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The online forum as flexible assessment: Gender differences in participation

Cathy Jenkins
School of Film, Media & Cultural Studies
Griffith University
A trial of an online forum as a form of reflective assessment in a practical Journalism subject produced gender-related patterns in the postings, prompting a quantitative analysis of the times and days on which the students made their contributions.

A total of 454 postings was made over the three month period of the forum, and the consequent analysis of the postings uncovered some differences in usage of the forum depending on gender. Perhaps the most significant finding was that the female students were more willing to post their forum contributions from 6pm to 8am than their male counterparts, The female students also made more postings on weekends than their male counterparts, leading to the conclusion that the females were more prepared to use the online forum in a flexible manner.


Studies of gender differences in computer use are not new, with Spender (1995) arguing that may girls don't like what computers represent and don't like the way they are required to use them. This dislike appears to start young, with Australian girls at the end of Year 10 in high school lagging behind the boys in uptake of basic computer skills including opening a saved document, retrieving files and creating a new document. Boys are also more likely to use computers at home, partly because boys are more likely to have access to a home computer, but also partly because boys either want or are encouraged by their carers to use computers outside of school hours. (Meredyth et al, 1999). This apparent reluctance by females to use computers outside a formal context is also demonstrated in recent demographic studies that have shown that 53% of Australian men have accessed the Internet, compared with 45% of women (Roy Morgan Research, 2000).

Therefore when this author had the opportunity to introduce an online forum as the reflective piece of assessment within a practical Journalism subject, it provided a valuable opportunity to discover whether the female students would be willing to use computers flexibly, or whether they would still tend to use computers on campus and during "normal" working hours. As the coordinator of the third year News Production subject at Queensland University of Technology, I gave the online forum a weighting of 20% of the total mark for the subject. Students were required to submit a minimum of five postings over a minimum of two threads (from which they had four to choose) and were encouraged to not only submit original postings of their own, but to reply to postings made by other students. Because of the variety of practical skills that the students needed to hone in this capstone subject, students were warned that failure in any one piece of assessment would result in failure of the entire subject. This rule provided the added advantage of ensuring that students would participate in the forum.


The postings made by each of the students were entered into a spreadsheet program and sorted by gender, month, date, time and day, in order to calculate the general pattern of postings by gender. The majority of the 84 students in the class group was female (58 females to 26 males), but the calculations were carried out in such a way as reduce the impact of this gender imbalance; e.g. the number of male weekend postings was calculated as a percentage of the overall number of male postings, not the number of postings contributed by all students.

A follow-up e-mail survey was then conducted and the respondents' replies were also examined according to gender, in order to determine whether there was a difference in attitude toward flexible learning among the students.

Spread of postings

The students made a total of 454 postings over the three month period of the forum, and the consequent analysis of the postings uncovered some differences in usage of the forum depending on gender. Perhaps the most significant finding was that the female students were more willing to post their forum contributions after hours (Table 1) than their male counterparts, with the females making 30.2% of their postings from 6pm to 8am, to the male students' 17.8%. The female students (8.3%) also made more postings on weekends (Table 2) than their male counterparts (1.5%). Thursday was a popular day for postings as the students were all on campus for classes on that day (Table 2), but as is noted later, many of the Thursday postings were made at the last minute, ie the final two days of the forum (Table 3).

Table 1: Postings by time

TimeMale %
Female %
All %

The most popular time for forum postings for both genders was during the weekday afternoons (57.1% in total), following the logical pattern of mainly full time students who have come onto the campus for classes and have taken the opportunity to use computer labs to make their contributions. However the males made more postings from midday to 6pm, presenting 72.9% of their contributions in the afternoons, compared with 50.7% for their female counterparts.

Table 2: Postings by day

Male %
Female %
All %

The large number of male postings on Friday is largely caused by the fact that almost half of those contributions were left until final two days of the forum (43.3%), while less than a third of the female students (31.7%) left their contributions until the last minute (Table 3).

