gender and conflict course.
Fig. 1 : The individuals and types of organisations that are involved in the gender and conflict course.
Up until now the course has been given 3 times to 50 people representing all continents. The largest part of the participants is female (64%) and is African from origin (38%), as shown in the Figure 2. TNU’s experience with online courses shows that this form of learning provides opportunities that specifically fit the needs of women in developing countries.
Online education provides great opportunities for women for a number of reasons. Because of the position many women hold in society, women more so than men might not find the time and the means to leave their homes and families to receive formal education and to share their information far away from home. Their knowledge and information remains local and regional and as a result national and international levels are deprived of the input of these women.
Furthermore women’s knowledge is often experiential, tacit and not formed in formal educational institutions. The method TNU has developed takes into account the gap between theoretical and experiential knowledge. Theoretical knowledge is representing a western approach to truth and is based on research performed by formal educational institutions, mainly in North America and Europe. In many cases, this type of knowledge doesn’t suit the reality of women living in developing countries.
Fig. 2 : Bar diagram showing the number of course participants and their origin.
Other factors in the design of the online courses that make them a gender-sensitive tool in making women’s voices heard are that the courses can cost-effectively reach and connect women that feel in other ways isolated. In addition, online courses offer a secure space in which women can articulate their ideas without being interrupted by fellow participants or coaches and without being influenced by the approving or disapproving body language of their audience. Online communication takes place without the usual hierarchy of face-to-face encounters. Experience has shown that participants are often more inclined to share their thoughts in an online environment than ‘in real life’. Based on these specific needs that women have in society, TNU has for the past 8 years been working on developing a way that allows women to become aware of their ‘tacit’ knowledge, to value it and to make it explicit so their opinions can no longer be ignored.
The method TNU has developed to articulate women’s knowledge and to bridge the gap between experiential and theoretical knowledge is based on interaction: interaction with experts, with provided texts and with fellow participants. Figure 3 shows each of these forms of interaction pointing to concrete course tools that facilitate this interaction. This paper will not go in to each of the concrete tools but will discuss the general idea behind the different forms of interaction.
A network of experts guides the participants through the course, invites them to share their points of view and frames experiential knowledge in existing theories. Experts do this through reviewing the assignments and engaging them with questions going back and forth in e-mail or posed in the call centre. Participants in TNU’s programme are automatically embedded into international networks and thus are able to link in to learning experiences and new practices that extend beyond the narrow focus of their own country or region.
Fig. 3 : Interaction between with experts, theory and fellow participants and the concrete course tools that facilitate this interaction.
Participants do not follow the programmes in isolation to one another but as part of an intensely interactive group that communicates through pop-up messages, i.e. software that allows sending messages that pop-up on the screen of fellow participants who are simultaneously online. Furthermore, participants build on each other’s experience in discussion forums. Eventually they can also fall back on the experiences articulated by former participants through reading their assignments or through the fact that their experiences have been integrated into the programme.
Since online courses allow texts to be highly flexible and interactive, participants can feed into existing theories by adding their experiences that could either support or contradict the existing theories. Unlike in traditional offline training programmes, good ideas are all recorded in written form and can therefore easily be integrated into future versions of the online workshops. In this way, a cumulative learning experience is created that allows each group of participants to build upon the work of former participants (rather than their just going through the same process again).
Discussion and conclusion:
Apart from sharing our positive experience with the gender and conflict transformation course, I would also like mention briefly where I have identified a gap between the ideal and real. Up to know knowledge dissemination of the results of the three courses has been limited. Currently, we are looking for ways to communicate the wealth of information that has been generated in the courses, through research articles, online publications, reports or a public accessible database?
In this paper I have discussed how online courses can be an important tool for making women’s voices heard. Online courses allow women all over the world to articulate their tacit knowledge and make it explicit. Online courses should be designed and managed by networks of experts who, together with the participants establish information exchange from local to international levels and cut across science, practice and policy.
(1) : Vic Chesnutt, Album Drunk, song Gluefoot. vicchesnutt.cupantae.com/drunk.html