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