Technology and Gender Equality

The inclusion of technology in education can most certainly help or hinder students, specifically the disenfranchised. When used appropriately, technology tools can allow users to reach beyond their immediate lives and situations to examine places, people, cultures and practices that they would not ordinarily be able to reach. However, when placed in situations where there are issues with inequitable access, anyone who is unable to access certain tools, can be at a severe disadvantage.  With regards to technology, there are many groups that, for one reason or another, fall under the “disenfranchised” category. One such group is females.  This  issue of inequality based on gender is nothing new. Unfortunately, it is one that women and young girls have battled for generations. Within the context of education, the inclusion of  technology  has the potential to bridge the gap between gender inequality.

In their Op-Ed piece, Setting an online example in educating women, Lisa L. Martin and Barbara F. Walter suggest that massive open online courses or MOOCs taught by professors in the United States, and extended globally, have the potential to reach  anyone in the world who has access to the Internet. What this means is that we have an opportunity to change the landscape of gender consciousness in the the world. One strategy for accomplishing this, as suggested by Martin and Walter, is for universities to be thoughtful about who teaches online courses. After presenting data that suggest some major universities are employing mostly male instructors, they recommend that these universities make a concerted effort to include females as well because, “by having female scholars teach online classes, U.S. universities could help empower women, which in turn could affect economic development, poverty, governance and more. Signal to the world at the very best scholars from the  best universities include women, and you signal to the world that educating women is important.” What this suggests is that technology, if used purposefully, consciously and fairly, has the potential to reshape cultural, as well as global, consciousness.  Of course, not everyone in the world will have access to these opportunities and arguably, those in remote places are the ones who would benefit the most, yet I do believe that it is a great place to begin.

In addition to playing a role in shifting global consciousness, technology also presents us the opportunity to reveal truths to our students that they may not otherwise be able to learn.  A few years ago, I found that many of my students, both males and females, were very much unaware of gender inequality in the United States and certainly around the world.  Consequently, I suggested adding Sold by Patricia McCormick to our sophomore curriculum.  

soldWithin this unit, students are able to hear the voice of young Nepalese girl who is sold as a sex slave by her stepfather.  Using her naive voice, she shows us the horrors of brothels and as readers, we witness her tremendous loss of innocence.  Each time we read the series of vignettes, several students would look to me and ask, “Did this really happen?”  It was then that some of my colleagues and I decided that we needed to bring them even closer to the realities of these children around the world who are about the same age as them. Of course, we looked to technology for help and found The Day My God Died, a heart wrenching PBS documentary about  sex trafficking in India. The end of the documentary features an organization that is dedicated to reuniting young women with their families.  After viewing, many of my students found themselves looking up that, and other organizations, which would allow them to help in some way, reinforcing how technology can widen one’s personal world, while at the same time, narrow  the space between human experiences.

While technology can be used to gain information that can lead to a greater awareness of, and hopefully actions toward, gender awareness, I have not found much evidence in my own classroom to suggest that it affects student performance and participation differently based on gender.  When presenting my students with technology tools and opportunities to advocate for themselves using technology, I am very thoughtful about how those tools will support their learning experiences. I find that the willingness to engage in thoughtful and sustained online inquiry is something that all of my students are working on and those that struggle cannot be categorized based on gender.  I do acknowledge that in some situations, like the ones discussed in App Allows Shy Students To Ask Questions Anonymously, female learners can sometimes experience difficulty, especially in competitive situations where they lack a supportive network.  In those cases, reaching out through technology to sites like Piazza can support their performance and participation.

Like any other teaching tool, when used appropriately, technology can help gender equality in the classroom in that it increases exposure and brings us all a bit closer to truths and understandings that might conflict with those that we hold.  It is in these moments of confrontation that, if we are are open to new revelations about ourselves and others, we can begin to shift our beliefs and if enough of us do it, we can shift our collective consciousness.

