The recent shift towards intensive use of computer technology in educational practices has already become so powerful that computer-based learning is no more perceived as something new. Whether it is computer laboratories in the primary schools or Internet-equipped computer facilities in the high-school, computers have turned into unalienable part of students’ life. However, such rapid and overwhelming spread of the new technology raised serious questions concerning positive and negative aspects, new opportunities for students and teachers, age peculiarities, and gender specifics of computer-based learning.
The latter seems to be one of the major focuses of contemporary research in computer-based learning. Article “Gender differences in the use of computer mediated communication by post graduate distance students” written by Barrett and Lally (1999) investigates into the gender aspect of computer-mediated education, namely the use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) in a specific learning context by a small group of postgraduate (MEd) distance learners and their tutors.
Taking into consideration the fact of steadily growing audience of students involved into online educational practices, relevance of such research can hardly be questioned. Although the number of participants is rather small – probably the first and foremost drawback of the research – the authors have managed to collect comprehensive amount of data using students’ electronic diaries, questionnaires and transcripts of all their online contributions.
Barrett and Lally (1999) apply content analysis – arguably the most popular method in psychology – to evaluate on-line dialogues between members of the group. Specific attention has been paid to studying learning and socio-emotional pattern of behavior demonstrated by participants, since the major hypothesis of the authors is that male and female students differ significantly on this dimension. The choice of method seems absolutely correct keeping in mind the hypothesis posed by the authors.
Key outcomes of the study supported the authors’ hypothesis: content analysis of the available data has revealed serious difference in behavior of men and women put into the online learning environment. Firstly, male students tend to send more messages than their female counterparts. Secondly, messages written by male students were on average twice as long as messages written by female students. And thirdly, male students tend to write socio-emotionally oriented messages, while female students exhibit interactive orientation.
These three findings make it possible for the authors to establish strong correlation between student’s gender and his/her behavior in the online learning environment. Despite seeming plainness of this study, it seems rather difficult to give it a univocal assessment. On the one hand, there is a small sample group, which raises the issue of the study’s reliability, and simple research design, while on the other hand, there is exceptional relevance of the study (keeping in mind that it was published in 1999) and important findings, which have shown right direction for further research.
Although there may be another point of view, the second component outweighs all drawbacks of the research: while the drawbacks relate to formal aspect of the study (e. g. insufficient sample size, poor data capturing techniques, etc), the content (hypothesis and findings) is really great. Newness of the author’s ideas has turned the article into a good starting point for other researchers, whose works help develop the most optimal learning and teaching strategies designed according to specific learning behavior of both sexes in a mixed online learning environment.
Although newness is the most important characteristic of Barrett and Lally’s (1999) work, they apparently relied upon a number of previous studies. As soon as the overall subject of their research is concerned, the study can hardly be addressed as absolutely original: a number of studies dealing with the impact of computer technologies on the learning environment of classrooms (including the learning activities that take place in the classroom, and various educational strategies designed to make them more effective) were written throughout the 1990s.
Although none of them paid serious attention to gender differences that might characterize behavior of students in computer learning environment, they definitely revealed a number of specific features of computer-based (including online) learning and teaching practices. For example, Richards (1996) conducted one of the first studies of the influence of computer-based environment on student motivations. His research conducted as a part of the Bell Atlantic’s World School Program revealed that computers and the Internet significantly improved students’ motivation.
Thus, 92 percent of the respondents in Richards’ program classified the Internet as an effective learning tool (Richards, 1996). Findings of another research performed by Follansbee (1996) and his colleagues the same year stand in line with those of Richards. Comparison of the learning outcomes of students doing a task with access to the Internet demonstrated much higher level of confidence in conducting and presenting the research task.
Besides, the study discovered that students with access to the Internet demonstrated better diversity and inventiveness presenting their tasks, could better integrate various perspectives, and presented their answers/projects more accurately (Follansbee 1996). In 1997, Proost and Lowyck (1997) published a study devoted to gender aspect of computer-based education. The sample group of the study was impressive: traditional and distance learning university students – a total of 1368 students (945 males and 416 females) over 18 years of age (Proost and Lowyck, 1997: 371-372).
