Gender, Inclusivity, and Diversity in DE and Instructional Design

In the article “Distance Higher Education Experiences of Arab Gulf Students in the United States: A cultural perspective,” the authors discuss how culture can affect learning styles and distinguishes between Western and non-Western cultures.

Western world views include competition, individuality, timing and scheduling, dualistic thinking, nuclear family, superiority of their world view, separation of religion from culture, and task orientation. In comparison, non-Western world views include cooperation, collectivity, relativity of time, holistic thinking, extended family, religion as a part of culture, acceptance of other cultures, and social orientation. Western learning style is characterized by field-independent and analytical thinking compared with non-Western leaning style (Al-Harthi, 2005).

It is somewhat ironic that in examining Sanchez and Gunawardena (1998), the literature review points to the dualistic thinking prevalent in the West and then sets up a dualistic description that polarises Western and non-Western thinking. It seems difficult to apply the same descriptors to all non-Western cultures or societies which are extremely diverse, including indigenous, Arab, African, Maghreban, East Asian, South Asian, Central Asian, Polynesian, and ———– (etc) cultures. That said, the article’s literature review proceeds with an explanation that perhaps challenges the aforementioned dualism – or perhaps reinforces it: “The authors note these non-Western world views may also be shared by many Euro-American females and minority groups in Western countries” (Al-Harthi, 2005, para 12). If Euro-American women and minority groups in Western countries do not subscribe to traditional Western thinking, then we are referring to patriarchal or masculinist, Eurocentric values. A new binary is exposed: that of male/female.
The author refers to Henderson’s argument for a “multiple cultural model of interactive multimedia instructional design: This model is based on “incorporating multiple cultural perspectives into an eclectic paradigm, so that multiple cultures maintain their identities and can have their respective cultures accommodated” (Collis, 1999, p. 205). The raison d’être for this model appears to be in line with inclusive and anti-racist education.

The author, Al-Harthi, undertakes a phenomenological case study analysing the perspectives, thoughts, and beliefs of six students from the Gulf region taking DE courses as a part of their programme of study in the United States. In describing the method for selecting the case study participants, the author highlights the difficulty in finding students who met the criteria of studying in the US by DE. None of the participants had willingly enrolled in a DE course and all were apprehensive. Al-Harthi relates this to Hofstede’s uncertainly avoidance index which is high for Arabs in the Gulf. The author then engages in a discussion of uncertainty, shame, honour, and includes a discussion of perceptions relating to gender relations.

“For Muslim women in a non-Muslim country, looking different is more visible, especially if they wear Hejab, a headscarf used to cover a woman’s hair. In their home cultures, women exercise more privacy because of some societal boundaries such as segregated educational systems and gender segregation within work environments. One female participant felt her appearance affected her participation in face-to-face classes. In addition, she feared that what she said was judged by Americans through their “limited” knowledge of her culture and their stereotype of Arabs, which is often portrayed in the American media as ‘terrorists.’ Because of the absence of physical appearance online, she felt more comfortable to participate. Even male participants agree that distance education would make it easier for Muslim women to participate in educational settings in the Arab Gulf States. They see it as preserving the original idea of gender segregation in Muslim societies” (Al-Harthi, 2005, para 37).

Notice the phrasing that “Even male participants” agree that DE can be beneficial to women and “see it as preserving the original idea of gender segregation in Muslim societies” (…). The reasoning of the male participants in this study appears to be different from the female participant, who reports her concern that her appearance and the visual sign of hijab are erroneously associated with the harmful stereotype of “terrorist” (Al-Harthi, 2005, para 37). Gender segregation in education is not unique to Muslims or Arabs in the Gulf. And assuming that gender segregation is accepted by all Muslims or people from the Gulf States, which it is not, then why are the male participants in the sample discussing how it would make studying easier for women? Gender segregation, then, would also involve separating the men from women and would make studying easier for men too. The focus on gender segregation that the men refer to, which focuses on keeping women separate, is related to monitoring women’s sexuality, although not explicitly stated by the participants. In the next paragraph, the author uses the word “naïve” to describe these views and goes on to discuss the concept of shame and the focus on family honour being preserved by female members of the family. The monitoring of women’s sexuality, the vesting of family honour based on women’s sexuality, and resulting limitations on their freedoms occurs or has occurred in many if not most societies (i.e. European literature shows how family honour and women’s chastity are linked).

