Edutainment for Girls on the Web:

Usability Considerations and Technical Aspects

Mary Flanagan

Department of Media Study

247 Center for the Arts

State University of New York at Buffalo

Buffalo, New York, 14260 U.S.A.

mary flanagan


I. Introduction

The Web is a valuable learning tool, but stumbling blocks to its integration still exist, especially in the K-12 arena. Factors cited have included teacher preparation and access circumstances. Does the development team for a game for girls ages 9-11 rely on the CDROM platform and abandon Web efforts until the technology matures, or do we forge ahead online? The purpose of this paper is to provide, through a brief case study of the design process for an online multimedia experience for girls, strategies for utilizing the Web to create educational, entertaining, motivating, and meaningful programs for such a target audience.


II. Approach and Goals

Approach. While some attention has come to the gender gap in multimedia experiences, there are still few "edutainment" options for girls ages 9 - 11. The circumstances are desperate--especially online. Rather than focus on asynchronous delivery of distributed multimedia, collaborative learning, community building, collective problem solving, chat, and cross-cultural communication, the web's potential is barely tapped in children's learning material. In fact, electronic media targeted towards girls rarely focuses on educational material, as there is a push to simply get girls interested, confident, and having fun using the computer before "making them learn." I believe, however, that almost all educational material can be entertaining if approached with good, solid design. The Internet is perhaps the best place to focus attention on this target audience for several reasons. According to Brunner (1997), the Web should have equal appeal to boys and girls, as the ability to communicate with others and share ideas and stories matches both the strength of the Web and girls' interests.


Goals. The goals behind the development of The Adventures of Josie True (working title):

    1. Provide a female Asian-American hero and other heros of ethnicity.
    2. Promote history, science, math and problem solving skills without intimidation. Provide historical female figures as real life role models.
    3. Adventure.
    4. The program has to be available to girls across the country free of charge. Since the project is not-for-profit, ease and affordability of distribution are paramount.
    5. Address multiculturalism, explore educational curriculum, and delve into women's history.

III. Delivery Conundrum: Publish or Press?

After producing both web and CD work, I had full intention of creating a web-based game --the urge was great to offer unique activities and community-building opportunities that only the Web could offer. From an internal point of view, developing for the web is advantageous. Storage requirements are slightly smaller, and using internet for development is well suited for team communication. I also wanted the chance to design more updateable "liquid content."

The Web is known as a valuable classroom tool, but significant barriers to its adoption still exist, especially in the K-12 arena. In our focus group studies, the three biggest obstacles to the Web-focused plan were the end users' access to the internet (machines equipped with internet connections, especially in schools), load time, and guidance issues.

Access Issues. The "Survey of Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, Fall 1996" gathered data from 911 public elementary and secondary schools across the US about access to and the current use of the internet. The survey also documented projected access to the internet by the year 2000 [Heaviside and Others, 1997]. In the year 1996, the report showed that 61 percent of elementary schools and 77 percent of institutions of secondary education had internet access. The report also listed the usual findings: larger, better-funded schools tend to have more access, while rural schools and schools located in poor districts are less likely to have internet access.

Things look better for the year 2000. According to the Survey, 95 percent of schools expect to have Internet access by the year 2000. There may still be a limited number of machines per school, but some form of access will exist in most schools.


Technological Limitations. In the Josie True Concept Testing Survey, 87 percent of the 5th Grade girls in focus groups did not want web games, instead favored CD ROM experiences because they hated to wait. Internet transmission delay, combined with slow processors and network connections, was the most often cited reason for this dislike.


Guidance Issues. According to the authors of The World Wide Web in the Classroom [Wagner and Wagner, 1997], codes of ethics and teacher responsibility play a big role in developing guided Web experience in the classroom. The authors mention blocking software for selected sites and even special machinery (converter to display output from a student's computer to a teacher's monitor television) for security. The issue of security is important, yet it also acts as a hindrance to better classroom integration of online educational material.

With the obstacles to Web use by children, especially in K-12, is the Web the right way to go if my goal is to reach the greatest number of girls with my software?

V. Criteria for success: Edutainment on the Web

Content Comes First. Brunner (1997) noted that if the technology is introduced as a means to an end--as a tool for communicating or for making a creative work--young women are as likely to adopt it as young men. Girls do not want gadgets for gadgets' sake. Therefore, the first criterion for successful Web edutainment is a strong content. A good story line, believable, inspiring "get-to-know" characters, and a contextualized, "hands-on" approach to educational material is essential.


Use Transparent Technology. Speed and immediacy of the technology makes the technology transparent, which makes for a more comfortable, "safe" learning environment and ends up ultimately highlighting the content. According to Brunner, "When technology is introduced as an end in itself, as in a programming class, young women are less likely to be interested." The approach should be to focus on the uniqueness of the delivery system--do things that only your technological vehicle can do.


