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Where the Boys Are: Understanding online learning and gender

By Alison Carr-Chellman / August 2014

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When I first considered the question of whether boys or girls are more likely to be found in online learning environments, I had a strong suspicion I'd find an overwhelming majority of boys taking advantage of the anywhere, anytime convenience of online learning.

I was most definitely mistaken in this impression, which I think is worth sharing with our readers who seek to more deeply understand and engage the populations that they work with. In the K-12 segment within Pennsylvania, where I live and work, we find more women than men by quite a margin. One small Pennsylvania cyber school is overwhelmed by girls at a 3:1 ratio, while most of the cybers in Pennsylvania are about 55-60 percent female. This is also reflective of what we find nation wide.

In higher education, while estimates vary, most researchers suggest as much as 40 percent of higher-education learners will take at least one course online. However, only about 4 percent will seek their entire degree in this fashion. Of those learners, there are more women than men and far more black women than white women availing themselves of access to fully online programs. What do these trends suggest? As I mentioned, I initially believed the boys would more likely be found in online instructional settings, but I was wrong. Because traditional learning environments are such unfriendly places for boys, I had imagined a sea of boys hoping to escape the traditional classroom setting for some alternative, any alternative that might be less compliancy based. But what I learned was much the opposite.

Most of the students enrolled in online learning in K-12 are high schoolers—by a wide margin. However many boys have already dropped out of school by the time they may be eligible to stay home and pursue their educational goals online instead of in the classroom. Some have already sought out gainful employment; while others are done with school, but not ready for the rest of life. By high school, classrooms of any sort, virtual or otherwise, have lost their luster for boys and men. They are simply far less likely to pursue opportunities online or otherwise that require coercive learning. As a result, there are simply more girls than boys taking online courses at both high school and university levels because far more girls remain in school or pursue various forms of higher education.

This fact doesn't mean boys aren't turned off to traditional classrooms, it just means they may not see the virtual classroom as an adequate substitute. Many boys of this age will prefer to go out into the world and get a job, earning an income. While the statistics in favor of more education for more income are compelling, many boys are so sick of the education "game," they prefer to simply opt out rather than staying with it, virtually or otherwise.

What does this mean in terms of our work in eLearning, then? Adult learners and late high-school learners become increasingly frustrated with tedious tasks, and have to see clearly the connection to their learning goals for them to be successful in their online learning. Thus, relevance becomes of paramount importance in all eLearning. In all cases, we should be cautious about re-creating a face-to-face experience online by simply translating classroom lectures into an online format (video or text). This sort of tedium is difficult for all learners, but girls are more likely than boys to sit compliantly through it and score better on tests as a result. However, this is not maximizing the affordances of the medium and it makes far more sense to determine what realistic activities one can undertake that would impact performance of specific goal tasks.

We should avoid things like weekly discussion forums or multiple-choice tests if they are really not related to the final end learning goals. We are able to create very robust discussion forums, for example, but if they are really "filler" then this will aggravate our learners at this level, and even more so the men in the population who value independence and relevance so highly.

While essentializing gender, it is true in general that there tends to be more tolerance among girls and women for slightly masculine things than there is among boys and men for anything feminine. It is important to pay attention to gender while not creating materials that are likely to alienate any population. Paying close attention to all diversity issues and creating learning experiences and environments that truly motivate and engage all kinds of learners is the best way to approach designing online learning environments. This means our readings should be gender neutral. Boys have so long experienced stories and narratives that are girl-friendly, but of no or little interest to them in schools, and as a result they are suspect of most narratives. They are usually more interested, in general, in non-fiction and thus learning materials that focus on relevant, engaging resources that will be clear to the learners in terms of it's application to the learning goal are much more likely to be successfully implemented.

We should not ignore that there is more difference between boys within the group than between boys and girls. That is, there is clear indication individuals regardless of gender are still individuals, and we must guard against assuming all boys will like this, or all girls will behave in this way. It is simply a broad overgeneralization that is dangerous. But we can talk about tendencies within groups, which is what I'm trying to suggest we pay close attention to.

As we create online materials and courses, we would be wise to try to determine the extent to which different genders are well served by our designs. We might add evaluation questions or surveys that include gendered queries or correlate findings by gender. In the end, to my surprise, online courses are more female than male dominated and while we can seek to further include boys and men in our designs, we should also be sensitive to the needs of the majority female population in our classes. Finding gender neutral materials, designing relevant environments, keeping a clear focus on the task/goal at hand will likely create courses and experiences that all learners can benefit from, male or female.


Online Education Facts and Statistics
National Center for Education Statistics
"Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States"
"Ethnicity, Gender, and Perceptions of Online Learning in Higher Education" MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 8, 2 (2012)

About the Author

Dr. Alison A. Carr Chellman is editor-in-chief of eLearn Magazine. She has been a professor of Instructional Systems at the Pennsylvania State University for 17 years and currently serves as the Head of the Learning and Performance Systems department. She has written more than 100 articles, books, book chapters, and papers on topics related to school change with a particular emphasis on those populations who are underserved by the current system. Her recent TED Talk, Gaming to re-engage boys in learning, has brought international attention to the issues facing boys in the current educational system and ways that digital learning media may be used to highlight the mismatch between boy culture and school culture.

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