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Learning across culture, time and space: Canadian and Jamaican women's experiences in learning via distance

Patricia A. Gouthro
Mount St Vincent University, Canada

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

INNOVATIONS in distance technologies to mediate the delivery of education means that traditional boundaries of time, space and culture are being bridged, thus redefining the experience of adult learners working within a globalized context. As an educator from a Canadian university teaching in a graduate adult education program, I am interested in exploring the learning experiences of women students learning via distance. Currently we teach students in Jamaica and Canada utilizing a multi-mode approach that combines on-site visits, residential institutes, teleconferencing, print materials and the internet.

This paper overviews a pilot qualitative research study that examines the experiences of Canadian and Jamaican women learning via distance. Ten in-depth, personal interviews were conducted to enable the students to speak of their learning experiences in their own words. I draw upon these narratives to tease out the commonalities and themes that consistently emerge as issues for women learning via distance. I explore the changing realities of educational experiences today for women, discuss some of the challenges in learning at a distance, and begin an exploration some of the concerns entailed in teaching across cultures. From the initial results of this study I raise a number of questions that need to be further addressed to understand the increasingly complex and shifting terrain of adult education within the context of the emergent discourses surrounding what Richard Edwards (1997) has termed the 'moorland' of lifelong learning.

Gender differences in experiences in lifelong learning

Recent discourses in the field of adult education indicate that increasingly, the focus in the field is shifting towards an emphasis on the importance of lifelong learning and the learning society (Edwards, 1997; Field & Schuller, 1999; Bagnell, 2000). The concept of lifelong learning has gendered implications, as women's lives often follow different 'trajectories' that those of their male counterparts (Gorand, Rees & Fevre, 1999). Research on women in higher education indicates that relationships with family members and labour required to maintain the household and raise children are often important factors that impact on women's adult learning experiences (Campbell, 1993; Pascall &Cox, 1993; Edwards, 1993).

In this study I looked at women's experiences in taking a graduate adult education degree. The majority of students in our program are women - probably upwards of 80%, although this varies somewhat from year to year. Most are mature students who work at full or part-time paid jobs outside of the home. Some are single or divorced, but many are married or in long-term relationships. Many of our students have children, that range in age from infants to adults. As other research on the experiences of women learners indicates (see Campbell, 1993; Pascall & Cox, 1993; Edwards, 1993, Home, 1998), these outside relationships and responsibilities have a profound impact on the way that women tend to experience education. Instead of maintaining a linear focus on their studies as men have traditionally been able to do (Bateson, 1989; Edwards, 1993) women must engage with their ongoing education as a part of complex network of obligations and expectations that direct their energy and labour.

The women in this study had to negotiate often challenging circumstances to complete their educational goals. This finding was consistent with prior research (Campbell,1993; Fagan, 1991) which indicates that in addition to practical difficulties around labour and finding sufficient time to study, women also must deal with emotional issues regarding self-esteem, concerns over family relationships, stress and isolation. Women still bear the brunt of responsibility for domestic labour and childcare (Luxton, Rosenberg & Arat-Koc, 1990).For instance, one of the Jamaican women, states that, 'But working and studying and being a woman I find, you're not exempt from any decision-making and your regular responsibilities... everybody just assumes that you have to do this and you ought to be able irrespective of what you're doing.' A Canadian discussed how she juggled her schedule around full-time employment and mothering her three children, when she would 'getup around 4:30 or 5:00 (a.m.) and read for two hours before I went to work. So I mean it wasn't easy'. As I have argued previously, women's learning experiences are often linked with concerns centred around the homeplace (Gouthro, 1999). In this study, domestic and childcare responsibilities were often cited as reasons for choosing to learn via distance. For financial reasons it was also important for many women to continue their paid employment as they worked towards obtaining a degree.

Relationships in the homeplace also influence women's experiences in continuing their formal education. Several of the women in the study discussed the support that they received from their husbands and also their children. A single Canadian mother of two older children reflected on the experience and said, 'I was just thinking now they think that it's good. They think, they think that's something to be proud of that their mother's back at school.' One of the Jamaican students reflected that when she separated from her husband it was actually easier to return to school because she was freed from her husband's expectations regarding household labour. 'You find yourself feeling more comfortable you know and you feel more relaxed. You don't have to run, you don't have to run to put on a pot and cook and you don't have to because the girls understand if we don't want to cook we don't cook. They say, Mummy, don't worry, we'll use leftovers or don't fatigue yourself. We're not little anymore now. You get a different sense of empowerment, you know.' This example concurs with Rosalind Edwards' research when she points out 'the time that men take up, the time that women spend with their partners, is not just a matter of servicing them domestically, but is also time spent servicing them emotionally' (1993, p.111). Since studying also takes up a lot of time, it can create conflict within the household if it means that this time is directed away from the male partner or family members who are not supportive.