The sample size for this case study is too small to generalise and it is unclear whether or not these views are generalisable, though sociological and feminist writings on gender relations have discussed similar issues (Fatima Mernissi, Asma Lamrabet, etc). Although culture should be accounted for in instructional design, a critical examination of these attempts at inclusivity should also be undertaken to avoid confusing diversity with (hetero-)sexist ideology masked in a cultural relativist framework. Diversity, inclusiveness, and the “multiple cultural model” discussed by Al-Harthi must also question the variety of indigenous perspectives (i.e. those opposed to gender segregation, non-practicising Muslims, non-Muslims, homosexuals) in order to avoid essentialising cultural identities.

The feelings of shame reported by participants in Al-Harthi’s (2005) study include those of a woman participant who is embarrassed about interacting online with her husband’s friend as well as a man participant who is embarrassed about the use of “inappropriate” words mentioned in class (para 39, 40, 41). Al-Harthi’s discussion shows that shame as a collective concept is experienced by the study participants in their relations with students hailing from the same cultural background but not with American students. Al-Harthi’s framing of the discussion, then, shows the ambiguity of shame being the result of the collectivity engaging in judgement of those who are members of the in-group or of shame being the result of an internalisation of collective values which leads the individual to self-monitor.

In the section calling for further research, Al-Harthi refers to research that states that contact with the West has resulted in intellectual colonialism and acculturation. This is briefly mentioned and no examples are provided. This is followed by a discussion, in reference to Norris and Ingelhar (2002), pointing to the idea that democratic values are not the greatest cultural gap, but rather “gender equality and sexual liberalization” (as cited in Al-Harthi, 2005, para 54). The discussion does refer to “younger generations in the West” who have become more liberal. This clarification is indispensable and could perhaps be expanded on because discussions of cross cultural difference between the West and Arab cultures often include – or rely on – discussions gender and sexuality and a polarisation of conservative versus progressive values, which rarely escape a hierarchical moral dimension. Women’s sexuality is strictly monitored, whether symbolically covered or uncovered, whether defined as chaste or promiscuous. This polarisation is based on representations and eclipses the sexual conservatism and policing of women’s sexualities in Western societies. It places women’s sexuality and the monitoring of women’s behaviour and sexuality at the centre of these representations. The polarisation is also that of representations, not of reality. Different or historic representations are also erased from the discussion, such as the hypersexualisation of Arab women in Orientalist representations, usually by Western men (i.e. Flaubert).

The author proposes the following: “Although distance education will greatly benefit from general research about gender differences in Muslim societies, more specific research is needed to investigate the implications of gender differences in course design and delivery in order to facilitate the distance education experience for students from these cultures” (Al-Harthi, 2005, para 54). It will be interesting to see what kind of adaptations will be made and if they will cater to essentialist representations of an Arab Muslim female prototype, and perhaps an Arab Muslim male prototype, or cater to the variety of identities and concerns within this population (these populations). Likewise, would the “multiple cultural model” cater to an essentialist Western prototype of male/female binaries or encompass a variety of cultural, gendered, and sexualised identities?

Early cyberfeminists had hoped that the Internet could erase sexism and racism but now admit that they were wrong and that online spaces can reproduce and recreate sexism and racism. How, then, can DE and instructional design factor in culture and difference without reproducing stereotypical, deterministic, and essentialist adaptations for a diversity of students with multiple cultural, gendered, and sexual identities?

Al-Harthi, A. S. (2005). Distance higher education experiences of Arab Gulf students in the United States: A cultural perspective. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 6(3). Retrieved August 18, 2007 from


A response to Vrasidas and Zembylas’s ideas about the interplay of disclosure and veiling cultural identities in ICT learning

