Is anyone else finding that women contribute more in online classes?

Online teaching has allowed less-confident students, so often female, to create for themselves a space in which to speak, says Madeleine Davies

January 27, 2021
Spreading wings
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All educators will have survived classes where the student silence is so profound that tumbleweed might as well have blown across the room. Where perfectly pitched questions, rather than being met with excited debate, simply thud into the void. Occasionally, a distant coyote seems to howl. Time stands still. In these circumstances, we hold on, try another question and call on our skills to persuade someone, anyone, to speak. The experience will inevitably feature in our next round of anxiety dreams.

At the other extreme, all educators will be familiar with the classroom debate that is dominated, or even overwhelmed, by one or two confident students who inadvertently intimidate more diffident students into silence. Attempts to include everyone, and to encourage the marginalised to speak, inform another distinct subcategory of anxiety dream.

Teaching in the remote online environment has the potential to aggravate these routine classroom situations and to make student engagement with debate far less likely. This is not, however, the experience that I and many of my colleagues report.

Using Blackboard Collaborate, seminars have become noisy, active places where students jostle for a place in the “hands up” queue to speak on mic and where conversation is evenly distributed throughout the group. The chat brims over with helpful interventions as students enter into critical arguments with each other (the seminar Holy Grail in my “discursive” discipline, English literature).


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I do not know whether my positive experience of online teaching is that of all colleagues across the sector; I am aware that many will have found it draining, disconnecting and demoralising, and the adaptability of a discipline to online delivery obviously makes a huge difference to the experience. It is, though, worth reflecting on why online teaching has encouraged engagement in the way it has on the modules I teach.

Watching the queue of “hands up” build in response to an idea, and listening to students speaking freely on mic, has made me wonder whether online teaching has allowed less-confident students, so often female (though not exclusively), to create a space for themselves in which to speak.

When I call a student’s name, everyone else is muted and the space is reserved for the student who wishes to add an idea. There is no need to find a gap in someone else’s monologue or to struggle to make a softer voice heard amid booming baritones; there is time to frame an idea and space in which to present it. “Hands up” carves out a vocal domain.

For those relatively few students who feel uncomfortable speaking on mic, the chat function provides an alternative route for expression. It is the ideal option for the socially anxious and it is a space designed to help the quieter voices be heard. We are used to opining that online teaching is “no real substitute” for classroom teaching but, as in this case, it is equally true that the online environment offers functions that the “real” classroom cannot replicate.

Online delivery also seems to defeat self-consciousness, the enemy of seminar debate. My camera is switched on during online sessions, but I make no such demands on my students. Some like to use the camera, but most do not. With my image contained in a tiny box at the bottom of the screen, with few students visible, and with no eyes turning towards them, students seem to feel free to speak without the fear of negative judgement. As with the chat function, the “real” classroom offers little possibility of replicating this.


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Perhaps my own self-consciousness is diminished, too, leading to free-flowing teaching delivery. In addition, my concentration seems sharper: I am certainly no longer distracted by wondering how to gently encourage a student to check Facebook/Instagram/Twitter after the seminar rather than during it.

There could well be other reasons for the liveliness of my recent online seminars and for those of my colleagues (robust scaffolding via the provision of enhanced learning materials, for example), but my view is that my positive experience of remote teaching speaks to something much more interesting.

With abundant conversation within the sector geared towards inclusion, it might be a good idea to take forward what we have learned about the inclusive potential of online teaching, particularly for those students who have traditionally struggled to have their voices heard in the “chilly classroom”.

Returning to “normal” should involve responding actively to these lessons in engagement and inclusion and trying to find equivalents for online functionality within the physical domain.

Madeleine Davies is an associate professor of women’s writing at the University of Reading.

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