Oct 31 2006

Schools Strive to Develop Technologically Fluent Girls

As more male and female students are taught technology at an earlier age, the gender gap is shrinking.

In 2000, the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation (AAUWEF), located in Washington, D.C., published a seminal study on the differences between girls and boys, based on their interest and participation levels in the area of technology. This research produced some valuable recommendations designed to encourage more girls to become technologically fluent and to consider a career in a technology-related field. Some of the key recommendations include the following:

Incorporate computing across the curriculum. Redefine computer literacy to encompass real-life problem -solving skills.

Change the public face of computing.

Create multiple ways to use technology in the schools.

Prepare tech-savvy teachers.

Educate students about technology and the future of workforce options.

Since that report was published, a lot has happened in schools with regard to instructional technology use.

The National Educational Technology Standards for Students and NETS for Teachers, published by the Washington, D.C.-based International Society for Technology in Education, have transformed the way technology is taught—and learned—in many schools across the country. ISTE reports that nearly 80 percent of the states have adopted, adapted or aligned with the standards for both students and teachers.

The exciting aspect of this wide acceptance is the collegial knowledge base that has developed across district boundaries and state lines. Innovative teachers at all levels and in all content areas are developing lessons and units that take full advantage of technology as a tool to support the curriculum, and they are sharing their successes via Web pages and blogs. This provides educators with a huge pool of ideas from which to draw. In addition, one-to-one notebook PC initiatives and wireless computer carts have enabled technology to be used when and where it is most needed— in the classroom, the science lab or even out in the field.

Curriculum’s Technology Infusion

The present challenge is to provide the best professional development opportunities for educators so they can introduce and support technology in new and exciting ways. Professional development offerings have moved from application-based training to workshops, professional learning communities and just-in-time training for teachers on how to use instructional technology to help students broaden their knowledge of a subject.

Technology infusion across the curriculum has a positive effect on both genders. The AAUWEF report suggested that an educational focus on helping students master the skills of using the computer as a tool would help close the gender gap. Based on my observations, that approach is working.

Current hardware and software tools provide exciting new formative and summative assessment options to students. For example, students can conduct high-level research in all subjects. And with the advent of powerful, easy-to-use video editing software, they can work with movies, music and artwork. At the same time, students are becoming technologically fluent with the applications used to support their projects, and are learning the information literacy skills needed to understand the important aspects of intellectual property rights.

In today’s classrooms, girls who use these various aspects of computing at home and in school seem to feel comfortable sharing their knowledge with others of both genders. They often volunteer to take a lead role in group projects involving technology—another positive sign that the gender gap in instructional technology is fading.

Students at a much younger grade level than in the past are being shown how technology hardware and software function. From investigating the inside of a central processing unit to understanding satellite radio, boys and girls as young as elementary school age learn how the technology works—and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

An interesting fact was uncovered in the AAUWEF report: When something went wrong with a computer, boys blamed the computer, but girls felt it was something they did incorrectly that caused the problem.

With both genders now equally able to “tinker” with the workings of technology systems, girls are beginning to understand the nature of the machines. In addition, with cooperative group work at the elementary school level, boys and girls participate equally in these hardware lessons, and the gender differences seem to blur at a younger age. The trend toward teaching younger students about the workings of networks and computers also encourages girls to consider a career in instructional technology.

At the high school level, programming is still offered as a course, but now some programming courses include development tools for Web-based applications. Working on real-life projects seems to hold an equal interest for both genders, and the stigma of the male “computer geek” is disappearing. When students work in small groups to create full-blown Web-based applications for their school or local businesses, both girls and boys seem equally interested in participating in the courses.

Supporting Community Services

One successful approach to helping both girls and boys use and hone their technology skills is to support the community services initiatives available at many high schools. Students get out in the community, where they help with technology training, wire buildings, install software, troubleshoot problems and the like. In return, they receive the community service points they need for graduation.

The expansion of community-based mentor programs in the technology arena helps students learn more about the use of information technology in the world outside of school, as well as increasing their communication and professional skills. Girls and boys are likely to feel empowered once they see how much they can contribute to their community.

From my perspective, the gender gap in technology seems to be shrinking. This is due, in large part, to the transition from treating technology as a separate subject to using information technology as a problem-solving tool.

When educators use technology to support the curriculum across subject areas, technology is no longer a special field of study in which only some students excel. Since both girls and boys now have opportunities to become content producers in all aspects of instructional technology, any remaining gender gap in the area of technology fluency should disappear very soon.

Kathleen Beck Schrock is administrator for technology at the Nauset Public Schools in Orleans, Mass., where she is in charge of integrating technology into the curriculum. A former library media specialist, Schrock has written six books about the Internet.