It seems that the focus on cultural differences as opposed to similarities is part of a bias in multiculturalist rhetoric which is rarely questioned because of the implied or assumed anti-racism embedded in the concept. Anti-racism is obviously a very important element – perhaps the most important element – in peace education. Consequently, multiculturalism seems almost intuitively good and difficult to criticise.
I have been exposed to some discourses that challenge the concept of multiculturalism and propose interculturalism and transculturalism instead. The critique of multiculturalism points to the lack of discourse between cultures; the juxtaposition of differences (individualism versus collectivism, monotheism versus polytheism); the exposure to only superficial symbols or signs of cultures (food, clothing) which do not delve into modes of thinking (political or religious ideologies or philosophies); the lack of co-creation and synthesis of ideas which could result from meaningful dialogue instead of a superficial focus on symbols (i.e. “us” and “them” instead of “together”; East versus West instead of métissage, créolisation, new identities). There is also a risk of essentialising cultural identities and affirming stereotypes (people from country X are like this/think like this versus people from the same country having various identities and ideas). It seems that interculturalism might move the focus towards dialogue and cooperation. Transculturalism appears to be an exciting opportunity for co-creation where individuals from a variety of cultures and multiple identities can interact and build something new.

I was moved by the following except in Vrasidas and Zembylas’ article:

“Ironically, the unavoidable degree of veiling of one’s identity in online interactions ‘may also foster and encourage a more vivid disclosure’ (Blake, 2000: 191). This interplay between ‘disclosure’ and ‘veiling’ suggests an ‘online nomadism’ that subverts essentialist descriptions of cultural identities” (Zembylas and Vrasidas, in press)” (Vrasidas & Zembylas, 2003, p.284).
Online learners or participants in an e-community can choose how much information to disclose. In a multiculturalist discourse which emphasises only difference and not a common humanity, it can be frustrating for those who are always perceived according to external signs or symbols of their identity. This emphasis on difference can have positive effects of exposure and offer a glimpse into different views but if the attempts of inclusiveness focus primarily on the symbol of difference (which can be superficial), such as a garment, pigmentation, accent, physical disability, gender, stereotyped signs of alternative gender or orientation, etc., the focus on this difference can obstruct what the community member is trying to communicate. In fact, the community member’s very identity can be confused and confounded for the external sign which becomes an artificial signifier for what is incorrectly being signified. For example, many of my Iranian friends are atheists and gay but as soon as people find out they are Iranian they are sometimes assumed to be Muslim. In some cases, they were perceived to have traditional views of gender and sexuality. I was stunned to hear other community members’ assumptions about one of my friends (“I don’t want to talk to F– about religion and women because I know we won’t agree”). Another one of my best friends is from Egypt. The focus on her hijab and then removal of hijab led to assumptions about her sexuality and gender relations (on the one hand, assumptions that she was sexually conservative, and on the other hand, that she was sexually permissive and not a virgin). These are examples in which the superficial focus on difference frustrates communication. My friend who is Egyptian eventually came to experiment with her online identity. She posted a photo of herself wearing hijab and holding a wine glass with the caption: “Trust me, women who wear hijab do drink.” She also blogs about sexuality but does so anonymously. My friend who is Iranian has encountered essentialising stereotypes in online dating on the part of a few men who could not perceive dating an Iranian man.
I like the idea of online nomadism proposed by the authors. The individual can choose how much information to disclose. The individual can avoid being essentialised according to cultural stereotypes but can also choose to express deep cultural ideas which are not rooted in superficial signs or symbols but might be reflective of original thought.

Vrasidas & Zembylas. “The nature of technology-mediated interaction in global distance education.” International Journal of Training and development 7:4. pp. 271-286.


Ideology and Critical Thinking in Education

The following blog was motivated by a reflection on cultural imperialism and the concern about exporting ideologies through OERs.

Ideologies don’t have be exported across borders. From a Marxist perspective of education, at least according to the French theorist Althusser, school systems are ideological state apparatuses. He distinguishes between Repressive Ideological State Apparatuses (the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc.) which function by force and violence (whether physical or not) and Ideological State Apparatuses:
• the religious ISA (the system of the different churches),
• the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private ‘schools’),
• the family ISA,[8]
• the legal ISA,[9]
• the political ISA (the political system, including the different parties),
• the trade-union ISA,
• the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
• the cultural ISA (literature, the arts, sports, etc.).
About education, Althusser expands on how schools propagate state ideology:
It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).

I think that schools reproduce social classes and structures in Canada and train students to become workers and consumers. After reading Althusser, I wondered to myself how many times I had said to my students: “What will you do in the workforce?” Of course, it is not a bad thing to prepare students for various trades and professions because students need to be equipped to survive and flourish in their respective environments and economies. However, it is not the only purpose of education. In Canada, we may propagate bourgeois values of obtaining work and increasing material wealth and we seem to also produce students who are apolitical (this might be what happens in affluent nations). That said, in non-Western countries, or the countries importing distance education materials, products, programmes, etc., there are indigenous ideologies at work as well, such as state ideologies or religious ideologies. Curricula tend to emphasise critical thinking but I wonder how different jurisdictions define critical thinking… or if critical thinking is defined at all.


