Book Review: Third Shift: Women Learning Online

February 4, 2002

Third Shift: Women Learning Online (2001)

addresses a critical yet neglected

Kimberly Hall

is Senior Instructional Designer at Emerson College in Boston,

MA. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern

University and received a Master of Arts in Educational Technology

and an M.A. in History at San Diego State University. She has

taught English as a Second Language at the university level and

worked with faculty and educational professionals in designing

online instruction at San Diego State University, the Pacific

College of Oriental Medicine, the National Park Service, BBN/GTE

Internetworking and at Northeastern University. She is currently

researching women’s experiences as online distance learners.

issue in American distance education literature; the challenge of women

distance education students to balance their studies with work and family


The work was sponsored by the American Association of University Women

and conducted by Cheris Kramarae, an expert on women, technology and policy.

As women comprise the majority of online learners, Third Shift

is significant for policymakers, distance educators, researchers and online

students. Kramarae and her assistants interviewed 64 women and 36 men,

conducted focus groups of 27 participants and surveyed 410 online respondents.

Both women and men recounted their experiences and attitudes as students,

educators, participants and observers of online learning.

Although not a representative sample of US distance learners, Kramarae

presents the reality of the range of women’s experiences and challenges

as online learners. Her "focus . . . is on researching perspectives

and recurring themes expressed by the respondents" (p.6). These themes

include women’s domestic responsibilities, time, finances and online communications.

Kramarae raises a crucial issue that has been stressed in studies of

adult women students; the lack of social and financial support for domestic

activities such as childcare. "In the United States, women still

perform 70 to 80 percent of childcare, which, of course, affects how much

time they can spend on paid work and education . . . with important implications

for everyone in our country. Because it is seldom discussed as such, however,

women are left to work out individual solutions" (p. 31).

It is noted, however, that not all women students face this challenge,

such as younger women with no children or family responsibilities. There

are also married women who are encouraged by their spouses. "Several

dozen women note the importance of receiving active support and encouragement

from partners and children, and several mention that they receive technical

help from their partners as well" (p. 34). Women have also received

"passive support from spouses, for example, not being interrupted

a lot while they are studying or not being made to feel guilty" (p.


Third Shift also illuminates factors such as gender dynamics of

online discussions and chat. Kramarae offers a survey of accounts; some

women feel the online communication is productive, while others feel ignored.

Kramarae expands beyond the view that online discussions allow for a more

democratic atmosphere, "several dozen respondents state that old

bases for judgment and bias may be replaced with new cues, especially

those of writing style and content" (p.47). She emphasizes the need

for instructors to moderate online discussions to ensure a fair environment

where all contribute and voice their opinions.

Kramarae also recognizes a consistent finding that older women do not

express the need for face-to-face interaction as much as younger women.

"Age emerges once again as a critical issue, with older students

likely to minimize the importance of social experiences or interaction

in the classroom" (p.52). Interestingly, Kramarae found that "teachers,

more than online students, stress the importance of learning as a social

activity. Furthermore, she finds some "women experience traditional

classes as lonely and isolating, especially if they commute to campus"


It has been argued by distance education experts that the definition

of distance education be expanded to account for the context of the learners’

lives. Kramarae advises policymakers and educators to take this into account

to optimize student success. A first step, she argues, is to address financial

needs. Tuition and other educational costs can be a major challenge for

women, especially single mothers. Costs also overflow to the purchase

of optimal computers and Internet access. Policies facilitating computer

purchasing and access to online academic databases can contribute to a

solution. Kramarae urges national and university policymakers to respect

these needs, emphasizing "Adult women’s education has not been a

major political priority, although women’s participation in the workplace

has been recognized as critical for the national good" (p. 58).

Third Shift is a realistic account of the social and economic

contexts of women’s online learning experiences. In the 1980s, this subject

had begun to be investigated in other countries such as Canada, European

and Asian nations. Kramarae has illuminated pertinent issues in the lives

of American women. Third Shift, Women Learning Online provides

a valuable resource to promote the positive social consequences of online

distance education.


Association of University Women Publication Sales Catalog