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Digital Divas

CHAPTER 5

SPHERES OF INFLUENCE

Overview

This chapter will describe and discuss the three spheres of influence we identified as important in implementing a program that sought to change girls’ perceptions of IT. The three spheres of influence we identified and built into the program were: 1) a curriculum designed to excite girls’ interest in IT; 2) the use of role models to highlight that girls can, and do, do IT; and 3) enabling the girls to see that being part of the IT discipline is acceptable and normal, a concept we called ‘Normalising the IT environment for girls’. From the outcomes of previous research we knew that to have success, a multifaceted approach was needed and this is validated by our results.

Introduction

The aim of the Digital Divas program was to change girls’ perceptions of computing, gender, and IT careers. To take the girls from a position of being uninterested in IT and having negative perceptions to a more positive perception of a career in IT required a multi-layered approach. The program brought together three spheres of influence: an engaging, accessible curriculum; female role models; and an intention to make acceptable and ‘normalise’ the IT environment as a more welcoming space. The three spheres of influence were presented through a lens of careers in IT. The spheres coalesced into one program (see Figure 5.1).

Figure 5.1. Digital Divas spheres of influence

The Three Spheres

1. Curriculum Sphere

The first sphere of influence focused on the curriculum for the program. Our curriculum was devised in consultation with educational specialists, with the aim of capturing the interest of girls aged 13 to 16 (school Years 8, 9 and 10). The classroom teacher who participated in the pilot was employed as the educational designer to develop seven curricula in consultation with the research team. Our focus was to maintain girls’ interest in IT through a curriculum focused strongly around the interests of girls at this age. The curriculum was designed to build computing self-efficacy through scaffolded project activities called ‘challenges’, while ensuring the activities were as collaborative as possible to promote teamwork. Students were encouraged to work in self-selected groups to help create a relaxed, club-type atmosphere in the classroom. A resource from one of the researcher’s universities that met the above aims made up the eighth module of the Digital Divas program.

To make it possible for a classroom teacher to incorporate the materials directly into their classes it was also necessary to adhere to the three strands of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (VELS) for this age group (Level 5 & 6): Thinking, Creating and Communication.5 This authenticated the educational value of the program and enabled schools to embed the subject in the regular school timetable, not as an after-school or lunchtime club, or one-day event. Important lessons from the CC4G pilot program were that a lunchtime club was not very successful in an Australian school setting and that any intervention needed to have the legitimacy of a regular school program. Equally, the CC4G program recommended that it was important ‘not to rely solely on extra-curricular activities … but also to consider more the role of the IT curriculum and how such activities can link with it’ (Fuller, Connor, Johnston & Turbin, 2008, p. 81).

The program was initially developed so that it could be conducted in one semester of the school year, which usually consisted of two 10-week terms. The eight modules of work were designed to provide flexibility to the teacher to expand further on a topic or reduce what was taught, with the expectation that no more than three modules would be covered in any one semester. The modules were developed independently of the year level at which it would be taught so that they could be adjusted for girls in Years 8, 9 or 10. The modules were also written with the knowledge of the software applications readily available in secondary schools in Victoria and those freely available on the internet. The modules were created to be independent of each other and hence could be delivered in any order apart from two recommendations outlined in the next paragraph. Therefore it was possible for teachers to choose the modules which they thought would work best with their students, to run it for an extended period of time, or in different year levels.

The Modules

In the teacher orientation session the Digital Divas team strongly recommended that each Digital Diva program commence with the ‘Shake the Bottle, Wake the Brand’ module. The ‘Shake the Bottle, Wake the Brand’ module enabled the girls to create a Digital Divas identity (logo and slogan) for the group. This activity contributed to the normalising of the IT environment because teachers were encouraged to print the students’ logos and put them up around the classroom. The module involved brainstorming, planning, branding and marketing concepts to design and create a club logo and slogan and enabled the girls to understand why organisations value branding. A vector-based program was recommended and freely available to help with designing the club logo, and the issue of copyright was introduced and explained. The Digital Divas brand and associated slogans were voted on within the group, and the winning two entries at each school were used to create key chains, lanyards, posters and in one case t-shirts, and distributed to all participants in the elective, further promoting the club concept. This ‘bling’ was also used for advertising in the wider school community.

