The Role of Gender in the Design of Electronic Learning Environments for Children

August 1, 2000

Games can play a significant role in forming children's attitudes toward computers and offer the possibility of learning a wide variety of content, both in and out of school. In recent years, if you had perused the aisles of any computer megastore, you would be hard pressed to find games or educational software that lacked the usual fare of war, conquest, or competition. Those games have been found to appeal largely to boys, providing them with important beginning experiences with technology. Yet, the situation has grown more complex. Realizing that computer products for girls is a virtually untapped market, several software companies have developed games intended explicitly for girls. However, many of those games focus on such stereotypical female interests as fashion, dating, and personality tests (Vail 1997). That "pink software" has taken over store aisles and captured girls' attention.

With the explosion of the use of the World Wide Web and other virtual environments for teaching and learning, there are new opportunities to challenge stereotypical approaches to the design of electronic learning and gaming environments for children. What clues can research provide about how gender continues to shape young people's experiences with technology? What do educators look for when selecting gender-equitable environments for students? How does one begin to imagine electronic environments that engage girls and boys?

Understanding Experiences with Technology
To effectively engage diverse groups of people in technology, one must understand how people relate to technology and what kinds of problems they feel are worth solving. For the last 15 years, we at the Center for Children and Technology (CCT) have studied how men, women, and children think about and use technology in their everyday lives. As part of our early studies in the late 1980s, we were interested in exploring women's and men's feelings about technology-the non-rational aspect of how people interpret technological objects. We created a software program that invited our respondents to spin fantasies that answered the following question: "If you were writing a science fiction story in which the perfect instrument (a future version of your own) is described, what would it be like?" We conducted similar studies with 80 children in elementary and middle schools.

In our studies, we found that the typical masculine idea of the perfect future technology is a brain implant that provides its wearer with all the wisdom of great men throughout history. The implant is used for solving ordinary problems-or creating cities and mountains-in either the cyber world or the real world. The typical feminine ideal technology is a tiny, portable device that can transform itself into many useful tools, depending on the user's need or environment. Many boys imagined vehicles that can take them anywhere at any time-without depriving them of junk food and TV. Many girls imagined helpful companion creatures or small boxes that can heal many ills of the world (Bennett et al. 1996; Brunner et al. 1998).

Overall, that research indicated that women and girls think about technology, when invited to do so, as a tool for facilitating human interaction. It also revealed that women and girls enjoy designing and using technology to help solve everyday problems and to collaborate with others. That contrasted significantly with the ways in which men and boys conceptualize and relate to technology. We found that men tend to be drawn to the technological objects themselves and enjoy solving problems that take them deep inside the machines and their mechanisms. The men often described technology as an instrument to transcend the barriers of space and time, rather than a tool for staying connected to the here and now.

By and large, the feminine notions of collaboration and communication have been absent in the design of electronic learning environments for children. Our early research led us to speculate about how electronic learning environments could be designed that reflect that perspective, inviting new people-particularly girls-into the world of technology.

Imagining New Virtual Environments
Currently, telecommunications technology-what is thought of as cyberspace, the Internet, the virtual world-is a new medium. It is the largest and most accessible library imaginable. It is similar to some of the masculine fantasies of dialing up Gandhi to help with a decision. One can send and move things around in it with increasing speed, not to mention the countless opportunities to conquer new worlds and frontiers! But the Internet is also a talk medium, a place to hang out, and a source of connection and communication.

In thinking about online educational learning environments, CCT has speculated alongside others that the Internet is well situated to help girls tell their own stories and to become engaged with technology in new ways (Brunner et al. 1998; Cassell 1998). Rather than focusing on the Internet as a tool for collecting and disseminating information, researchers are beginning to understand the potential of the Internet for personal sharing and collaboration.

Since its early studies, CCT has worked on a number of research and development projects that have allowed us to consider those issues and raise new questions. Those questions have led to studies of how girls and boys approach virtual gaming environments, and how to design online discussion environments for young women that provide access to mentors. (Naomi Hupert's article "Telementoring: Using Online Communication for a Student Mentoring Project"[please link to article] and Kallen Tsikalas's article "Preparing for Successful Telementoring Relationships"[please link to article] explore that topic further.) This article describes our most recent work, researching and developing an online construction and design space, called Imagination Place!, in KAHooTZ. From that study, we noticed several features and approaches that are important to engage girls in online construction activities. Our findings indicate how to develop engaging games and learning environments for diverse learners.

Looking Critically at an Online Construction Environment
Construction and tinkering environments such as LEGO/LOGO often include suites of animation and programmable tools for children to create their own virtual worlds. Yet because such environments have been found to appeal to boys more than to girls (Turkle 1984, 1988), it is important to look closely at how such environments invite users into the design and construction of things. For example, one needs to ask what is center stage in those environments. Is it the tools themselves or the problems to be solved?

We have been recently developing a curriculum that invites girls into the digital universe. The curriculum provides opportunities for them to express their technological imaginations by designing technologies of the future. To bring that to life, we partnered with the Australian Children's Television Foundation to work with KAHooTZ. KAHooTZ is an Internet-based, multimedia construction environment that allows children to create computer games or cartoons, known as Xpressions, which children can show to and discuss with one another.

