March 1998

Is Free-Time Fair?
Is Free-Time Fair?

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Girls, Boys, and Classroom Computer Use

I study the eager faces of the students as their teacher gives instructions for activity centres. The boys whose names are called out to use the computers throw their hands up in victory; the other boys slump in their seats. Within minutes, the chosen boys are charging hastily toward the computers. One boy’s uncontained enthusiasm causes him to leap effortlessly over a desk en route to his computer. Another student, a girl, walks quietly to her computer, unsure of what she is supposed to do.

By Corina M. Koch

In 1994, a team of researchers, teachers and computer and game designers from the faculty of education at Queen’s University, led by Rena Upitis, and the computer science department at the University of British Columbia, led by Maria Klawe, collaborated to design electronic games with math and science content.

My job, as a field researcher, was to observe how children used computers in the classroom context. I was interested in the kinds of games children liked to play, as well as how they were using computers. The goal of our project was to use the information that we acquired about software preferences and styles of computer use to develop an engaging piece of educational software.

When I arrived at the school in January 1995, I set my chair near the computers so that I could chat with students to find out what their interests were and observe what they were doing on the computers. It wasn’t long before I noticed I was spending most of my time talking to boys. To find out what girls thought about computers, I had to visit them at their desks.

At that moment, I realized boys were the primary users of classroom computers and my research focus took a different turn.

Boy Culture at the Computers

A number of studies indicate that girls and boys use computers differently in the classroom context when the complexities of classroom life are taken into account. As a general rule, computers are a favoured free-time choice for boys, and they tend to use computers more often and with greater enthusiasm than girls.

Boys are game players, and when they arrive at the computers they use them for entertainment. Clustered around computers, whether they have completed their work or not or have been given permission to use them, boys share tips and secrets about the games they play.

Some tips come at a high price. For a mediocre one, boys traded tips for tips, but for coveted tips, one boy reported that "chips for tips" — potato chips, that is — were an effective bargaining tool.

Boys will do almost anything to engage in computer game play with their peers. In one Grade 5 classroom, where students were not allowed to leave their desks to gawk over the shoulders of students using computers, I watched in astonishment as a boy moved his desk, his chair and his person toward the computers. He did this ever so subtly, by small increments, over the span of half an hour. Before long, he was up against the computer table — desk, chair and all — without ever defying his teacher’s request that he stay at his desk.

In short, computer gaming and talk about computer games is a culture that boys live – at the computers, at their desks, on the playground and often at home as well.

Girls and Computers

Our research in Ontario classrooms shows that girls generally do not like using computers until their classroom work is done. Nor are they comfortable with the possibility of missing "work" while at the computers.

When it was her turn at the computer, a Grade 5 girl told me, "I’m nervous." When I asked her why, she said she was anxious about missing a math lesson.

One boy, who had overheard our conversation – he’d been hovering around the computers – checked the computer schedule and assured the girl that the lesson would be taught after her computer time had elapsed. She immediately relaxed. For girls, finishing in-class assignments is a priority over using computers.

Girls are tool users. They need to have a reason to use a computer. They use them for word processing, for drawing, for embellishing their classroom work and for creating art. They rarely play computer games – but if they do, the game must be engaging, complex, and designed with girls in mind.

Unfortunately, educational games designed specifically for girls are rare. So, for now, girls see computers as a means to an end. When they leave the computer, they leave their computing experiences at the computer. They move to a different context – one of classroom obligations, conversations and friendships. In their opinion, computers don’t belong there.

Are Girls Losing Out?

Are girls missing out on technology? As teachers, we need to make sure they don’t – because computers are a valued tool of our culture.

We need to value the ways in which girls use computers. They need to know that it’s okay to use computers differently than boys do. Girls need to be encouraged to use computers in ways that make sense to them.

As well, teachers need to understand the importance of their role in creating a space for girls at classroom computers. Because boys tend to dominate computer use, using computers during free-time on a first come, first served basis is not fair.

"The boys always get there first," a Grade 7 girl remarked. And if left unchecked, boys will probably always out-run and out-manoeuvre girls where computers are concerned.

Teachers need to give girls opportunities to use computers. Teachers can create spaces at the computers by employing simple strategies such as assigning girls-only computer times or girls-only computers, where half the classroom computers are "owned" by girls at all times — whether they are used or not. If teachers commit to creating a space for girls, boys’ enthusiasm for computers and games will not eliminate the practical need for girls to use computers as tools.

Corina M. Koch is a researcher at Queen’s University and a member of the electronic games for education in math and sciences team. She thanks the classroom teachers, principals and students of the Frontenac County schools who willingly took part in her research. She can be reached at