Image Source for SOLD by Patricia McCormick




Reflective Thoughts (and Plans) for My Digital Hub

One of the things that I have been thinking about in regards to my digital hub is how it can be a relevant and integral part of teaching and learning for my students, myself, as well as anyone who visits it.  At the beginning of the school year, when I first created my hub, I was unsure of how it would support my teaching and student learning. However, as I continue to use it more and more, I am finding ways to make it a living part of what I do each day.

In my opinion, the best feature of my hub is the section of  homework pages for all of my classes. On these pages, I post handouts, information about daily class lessons, homework assignments and due dates.  Although I encourage students to still use their planners and digital calendars, I am pleased to be able to provide a space where they can always go to access relevant information about our course. This comes in extremely handy when students are absent from class and also when parents need to check to be sure that their children are completing assignments. A more recent bonus has been with homebound tutoring. Although I have not started this yet, I plan to use my hub as a means of direct communication with both tutors and their students. At this point, I am unsure as to whether or not I will create a separate section on my sidebar dedicated to tutors or if I will simply direct tutors to the appropriate pages. In any case, I feel that sharing this content online will allow for easy access by anyone who needs it.

I am also looking forward to adding content that has been created by my students.  Most recently, students in my freshman classes have started to create book reviews for nonfiction choice texts, as well as visual components which includes either a digital book jacket, a commercial using platforms like Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, Animoto, and also a digital storyboard. Although I had some questions about the legality of posting their reviews and visuals on my hub, I think that I have come up with a good solution, which is to have students select an excerpt from their reviews and tailor it for the purpose of posting online. I will then create a page where those reviews are reflected without names.  Of course, there is a huge part of me that wants to attribute credit to my students for their work, so I will continue to investigate what I can actually post and whether or not their names can be included. I feel as though with this future addition of content, my hub will serve an additional purpose which will be for a larger audience.

Another feature of my hub is that it has pages for various works that we have been studying.  So far, I have created a page for  Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury on which I included an interview that students were required to watch on their own, a Ted talk from Sherry Turkle which related to our study of the text, several articles that are conceptually linked to the text and a full text version of the novel. I have also created pages dedicated to short stories written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. So far, I have full text versions of two short stories and an article from the Wall Street Journal that we will be exploring during the unit. I have found that these become valuable resources that my students are able use during their studies.

Although my hub is functioning somewhat well, I am considering many improvements.  First, I would like to change the layout of my hub. When I created it, I chose a default theme; however at this point, I feel as though I would like to update its look.  One of my concerns with changing it now is that my students have already become acclimated to it and its look. If I change it now, do I have to help them become reacclimated? I think the answer is yes but it might be a quick announcement to students that the appearance has changed, but that all the pertinent information is still there.

If I were to choose a section of my hub that needs the most work, I would say that it is the attention to various audiences. Currently, my main audience is my students and as such, the pages are separated by different classes. My plan is to extend the audience, which means that I need to create sections that are dedicated to educators and perhaps even parents. Further, I need to define sections dedicated to multimodal tutorials, lesson plans, etc. I would also like to include some other cool features including a “word of the day,” but I need to figure out how to accomplish that.

In short, I feel as though my hub is becoming a key part of my professional identity and I believe that over the next few months and even years, it will reflect me as an educator, the work that I do, and my desire to share important content with targeted audiences.

Implications of Avatars

Image of woman looking in mirror

Image Source

As I reflect on my personal identity, I realize that, over the course of the different phases of my life, I assumed different identities.  Those identities mostly depended on where I was living at the time, what I was doing, and the people who surrounded me.  If I am being honest, I will have to admit, that it was not until a few years ago, when I reached my mid-thirties, that I really started to focus less on who I thought people wanted me to be and began working on displaying for myself and others, who I really am. As an adolescent, I did not have a sense of my identity because I was too busy trying to assume the identities of others. As a young teacher, I latched on to a few excellent teachers and literally pretended to be them in my classroom. As a young mother, I found women who I believed were excellent mothers and did everything possible to parent the way they did. During those times in my life, I had not yet developed a sense of identity within those various facets of my life; therefore, I created avatars, mostly in real life of, not who I was, but who I wanted to be.