Learning via distance technologies

In examining the narratives of Canadian and Jamaican women, it becomes clear that distance alternatives in education are important as a means of providing access for women to continue their formal learning opportunities.

Within the current context of learning, it has been argued that time and space are becoming compressed (Giddens, 1990). Plumb (2000) talks about 'a world on speed', where traditional conceptions of time and place are being altered by the effect of new technologies and globalization.

Traditional boundaries that defined how and when learning could take place have been forever altered with the introduction of new and rapidly changing technologies that redefine learning contexts. A couple of decades ago it would have been inconceivable that half of a faculty person's teaching load would be in another country, and that you might teach Jamaicans in the morning and Canadians in the afternoon. Edwards and Usher(1999) argue that traditional boundaries of space are becoming blurred within the globalized educational context so that the separation, for instance, of home and school is no longer as distinct as it once was. When you have professors teaching from their living rooms and students thousand of miles away sitting in their kitchen participating in a class, the traditional spatial boundaries and concept of what constitutes a classroom must be reconceptualized.

For the students in this study, access to education was a key issue. As women they were often unable or unwilling to relocate because of their domestic and labour responsibilities and personal relationships. Home found that distance education affords the flexibility that many women require to continue their studies, noting that 'distance education increases student's control of time, place, and pace of learning' (1998, p. 95). One of the Jamaican women summed up her decision to take this degree, 'So the fact that I could work and do the course was attractive. So the decision wasn't to do a distance course so much as when it became available it came with a lot of other pluses. For example, one I didn't have to leave my husband, two I didn't have to quit my job and then search for scholarship necessarily. So those were the positives'. Several other women also discussed the advantages of being able to continue with their employment and not have to leave their families in order to continue with their studies.

Using the distance technologies posed a number of challenges for students, however. Students found it was sometimes difficult not to see the visual cues from other students and faculty. Both Canada and Jamaican students discussed how it was easier to use the distance technologies because they had the opportunity to make face-to-face contact with the instructors first. In Jamaica we begin each course with an on-site workshop taught by the faculty member. A Jamaican student describes her experience of learning via the teleconferencing by saying, 'For me it's strange because I tend to like to look at who I'm talking to, but I felt that maybe because you would come down and then you came to put a face to the person it helped.' In Canada the distance students interviewed for this study had met faculty either by attending a class in Halifax or at the residential summer institute. One of the Canadian distance students who occasionally traveled into Halifax for classes explained, 'Yeah, I can come in and it makes a difference when you know what people look like. It's funny listening to people's voices and not know who they are sort of physically, but I don't usually mind it.' Learning via teleconferencing sometimes posed problems when the technology was not working properly or being adequately supported. In Jamaica, one of the students explained how these sorts of problems can hinder classroom learning, saying 'we've had lots of breaks right and initially the rooms were never prepared properly and we lost a lot of valuable time'. Similarly, students studying at a college site in Cape Breton (located in northern Nova Scotia) explained, 'and going out to the college you know you had to go out at a certain time and run to get the key from someone and try and find the room and it was just really inconvenient ...' Many students also raised the issue of poor administrative supports for the program. In Jamaica, one of the students expressed her frustration, explaining: 'We never know ahead of time when classes are starting. We get a phone call late maybe Friday, the next class is on Thursday.

I think as a university student, I need to have had something in the mail to say your classes begin, your fees should be paid by this date and this date. That is what I don't like.

Calling around, calling around.' Distance students are conscious of what kinds of services on-site students traditionally receive and feel cheated when the university fails to provide them with similar supports. Similarly, a number of Jamaicans expressed concern with the lack of library resources. One of the Jamaicans explained how being limited to the readings supplied with each course was sometimes frustrating for her because of her desire to read more broadly. She said, 'Right and there are a lot of chapters we get and I say boy I would love to read this whole book because it maybe chapter six but I'd love to hear what he said from chapter one to five you know or maybe I'd like to hear chapter seven and see how it all turns out ...' Limited resources, however, meant that Jamaican students were unable to access the array of books and materials that Canadian students even at a distance generally could obtain.

