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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2001

Distance Education Vital Link for Many Women

As a women's studies professor I was delighted to see the "tribute" to my area of research and teaching in your recent Status of Women Supplement (Bulletin, October 2001). Women's Studies is still a relative newcomer to the academy and it is important that we have a better appreciation of its achievements and its struggles as part of a national and international academic community. The articles reminded me of the importance of celebrating our accomplishments, and honouring the many individuals whose vision, energy, dedication and determination are at the heart of the dynamic, transformatory project that is women's studies.

A primary objective of women's studies is to disrupt existing hierarchies of power. It strikes me as ironic, then, that this special issue failed to mention women's studies at Athabasca University and the significance of open, distance education in broadening post-secondary educational opportunities for women (and men) of all social backgrounds. The appeal of distance education for women is clear. Historically, about 66 per cent of AU students have been women. Women living in rural areas and in remote communities tell us that AU was their only chance for post-secondary education.

Completing a university degree at a distance is difficult but it gives women the flexibility many need as they continue to work and fulfill family responsibilities. Women's studies can be an important part of a woman's education, giving her context and perspective on her own life circumstances and a critical analysis of social inequality.

There are even those students who study in secret because their educational goals threaten family members, putting the student at risk of ridicule or other forms of abuse. For these students distance education can be the only safe way to higher education. It is also important to point out that about one-third of our students go on to graduate studies in traditional universities where they are at least as successful as other students.

For those of us who work in distance education and daily see how distance education works in our students' lives, CAUT's tendency to overlook distance education is disappointing. At the very least this oversight obscures a vital part of post-secondary education in Canada and misses opportunities for critically assessing its advantages, challenges and limitations. Certainly for an association that represents university teachers a full and open debate on the range of current delivery systems is in the interests of all members, our students, and institutions.

Cathy Cavanaugh
Center for Work & Community Studies, Athabasca University