Image Source

A large part of why I crafted real-life avatars when I was younger, and why many people do, is because they use those avatars to convey a perception of themselves.  And since perception plays a large role in establishing credibility and reputation, individuals often spend a lot of time crafting how others see them. I believe, that to some extent, we all do this in our lives; however, there are some who go to extremes.  One reason why an individual might use an avatar to convey a fake sense of self might include dissatisfaction with their personal life. Another reason might include insecurity with who they are and by creating such avatars, they are really seeking approval and recognition from people who are less likely to know the truth and be critical. In Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, specifically in the chapter entitled, “True Confessions,” I was surprised to hear about “confessional sites.” I was also saddened by the fact that so many people, during their most vulnerable moments, would seek a medium such as this to find what they are missing in their lives. Based on some of the examples included by Turkle, it reinforces for me that an online identity is really never completely separate from one’s personal, true identity. Even after reading examples like Joel’s, who suggests that he created a second lives to accompany, and not replace his current life, I am convinced that we leave parts of us every time we write or type something.

Still another reason for creating avatars is often that individuals are lonely and instead of seeking authentic relationships with other people, they turn to artificial connections for validation. The irony there is that if something is artificial then there is really no true connection. As Turkle discusses, there are some, like Adam, a forty three year old single man who began playing online games in groups, but then moved to playing with artificial robots.  During her study of Adam’s behavior, engagement and connections, Turkle proposes that he has come to a place in his life where, for him, “it is easy to forget that [robots] are not real.”  Others like Adam express that they know  the connections are not real, yet that does not bother them because they are not seeking authenticity; instead just validation, which they believe they can receive from an emotionless entity.

As Turkle discusses, there are some individuals who created avatars that are very different from their “real” lives. For example, there are some who use objects, even animals to reflect themselves and their companions.  If Turkle is correct in saying that we create avatars out of a certain personal need or desire, then I can only conclude that there has to be some facet of the avatar that we hope will fulfill that need. Therefore, I cannot accept that avatars are completely disjointed from who we are.  The issue with a curated online identity is that while a person might be able to make changes to it on spaces like Second Life or War of Worlds to reflect the present moment, they are not, to a large extent,  able to change or manipulate their identities in places like Facebook and Instagram.  The question then becomes, if our senses of self are always evolving with time and experiences, then how comfortable are we with creating online identities that may someday, not reflect who we become? It is especially important for us to consider the questions: Is there room within our online brands to encompass who we will become?  


The Role of Primary and Secondary Discourses in Creating and Redefining Norms

The question of how norms are created is an interesting one because in trying to investigate the lifespan of a norm, I am led to consider how concepts like time, consistency, behavior, role model and deviation impact the creation and evolution of such norms.  One thing is clear—over time and within societal contexts, norms are always subject to change.  Even within educational settings, norms evolve over time. But what are the factors that cause norms to change and evolve?  Some possibilities include shifts in culture, values, and beliefs and of course, exposure through technology.  According to Cristina Bicchieri and Hugo Mercier, authors of Norms and Behaviors: How Change Occurs, “social norms,” or “behavioral rules supported by a combination of empirical and normative expectations,” demand that individuals obey the rules that align with those norms or risk dealing with implicit consequences. In my experience, I have found that some norms tend to become instituted gradually; it’s almost like they seep into aspects of our lives without us noticing. What follows can be gradual changes in behavior for some and conflicted feelings for others. Sometimes, what remains are individuals, who belonged to a time when different normative realities existed and, as a result, become saddened by the new norms, thus reflecting their feelings with statements like, “Years ago, when….”