It was also recommended that each offering of the program incorporate the ‘Mythbusters’ module, preferably as the last module covered. ‘Mythbusters’ was developed to broaden students’ views on IT careers and break down the many stereotypes that are associated with IT. The objective of this module was for the girls to deliver a presentation after researching computing careers or computer use in a career of their choice. Students created a ‘Day in the Life of an IT professional’ story, in which they would ‘bust’ a number of myths. This was then presented to the rest of the class, parents and in some cases other teachers using software such as Microsoft PowerPoint or Prezi.

Teachers were free to choose from any of the other modules and present them in any order they desired. A summary of each module is presented in Chapter 1, Table 1.2; however, following is detail about the curriculum and activities of the most popular modules. The ‘Fab & Famous’ module incorporated aspects of design, fashion, diet, make-up and ethics in advertising. Students were encouraged to investigate how photographs were modified in advertising and the associated ethics of this practice. Also how magazine images were digitally enhanced, drawing on film clips freely available on the internet (see the ‘Dove – Evolution Commercial’ YouTube video 20066) that illustrate how a young girl’s features are digitally enhanced to appear on a billboard. The students had access to video cameras and digital editing software (e.g. Photoshop and MovieMaker) to produce their own three-minute commercial, which was later showcased as an end product. At all times the process of being engaged in the activity overrode the teaching of specific computing applications. As researchers we acknowledged that this module could be seen as reinforcing gender stereotypes; however, we deferred to the greater experience and knowledge of the classroom teacher who we had employed as an educational designer, who assured us that the students would be very interested in this topic. The underlying objective was designed to promote early successes with IT applications and positive creative experiences to build stronger self-efficacy in students. We anticipated the activities could also build persistence and resilience and influence future computing courses and career decisions. Research has shown that there is a strong link between perceived selfefficacy and its effect on confidence and persistence in the education and career choices of females in science (Kelleher, 2007). It was extrapolated from this research that self-efficacy is important to student experiences when being introduced to computing in a classroom environment.

Another module titled ‘Chef ’s delight’ introduced spreadsheet software to develop an online, interactive restaurant menu. Students collected and analysed components of healthy eating and restaurant menus and collated the data using spreadsheets for their own ‘restaurant’. They created formulae, combo boxes, macros, IF statements, vlookups, conditional formatting and 3D referencing to produce interactive pricing for menu combinations and to alert the customer to the calorific value of meals. This activity enabled students to master and gain competence with the advanced features of a spreadsheet software program commonly used in schools (such as Microsoft Excel) through a creative and authentic task. In most school curricula numbers and formulae are the domain of maths classes. While gaining greater understanding of healthy foods was the focus of this module, reinforcing and developing mathematics concepts was also an outcome. In turn, this competence and expertise was expected to improve students’ IT self-efficacy while capitalising on the topical issue of healthy eating.

As illustrated by the descriptions of these modules, engagement with the curriculum was created by focusing on what was of interest to girls of this age (e.g. image, fashion, diet) before introducing students to the concepts of programming via the Alice storytelling programming language. Alice is free software developed at Carnegie Mellon University (http://www.alice.org), which incorporates visual programming methodologies designed to capture the interest of girls (Kelleher, 2007). There were introductory activities involving physical objects (e.g. hats, umbrellas) to explain methods in object-oriented programming, as well as an introduction to algorithms with hands-on making of peanut butter sandwiches. These physical activities allowed the girls to be introduced to elementary programming concepts via interactive, collaborative hands-on sessions. Initially it was thought that the Alice programming language could be used to create the ‘Day in the Life of an IT professional’ story, but in many classes this proved to be beyond the time available or the capacity of the teachers or students. However concepts such as iteration, selection, and sequence in programming were introduced. In the more advanced classes students used the objects within the program to create their own story with a moral. They learned how to add music to Alice and presented their final product to the class and invited guests at the end of unit; however this was not the norm.