Table 3: "Last minute" postings

Male %
Female %
All %
Second-last day10.814.312.9
Last day32.517.521.8

Survey responses

A later e-mail survey of the students revealed some of the reasons for these posting patterns. 18 of the 84 students involved (ie 21.4%) responded to the survey, which was conducted after they had completed their semester's work ( indeed they had graduated by this stage, so the author is satisfied that the students were not influenced by fear or favour in their responses. Of the 13 female respondents (each identified with the letter F and a number), five indicated that they contributed their postings when they had time to spare from other responsibilities:
Normally at night when things were quiet after a day at work/uni, and I had some time to think. The forum fit in well with other commitments because I spread out the entries, therefore it only amounted to a small time and effort (F2).

As I said I work a lot, and am usually dashing from office to uni. It was great to be able to get something out of the way on a couple of evenings at home (F8).

It appears that the students welcomed the ability to slot the assessable work into their busy lives, waiting until they got home from their paid work to contribute to the forum. Indeed, eight of the female respondents preferred to make most or all of their responses from home, citing convenience and comfort:
All of my postings were made from home. That was the GREAT thing about it. I usually did them after dinner!!! Home is a much more pleasant environment (F6).

I made ALL my postings from home. I don't think I used a computer on campus all semester, apart from tutes. I work a full-time week for [a large company] and study a full time combined degree, anything I can do in the comfort of my bedroom, believe me I will do it there (F8).

However one of the female students pointed out that she did not have Internet access at home, while others cited technical difficulties while attempting to contribute to the forum from off campus:
I made about three postings from home which took so long because my computer is fairly outdated and takes ages to load anything to do with email or the internet... I posted two from uni and these were the answers I was much happier with because I could browse the net quite easily and was in my learning environment (F3).

I made the first six from home, and the final two from uni, when my computer got a virus toward the end of the semester. Obviously it was an assessment piece which was easier to complete if you had a computer at home, as the lines at uni are sometimes a mile long! (F5)

However the male respondents tended to prefer making their postings on campus. Of the five male students who responded to the e-mail survey (each identified by the letter M and a number), only two made postings from home, while a third made contributions from the campus and his workplace. The reasons for the two sets of home postings differ widely:
Well, I just did it when I was on the net anyway. Usually as an afterthought, like "well while I'm logged on, I might as well do some forum stuff" (M3).

I usually clear out my email and finalise any internet business around 10pm each night. What I'd usually do is print out the forum responses and read through them on the train going to work in the morning and scribble down some thoughts in the margin. I found the train ride to town was the only time of day I wasn't [at my paid job], attending uni, or feeding and bathing the children. I think if I ever had a therapist, they'd be on danger money. (M5)

M3 is a young, single man who entered university straight out of high school. He is also a computer enthusiast who was running two Web sites at last count, and appears to have seen the forum work almost as an extension of his leisure time, ie the Internet for him has provided motivational power for his work (McManus, 2000). On the other hand, M5 is in a similar position to the female students already cited, trying to juggle his university commitments with other work and family responsibilities. However M5 was not the only student, male or female, to take a methodical approach to their work on the forum:
I would look at the progress of the forums on a regular basis, and if there was an interesting point or one I didn't agree with I would post...I would mostly post when I was on campus during the week (M2).

I wanted to spread them out for several reasons: I wanted to see how my own point of view changed as I learnt other people's ways of thinking; it was a good way of responding to responses to my original messages; I never usually had the time or the concentration to post more than two messages at one time (M4).

I just wrote on my calendar a note to do one very second week, and would have a read of the forum every few days (F5).

However the overall attitudes of the students toward the forum differed depending on gender. Students were asked the question: "Was there any particular aspect of the forum that you liked?" Of the 13 female respondents, seven cited the flexibility of the forum:
Full-time University is always hard to fit in, when you're working and doing work experience. Being able to post things any time you like and choose when to do your assessment is great (F10).

It was perfect for Journalism students with our chaotic timetables because we could complete assessment at times suitable to us (F13).

An equal number of female students stated that they had enjoyed the opportunity to discuss ideas and issues with their classmates (individual students gave more than one response to the question):
I think you learn more talking and analysing, rather than memorising information.. [The forum] gave us all a chance to share what we had learnt over the three years and debate ethical considerations (F5).

