Engendering Development Needs: 'Doing' Gender Through Distance Learning In The English-Speaking Caribbean
Yasmeen Yusuf-Khalil, Centre for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Unit, University of the West Indies, Mona
The term ‘distance education’ conjures up different images for different persons depending on where in the world they are situated. For persons in economically affluent societies distance education revolves primarily around practices requiring use of “high” technology. Distance education for such persons is usually synonymous to online, web-based learning and real time (synchronous) learning activities with less reliance on delayed (asynchronous) learning that is dependent on the printed text. In developing countries such as the Caribbean, where this distance programme is situated, however, it is mainly understood as delayed (asynchronous) learning and mixed modes of learning facilitated through ‘low’ technology. This conception however is not based on lack of knowledge of the benefits of ‘high’ technology and its potential as a mechanism through which change can be accomplished in the region, but by the reality that considerations of economic constraints as well as cultural implications must serve as primary ‘drivers’ in the conception of a distance programme if it is to be successful. As the instructional designer/Programme Coordinator of an Undergraduate Diploma Programme in Gender and Development Studies I was cognizant of this fact, especially in view of the context, which required a shift from the traditional behavioural paradigm that objectifies learners and reduces them to passive learners, to a feminist approach that requires active learners.
In the remainder of his paper I will examine the context in which this Diploma Programme in Gender and Development Studies evolved, the underlying frameworks influencing its design, the choice of pedagogy and philosophy and the distinctiveness of the Caribbean situation that accounts for the corresponding choice of technology. Essentially my thesis is pedagogy must not be “derailed” at the expense of promoting “high” technology. In designing this distance programme, therefore, consideration for the cultural context of the participants and desirable pedagogy took precedence over choice of technology used. Consideration therefore became how best to find appropriate “low” technology that could adequately do the job. The paper concludes with insights into future implications for the target group and the programme design.
Issues of unequal power have long been a deterrent to national development in Caribbean societies. With the conclusion of the Bejing Platform for Action in which governments were called upon to challenge their existing social structures and to create opportunities for women, and the subsequent Millennium Development goals in 2000, many governments in the region have now committed to promoting gender equality. This commitment however requires individuals with not only understandings of gender issues but skills to challenge existing structures of inequality, particularly those based on gender and to create opportunities for promoting gender equality. In response to this need the Centre for Gender and Development Studies, Regional Coordinating Unit (CGDSRCU) at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), in 2003, introduced the 18-month distance Undergraduate Diploma Programme in Gender and Development Studies. The programme was intended to equip individuals with the understandings and skills to challenge existing structures of inequality, particularly those based on gender, and to create opportunities for promoting gender equality. The programme aimed to develop a cadre of persons in the Caribbean who would both acquire the skills of gender analysis and be willing to challenge existing social structures and promote change in their respective societies. These understandings and skills are of particular relevance at this time to personnel charged with the responsibility of carrying forward governments’ mandate for change.
The rationale for this distance programme was structured primarily around three frameworks. One framework emerged from the mission and objectives of the CGDSRCU, which articulate a commitment to a programme of teaching, research and outreach in which gender and other related factors are used as tools of analysis in the generation and reconstruction of knowledge, which acts as a catalyst for change. The second framework emerged from issues raised in the Bejing Platform for Action. These had been identified as critical issues in the region and served as stimulus for the initial conceptualization of the programme. This was a precursor to the Millennium Development Goals of which goal three, “the empowerment of women”, now drives the programme. The third and final framework emerged from the strategic goals of UWI to expand access to students in the Caribbean region through distance learning to achieve qualitative transformation. To promote the type of change envisioned, modern technology is viewed by UWI as a major force for not only triggering change but as a mechanism though which change can be accomplished (Leo-Rhynie, 2006).
The CGDSRCU responded to this challenge through development of a distance mode prgramme. The intention was to expand the reach of the CGDS’ teaching programmes to groups geographically distanced from the three main teaching campuses of the University, and therefore to target individuals in the twelve non-campus countries. All three frameworks came together to influence the design of the distance Undergraduate Programme in Gender and Development Studies. However, while the need for modern technology for the 21st century features prominently in the UWI vision for expansion and access to students, the current facilities of UWI and the context of the target group for this distance programme did not make it feasible to use ‘high’ technology. The benefit of “high” technology, though a valuable tool, was not considered the best way to proceed then to meet the particular needs of this target group.