However, that study dealt only with the gender differences in perceptions of and preferences for computer based learning environments, while Barrett and Lally (1999) went deeper into the subject. Thus, Proost and Lowyck (1997) found out that female respondents had, on average, more negative perception of computer based technology and a preference for traditional methods than male respondents (p. 380), but did not try to answer the question whether male and female students demonstrate different behavioral patterns in the online learning environment or not.
While Barrett and Lally (1999) relied on a number of previous researches, their own findings were further explored, confirmed, corrected, and extended by later studies. Kelly (2000) used Barrett and Lally’s (1999) assumption that girl pay more attention to the interactive aspect of computer-based communication and learning to explain why girls normally have little interest to computer science. In her account, computer does not involve a lot of teamwork and social interaction and, therefore, is less interesting than traditional communication and learning.
In the same way Kelly (2000) explains why absolute majority of the computer games are designed according to tastes of male audiences and emphasize things (violence, intensive action, speed) that are not attractive to women. Therefore, boys feel more attraction to computers and computer-based learning and “… with more males getting into careers in the computing industry, they perpetuate this cycle of catering for the needs of a predominantly male audience who gain an entry point into the computing world via games and later take up careers in the computing industry” (Kelly, 2000: 156).
Similarly, Passing and Levin (2000) explored gender difference amongst pre-school students trying to reveal their preferences to various designs of multimedia learning interfaces (in order to improve outcomes of learning). The study involved a sample of 90 children (44 girls and 46 boys), and its major outcome was significant difference in boys and girls’ preferences: boys demonstrated more attraction to movement while girls paid more attention to visual elements.
Shin and Chan (2004) also cite Barrett and Lally’s (1999) in their study of the effects of online learning on distance education students. The authors assume that there is a direct relationship between students’ involvement in online learning and distance learning outcomes taking into consideration gender aspect as the major factor that affects online learning (p. 277). Riding and Grimley (1999) investigated how differently the same computer multimedia affects cognitive style and performance of boys and girls (11 years).
The study involved 40 boys and 40 girls and was conducted in two stages: firstly, participants underwent the procedure of assessment which revealed their cognitive style; secondly, they were offered a multi-choice recall test after studying a science topic with the help of computer and CD-ROM (p. 44-45). Upon completion of both stages the authors compared computer-based scores of the participants with scores given for similar topics learned with the help of traditional educational methods.
The authors reported that “with regard to the mode of presentation of the multimedia materials, girls who were Wholist-Imagers and Analytic-Verbalisers were better with presentations which had picture and sound than those which had only picture and text. Those who were Wholist-Verbalizers and Analytic-Imagers were better with presentations which had picture and text than those which had only picture and sound. The results were the opposite for boys.
For both gender groups performance was best with presentations which combined picture, text and sound” (Riding and Grimley 1999: 55). Evidently, the article written by Barrett and Lally (1999) can hardly be addressed as a classic work which has already become the basic reference point of modern studies in computer-based teaching and learning. At the same time, it is far from being a mediocre and irrelevant study that has absolutely not scientific value.
The truth is somewhere in between: the article is a well-written piece of work which stands in line with previous research, has an element of newness and, therefore, opens new opportunities for scientists. REFERENCES Barrett, E and Lally, V. (1999) “Gender differences in an on-line learning environment” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 15, 48-60 Follansbee, S. , Gilsdorf, N. , Stahl, S. , Dunfey, J. , Cohen, S. , Pisha, B. and Hughes, B. (1996) The role of online communication in schools: a national study .
Peabody, MA: Center for Applied Special Technology. Kelly, Karen. (2000) “The Gender Gap: Why Do Girls Get Turned Off to Technology? ” The Digital Classroom, ed. D. T. Gordon, The Harvard Education Letter, Cambridge, pp 154-160 O’Hara, S. P. (1998) “A case study of attitudinal effects of Internet use in a middle school integrated science curriculum”. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, San Diego, CA, April 19-22, 1998 (Eric document ED417978). Passing, D.
& Levin, H. (2000) “Gender Preferences for Multimedia interfaces”, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 16: 64-71 Proost, K. , Elen J. & Lowyck J. (1997) “Effects of Gender on Perceptions of and Preferences for Telematic Learning Environments”, Journal of Research on Computing in Education, Summer, 29(4): 370-384 Richards, F. C. (1996) “The impact of the Internet on teaching and learning as perceived by teachers, library media specialists and students” Masters thesis, Salem-Teikyo University (Eric document ED410943)