Frosh Rape Chants and Teaching the Y-O-U-N-G

How can we create awareness, sensitivity, and prevention of rape culture through public education?

In Canada, national news reported an offensive rape chant being sung by frosh students a mari usque ad mare.  University of British Columbia (UBC) business students in Vancouver and Saint-Mary’s University students in Halifax were filmed chanting this:  “Y-O-U-N-G at UBC we like em young Y is for yourrr sister O is for ohh so tight U is for under age N is for noo consent G is for goo to jail.”  Here is further coverage of the events:

I am hesitant to include coverage by UBC’ Ubyssey because the articles I have read to date, seemingly written by fellow students, do not emphasise how unacceptable and offensive the behaviour is.  If anything, the Ubyssey articles I have read reflect the indifference (or internalised sexism) of the students involved (the following statements were made by women):

“I think it’s all passed down year after year … from forever, I guess” Chen said. “It’s not something we can control, to be honest.”

“It was just for fun, right?  It was only on the bus so I didn’t think of it as a big deal, to be honest,” she said.  “It was just kind of like, ‘Let’s have a good time, let’s go all out, it’s frosh weekend.”

The Global clips included opinions by more concerned students.  It seems than in the case of this story the mainstream media has been more progressive that student-led reporting.

Beyond the cliché, platitude, and almost insulting understatement that such chants are “not appropriate,” university and school educators must wonder how so many students signed up for higher education are able to engage in such grotesque behaviour:  turning the horrors of rape, under age sex, and tight vaginas into a pep rallying cheer to encourage camaraderie amongst new students.

Most jurisdictions require that public schools assess critical thinking (i.e. thinking – the use of creative and critical thinking skills – is one of four competencies tested in Ontario’s standardised assessment grid, from the primary to secondary level).  Many jurisdictions also have anti-sexist education programmes and sexual assault prevention and awareness programmes.  If teaching and assessing critical thinking are mandated by policy, then are education systems effectively producing critical thinkers?  And are anti-sexist and rape prevention programmes effective?

While assessment of critical thinking is mandatory, teachers, schools, and textbooks have a lot of freedom in selecting subjects to discuss and analyse.  How often are public school students considering and critiquing representations of gender (“oh so tight”), gender relations (“your sister,” “underage”), dating, courtship, consent, and rape (“no consent,” “go to jail”)?

My own efforts in anti-sexist education have left me concerned that only a minority of students seem to become interested in gender issues.  I am concerned with the perpetuation of sexism and the fact that many students do not actually understand the meaning of rape (i.e. some students – girls in the cases I am thinking of – did not recognise abusive relationships or date rape in novels or understand the concept of consent following a sexual assault prevention workshop).

My question for fellow educators – my peers – is the following:  In your respective experiences, what is public school education doing about educating students about rape and sexual assault legislation, and more abstractly, of rape culture?   What is working?  What is not working?


Applying Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology (excerpt from a work in progress)

Applying Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology to the Problem Situation:  The Problem Situation Defined

At the French school where I used to work, the mandate of the school and school board is to provide French language education and to encourage students to feel a sense of belonging to the Franco-Ontarian community. However, the vast majority of the students did not actually speak French amongst themselves.  The situation is one of irony:  An ethno-linguistic community struggles for about a century to acquire the minority language rights guaranteed by the constitution.  Once the rights are fully acquired, most students no longer speak French naturally and teachers need to actively enforce the rule that French is the language of communication within the school.  Similar situations exist in many schools across Canada in minority francophone communities.  The situation is therefore not isolated.  Historical and sociolinguistic factors can explain the situation, which varies from one region to another and from one school to another.  For example, in small rural communities, particularly in Northern Ontario and Eastern Ontario, students tend to speak French amongst themselves at school just as community members tend to speak French amongst themselves.  In urban areas where the majority of community members are English-speaking, students tend to speak more English amongst themselves and need to be cajoled to speak French. 