Conceptualization of this programme design required careful examination of the aims of the programme and its compatibility with the course content, the implications of pedagogy for teaching Gender Studies as a discipline and the underlying philosophy required to ‘drive’ the programme. These considerations consequently placed the target group and their cultural context at the nucleus of the curriculum design process. .
The Target Group - Distinctiveness of the Caribbean Reality
It’s within this framework, mediated by the specific characteristics of participants, that the decision for the type of technology to be used was made.
Participants targeted for this programme were adult women and men working in non-governmental organisations (NGOs), Women’s Bureaux, community and international development agencies, social service agencies and national planning institutions. While there have been a few exceptions, this target group usually consisted of persons in their 40s. With this age group, implications for the type of technology used in the programme became a critical issue. Participants were intimidated by computer technology. Access to personal computers was limited, and consequently any reliance on this technology would mean mainly using the limited facilities of the computer lab at the UWI local centres, or use of computers in the work place if available. In some cases computers were available in workplaces but there was no Internet access. Participants also entered with different academic qualifications ranging from low level matriculation to persons with masters degrees. Consideration for the design of the programme was further complicated because participants’ initial orientation to learning had made them highly dependent on the teacher. This held implications for achievement of the programme aims through the application of “feminist pedagogy”.
Given the diversity of participants in the programme, and inadequate “high” technology to facilitate distance learning, very creative planning was needed to find the best mix between pedagogy and available technology that could achieve the following aims of the programme:
The first aim was facilitated through print mode in the form of course manuals distributed to students through their local Centres. The second, although not explicitly stated is to develop the participants as “change agents”, given the course content and the programme rationale. However, given the constraints already mentioned, this posed some challenges.
The cluster of eight courses in the programme was included primarily to address
a range of critical gender issues pertinent to the Caribbean region, including
issues of economics and development, education, health, religion and the law.
In addition to these critical issues two courses, one on feminist theory and
another on research methods, were included to provide learners with a theoretical
and practical base for conducting gender analyses. Theory is viewed as an essential
element in the programme. According to bell hooks (2000, p.6) “Everything
we do in life is rooted in theory. Whether we consciously explore the reasons
we have a particular perspective or take a particular action there is also an
underlying system shaping thought and practice”. Both theory and research
served to form the integrative thread for the other courses in the programme
and therefore influenced the sequence of the eight courses. Both were also essential
for the Research Project.
Nature of Gender Studies as a Discipline
Ideally, the location of Gender Studies within feminist academic enterprise required use of “feminist pedagogy”. In this programme “feminist pedagogy” was taken to mean teaching practices that removed structures of domination [dictators within the classroom], promoted student accountability, and aided self actualization and life-long learning. The term “feminist pedagogy” however, is not clearly defined in the literature. One may even argue that there is no such approach. However, since the imperatives that propel Gender Studies require interrogation of knowledge, a constructivist theory of learning was selected as the most suitable working definition for the programme design. Constructivism, a contrasting view to the objectivist/behaviorist model, and more in keeping with feminist views of knowledge, saw knowledge as being constructed rather than received.
Achieving “feminist pedagogy” would require moving from a teacher-centred to a learner-centred learning environment. This would not be an easy achievement given the target group’s orientation to learning which was rooted in an objectivist model where teaching is highly structured, systematic and teacher directed, relegating learners to passive receptacles of knowledge. The challenge in using this pedagogy therefore was how best to successfully implement it given the constraints inherent in the target group’s years of orientation to learning that made them highly dependent on the teacher. This was further exacerbated because in addition to their learning orientation, distance learning was new to the target group. For the distance learner who lacks autonomy and self-directiveness, isolation, the enemy of the distance learner, can become a serious problem, resulting in student drop-out from the programme. The challenge, therefore, was to negotiate the critical space between student support from the instructor to prevent student isolation, and development of autonomy on the part of the student.