One way that norms evolve is related to family and cultural background. As James Gee examines in Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses, “cultural models or figured worlds,” which is the picture of what is taken to be typical or normal, begins with the family unit. Depending on those cultures, children begin to form a sense of what the “normal” world looks, sounds and feels like.  A large part of building this complex set of expectations comes from cultural Discourses, more specifically, primary Discourses, which serve as a “framework” or “base” for examining and expecting from others and the world.  Over the course of time, Gee argues, we reshape our views through secondary Discourses, or what we acquire as a result of later experiences.  One nuance, which is worth mentioning here, is that as parents, some of us try to pass down our primary and secondary Discourses to our children, thus initiating their frameworks and setting them on the path to redefining and challenging those beliefs.  What might follow is our children’s rejection of our frameworks as they interact with others of different family and cultural backgrounds.  

In considering how frameworks are shaped by family and cultural behavior, it is important to understand that social norms are often represented in schools; resulting in constant challenging, reshaping and adjustment of beliefs and actions, which impact norms.  One such example of a shift in norms exists in the high school at which I have been teaching for the last ten years and it deal with the use of digital devices.  

Even before reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I noticed that students were becoming more and more dependent on their digital devices.  Years ago, when I became a part of this environment, I rarely noticed cell phones in students’ hands.  There were strict rules against having them in class because they were deemed a huge distraction and also because they were very expensive to replace.  As time progressed, I began hearing from students about their use of social media outside of school; therefore, I began to take note of it and even extend some of my lesson plans to reflect those normative experiences. For example, when asking them to analyze a character from a novel, an option included using the form of a Facebook profile. A subsequent option included writing short descriptors using 140 characters. Although at the time, I did not have a Facebook account myself, nor was I on Twitter, I began to react to the norms to which my students were becoming accustomed and bring those into our classroom.  More recently, our educational institution has revised its policy and practice to allow students to use their cell phones during the school day. Although it provides advantages to research, I fear that constant connectivity has the potential to become constant distraction. When considering the reasons why cell phones were not allowed in classrooms 10 years ago, one can conclude that they are still valid because they are still great distractors and still expensive to replace.  So, why have we changed our policy and practice? It is because the societal norms have shifted to reflect instant and prevailing conductivity, therefore the educational setting had no choice but to also create a new normal.  Further, there are expectations that students leaving high school are digitally literate.  It is my belief that a new norm has been established and anyone who remembers when… has little choice but to swim with the currents.

In addition to changing to fit new norms, sometimes, there can be a purposeful attempt to change a norm.  To say the least, these attempts can be riddled with conflict, defiance and reflection. When a person, or institution decides that they will create a new norm, they must first acknowledge the reason for the desired shift and also how affected individuals will react. As Bicchieri and Mercier suggests, if the norm conflicts with self interest, people will want to rebel. Therefore, the powerful party, or the one instituting the new norm, must be prepared to include punitive measures. Over time, the expectation is that the behaviors that are being introduced, and required to be followed, will become expected and deemed normal. For example, at my school, an advisory program has been instituted where each teacher is assigned to a group of students with whom he or she to meets daily.  The expectation is that the teacher and students engage in relationship and team building. Since this is mostly an informal time during the school day, where there are no grades attached, some students believe that they do not have to attend. Therefore, a decision was made to impose a significant consequence for those not attending advisory.   The result has been that since students do not want to face the consequence, they attend advisory. If the intended norm to be established is that students approach a time within their educational setting where they engage and connect in an authentic way without expecting to receive a grade for it, then it will certainly take time.  Right now, there are some conflicts, but over time, perhaps the idea of personal gratification without grade impositions will end up becoming the norm.

With the implicit complication of schools shifting its expectations to align with social norms as well as creating new norms, it is important to note that one of the functions of school is to socialize students toward normalcy. What reinforces this need is the belief that schools are microcosms of societies, thus reflecting, and should reflect, the expectations of what students will need to know and be able to do once they leave school. As Gee puts it, employing the “right” language, attitude, behavior, expressions etc. plays a significant role on the extent to which people are successful within a society. This idea is reflected in the job interview portion of his book where the language employed by two different women significantly impacted the outcomes of their situations. For this reason, I do believe that it is important for schools to help to socialize toward normalcy.