In 1912, the province of Ontario limited access to French language education by prohibiting instruction in French for over one hour a day for children beyond grade two.  This law, Règlement 17, was enforced for fifteen years despite a French Canadian resistance involving teaching secretly in French.  The law was only formally removed from the statutes in 1944.  In 1968, French language secondary instruction became available thanks to law 141.  Public school boards were thus permitted, though not required, to offer instruction in French.  Regional struggles occurred.  The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the right to minority language education in Canadian provinces:

Section 23, article 1 states the following:

Citizens of Canada

a)      whose first language learned and still understood is that of the English of French linguistic minority population of the province in which they reside, or

b)      who have received their primary school instruction in Canada in English or French and reside in a province where the language in which they received that instruction is the language of the English or French linguistic minority population of the province, have the right to have their children receive primary and secondary school instruction in that language in that province.

The Franco-Ontarian community acquired the right to autonomously manage their own school boards in 1997; in January 1998, eight Catholic and four public French language boards came to existence. 

Franco-Ontarians are dispersed throughout the province.  Some of those whose families have experienced the prohibition of French language instruction in primary or secondary school carry this in their collective memory.  Schools attempt to teach this history and to emphasise the importance of being grateful for the right to receive French language instruction.  In addition to this history, sociolinguistic factors involving proximity and interaction with the English-speaking majority of Ontario have influenced the use of French amongst Franco-Ontarians, particularly amongst young people.  Community leaders and teachers are particularly distraught to see assimilation rates increase and students struggle in their mother tongue, which might become the ancestral language for many.


Systems Thinking and Research (work in progress)

The following is a work in progress and an excerpt from a paper I am writing about applying systems thinking to education.

An analyst is not separate from the system or situation she analyses.  An external observer, researcher, analyst is not external while observing; she is engaged and absorbed in the community, the culture, the organisation, or the system being analysed.  Her journey into the system reveals a looking glass and imposes a journey into the self – a pilgrimage into a lake of intertwined lily pads.  The wind, the waves, and the analyst move through rhizomatous lily pads.  The journey is unlike the narcissist gaze.  The analyst moves through the lily pads, the rhizome, the systems, but also move with them, and is moved by them. 

The systems movement ripples through water, time, space, disciplines, professions, organisations, cultures, and… systems.  The analyst’s research requires her to internalise and integrate systems organically, holistically, from within the self and the body, and integrate the interaction and connections with other bodies, individuals, communities, structures, systems.  Like a dancer, she moves parts of her body, and even if apparently in isolation, she moves the whole; the whole body is impacted, just as the space around her is impacted, as are the other bodies dancing with her or observing her.  The body parts, the bodies, the space, the observed and the observers, the ideas, or the raw physicality create something new and whole and interconnected.  Like a dancer, the analyst moves through the system, in the system, with the system, and is moved by the system.


commence / démarrons


  • Join MOOCs and DOCCs
  • Blog about MOOC and DOCC content
  • Connect with educators, thinkers, scholars, artists, unicorns
  • Lurk
  • Activate neurons
  • Percolate, create
  • Dance with Muses
  • Fly with faeries
  • Brainstorm, gestate, express
  • Write
  • Disseminate ideas


  • global, anti-racist, anti-sexist educator
  • perma-graduate student (B.A., B.Ed., and M.P.A., Rotary World Peace Alumni at Kokusai Kurisutokyou Daikaku/International Christian Univeristy in Tokyo); currently working on Master of Education in Distance Education and Master of Arts (French literature)
  • unicorn peacekeeper
  • intermediate and secondary school teacher (was) in Ontario, Canada and Japan
  • teacher (was) at School of Public Service
  • queen of faeries
  • researcher (was) in Morocco, Cameroon,
  • volunteer (was) in India
  • lurker and post-lurker in MOOCs, especially cMOOCs
  • independent dance and theatre artist – AM (last show:  Women in confinement/Le bagne des femmes)
  • feminist FOREVER
  • passenger on Bateaux Mouches circa 1997 while studying at Sorbonne in Paris
  • passenger on Bateau MOOC circa now
  • interests:  connectivism, eLearning, disability rights, gender issues, queer theory, post-/anti-colonialism, minority rights, Aboriginal traditional knowledge and issues, peace studies, feminisms, yoga, running, contact improvisation, modern and contemporary dance, systems thinking, everything