Digital Divides and Disconnects

  • Do you see students accessing computers (in their classrooms or in computer labs) for instruction in reading, writing, math, history, or science?
  • If so, are the girls and the boys doing the same assignments or are they utilizing different software and sites?
  • If you have observed math and science technology lessons, did these usereal world data and focus on real-world problems and their solutions in ways that attract the interests of both genders?

Technology and Children

A report from Alliance for Childhood, “Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology” (2004), indicates that mixing technology and children will produce uncertain results. Far too many children, the report claims, “spend hours each day sitting in front of screens instead of playing outdoors, reading, and getting much needed physical exercise and face-to-face social interaction” (2004, p. 1). While middle and high school students need high tech skills, the Alliance urges a go slow, evolutionary approach to technology integration in children’s lives, organized around seven keys to a new technological literacy:
1. Make human relationships and a commitment to strong communities a top priority at home and at school.
2. Color childhood green to refocus education on children’s relationships with the rest of the living world.
3. Foster creativity every day, with time for the arts and play.
4. Put community-based research and action at the heart of the science and technology curriculum.
5. Declare one day a week an electronic entertainment-free zone.
6. End marketing aimed at children.
7. Shift spending from unproven high-tech products in the classroom to children’s unmet basic needs. (2004, p. 5)
Supporters of regular computer use by preschool and elementary school age children urge parents and teachers to choose technology carefully, but not eliminate it altogether. Open-ended, imaginative programs for young children can support exploratory play, promote imaginative thinking, and expand opportunities for children to practice needed reading skills. The key is for adults to avoid giving children electronic toys and software that is either too restrictive or too complicated.

Digital Youth Research

“Kids’ Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures” is a three-year collaborative project funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Carried out by researchers at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, the digital youth project explores how kids use digital media in their everyday lives.

Tinkerplots, Software to Make Data Analysis Engaging for Kids

This software, devised and developed at UMASS, specifically aims to interest kids in using data analysis for their own purposes and questions. Just as SCRATCH was developed to put the power of programming and all of the math that this entails into an engaging, creative software for teaching children, Tinkerplots endeavors to achieve the same goal with data analysis. Listen to the podcast to learn more.

Getting Started Scratch

Scratch is a programming language that is easy enough for kindergarteners to play with and challenging enough for college students and everyone beyond the age of 18 to learn. As an interactive activity, the language utilizes creativity and multiple intelligences first, appeals to both girls and boys, teaches far more than is obvious, and is a way for teachers to differentiate instruction with computers. Please view the video and consider its usefulness for teaching math.

Writing Technology and Teens

“Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their emails, instant and text messages as writing. This disconnect matters because teens believe good writing is an essential skill for success and that more writing instruction at school would help them.”

Technology Use and Gender Roles

Drawing on interviews with more than 200 male and female computer science students at Carnegie Mellon University, Jane Margolis and Allan Fisher set out to explain why so few women pursue careers in computer science and related fields. Nationally, only one in five graduates of computer science programs are women while in high schools even fewer numbers of girls take courses in programming or complete four years of coursework in mathematics. At the base of the problem, noted Margolis and Fisher (2002, p. 2), are attitudes and behaviors grounded in the widespread “gender distinction ‘boys invent things and girls use things that boys invent’.”
Beginning in the elementary grades and continuing through college, technology, and the related fields of mathematics and the sciences, are seen as mostly a male domain. Kids entering kindergarten already have broadly defined assumptions about gender. “Every year, I have to throw the boys out the [wooden] block area,” one first grade teacher told us, commenting on the tendencies of her students to follow a gender role pattern of boys doing engineering and building projects with blocks and other materials while girls busied themselves with reading, writing and drawing activities.
In terms of how girls and boys relate to technology, a consistent pattern emerges throughout K-12 schooling: “More boys than girls experience an early passionate attachment to computers whereas for most girls attachment is muted and is ‘one among many’.” In middle and high schools, there is “a further increase in boys’ confidence, status and expertise in computing, and a decline in the interest and confidence of girls” (Margolis & Fisher, 2002, p. 33). Girls feel excluded from a mostly “boys club” and their academic interests shift in other directions.
Finding ways to encourage girls in technology is one way to create an atmosphere of gender-fair learning in your classroom. In interviews, women who majored in computer science reported they did well in a high school programming class, found computing came easy to them, derived pleasure from using technology, were attracted to the versatility to computing, saw technology connecting directly to their interests in math and science, and had a sense of a career path that was open to them. Also high on the reason of reasons for at least a third of those interviewed was encouragement from teachers (Margolis & Fisher, 2002, pp. 49-50). Such research suggests that teachers can be especially influential in how girls and boys relate to computers and other smart machines in schools. How you set up your classroom, conduct discussions, choose reading assignments, structure class interactions, and talk to your students about their interests can all have an enormous impact on how students think about themselves as learners and their goals as students.