Online Learning Creates a 'Third Shift'

By Linda Thornburg
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A report by the American Association of University Women calls distance education the "third shift." The author, Cheris Kramarae, a feminist scholar, says online learning is on the rise and women make up the majority of students for online courses taken from universities. Sixty percent of online learners are more than 25 years old and female, according to the report.

Working mothers interested in furthering their education are doing so online and adding a difficult "third shift" to their responsibilities as mothers and employees. While most of the more than 500 women and men surveyed for the study identify numerous benefits to online learning, many also express anxiety about fulfilling their other roles while having to study, do research and write papers. Many respondents stated that they often do their coursework while other family members are sleeping.

"For all the of the benefits of distance learning for women, these student still have to make tremendous sacrifices to balance the demands of work (first shift), family (second shift) and school (third shift)," Karmarae said. "Despite the motivation and dedication online learners demonstrate, our study found that many are still made to feel they are letting their families down when they try to further their education."

According to the report, the perception of an online learner as a pragmatist, searching for one or two courses "a la carte" to boost their job prospects, may be inaccurate. The majority of virtual students surveyed had educational goals and aspirations similar to those of traditional-age students attending traditional brick and mortar colleges and universities. Most were taking online courses in pursuit of a degree and for the satisfaction of learning and the sense of accomplishment that this would provide.

"Online students are seeking the same intellectual engagement and richness that students see in the traditional context," Kramarae said. "It's important that online learning not give short shrift to these goals and priorities."

Perceived Advantages of Distance Learning

Women give distance learning high marks for many of its qualities:

  • Family and flexibility—they can be home for their family, learn at their own pace and do course work when they can "fit it in."

  • Minimizing costs—they save money and time on commuting and childcare.

  • Fulfillment—obtaining a degree to gaining useful knowledge that helps them fulfill personal goals.

Nontraditional age women students, in particular, comment that the "virtual classroom" minimizes the discomfort and alienation they sometimes experience on college campuses populated by 18- to 22-year-olds. As a 31-year-old legal secretary commented, "Because of my age, compared to the average college student, I feel I don't need the social aspect as much as someone younger may feel they need it. In fact, on some levels I'm happy not to have to deal with other students."

Many women reported that support at work and at home are important factors in their success. They also site personal traits such as self-motivation, organizational skills and independence as important.

Perceived Disadvantages

Despite the positive aspects of online learning, there also are a number of factors that many of the women surveyed found discouraging, including the cost of tuition and equipment, the often-difficult course load and the fact that not all distance-learning programs are accredited.

Report Recommendations:

  • Expand financial aid programs at universities and through employers to support part-time students currently unable to qualify because they are taking small course loads.

  • Involve more women administrators, teachers and students in the planning process for online courses.

  • Educate policymakers concerning the difficulties faced by working mothers who are seeking to continue their formal education through distance learning.

  • Broadly disseminate information on distance learning to reach populations of women—for example, welfare to work participants or older women-unlikely to visit traditional web sites for information.

The complete report is available from the Educational Foundation of the American Association of University Women. Visit The Third Shift: Women Learning Online for more information.

Linda Thornburg is managing editor of iLinx.

Dec. 2001 / Reviewed Jan. 2004

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