Learning their way into the technology itself provided challenges for some of the students, although all of the women in this sample seemed to have adapted fairly easily.

One of the Canadians explained, 'I was a little frightened at first, but once I realized how easy it was, it was just fine.' Several of the women had experience in using computers and were able to adapt readily to the technology. In fact, some of the Jamaicans were disappointed that little use was made of the computers since so few Jamaican students had internet access that with this initial cohort of students it wasn't feasible to implement this as a central component of the teaching.

Culture, race & distance learning

The Jamaican students were also being taught by faculty from another country and race, and the experience of learning as a member of a minority group and a person from the South raises a number of interesting ethical points for consideration in a world where education is increasingly being marketed to countries in the South. Black feminist educators bell hooks (1990) and Patricia Hill Collins (2000) have argued that too often the black experience is treated as peripheral or marginal rather than central to educational discourses. In speaking of her experience as an American black feminist, Collins states, 'Taken together, the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate space' (2000, p. 5).The experiences of black people, particularly women, are treated as insignificant and less central to understanding societal structure than the experiences of white people, particularly white males.

One of the ways that members of our program tried to create a learning environment relevant to the Jamaican context was by having a faculty member research the Jamaican library archives and rewrite the Historical Perspectives course to include a Jamaican perspective (see Welton, 1998). A number of the students commented on the importance of this. For example, a Jamaican student said, 'I found the Historical Perspectives very very relevant, very informative and we start seeing things in a sort of different light; history.' Similarly, another Jamaican said, 'I mean we were all appreciative of it, because we're used to being in the history of the English and the Canadians and the U.S.' Framing the challenges for adult educators in a Jamaican historical context helped the Jamaican students to better understand their past in order to give some background to assess some of the issues currently confronting their society. It was also seen as an indicator that the Canadian faculty were committed to modifying the program so that it would be more meaningful for the Jamaican students.

One of the interesting points that was raised by Jamaican students was how they felt about having Canadian faculty as educators in the program. One Jamaican woman said, 'Yes, I think it's OK because what it does it gives you a wider perspective and as I've said these persons who are coming over so far are persons who are aware of the importance of crossing these boundaries and bringing together interrelating exchanging discussions and so it serves as a widening of the experience'. Similarly, another student explained it 'I guess it would always have its positives and negatives. But for me it gave another perspective which I always embraced...pardon ... always into expanding your knowledge not just in the information but other person's take on an issue and the cultural difference or the cultural implications around a particular topic or concept'. The women talked about how they became aware of different ways of understanding the world, and how for some of them, this increased their sense of tolerance for different approaches. They felt that they had become more open minded and willing to accept difference.

Further questions to be investigated

Concerns around technology, distance, isolation, and learning across cultures all emerged as interesting themes to be further investigated. Just in the short time frame since these women were interviewed, further changes in technology have created different issues of access to knowledge. For instance, our university now has access to on-line journal articles for all students, a factor that can make a huge difference in the ability of our distance students to access up-to-date research materials. Every year more students have access to the internet and greater proficiency in working with computers. These changes in technology will have an ongoing impact on the different kinds of learning experiences our students will have.

There are still concerns around technological problems and administrative supports that impact detrimentally on the teaching situation. Teaching via distance creates another level of complexity for educators and educational institutions. For many women, despite these drawbacks, distance technologies create opportunities for accessing education that would otherwise be unattainable.

All of the students in this program had the opportunity to meet faculty face-to-face. It would be interesting to investigate the experiences of students who did not have contact with faculty and/or other students to determine what their learning experiences were like. Isolation may play a larger factor in those learning situations.

Gender is a complex variable, as it intersects with race, ability, age and other factors.

Different domestic and work responsibilities and relationships serve to impact on the amount of time students have to dedicate to their studies. It would be interesting to explore a wider cross-section of women to assess their experiences, as their unique situations and responsibilities seem to have an important impact on their assessment of this learning experience.

Finally, we are only beginning to explore some of the consequences of teaching cross-culturally. It would be interesting to explore the experiences of educators as well as students in various countries to assess further some of the implication on teaching internationally via distance technologies.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 14 February 2003