URI Women’s Studies faculty members become students

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KINGSTON, R.I. –February 26, 2009–Twelve University of Rhode Island faculty members are reversing roles this semester by becoming students to improve the use of online courses. The group is studying the best practices of online teaching to design courses that spark student incentive and creativity while demanding accountability. The project is supported by a $5,000 National Education Association Learning and Leadership grant, the first NEA grant to be won in R.I. since 2001.

In just two years, the number of students taking women’s studies courses online has jumped from 160 to 280. Students like online courses for the ability to do homework any time and any place. Students who work full-time or live far away, including other countries, also have the opportunity to take courses they might not otherwise be able to take. Some students also prefer the added rigor of online courses, where students cannot be quiet during the semester, but have to respond in writing to readings and their classmates. Women’s studies also offers some blended classes, which combine online with face-to-face teaching, gaining the benefits of both.

Another incidental benefit of online courses in women’s studies is that more men sign up for the online sections of “Introduction to Women’s Studies” and “Men and Masculinities” than they do in person. “Online courses provide a way for men to share their feminist interests and concerns, but in private,” says Jody Lisberger, interim director of URI’s Women’s Studies Program. “I wish they felt less reluctant to join face-to-face classes.”

Students and faculty also agree on some drawbacks to online classes. Students say that if their classmates post responses too close to the deadline, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to post a response by the due date. Some worry that they won’t get to know their classmates as they do in a classroom, worry that online courses depend on good writing skills, and say that the technology does not promote in-depth discussions.

Faculty also say that online teaching is actually harder than face-to-face teaching—considerable time is spent checking online postings, responding individually to students, reading discussion boards, following up on students who don’t adequately post, and so on. They also express concern about cheating and repetitive kinds of responses. They are keen, however, to learn best practices to make their involvement sensibly productive.

Women’s Studies is an interdisciplinary, multi-perspective, and boundary-crossing discipline. Online courses give it more flexibility and outreach. Since only two of its core faculty members are full-time employees, and since its 20 affiliated full-time faculty members often also teach in other departments, the program relies considerably on part-time faculty.

According to Lisberger the NEA grant provides the opportunity to pay part-time employees for their professional development—a benefit she feels is important.

The project calls for two half-day workshops that provide active lessons to demonstrate the basics for creating and posting on Sakai, the new online platform URI will be using as of next September, and to learn how to avoid some of the pitfalls of online teaching such as uninspired questions and responses, poor student attentiveness, risks of cheating, lack of student camaraderie, faculty burn-out and so on. The women’s studies faculty will lead a final workshop in May, inviting any other URI faculty members who wish to learn more about online teaching to come and discuss the effective uses of online teaching.