Online classes offer mixed gender message

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2003, 12:00am

Online learning can be a great gender equaliser, but that is not necessarily good news, overseas research suggests.

Women performed as well as men in sections of a course that were taught online, but underperformed men in sections of the same course taught in a face-to-face environment, according to an experiment conducted in the United States.

Two economics professors at Michigan State University headed the project. They tried to see if students performed differently in classes taught online than they did in traditional classroom settings.

The bad news is that, overall, students in the virtual sections of the course both men and women performed significantly worse than those in the face-to-face sections of the course.

Students were divided into two groups. Half studied with a live professor; the other half were shown a streaming video of classroom lectures in real time together with the synchronous viewing of tests. When the course ended, their answers to 37 questions on a common test were compared.

One of the more interesting findings was that the female students tended to underperform their male counterparts in sections of the course that were taught in a conventional face-to-face format. Yet in the sections taught online, the sexes performed equally.

It is an interesting find considering the technological advantage that young men are supposed to have when they enter university. According to the US Department of Education, the number of female undergraduates majoring in computer studies fell to 20 per cent from 37 per cent between 1986 and 1999 a worrying trend. So if females are 'technologically challenged'', why did they perform comparatively better in a virtual environment?

'Women were at a significant disadvantage in the live sections of the course, where they scored almost six percentage points lower than male students in the examination,'' says Byron Brown, a professor of economics at Michigan State University. 'This finding is consistent with previous research showing that many women perform better in online courses than they do in the same courses taught in a classroom.''

The issue seems to extend beyond gender. The professors believe that virtual classrooms appear better suited to teaching basic concepts than developing analytical skills. They also seem more appropriate for certain types of students.

'Classroom dynamics favour students who can come up with a correct answer or observation quickly,'' Professor Brown says.

'The virtual setting removes that pressure and seems to promote achievement across a variety of learning styles.

'For a certain subset of students, including those who are highly motivated and those who need the convenience of accessing the course from off-campus, online education serves a definite need,'' Professor Brown says.

'For others, classroom instruction will remain the best delivery system. Students need to think about their own learning styles and make course choices accordingly.''

However, other studies appear to counter the professor's claim.

Vassilis Hartzoulakis, who teaches at the University of Athens in Greece, came up with the opposite result when investigating the effectiveness of computer-mediated instruction at a Greek high school.

'The study found statistically significant differences favouring traditional teaching methods, whereas no statistically significant differences were noted in the performance between males and females,'' he says.

Others have found online learners outperforming those studying in traditional classes.

According to John Arle, professor of anatomy and physiology at Rio Salado College, a community college in Arizona, students in his online courses perform impressively when compared with national averages.

'The national achievement test average is 51 per cent on this test (on human anatomy), and the sample base is entirely from the traditional classroom,'' he says.

'My (online) students score an average of 63 per cent on these same items.''

They do more then perform better on standardised tests, which could imply a simple enhanced ability to respond accurately to straightforward (and non-challenging) questions. They also do better in more subjective ratings.

'The lab reports, on the average, from the distance-learning students are vastly superior to the classroom students,'' Professor Arle says.

'I receive better data collection, better presented data results, better graphs; every aspect of the lab report is better. I think they are putting in a higher quality of individual time.''

A four-year study comparing English classes at California State University resulted in similar, though less spectacular, findings.

According to the study, which compared students studying online, face to face and via television, 'online students had a slightly higher final grade than students in the other two formats''.