Although most young people show a general familiarity with computer tools, there are still some observable differences between men and women in how they relate to specific digital tasks.
We are often reminded that there is a ‘generation gap’ in terms of how efficiently people use information and communication technologies (ICTs), but it appears that there are also gender-based differences in the way people relate to digital tasks. The difference, which researchers have observed in men’s and women’s familiarity with and confidence in using a range of IT tools, may well be of crucial importance both as regards the digital and mobile learning process and for companies’ recruitment policies. The latest study in this field has been carried out by team of Chinese academics from the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, who have just published a paper entitled Exploring Gender Differences on General and Specific Computer Self-efficacy in Mobile Learning Adoption in the Journal of Educational Computing Research, based on a survey carried among students at the university. Although male-female digital habits are apparently converging, women tend to show relatively more self-confidence when faced with a practical digital task to perform, the researchers found.
Gender-based attitudes to ICTs
The research team set out to quantify the effects of gender on the students’ degree of self-confidence in relation to information technology tools and perceptions of their usefulness. The ‘computer self-efficacy’ indicator, which is defined as an individual judgement of one’s own ability to use a computer, was used in the survey to estimate relative fear of or familiarity with digital tools in the context of e-learning/mobile learning. The results obtained from the student population of Huazhong University show some real male/female differences in digital culture. The men surveyed showed far greater confidence in their ability to use IT tools in general (‘general CSE’). However, faced with a specific task – ‘specific CSE’ – their levels of confidence fell away dramatically, in contrast to the women respondents, whose CSE in relation to specific digital tasks rose substantially versus their ‘general CSE’. The CSE measurement, while very interesting from a cultural-sociological point of view, is even more interesting in relation to its impact on ‘perceived usefulness’ – which refers to the degree to which a person believes that using a digital system or tool would enhance his or her job performance. In fact a high level of confidence in their ability to understand a tech tool correlated with the perception that the tool is highly useful, but a key finding was that the relatively low scores for female ‘general CSE’ on the one hand and male ‘specific CSE’ on the other were associated with only a very slight fall in the ‘perceived usefulness’ of the technology.
General tech familiarity confirmed
Though these results may not appear to be very original in terms of an observed culturally-conditioned perception of working with ICTs, there is no reason to doubt the body of empirical data which the study provides on the university students surveyed. It seems that although in general men have the impression that they understand and can handle tech tools, women seem to take a more pragmatic approach, focusing on the practical aspects of problem-solving. Leaving aside the rather facile and clichéd opposition between a rationalist and idealist mindset, these results may well offer a useful basis for designing effective digital education policies. But perhaps the most important finding of the study is that the student population, even when they do not fully understand how IT tools work, seem nevertheless to have generally accepted that using digital tools as part of a range of work processes is now the norm.