It was good to have some serious discussions about issues in our future profession and others' opinions, because it's not the stuff you tend to talk about in the pub (F10).

Of the male students, only one of the five respondents mentioned flexibility as a positive aspect of the forum:
During the last semester of journalism, when deadlines were everywhere (print, online, TV, Radio), this made a welcome change (M2).
Like all of the other male respondents, M2 concentrated on the level of communication that the forum allowed between himself and his classmates:
I also liked to debate the issues with other students, just to find out their opinions and how mine were different (M2).

The forum was terrific because it encouraged focussed and informed discussion about plying our trade (M1).

It was a very good way of finding out how other people in the course view the world of journalism... It was also a good opportunity to have your own say about given topics which then led to healthy debate via the forum (M4).

The interactivity was definitely a plus (M3).

This concentration on "interactivity" by both male and female students is significant in the context of the News Production subject, as the forum continued until the end of the teaching semester, while formal lectures did not. Lectures ended after Week 6 of the 13-week semester, to enable the large group to break up into a number of smaller groups for a series of intensive practical activities in print, radio, television and online journalism. As a result, the students no longer had the opportunity to get together and discuss ideas as a large class group. Therefore apart from providing a flexible means of carrying out their assessment, the online forum helped the students to maintain a sense of group coherence, and to process ideas related to the subject (Sherry, 1998). At the same time, the use by M3 of the term "interactivity" shows that for him at least, the word does not simply mean a dialogue between user and computer (Sims, 1995), but instead means the use of a computer as a tool to facilitate dialogue with other people.

The students also used a combination of computer and face to face interaction when taking part in the forum. One of the female students reported that she and some of her classmates would discuss and contribute to the forum threads while they were working on other projects in the computer labs on campus:

At uni ... a discussion about something ended up getting written as it was being talked about, quite an interesting process I noticed this happened quite often someone in the room would say "did you see what [so-and-so] wrote about? This is what I think" (M1).
At first glance it appears encouraging that the female students were, on the whole, comfortable with the idea of putting their own ideas on the forum and responding to the ideas of others. Only one of the female respondents showed slight discomfort when she explained why she decided not to do all of her postings over a short period of time:
I also found I'm a bit self-conscious in an online environment I didn't want my name to be the most visible and I wanted my posts to seem intelligent, since anyone could read them. As usual I got a bit bogged down in the research I was doing for it (M10).
This level of self-effacement from a high-achieving student could at first glance appear to be based on a fear that if she does not make her posts "intelligent", she could be ridiculed. In other areas of the Internet, including in MUDs and on e-mail lists, women have suffered intimidation and harassment, including sexual harassment, to the point where they are silenced (Spender, 1995, Dibbell, 1996). However in the case of my subject's online forum, it was relatively simple to ensure that such activities would not occur. In the first instance, QUT has a range of penalties for misuse of student Internet communication, including the suspension of the miscreant's e-mail privileges. In addition to those penalties, one of the requirements I wrote into the online forum was the "no flaming" rule anyone caught flaming would automatically fail the forum, and therefore the subject as a whole. Therefore it appears in this case that M10 simply wanted to get her postings "just right", in the same manner as a male student cited by Bender (1995).

Hence it appears that the forum was an area where participants could feel "safe" in putting their opinions across, because of the protection they received as students under University policy, and the more immediate threat of failure aimed at anyone who would seek to do them harm in this little corner of cyberspace. It could therefore be argued that forums and discussion groups in an academic context may help women gain confidence in an on-line environment before going out into the "wider" internet world. It must also be pointed out that online work can also help students of both sexes who are reserved in the class context: "it appears to be an effective communication vehicle for some students who are normally reluctant to talk in live settings" (Chism, 1998).

However there were negative aspects to the forum, as reported by the respondents. The major problem cited by the female students was what could be termed as "selfishness" on the part of some of their classmates:

The forum was meant to be interactive. While some people did respond to what you said, most made long independent contributions (F5).

A lot of people chose a topic without considering what the last person said or any other forum member (F6).

