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Social media may help women overcome computer anxiety

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A new study led by Wen-Hao David Huang examines how gender influences perceptions about using Web 2.0 applications for learning. Huang’s co-authors were professor Denice Ward Hood, right, and Sun Joo Yoo, a graduate student in human resource development, all in the department of education policy, organization and leadership.

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3/6/2012 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — No matter how many hours a day young women spend tweeting and texting, downloading electronic media or communicating online with co-workers or friends, many of them believe they’re not as competent at using computer technology as the men around them. Since the Internet’s infancy, researchers have observed a distinct gender divide in attitudes toward and adoption of computer technology, with many women tending to feel intimidated by it, a phenomenon called computer anxiety.

A new study by researchers in the College of Education at the University of Illinois suggests that social networking and video sharing applications could be effective in helping women transcend their computer anxiety and bridge the digital divide.

Co-authors of the study are Wen-Hao David Huang and Denice Ward Hood, faculty members in the department of education policy, organization and leadership, and Sun Joo Yoo, a graduate student in human resource development in the department.

Web 2.0 technologies – interactive, collaborative Internet-based applications – are becoming increasingly popular as educational tools at the primary, secondary and college levels; however, there has been little investigation of how gender might influence students’ perceptions of using these applications for learning, the researchers said.

Huang, Hood and Yoo explored computer anxiety among 432 college freshmen and sophomores and whether gender influenced students’ perceptions of six Web 2.0 applications – blogs, wikis, online gaming, immersive virtual environments, social networking communities and video sharing sites.

The participants in the study were all students in a required course in the teacher education curricula, which exposed students to the six applications and asked them to demonstrate how they might use them to enhance their teaching practice. About 90 percent of students in the class were women, according to Huang, the lead author on the study. He taught the course and gathered the data at another university prior to joining the faculty at Illinois.

Female students reported higher levels of anxiety than male students when using blogs, wikis, online games and immersive virtual environments. Although prior studies by other researchers indicated that women’s computer anxiety extended to social networking and online video sharing applications as well, the current study did not support that.

“Historically, gender differences exist, but our study found no differences using social networking tools,” Yoo said.

Perhaps female participants felt less intimidated by social networking and video sharing applications because they had prior experience using them for social and other activities outside the classroom, the researchers suggested.

While study participants said that they felt comfortable using most of the applications, with the exception of immersive virtual environments, they didn’t perceive some of the applications – social networking applications and online gaming, in particular – as viable learning tools, even though students found them enjoyable to use.

Hood and Huang teach a Discovery course for freshmen, “Blogging, Wiki-ing, Tweeting, YouTube-ing and Texting: College and Web 2.0,” which explores academic uses for applications that students commonly use.

“The course goals include helping freshmen learn to efficiently and effectively leverage the positive affordances of Web 2.0 technologies for learning,” Hood said. “We challenge the false dichotomy in terms of how students utilize these technologies for fun or to stay in touch with family and friends and how they can be applied in class.”

The College of Education offers several technology-oriented courses, but Huang said he would like to see more, especially elective courses targeting technology integration, so that students become familiar with various applications they could use in the classroom.

“If teachers have negative attitudes toward technology, they are not going to apply that technology in the classroom,” said Yoo, who provides technical support for the college’s online courses, including the online master’s program for in-service teachers.  “At first they are very (apprehensive about) using new technology. Once they figure out how to use it, they are very excited about applying these new tools with their students.”

When educators are integrating technologies into their teaching, they need to be wary of making assumptions about their students’ access and response to technologies, Huang said.

 “When we design these online learning modules for students, one of the assumptions we usually make is that everyone will have high-speed Internet connections,” Huang said. “But the reality is most of the world does not have them. So when we put online materials together, we need to consider the various aspects of the digital divide – gender, race, socioeconomic status and other demographic variables. Future teachers need to have that kind of awareness when they work with their students.”

In surveying students in the Discovery course about the technologies they use, Hood and Huang found that female students tend to use Facebook, Twitter, video sharing and music applications extensively, but not gaming applications.

Scholars studying computer anxiety theorize that it is rooted partially in gender socialization processes that stereotype computing as a masculine pursuit. Because many online applications, particularly games, are designed by men for male users, such games tend not to appeal to females.

“When the Internet first came out, it was dominated by male users,” Huang said. “There is this ongoing assumption – which might still be the case – that it still is.”

That assumption is reflected in consumer goods such as women’s T-shirts that trumpet “ ‘I beat my boyfriend at Guitar Hero’ or ‘I beat my boyfriend at--’ and they just fill in the game,” Ward Hood said. “And I think, ‘Really?’ because we’d never see that T-shirt in a man’s store. It sort of sends the subtle message that this is a man’s domain, particularly gaming, and that women are still on the outside.”

The study, which has been accepted for publication in the journal The Internet and Higher Education, became available online Feb. 16.

Editor's note: To contact Denice Ward Hood, call 217-244-1886; email dwhood@illinois.edu;
Wen-Hao David Huang 217-244-0921; wdhuang@illinois.edu; Sun Joo Yoo 217-333-0807; yoo23@illinois.edu.

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