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An assortment of mishapen safety pins

Complicating “flexibility” in online learning from a feminist perspective

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

This post is cross-posted from the Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online blog where it was originally published on March 15, 2022

The best of intentions

When I put together the syllabus for my “Introduction to Critical Disability Studies” class this term, I deliberately made the schedule, assignments, and grading policy maximally flexible (and I was proud of the final result). These decisions included a fully asynchronous format, multiple options for how to engage with each assignment, complete/incomplete grading for all class activities, and flexible due dates. 

No sooner had I distributed the syllabus to students than I began to understand some of the flaws of my plan. For example, I had set up the “weekly rhythm” of the class so that I would post materials on Sunday, one discussion assignment was due each week on Thursday, and another was due each week on Sunday (again, these are not firm due dates, and there are no penalties for late submissions) (Figure 1). A student approached me to discuss questions about class about a week in, and I was surprised when she said she might need to drop the class because the schedule did not work well with hers. “The class is asynchronous, and assignments can be turned in late,” I thought to myself, “How could that model create a conflict with a students’ schedule?” 

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday


Instructor overview video released 


Instructor office hours: 10:30am to 11:30am

Optional Zoom check-in: Time TBD based on student schedules


Small group reading response activity due

Instructor office hours: 7pm to 8pm




Whole class activity contribution due

Some weeks: Final project components or reflections due

Weekly readings/ assignments posted
Figure 1: Weekly schedule for asynchronous class – all “due dates” are flexible

The student further explained that she only had time to work on the course assignments on the weekend because she was taking care of her kids and working most of the weekdays. The weekly course schedule as planned did not allow her to have a full weekend each week to devote to the readings and assignments, especially the one was released on Sunday and “due” on Thursday. She knew she could hand in assignments late, but that wasn’t appealing because it made her feel out of sync with the rest of the course, as she would need to hand virtually all assignments after they were “due”. I decided that I would adjust the schedule so that all assignments would be posted the Friday before the first assignment was due, ensuring that all students had a full weekend to complete all assignments. 

Flexibility for whom?

Reflecting on this encounter, I realized that I had been working with a flawed mental model of asynchronous and flexible learning: that such learning environments are by definition accessible because they allow students to choose the time and place that they participate in course activities. Houlden and Veletsianos (2018) critique the “anytime, anywhere” approach to online learning in an article entitled “A posthumanist critique of flexible online learning and its ‘anytime anyplace’ claims.” The authors note that learning online takes considerable effort on the part of students (and I would add instructors) and that “this effort will be determined and constrained by multiple variables, from things like responsibilities in home life, ability and digital literacies, to financial resources and access to necessary technology.” Even when students can theoretically select the time and place that they participate in the course, the times and places they have to choose from vary based on identity and privilege. While an online asynchronous course is certainly flexible enough for a student without home Internet access to participate (perhaps they work an hour each evening at the library), their experience is radically different from that of a student with 24/7 broadband access at their home. My weekly material release schedule provides flexibility for a student whose weeks all look pretty similar, but what about a student who has substantial child care only one weekend out of every two?

Houlden and Veletsianos identify the “flexibility” of online asynchronous learning as a construct worthy of further scrutiny, and I suggest adding the flexibility of “ungrading” approaches (like my complete/incomplete grading plan) and general flexibility in the style of Universal Design for Learning to this category. All of these without a doubt could be described as feminist approaches to teaching. They invite students to exercise choice and agency, and complicate the paradigm of “instructor as authority” by giving students more control over their learning experience. They may also be compatible with the idea from disability culture known as “crip time,” which “bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds” rather than expecting them to conform to normative schedules and deadlines (Kafer 2013, Samuels 2017)  However, the implementation of these methods should not come at the expense of another key tenet of feminist pedagogy: honoring lived experience. To me, being a feminist teacher means resisting the idea that there is one silver bullet course design approach or pedagogy that can solve all inequities in one fell swoop, and that the “data” of lived experiences is bound to complicate (and improve) any teaching and learning approach that we engage with, including that of “flexibility.”

Flexibility, but not without dialogue

After I made the change to the weekly schedule, another student approached me with some feedback from a student WhatsApp group chat of which I am not a part: Simply having two separate discussions a week was an excessive cognitive burden for some students, as were the two due dates per week, and created unnecessary stress. Could we manage with one longer discussion per week? This time I was less quick to defend myself by insisting that everything is still “flexible,” (so there should be no problem) and the students and I are now engaged in a conversation about how to make the workload manageable while still achieving most of their and my goals for the course. I am coming to learn that centering “flexibility” on its own without truly being in dialogue with students about how they are experiencing the course risks sidelining students’ lived experiences. Even having done the work to implement an inclusive pedagogy, we are “not free to desist” from the work of responding to students’ real interests and needs, and I thank my students for engaging in this dialogue with me. 

References

Houlden, S., & Veletsianos, G. (2019). A posthumanist critique of flexible online learning and its “anytime anyplace” claims. British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(3), 1005-1018. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12779

Kafer, A. (2013). Feminist, queer, crip. Indiana University Press.

Samuels, E. (2017). Six ways of looking at crip time. Disability studies quarterly, 37(3). https://doi.org/10.18061/dsq.v37i3.5824

Photo by Dan-Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

Reading time estimation from https://niram.org/read/

Sarah Silverman is an Instructional Designer in the Hub for Teaching and Learning Resources at the University of Michigan – Dearborn. You can read more about Sarah on her author page.

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