Volume:4, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2012

Online Learning and Gender Equality
Cherie Ichinose [about]

DESCRIPTORS: online learning, learning mathematics, gender, anonymity, learning environment, synchronous and asynchronous interactions.

SYNOPSIS: Online learning not only provides the flexibility to learn at one’s own pace and speed, but provides students with the anonymity to explore their mathematical learning regardless of the pressures that differences in gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic factors may produce. This study focused on student perceptions and performance between genders in an online high school mathematics course, and it reveals how male and female students participate, interact and perform in an online setting. The results show no statistical difference in overall course achievement between males and females, suggesting that the neutral medium of on-line learning may help to balance mathematics achievement between males and female students.

As technology has evolved, so have the lifestyles of American students. The Sloan Consortium estimated the number of K-12 students engaged in some kind of online course in 2007-2008 at over one million (Picciano & Seaman, 2009).  Students choose online learning for a variety of reasons.  “Students are choosing online courses for the same reasons that students use iPods instead of compact disks and watch YouTube in addition to television; these all represent more options, choices, convenience, and flexibility” (Watson & Ryan, 2009, p. 23).   In addition to said flexibility, perhaps, students are choosing an online setting for the anonymity and equality that this unique modality provides.  
Several studies reported students felt online learning provided them with a safer place to explore their learning at their own pace and with greater equality (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003; Curtis & Lawson, 2001; Smith et al., 2003).  Equality, for example, can be explained by unlimited student mathematical engagement rather than the limited seat-time defined by a traditional class.  Further the medium reduces social context clues related to race, gender, disability, or status and frees students to connect intellectually without distraction. 

Online courses can be delivered using both synchronous and asynchronous modalities.  Asynchronous activities, not restricted by time, can include interactions with the online content and threaded discussion boards.   This model  is not restricted by a finite class session time, but allows students more time for synthesis, enhances learning, and allows students to reflect on the material before producing a solution (Lou et al., 2006; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Simonsen & Banfield, 2006; Warschauer, 1997).  For example, when a student is faced with a challenging concept, he or she can take the necessary time to read and/or re-read the material in order to best grasp the objective.  The student masters the mathematical objective by engaging with online practice and assessment activities allowing a student to use his or her errors as instructive tools that can redirect a student to the correct solution, and, more importantly, identify the individual error and use that understanding to course-correct the student (Engelbrecht & Harding).  Unlike in the traditional classroom, students do not need to feel pressured to produce an on-the-spot solution, but can reflect on their previous mathematical knowledge to come up with answers at their own individual pace (Richardson & Swan, 2003). 

Not unlike a traditional educational setting, online students can participate in rich mathematical discussions.  Dialogue can include new material or making extension from previously discussed content (Hagerty & Smith, 2005).  With the use of online tools this can occur either at the same time (synchronously) or at their convenience (asynchronously).  Collectively, teachers and students have the opportunity to share their ideas, elaborate on their thought process, and compare their ideas with previous statements or work (Simonsen & Banfield, 2006).  However, online discussions have been shown to differ from face-to-face discussions, specifically in regards to the creation of an environment of equality and participation (Eastman & Swift, 2002; Li, 2003; Twigg, 2004; Warschauer, 1997). 

There is power in the anonymity that the online learning environment provides.  For example, with most systems, a student will login (to a discussion or synchronous activity) with some identifier or naming convention.  A student login, “S_Smith” does not identify whether it is Samuel Smith or Sarah Smith.  Thereby relieving any pressure either way to participate in a discussion based on gender.  Further this online medium reduces nonverbal cues such as frowning and hesitation, which can intimidate students to refrain from participating in a traditional environment (Warschauer, 1997). 

The equalization of an online environment, absent of bias based on looks, gender, ethnicity, and status, can have a democratizing effect on a class (Smith et al., 2003).  Several studies cited groups of people of varying status show approximately twice as much equality in participation online when compared to face-to-face discussion groups made up of similar demographics (Sproull & Keisler, 1992; Warschauer, 1997) this included gender and English language learners (Biesenbach-Lucas, 2003). 

With the limited research in online learning, this study provides a much needed benchmark for gender research in learning mathematics online.  The purpose of this study was to examine male and female students participation when learning mathematics online.

Research Design

The development and use of frequencies and descriptive statistics in this article are based on data collected from a larger study of the beliefs and attitudes of high school students and their interactions with online mathematics courses.  The discussion that follows has been abbreviated; the only parts of the larger study related to male and female participation in an online mathematics course will be discussed.



For the purpose of this study, a sample was drawn from 2051 high school students taking an online mathematics course from one of nine virtual academies in a western USA state.  The self-selected study consisted of 458 students.

Online Instrument

The specific variables that were studied can be categorized by both synchronous and asynchronous interactions: online content interaction, threaded discussion board (asynchronous) and live and web-conferencing interactions (synchronous).  The online courses were delivered by an electronic-learning management system.  The average time spent on each asynchronous activity was automatically recorded by the system and then retrieved for analysis.  Activities included the amount of time the students spent reading the online content and taking quizzes and exams.  Data on how students performed on each activity were collected.  Overall course grades were also retrieved.  For threaded discussion boards, two measures of interactivity were retrieved: (a) the number of messages posted to the course discussion boards by students; and (b) the average number of minutes students spent accessing each thread. 

