Digital Divas Do IT Right

By Dr. Annemieke Craig.

Do you have (m)any girls in your non–compulsory computing classes? Do you know (m)any girls who are excited about computers and confident in using them? Girls who may one day go on to study a computer or information systems course at university level? Unfortunately a girl geek is hard to find. However, Digital Divas are becoming more plentiful!

In many secondary schools, girls are opting out of computer or technology based subjects as soon as they can. This translates to a gender imbalance in tertiary computing courses and an industry that has only 18% female employees.

Gender imbalance in specific industries is a problem when it has a detrimental effect on some sections of society. Without diversity in the computing workforce development of technology ‘may focus more on doing things faster, and less on doing new things that reflect alternative perspectives’. If women are not part of the technology solution design, then it is unlikely that technology will represent their needs or their family’s needs. As Anita Borg reflected ‘A positive future depends on what technology is developed, who designs it, who builds it, who controls it, who uses it, and how it’s used’.

Girls’ lack of interest in computing is clearly evident by senior secondary school, and is confirmed by higher education statistics, showing few female students enrolling in computing courses. The Digital Divas program enables girls to explore computing in a club environment within the school curriculum and to link computer use with computer careers. It aims to increase girls’ interest in computing and, therefore, to have more girls consider a future in the computing industry.

The Digital Divas program is specifically designed for girls in years eight, nine and ten and is conducted over four periods each week over one semester. It is implemented as a girls–only elective course, a decision which was based on research recommendations that documented the tendency for boys to take ownership of the hardware in classroom environments as well as ideas from Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing by Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher. Having only girls in the classroom ensures that they are able to explore and discover and not become passive onlookers.

The Program Focuses On Three Layers Of Influence:

Curriculum: We use engaging content which is in line with the required curriculum and designed to inspire and excite girls about computing. The girls participate equally in group–work and computer–based activities. They engage in creative and interesting activities, including multimedia applications, research, spreadsheet applications, and introductory programming. Programming skills are taught via Alice because of its creative capabilities.

 

  • It was really good. Like Alice and Flash and Photoshop, you know it was different to what we have on our computers at home. So a good experience, yeah. [Student]
  • So they seemed to really love that one (Fab & Famous module). They loved manipulating the pictures, they loved talking about models and what’s been done to them and they really, really did engage with that, which I found very surprising.[Teacher]

Informal mentoring: The second layer of influence is to encourage informal mentoring and role modelling by engaging female university students (aka Expert Divas) as classroom assistants. Student feedback indicates that they greatly value the opportunity to informally interact with the university students as “blog buddies” (online mentors) as well as in the classroom.

 

  • Like, we’ve had a lot of speakers, and the stuff they’ve been saying was really interesting, but imagine going there and watching it happen, that would be even better. [Student]
  • Oh I think it’s fabulous. It gives the kids someone else to ask questions about, their career path, what they study, how hard was it to get into. [Classroom Teacher]

Guest speakers from the computing industry: The third and final layer of engagement is to build connections with young women working in the computing industry. The stories of the guest speakers’ personal career journeys have the power to change perceptions about computing careers. Guest speakers have included a business information systems graduate working at a large corporation, a network administration expert who transitioned to IT after beginning her career in health science, and a software programmer who worked with a well–known multinational company. The speakers are encouraged to talk about their own school experiences and the influencing factors in their career choices. The girls capture the talks on hand–held digital cameras and make them available on the Digital Divas portal.

 

  • That women can do IT and we can do it well. [Student when asked what she had learnt from the speakers]
  • …the speakers were fantastic, really got some of the girls engaged which was wonderful. [Classroom Teacher]

To complement what is done in the classroom, we have created a dedicated web portal site for the program, enabling girls to blog, access materials and information, and communicate with mentors and teachers. This is a password protected site for girls and teachers at participating schools. A public section of the portal is open to all at: www.digitaldivasclub.org

The program is funded by an Australian Research Council grant shared between Monash, Swinburne and Deakin Universities. It is being assessed in a longitudinal study that permits the project to run over three years, concluding in 2012. However, the program materials will be hosted on two sites after the conclusion of the grant to allow all schools to access them. This research is the first large scale, longitudinal study of an intervention program targeting girls in years eight, nine and ten, Australia wide. The study will provide insight into what is needed to change girls’ attitudes towards computing courses and careers. Thus the research will benefit girls’ educational outcomes, and have an impact on the gender divide in ICT classrooms and industry.

Comments From Students And Teachers Show Us That, So Far, We Are On The Right Track:

  • I didn’t really think IT was for girls and then this class has really like changed my thinking completely.[Student]
  • I think it’s a wonderful concept, I really love the idea and the girls really enjoy it. [Classroom Teacher]
  • Thank you for the opportunity/s that Digital Divas has given me to grow as an IT teacher. [Classroom Teacher].

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.
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