Gender Differences and Distance Education: Major Research Findings and Implications for LIS Education

Article excerpt

Although few research studies to date of library and information science (LIS) distance-education students have addressed the possible effects of gender-related differences upon these students' learning experiences, the literatures of other disciplines include many significant studies of gender differences within distance education environments. This article reviews representative studies from the disciplines of education and psychology, identifying six factors that gender differences may influence: (1) motivation for enrolling, (2) learning style, (3) attitude toward and use of technology, (4) communication style, (5) level of support/sense of community, and (6) dropout or failure rate. Implications for LIS education are discussed.

Introduction

The rising popularity of distance education classes at colleges and universities has prompted an interest in research on students and the quality of their distance learning experiences. As virtual education assumes greater importance within the training of students in all disciplines, research isolating and investigating the variables among students that either support or inhibit their ability to succeed within distance learning environments becomes increasingly important. To date, few research studies of library and information science (LIS) distance education students have isolated the possible effects of gender-related differences upon these students' learning experiences, but in other fields there is a "considerable body of research that suggests that male and female students experience the online classroom environment differently."1 This research has been conducted primarily by scholars from the disciplines of education and psychology.

What are some of the primary findings of these studies, and what implications do these findings have for education within the field of library and information science? Before a review of this body of research can be undertaken, an important distinction between "gender" and "gender identity" must be made.

Although some studies continue to use the term "gender" when referring to both biological and cognitive differences between males and females, many educators and psychologists have now begun to use "gender identity," a concept recognizing that any individual, regardless of his or her biological gender, can and does exhibit some cognitive characteristics of the opposite gender. "Gender identity" is a more inclusive term than "gender," recognizing that "individuals can describe themselves both in terms of masculine attributes and feminine attributes."2 Throughout this article, the term "gender" will include "gender identity," "female" will include "feminine," and the term "male" will include "masculine."

Methodology

Two different searches were conducted in selecting the research studies reviewed for this study. In the first search, ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center) was accessed, with results limited to journal articles published between January 1996 and April 2006. In the second search, PsychINFO (Psychological Abstracts) was consulted, with results unlimited by date, document type or language. The search within ERIC resulted in forty-two articles, while PsychINFO produced twenty-seven citations including one journal article also cited in ERIC.

The resulting sixty-eight journal articles, dissertations and essays within books were then analyzed to determine the primary factors being studied in connection to gender, resulting in the identification of six different factors: (1) motivation for enrolling, (2) learning style, (3) attitude toward and use of technology, (4) communication style, (5) sense of support/sense of community, and (6) dropout or failure rate.

Representative projects are discussed within the following six sections. These studies were selected from a broad range of distance-only, distance versus face-to-face, and blended (distance and face-to-face) instructional settings. …