When schoolchildren were given a computerised version of the traditional ring-around-a-bent-wire challenge, the girls 'hit the buzzer' almost twice as frequently as boys when they were told it was a game, according to Psychology Lecturer Dr Karen Littleton.
But when the 10 and 11-year olds were told they were being tested to see whether they would make good technicians or beauticians, there was absolutely no difference between boys' and girls' performances.
The findings by the OU's Dr Littleton and Helen Ashman, and Bournemouth University's Paul Light, build on an earlier study which revealed that when children were given a task featuring kings, pirates and ships, boys did significantly better than girls, but when the characters were switched to bears, honey monsters and ponies the gender difference disappeared completely.
Together, the studies appear to turn on their head claims that boys are inherently better at using computers than girls - and pose a major challenge to manufacturers to begin examining the metaphors and imagery of their software.
Dr Littleton says: "Our message is we can't just talk about whether girls and boys are good at computers in a global way. The research shows that if you change the context you change the results.
"We can't make any claims yet about what's already out there but what we can say is now we are aware these things matter it should inform future design. If you are developing software - especially 'edutainment', where people are using game-like metaphors to carry the task - for some children it would be a hindrance rather than a help."
Her research group's findings, just reported in European Journal of Psychology of Education, ask whether the difference in performance derives from girls viewing a 'game' as frivolous or is a result of boys' greater experience with video and similar games.
Another line of follow-up is to analyse transcripts of children engaged on these tasks in order to establish why certain metaphors are effective in engaging both sexes. In the original pirates, kings and ships exercise, girls' performance did not improve when the characters were simply turned into females.
Said Dr Littleton: "We are having trouble pinning down exactly what it is about the software which is resulting in this large performance difference. One thing we noticed was that the girls were talking about the characters and discussing which were their favourite bears. Being able to latch on to the characters enabled them to remember where they had placed them on the computer.
What is clear is that another strong strand of educational opinion, which holds that girls and boys should be separated when working with computers, may also be a myth.
When a boy and girl worked together on the tasks, the research showed they did as well as each other. However when they worked next to each other on different machines the boys did significantly better.
"While there is no evidence of 'real' gender differences, boys and girls in our schools do entertain gendered beliefs about computers, so girls may often approach computer tasks with lower expectations of success than boys.
"Instead of segregating boys and girls when working with computers, teachers should foster as much interaction between them as possible," Dr Littleton says.Reuse content