A feminist perspective on the “where” of online learning

Human feet wearing blue sneakers standing in front of a yellow line on asphalt

I recently asked my students to reflect on their experiences in an online asynchronous course. The prompts (I’ll admit) were nothing very original: What did you get out of the course? Favorite and least favorite modules? What would you change for the next time the course is taught?

One student began her reflection with a description of where and when she would do the course work:

“When I got my schedule sorted, I used to wake up early to finish my readings for this class. I used to go to a coffee shop, order a latte, and read before I had to head to work. The early days spent at the shop have become a valuable core memory…”

Despite the fact that this anecdote had little to do with the content of the course, I was quite touched that this student had such a positive affective association with it, and that she was able to incorporate the course activities into a personal routine that seemed to bring her pleasure. Her reflection reminded me that all learning and especially remote learning is significantly influenced by the physical environment where the student engages in the course activities. I heard frequently from students about how difficult it was to learn in the physical spaces they had available to them, including homes with sick family members and uncomfortable break rooms at jobs. Cheuk Fan Ng (2017) summarizes some of the features of the learning environment that can help or hinder a remote learner: “sensory stimuli” such as light, temperature, and noise, the presence of other people, and physical infrastructure such as furniture.

Space and access to it are feminist concerns. Feminist design collective Matrix lays out the ways the the built environment affects women:

“Buildings and the spaces in and around them affect women’s lives both physically and through the ideas they express, that are literally ‘built in’ to them. The physical effects on women are clear enough. For example, a house may be awkwardly arranged, so that it creates extra work; the distance to facilities may be excessive and the route to them may expose us to danger; once there, we may not be able to use certain facilities because they are inaccessible to wheelchairs or pushchairs. Over and above these material problems, there may be social constraints on us as women — where it is ‘appropriate’ to be, at what time and with whom. Even if your local library is accessible to pushchairs, you may still face disapproval if you take small children in. We are allowed into pubs alone, but once in we have to behave in a certain way if we are not to attract unwanted attention from men. Separate zones for home and work tell us that we are meant to compartmentalize our lives in this way.”

Matrix, 1984

These concerns for women in public spaces are sure to impact remote learners. Other similar and distinct concerns will affect disabled students and students of color (How accessible is a library or coffee shop with a police or security presence? How workable is studying at a coffee shop with a minimum purchase?) It strikes me that I had never included activities or resources in my online classes to help students identify suitable physical spaces for remote learning (taking into account factors within or beyond their control). I would even classify space to learn as a basic need, such that we might want to include suggestions of public and accessible spaces (on or off campus) along with the other basic needs resources that are now standard syllabus components. Just as a student experiencing food insecurity will have difficulty learning, so too will a student without access to safe or comfortable learning space. Beyond the baseline of a safe and accessible environment, since reading the above student reflection I have been considering how to encourage students to seek out spaces where they feel comfortable and at peace to complete their remote learning activities, when possible. The particulars of those spaces are sure to vary based on culture, identity, and personal preferences, which I think would be in themselves interesting learning opportunities for a learning community.

These ideas point to a bigger question: Online learning is frequently promoted as a solution for students who may have difficulty coming to a campus for various reasons. What are those reasons, and how can our pedagogy and activism as teachers respond to them? I think bringing a feminist and disability justice perspective to online teaching will necessarily mean understanding more about the reasons students learn online, and whether they do by choice, out of necessity, or a combination. Taking this perspective would mean moving away from viewing online learning as a sort of “solution” to access barriers and more a component of a more comprehensive equity strategy. Sometimes, that might mean addressing barriers to face-to-face learning that make online learning an option of last resort (e.g. providing on campus childcare and improving physical access). I hope to start having this dialogue with students and colleagues more explicitly.


Matrix (1984) Making Space: Women and the Man-Made Environment. Pluto Press.

Ng, C. F. (2021). The Physical Learning Environment of Online Distance Learners in Higher Education–A Conceptual Model. Frontiers in Psychology, 4130.

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