Specify Audience and Appeal to It. The content of Josie True was specifically designed addressing girls' interests and concerns, as well as educational and psychological issues. The adventure concept is a popular one, as is a focus on cultural aspects of a variety of places and times. Whether they really would do it or not, girls are fascinated with the idea of travelling around the world, communicating with people they meet, and meeting people who are unique linguistically and culturally (they often wished to ask people what they eat) and linguistically. They also want to meet people who lived long ago--over 60 percent surveyed in the Josie True focus groups wished to meet deceased relatives or famous scientists. Brunner (1997) also noted similar findings in her research. Girls wanted to use communications technology to have conversations with others like themselves.


Aside from the story line and characters, three components of Josie True specifically appeal to the girls' audience. With The LineItUp Diary, girls log in with a special password and can keep active diaries online. They will also be able to designate part of their diary as a shared space to have collective journals with friends. Again, the Web is the best tool for this kind of content group.


She Said It! is a natural language collaborative storytelling engine with sayings, beliefs, and quotes from both women in history and from the users. Historical figures become agents that use graceful degradation to simulate conversation. Girls converse with the agents, and the program will use natural language processing and understanding to interpret meaning. The database will be designed to be collaborative. Programmed to be updateable, it will be able to include girls' own photos along with their beliefs, advice for friends, and slogans through a clean interface.

The third component that has exceptional appeal and takes advantage of the technology is Clue Cache, a multiple-direction, clue generation engine in which girls can ask their "own phrased" questions of the characters they meet in order to continue progressing through the mystery.


IV. Technical Approach

The approach to address the criteria above was to develop a safe, understandable, easy to navigate, and technologically transparent experience. Through careful design consideration, Josie became a closed environment with some extensions (diary, quotation database, and clue cache explored using natural language). In testing a variety of approaches to the technical side of the game, we used a wealth of tools and tests. They included animation with Macromedia Flash, dhtml, use of Macromedia's beta of Dreamweaver, which allows for layering and transparency and creates javascript (such as rollover states) and java applets complete with behavior attributes. Of course, some pages only require html and an animated gif or two. All in all, however, we are pushing to provide "unplugged" multimedia on the web—the new Macromedia Flash's java Aftershock is also under consideration for use.

While we as a development team cannot do much to improve access to the Web for girls, we can improve load times and address guidance issues through good design. That means that at the end of the project, we get the benefit of low bandwith assets, sparing design, and a clean interface that will add to the CD experience if we do port the program for CDROM delivery. Another possibility is to press the Website to CD and have children explore through the browser offline. We will find out when we near completion of the project in early 1999.


  1. Summary

Web-first solutions make the most sense for edutainment being developed right now, but porting retroactively to technologies such as CDROM may very well be the reality for projects targeted towards large audiences composed of many classes and geographies since schools are still poorly equipped. The key is upfront planning.

Rather than scrap the idea of a Web-based edutainment realm for girls, the team decided to approach Josie as a web-based offering. In the final phase of production we can produce simultaneous Web and CD projects by switching assets into Macromedia Director for the CD version, or by pressing the web to CD and the experience plays within a browser. This cross-platform and cross-delivery strategy in some ways may seem like a move in the opposite direction of the edutainment industry. Does a cross-delivery strategy mean a significant amount of extra work? In some ways, yes. Our hope is that it will reach the largest number of girls possible and meet the criteria for successful edutainment. The Adventures of Josie True will provide girls with a good story full of mystery and adventure, get them comfortable with subjects traditionally not attractive to girls, provide unique content including multicultural, historic role models, and will offer components only possible through web technology (e.g. The LineItUp Diary, She Said It! database, and the interactive Clue Cache).



Many thanks go to the Josie True team: Chris Fire, illustrator and character designer & animator, Chris Egert, technical director, Craig Lammes, illustrator; the many Buffalo area school children who are helping to shape the final product; Elisabeth Cuddihy for inspirational research, Maria Vidal for creative support and additional character design; and Franklin Miller.



[Brunner 1997]. Brunner, C. (1997, February). Opening technology to girls: the approach computer-using teachers take may make the difference. Electronic Learning, 16(4), 55.

[Heaviside and Others, 1997]. Heaviside, S., & Others (1997). Advanced Telecommunications in U.S. Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, Fall 1996. Statistics in Brief. Rockville, MD:Westat, Inc.

[Wagner and Wagner, 1997]. Wagner, P. D. & Wagner, T. A. (1997, February). The World Wide Web in the Classroom: Access without Adult Material. Technology Teacher, 56 (5), 22-25.



Based on research for

The Adventures of Josie True: A Girl's Discovery.

Copyright 1997, Mary Flanagan