It appears therefore that some of the female students were frustrated at what they perceived to be a lack of response to their own contributions, so while they appreciated learning what their classmates thought, they wanted this learning to be more of a two-way street. Instead, some of the postings were created "almost in a vacuum, relatively isolated from the experience of [their] peers" (Barrett & Lally, 1999). Those who complained believed that the lack of responses from some of their classmates meant that those involved failed to "assume a variety of functional roles" which are needed for a full collaborative learning experience (Collins-Brown, 1999). However for the male students, carrying out research for the forum was more of a problem:
Searching the internet for examples to back up opinions wasn't always easy. I found myself doing only just above the bare minimum for assessment and this was a shame...(M2)

I always find searching for references on the internet difficult, but I'm a bit slow when it comes to the net (M4).

The males' lack of concern over independent, "selfish" contributions from some of their classmates supports Philbin et al's (1995) finding that, unlike their female peers, male learners have more concern for themselves than for others in the learning environment. At the same time, the response of M2 indicates a desire to take a deep learning approach (Biggs, 1999), as does the response of F5, noted earlier: "I think you learn more talking and analysing, rather than memorising information.." However it appears that not all of their classmates had the same desire:
Some issues became very repetitive because people had to do it for assessment and not because they necessarily felt like partaking in a particular argument (F9)

I just rushed through it a little bit because I had a million other things going on and I knew I was close to finishing the degree (F12).

Those who took it seriously and posted across the semester would have benefited. But those who posted five messages the day before assessment wouldn't, but that's their loss (M4).


The students' appreciation of being able to discuss their views with each other is not surprising, as these were third year students who were looking to go beyond the simple recall of facts and "into the area of creativity, problem-solving, analysis, or evaluation" (Bates, 1994). At the same time the group as a whole also appears to have taken to the idea of collaborative learning (Collins-Brown, 1999), which from the point of view of the students, enabled them to share their work and take account of varied viewpoints. From the point of view of both the students and their teacher, the consolidation of a reflective learning community from a series of smaller, practically-focussed groups enabled the students to see the wider ramifications of the practical work they were undertaking, and the profession they were about to enter. It appears that the use of the computers in a formal subject context also made the use of the technology gender neutral, with the female students taking full advantage of the flexibility of the forum as a means of dealing with heavy study and work commitments.


Barrett, E. and Lally, V. (1999). Gender differences in an on-line learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Reporting, 15, 48-60.

Bates, T. (1994). Educational multi-media in a networked society. [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Bender, R.M. (1995). Creating communities on the Internet: Electronic discussion lists in the classroom. Computers in Libraries, 15(5), 38-43.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Chism, N. (1998). Handbook for Instructors on the Use of Electronic Class Discussion. [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Collins-Brown, E. (1999). Effective pedagogies for managing collaborative learning in on-line environments. Educational Technology & Society, 2(2), 1999.

Dibbell, J. (1996). A rape in cyberspace; or how an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society. In Peter Ludlow (Ed), High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press.

McManus, B.F. (2000). Creative Teaching with Internet Technology. [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Meredyth, D., Russell, N., Blackwood, L., Thomas, J. and Wise, P. (1999). Real Time: Computers, Change and Schooling. Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy. [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Philbin, M., Meier, E., Huffman, S. and Boverie, P. (1995). A survey of gender and learning styles. Sex Roles, 32(7/8), 485-494.

Roy Morgan Research (2000). Majority of Australians Have Now Accessed the Internet.
[verified 10 Oct 2001]

Sherry, L. (1998). The Nature and Purpose of Online Discourse: A Brief Synthesis of Current Research as related to The WEB Project. [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Sims, R. (1995). Interactivity: A Forgotten Art? [verified 10 Oct 2001]

Spender, D. (1995). Nattering on the Net: Women, Power and Cyberspace. North Melbourne: Spinifex Press.

Author: Dr Cathy Jenkins, Lecturer in Journalism, School of Film, Media & Cultural Studies, Nathan Campus, Griffith University Qld 4111, Australia
Phone (07) 3875 7434 Fax (07) 3875 7730 Email

Please cite as: Jenkins, C. (2001). The online forum as flexible assessment: Gender differences in participation. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 349-356. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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Created 9 Oct 2001. Last revised: 29 Mar 2003. HTML: Roger Atkinson
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