The Insiders' Perspectives: A Focus Group Study on Gender Issues in a Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environment

Article excerpt

Introduction

There is little doubt that the advent of collaborative technologies in recent years has brought some significant changes in the way students learn, communicate, and interact with one another. The deployment of computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is a good example of how collaborative technologies can be used to facilitate and enhance group learning and interaction (Alavi, 1994; Alavi, Wheeler, & Valacich, 1995; Briggs, Ramesh, Romano, & Latimer, 1995; Kwok, Ma, & Vogel, 2002). Despite our need to assess the impact of these technologies in education, the research still lags behind the adoption of collaborative technologies in practice. As Alavi and Leidner (2001) put it, there is a fundamental need to understand how the use of these technologies can improve the learning process. Indeed, our understanding of these technologies and their underlying impacts on learners and instructors remains fragmented. One important area that has been neglected in the research is the impact of classroom technology on gender classroom equity and learning processes. A glimpse of the relevant literature reveals that only a few studies have looked at the gender issues in a computer-mediated learning environment (Davidson-Shivers, Morris, & Sriwongkol, 2001, 2003; Larson, 2002; Wang & Sierra, 2002; Young & McSporran, 2001), despite the deep penetration of technology being deployed in classroom and the significant increase in the number of female computer users (Iankelevich, 2005; Ono, 2002).

The field study described in the following pages was designed to explore learning and gender issues from an insider's perspective. The scope of this study is to look at the learning process within the implementation of a CSCL environment and document the perception and experiences of those who took part in the process. More specifically, the focus is on understanding issues related to the differences between male and female behaviors as well as the role and impact of technologies on gender classroom equity and learning experiences. In a broader context, this study conveys the importance and relevance of gender issues in today's technology-rich environment. To achieve the objective, focus group interviews were conducted to solicit insights from the participants in actual classes. The findings from these interviews and field observations are reported. The results of this exploratory study provide useful implications by recognizing a deeper understanding of both what female students experience, and the role of technology in group learning processes. This will be of value to academics and practitioners who use online learning environments.

The paper is organized into eight sections. Following the introduction is a characterization of CSCL and the environment it supports. Section three highlights some of the gender issues relevant to CSCL environment, which motivated this study. Section four presents conceptual underpinnings derived from Habermas' Theory of Cognitive Interests (Habermas, 1972; Huynh, 2005). Section five describes the field study. Section six reports the analysis and results from the field study, while the section seven discusses the implications for research and practice and the directions of future research. The last section summarizes the study's contributions.

Computer Supported Collaborative Learning

For the purpose of this study, we characterized CSCL as an integration of information technology (IT) into the course design and teaching strategy to support collaborative learning approaches. Two key elements in this definition are the use of collaborative learning and the integration of IT to facilitate group work in the classroom. Collaborative learning in general refers to a pedagogical approach that allows students to work together in a small group. The intention is to create an environment where every student can participate in and contribute to an assigned task. …