Figure 1. The KAHooTZ tool set Click for a larger picture.

The tools in KAHooTZ include a large collection of clip art, including many categories of graphic stamps, backgrounds, and patterns; easy animation tools; and sound effects that allow users to add simple sounds or to compose complex music (see Figure 1). There is personal e-mail and a powerful chat room interface (see Figure 2), in which the children are represented by icons of their own making, distributed around the border of the window, while the center of the screen is an Xpression that a user has published for others to view and discuss. What the children write in the chat room appears in speech balloons emanating from their icons. In KAHooTZ, a conversational centerpiece always exists, and it is clear who is talking.

Figure 2: A chat room in KAHooTZ Click for a larger picture.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, CCT is creating a "channel" in the KAHooTZ world called Imagination Place!, where girls in particular - though not exclusively - are invited to join in a set of relatively structured design activities with other users to create fantastic inventions that solve problems they identify. To create a sense of place and community, we are developing an additional set of graphics tools, including art that girls can use as backdrops for their own illustrated stories, and a set of whimsical and evocative parts that children can use to construct complex, fantastic machines. We are also producing carefully structured learning activities to foster girls' technological imaginations. The activities invite girls to think about design in the real world, to imagine themselves as future designers and inventors, and to go through a process, by using the KAHooTZ animation tools, that helps them think systematically - though not necessarily realistically - about creating their own inventions.

In many ways, KAHooTZ is a perfect vehicle for our curriculum, which aims to offer girls opportunities to not only create inventions but also talk about them and share them with peers. However, throughout the development of the project, we noticed there were a number of important features missing in the KAHooTZ world that were critical for encouraging girls to create constructions. For one, there is no central place in the KAHooTZ world - just people and things. It is an inviting world for children who want to make something and show it off to others. Finding someone in that world to talk to, collaborate with, make something, or play with is much harder.

To make this construction world a place for girls, a mechanism was needed to connect the inhabitants and give them something to do together - to form a community. We observed that girls often want to get to know the other KAHooTZ users before they publish their Xpressions. They want to share their ideas with specific people, not with the world at large. That led us to develop design activities that help children think about how they might create an invention that others would like to see, and then to offer strategies for them to negotiate when they would chat, what about, and with whom.

We became aware of an important feature that needed to be included in the KAHooTZ tool set when we had girls attempt to map out their own inventions using the available animation capabilities. For example, to illustrate how her Dirt-to-Food Machine worked, one girl included a "bread loaf" graphic stamp coming out of her machine as an end product (see Figure 3). The problem with many of the stamps, however, is that they move incessantly once a construction is played. That student's bread kept slicing and unslicing, even though she did not assign that action to her bread loaf.

Perhaps even more problematic was that the KAHooTZ animation tools do not allow an object to be moved along a user-defined path. Without the use of clever tricks, girls could not make something move from the fronts of their machines to the ends of their machines and then stop. Instead, most of the animation tools only allow objects to be moved across the screen in a prescribed set of patterns (for example, in a ricochet or an up-and-down motion).

Figure 3: The Dirt-to-Food Machine: one student's invention Xpression in KAHooTZ Click for a larger picture.

KAHooTZ's animation tools tend to work well for games that boys typically make in KAHooTZ, in which the action is essentially repetitive and involves shooting something, capturing it, or repeating the action while depleting the opponent's resources. It is not sufficient for the kinds of constructions we found that girls like to make, which focus on illustrating a process that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

As it happens, many of the features that girls need to make their inventions are not very different from the kinds of tools that teachers want for their students. Teachers want their students to be able to create narratives to express their knowledge and to demonstrate their understanding of processes through animation. Educators have much to contribute to the design of electronic learning environments because they are aware that good teaching is not about showing off how clever you are, but about providing opportunities for children to express and share the knowledge they are constructing. Making room for that kind of deliberate, process-oriented work in construction environments like KAHooTZ will inevitably attract diverse learners, particularly girls. Since CCT and the Australian Children's Television Foundation began working together, the KAHooTZ design team has begun creating a set of new animation tools that meet the needs we have identified. The design team and CCT are already seeing a difference in children's use of the environment and the quality of the Xpressions they make.

Judging Electronic Learning Environments
Many innovative gaming environments and newly created Internet-based worlds such as KAHooTZ provide opportunities for young people to express themselves in new ways. Moving beyond "pink" and "blue" software that reinforce such stereotypes as a "day at the mall" or "tours of conquest," these environments offer powerful tools for children to create and construct their own meanings.

Judging electronic learning environments, and whether they invite in a broad range of children, is not simply looking for open-ended tools or software that are free of gender stereotypes. Appropriate environments are flexibly gendered and may not necessarily be gender-specific or gender-free. We have learned from Imagination Place! and other projects that one needs to closely examine more subtle factors that come in to play. These factors include:

  • the tools and capabilities available and the kind of expression those tools allow;
  • the context for play or engagement;
  • the kinds of problems and activities children are invited to solve or participate in.

Considering those factors is a key step in creating truly open, rather than narrowly defined, contexts for teaching and learning.


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Cornelia Brunner
Dorothy Bennett