Philosophical Underpinnings of the Programme
A common phenomenon of curricula practice is the tendency for each curriculum to take on the individual philosophy of its users, primarily the instructors providing instruction. This phenomenon in teaching can lead to the derailment of the overall goals of a programme if individual instructors hold contrary and divergent philosophies. Being cognizant of this I deliberately sought to avoid this by including instructors on a regular basis in dialogue that articulated the philosophy of the programme and encouraged discussion on how best to achieve this philosophy in individual courses. This turned out to be an important feature of this programme as it kept instructors focused on both the process and the end- product.
The underlying philosophy of this programme was grounded in assumptions of the adult learner, as postulated by Malcolm Knowles, and in the principles advocated for adult learning. Consequently, the learning environment created for adult learners in this programme sought to accommodate the unique characteristics of the adult learner (Knowles, 1984). These assumptions encouraged a shift from the subject-centred, most familiar to the participants, to a problem-centered approach, making the programme learner-centred in focus. Thus learning in the programme goes beyond acquiring information and critical and analytical skills but more importantly to developing the type of understanding that empowers the learner to challenge existing social inequalities and promote change based on gendered analyses.
Having decided on the important features in the design of the programme the next challenge was to find the best combination of available technology to engender development needs in the implementation of the programme.
ENGENDERING DEVELOPMENT NEEDS - THE ROLE OF PEDAGOGY AND TECHNOLOGY
IN THE PROGRAMME
In keeping with the philosophical considerations, as well as concerns related
to distance learning, implementation began with a formal "needs assessment"
of the adults, which measured their comfort level with, and competency in, the
field of gender studies as well as with the use of technology. This assessment
provided facilitators with guidelines for implementing a learner-centred programme.
The objective was to create a learning environment which would challenge students
who already had a formal understanding of the area of Gender Studies, as well
as create for those who needed it, a climate conducive to developing the requisite
initial understandings and skills. Learners were subsequently provided with
opportunities [through learning activities and individual feedback] that coincided
with their individual situations and levels of competency.
Technology was utilized in two ways: (i) to facilitate the art of teaching
adult learners (andragogy) and (ii) to maintain ongoing communication between
students and facilitators as well as among students. In the second case, the
objective is to provide student support and promote a community of learners
that would eliminate isolation of learners. The tools used most frequently were
e-mail and chat rooms and when required, telephone conversations. The underlying
intention was to introduce available electronic technology incrementally to
meet the needs of learners and allow for participatory methodologies that best
exemplify feminist approaches in learning.
Course assessment involved a variety of methods that supported the underlying philosophy of the programm. Assessment strategies such as journal writing, discussions, and problem based essays required use of interviews and other techniques to gather data to incorporate in written essays or oral discussions. These offered better opportunities for meaningful learning and accountability for adult learners. In addition, these approaches allowed participants to build on their work experiences, use data from their local contexts and allow for individualised learning. There was no written examination.
For completion of the 18-month programme students were also required to do a small research project. This allowed learners to focus on a topic related to gender studies that is of interest to them, and to apply skills as a “change agent”.
This distance programme continues its cyclical process. Consequently ongoing evaluation and needs assessment of participants serve as important elements in its renewal each academic year. Key findings in terms of the challenges experienced, best practices, and lessons learned are listed below:
A major challenge for this programme has been implementing a “feminist
pedagogy” because of the constraints of technology that did not allow
for adequate “discussion” sessions outside of teleconference classes
and independent of an instructor. It was also challenging to achieve a learner-centred
environment because of students’ former orientation to learning that promoted
the “Banking Concept” of education (Freire, 1970).
Some of the best practices that lead to successful learning include the following:
Glimpse into the Future
bell hooks (2000) Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics.
Canada: South End Press.
Girvan, Norman (1991). “Notes on the Meaning and Significance of Development.”
In Mohammed and Shepherd (eds.) Gender in Caribbean Development. Jamaica:
Canoe Press UWI. pp 13- 22
Sen, A. (2000) Development as freedom. New York: First Anchor Books