To measure interactions that occurred during synchronous sessions, both live and recorded sessions were observed.  Data from the synchronous logs was collected over a 20-week period of time.  Both the number of sessions students attended and length of attendance, per session, in minutes were recorded.  Engagement percentage was calculated over a 10 week period of time.  Synchronous engagement was measured by student participation using text chat as well as the emoticons, microphone, and whiteboard features.

Survey Instrument

The survey questionnaire was developed based upon the latest literature, and current theories about STEM education and student learning, as well the researcher’s own experience.  It was pre-tested (Ichinose, 2010) and then modified in response to the pretest comments and criticisms.  These included a 4-point Likert scale as well as multiple and dichotomous questions.  Themed questions included those that asked students about their learning of mathematics when learning was dependent on the content and the time spent learning the content.  Additional questions asked the same regarding threaded discussion boards and synchronous activities. 


Students were asked which interaction variable they felt was most useful for learning mathematics online: online content, synchronous activity, threaded discussion boards or email.   Overall, students felt that the online content was most useful for learning mathematics (44%), followed closely by synchronous sessions (40%).  When the question was divided by gender, the results were the similar.  Males (51%) and females (47.6%) favored the online content to attending synchronous sessions (46.9% and 44%, respectively).

Online Content Interaction
Students reported that the online content, in general, was an effective way to learn mathematics (86.4%).  Students spent on average of 28 minutes reading lessons, 15 minutes taking online quizzes and 25 minutes taking online exams.  Males (90.8%) reported higher levels of agreement than females (84.3%) that pertained to the value of the online content.  This higher level in satisfaction was statistically significant (t = 2.649, df = 410, p = .008).  However, actual measured interactions between genders did not differ significantly at a .05 level; reading lessons (t = -0.969, df = 306, p = .333), quiz time (t = 1.750, df = 306, p = .081), unit exam time (t = 1.503, df = 306, p = .134).

Synchronous Interaction
Overall, students felt that synchronous sessions were effective for learning mathematics (88.8%).  However, only 63.5% of students indicated that they regularly attend synchronous sessions.  On average, over the 20 week period students attended 9.83 live, synchronous sessions.  Average time per session was 46 minutes.  Reporting from observed settings only, students engaged approximately 65% of the time.  Similarly with the online content interaction, male and female students’ synchronous attendance and participation did not vary significantly, number of sessions (t = 1.028, df = 279.77, p = .305), average time (t = -0.790, df = 294.18, p =.430), engagement (t =-1.284, df = 249, p = .200).

Threaded Discussion Interaction
63.4% of the students stated threaded discussions effective were effective for learning mathematics, agreed. Of the 52 classes observed, a total of 1481 posts were recorded by the system: 94 for pre-algebra, 453 for algebra, and 850 for geometry.  Students spent an average of 8.43 minutes engaging with each post in their respective classes.  However, only a small percentage of the students indicated that the discussion board was the first place they would post their mathematics questions (23.8%).  Further, male and female students did not differ in the use of threaded discussion board for learning mathematics; number of posts (t = -1.239, df = 94, p = .218) average time reading (t = 0.885, df = 303, p = .413).

Frequencies of Achievement Scores
As seen from Table 1, comparisons were made in achievement scores between gender and their respective courses.

Table 1
Descriptive Statistics: Overall Course Achievement with Subgroups


























With all three courses, male students performed slightly better (between 4% and 8%) than the female students.  However, these differences were not statistically significant; Algebra (t = 1.097, df = 126, p = .275) Pre-Algebra (t = 0.810, df = 24, p = .430) Geometry (t = -1.280, df = 395, p = .200)

In this study, male and female students’ interactions and perceptions did not differ significantly when taking an online mathematics course.  That is male and female students interacted synchronously, and with the online content and threaded discussions the same.  These interactions also showed there was no significant different between genders with overall course achievement. 

The study is not without flaw.  First, the survey analysis depended on the information provided by student. Responses could have been influenced by thoughts and feelings, either toward the course itself or the teachers. Next, there are limitations with the online content and threaded interactions logs.  There is no way to measure the actual use other than the time recorded.  For example, if students merely logged into the content or to a synchronous session and walked away from the computer the time is reported as active. However, the same can be argued with a student sitting in a classroom who does not pay attention to the teacher. 

Additionally, with the use of assessments, there is no guarantee of the authenticity of who is actually performing the assessment.  Students in the sample were required to take the state’s standardized test face-to-face, thus validating their identity on it.


This study showed the online setting acts as an equalizer for mathematical participation and achievement, for both male and female students. There must be continued discussion on how the online learning environment will continue to impact mathematical achievement between genders. 
There is limited research pertaining to online learning, specifically learning mathematics.  This study showed the importance of interactions in general, but future studies are necessary to find the power of such interactions.  Future investigations must study each interaction, and combination of different interactions, as they influence overall mathematical achievement.  This much needed research will provide vital information to both teachers and administrators as they make decisions regarding the usage of online learning.


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Ichinose, Cherie – Ph.D., Mathematics Department, California State University Fullerton, CA, USA.


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