Dismantling the Patriarchy One Online Discussion at a Time

By: Staci Gilpin, PhD

The University of North Dakota

The University of Wisconsin-Superior

November 1, 2023

I’m an avid podcast listener, and I cherish those moments when I can relax and enjoy some downtime with my miniature schnauzer, Heiter, who lives up to his name by always being a cheerful presence. As I was recently engrossed in a podcast episode about the subtle presence of patriarchy in our relationships with dogs, it got me thinking about how our interactions with our furry companions can serve as a mirror reflecting our societal norms. It’s fascinating how deeply ingrained the patriarchy is in every aspect of our lives, even in something seemingly innocent as our bond with our dogs. We use terms like “masters” or “owners,” and we expect our dogs to be “good” by obediently following our “commands” without questioning or hesitation. We demand quick learning, flawless compliance, quiet and polite interactions with others, and no barking or biting. All these words and expectations revolve around human needs, putting us at the center of the equation.

Heiter out on a hike – always a big smile”

As an online instructor at two midwestern public institutions, this newfound perspective opened my eyes to how I might unintentionally perpetuate patriarchal norms in my teaching methods. In this piece, I’m excited to share my exploration and experimentation with pedagogical approaches that break free from the conventional patriarchal-influenced mold. While the concepts themselves aren’t entirely new to me, the perspective I’m adopting in this context is a fresh and eye-opening one. I hope that, as you read this, your own perspective on the patriarchy and its presence in various aspects of our lives, including education, will also broaden.

What is the patriarchy?

The concept of patriarchy is a deeply ingrained system that perpetuates gender inequality by favoring masculine attributes and positioning men as the societal default while relegating women, feminine perspectives, and marginalized groups to supporting roles. When we use terms like “female” and “male” or “feminine” and “masculine,” we’re not talking about someone’s gender identity but rather the qualities and traits typically associated with each end of the gender spectrum. For instance, hierarchy, control, and order are often linked to the “male/masculine” side. In contrast, collaboration, flexibility, and relationships are often considered “female/feminine.” 

In an ideal world, a balance between masculine and feminine principles would be valued. In reality, this hierarchical mindset extends across various facets of life, including education. While traditional learning theories may not intentionally center the masculine perspective, they often unintentionally do so, reflecting the experiences of middle-class white males (Flannery & Hayes, 2001), leading to a hierarchical power dynamic where instructors assume superiority, leading to punitive actions for non-conformity. This authoritarian approach undermines empathy and the instructor-student rapport, prioritizing instructors’ preferences over students’ needs and individuality. 

How does the patriarchy appear in online discussions?

Patriarchal norms and attitudes like these are evident in online learning spaces as they constrain the quality of instructor-student and student-student relationships, significantly affecting student persistence and success. This issue is particularly concerning for online learners, who tend to exhibit lower persistence rates, characterized by completing a course with a passing grade, compared to peers in on-site courses (Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Hart, 2012; Xu & Jaggars, 2011). To provide space for interactions in online courses, instructors often use asynchronous text-based discussion boards criticized by students for their isolating and transactional nature, likely contributing, in part, to low student persistence rates. These online discussions often lack the elements of organic conversation, peer learning, and relationship-building that foster a sense of community and support. This absence aligns with patriarchal norms emphasizing individualism and self-centeredness.

How can we [instructors] push back?

 As educators, to bolster student persistence and foster a transformative learning environment, we have opportunities to challenge and deconstruct the entrenched patriarchal norms that persist in our online courses through the design of online discussions. I advocate for implementing small (3-5 students), flexible learning communities, echoing the work of other scholars (Gay, 2018; Gilpin, et al., 2022; Gilpin, et al., 2023; Woodley et al., 2017). Influenced by feminist theory, the design of online discussions also revolves around collective learning, flexibility, and meaningful relationships (hooks, 1994; Kamler, 2001). I view students not as passive recipients but as co-educators (Romero-Hall, 2021) and sharing leadership (Chick & Hassle, 2009). This means shifting away from teacher-centered, patriarchal-influenced, transactional approaches to pedagogy that nurtures a community-oriented, collaborative atmosphere. Online discussions can become more student-centered when they serve as a platform where students can exchange ideas, challenge each other’s perspectives, and collectively construct knowledge. Such an approach aims to create a more inclusive and supportive educational environment, challenging the traditional, patriarchal model. 

