PRESENTING educational programs as typical computer games may alienate girls, new research warns.
The study suggests that the "male" qualities of some software have a negative effect on girls' performance.
Boys came out the clear winners when computer programs featured planes and pirates. But when the same games used teddy bears instead, the girls showed a major improvement, eliminating the difference.
The researchers studied 11 and 12-year-old girls and boys attempting to retrieve a crown from an island on screen. The obvious route was blocked by pirates, and the best way back was to use an aeroplane.
Paul Light, one of the study's authors, said the boys did substantially better than the girls on all measures of success.
To examine whether the "male" characteristics of the game made any difference, a separate group of children tested another version of the game.This time the characters were teddy bears searching for honey and avoiding "honey monsters".
Professor Light said the results showed that gender differences disappeared altogether, with the girls doing slightly better. He said the result was surprising, and indicated that attention to gender stereotyping was important.
The study found no evidence of "real" gender differences in the problem-solving uses of computers, but he said "girls often approach computer tasks with lower expectations of success than boys". It seemed that gender stereotyping in software made the problem worse.
The researchers also noted that individual girl's performance worsened if they worked alongside boys.
Professor Light, pro-vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said there appeared to be merit in either keeping boys and girls apart when working with computers or having them work together - but not paired side by side.
The message for educators was that the social dynamics of learning were just as important as the curriculum content. The findings also signal to software designers that male and female users may not succeed with tasks equally.
"Gender, task scenarios and children's computer-based problem-solving" by Karen Littleton, Paul Light, Richard Joiner, David Messer and Peter Barnes, "Educational Psychology" vol 18, No 3.
Boys lose out, page 11