Within my courses, I have played around with two such discussion formats – asynchronous and synchronous. Students choose the type of discussion that works best for them. Sometimes small groups go back and forth between doing an asynchronous discussion one week and another week a synchronous discussion; I provide space for students to sort this out, and I rarely have any issues. However, I survey students before the start of the course to learn more about their discussion preferences (e.g., times they are available, the types of discussions they prefer, etc.), and I use that information to create small groups. Below is an example of how I share information with students about the discussions in my courses and how they can choose which type works best for them. In the remainder of this section, I share information about implementing these discussions along with insights from my students

In synchronous formats, I harness the potential of video conferencing, enabling students to engage in real-time discussions aligned with their schedules. This flexibility promotes active participation and inclusivity, while my active involvement, through individual feedback and group summaries, cultivates critical thinking and a sense of belonging. In these synchronous sessions, students take on leadership roles, scheduling meetings, facilitating discussions, sharing experiences, and guiding their peers through course content. For more information, check out this recent publication.

In asynchronous formats, I utilize the Learning Management System (LMS) discussion boards to facilitate interactions through text, audio, and video. Students take on the role of discussion leaders, fostering meaningful discourse by sharing content and posing questions. These leaders kickstart discussions by sharing relevant materials like peer-reviewed articles, Tweets, videos, or blogs, along with their reflections, connections to course materials, and discussion questions. Initially, I required group members to make at least three posts on two days to promote ongoing dialogue. However, I realized this schedule didn’t work for some students with busy schedules, so I now highly recommend posting on two separate days without making it a strict requirement. The discussion leader’s role is crucial in guiding and maintaining discussion focus while acknowledging peers’ contributions. My role involves monitoring and providing timely feedback; I rarely post on the forum. Instead, I may message individual students or make group announcements, all aimed at emphasizing students as knowledge creators. For more details, refer to this article.

These student-led small group online discussions not only empower students but also nurture a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect within the learning community. Notably, research shows both synchronous and asynchronous small group discussions have been shown to contribute to the development of community and connection (Gilpin, 2022; Gilpin et al., 2023), and both types are equally valued (Gilpin, 2022). One of the participants in the earlier study, referred to as Charity (a pseudonym), summed things up like this: “Both discussion boards and Zoom discussions have their advantages and disadvantages. Discussion boards offer ample time for posting and replying without scheduling meetings. Zoom discussions enable us to share ideas, providing a clearer understanding of course materials and reducing the workload.” I say let students choose the type of discussion (asynchronous or synchronous) that best aligns with their learning preferences and busy lives.

A way forward 

To dismantle the patriarchal stronghold in online education, I argue for a feminist lens as the pivotal driver. By doing so, instructors actively contribute to forging inclusive and empowering learning environments that nurture the persistence of all online students. In the quest for equity, I share, rather than dominate, the responsibility, striving to create a harmonious intersection with my students that paves the way for a more just and inclusive online education landscape. No more “boring discussion boards” is the first step.


Chick, N. & Hassell, H. (2009). Don’t hate me because I’m virtual: Feminist pedagogy in the online classroom. Feminist Teacher: A Journal of the Practices, Theories, and Scholarship of Feminist Teaching, 19(3), 195-215. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/105946/.

Flannery, D., & Hayes, E. (2001). Challenging adult learning: A feminist perspective. In: Sheared, V. & Sissel, P. (Eds.), Making Space: Merging Theory and Practice in Adult Education. Bergen & Garvey.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Gilpin S., Clinton-Lisell V., Legerski E., Rhodes B. (2022) Designing and Using Online Discussions to Promote Social Justice and Equity. In: Parson L., Ozaki C.C. (Eds) Teaching and Learning for Social Justice and Equity in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-88608-0_2

Gilpin, Staci Ann, “Fostering Emerging Online Learner Persistence In Teacher Candidates: The Role Of Online Discussions” (2022). Theses and Dissertations. 4261. https://commons.und.edu/theses/4261

Gilpin, S., Rollag Yoon, S., & Miller, J. L. (2023). Building community online: Moving toward humanization through relationship-focused technology use. Online Learning, 27(3), 133-154. DOI: 10.24059/olj.v27i3.3583

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1).https://www.learntechlib.org/p/87889/

Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance?. Computers & Education, 95, 270-284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.01.014

Kamler, B. (2001). Relocating the personal: A critical writing pedagogy. SUNY Press.

Romero-Hall, E. (2021). How to embrace feminist pedagogies in your courses. Association for Educational Communication & Technology. https://interactions.aect.org/how-to-embrace-feminist-pedagogies-in-your-courses/

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2011). Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington State community and technical colleges. Columbia Academic Commons, Columbia University Library. https://doi.org/10.7916/D8862QJ6

Woodley, X., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negash, B. (2017). Celebrating difference: Best practices in culturally responsive teaching online. TechTrends, 61(5), 470-478. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-017-0207-z

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