Prior research showed that students report computing classes as being boring (Anderson, Lankshear, Timms & Courtney, 2008). With this in mind, all of the eight modules’ activities were designed around a product or output, rather than teaching any computer application in isolation. Furthermore, the curriculum modules challenged students to complete tasks individually and in groups. This approach was positively received:

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]

A full list of the eight modules was provided in Chapter 1 and the resources are freely available for download from the Digital Divas website (digitaldivasclub.org). Students’ responses to the curricula and various modules are provided in more detail in Chapter 6.

2. Role Models Sphere

The second influence which was woven into the Digital Divas program was one of ‘closing the loop’ between doing things on the computer and what an actual computing career might entail. It focused on dispelling the stereotypes of IT being a boring ‘geeky’ career and into something that could be of interest to girls and normal for them to consider. A lack of visible and appropriate female role models in IT has been recognised as contributing to the gender imbalance of the profession. Additionally a lack of mentoring can inhibit the progression of females along the pipeline to a successful IT career. The literature shows strong support for the strategies of providing appropriate role models (Ahuja, 2002; Ashcraft, Eger & Friend, 2012; Barker & Aspray 2006; Clayton et al., 2012; Cozza, 2011; Gras-Velazquez, Joyce & Debry, 2009; Miliszewska & Moore, 2011) and incorporating mentoring (Craig, 1998; Trauth, Quesenberry & Huang, 2009; Klawe, Whitney & Simard 2009; NCWIT, 2010). Consequently the second layer of influence was to encourage informal mentoring by engaging female university students studying IT (aka Expert Divas) as classroom assistants and more targeted role-modelling opportunities by bringing professional IT women into the classroom as guest speakers.

Stereotypes are our thinking about other people and produce our expectations of how they will behave (Aronson, 2004). So, for example, if IT careers are seen by girls as the providence of geeks then you must be geeky (not normal and not cool and not feminine) to be in IT. ‘Stereotype threat’ is when unflattering stereotypes exist and such a stereotype with negative associations may then influence our behaviour (Steele & Aronson, 1995). So girls may not go into IT if they don’t want to be part of the geeky/uncool/ solitary group that they perceive exists. The program therefore tried to dispel these stereotypes.

Expert Divas

Female university students studying an IT course at university were assigned to each instantiation of the Digital Divas program in each school. They were paid for their participation in the program, and attended a training session where expectations were outlined and instructions provided on the program, the portal and the student’s responsibilities. One Expert Diva attended each school on a weekly basis, usually for one double period if that was possible. Their role was to act as informal role models for the girls, to assist the classroom teacher in managing the program and in doing so help to normalise the perception of a female IT expert.

Each Expert Diva was provided with a pro-forma to guide their introduction to the class. They were specifically requested to tell their own story during their first lesson with some background on how and why they became interested in IT. It was hoped they would outline their commitment to their IT studies, thus promoting positive perceptions from the outset. At times the Expert Divas also became the classroom facilitators, encouraged by the teachers to introduce the introductory programming sessions, for example. This supportive and collaborative approach also contributed to the desired image that no-one needs to be expert in all areas of computing, not even the classroom teacher.

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]

The Expert Divas sent weekly reflections on their interaction with the class to the researchers; this provided us with further rich qualitative feedback on the program. Almost invariably Expert Divas found their roles to be very satisfying and rewarding, with most reporting extremely positive experiences in post- interviews, and most expressing a desire to continue with the program should the opportunity arise. For example:

Helping the girls with their work and forming a fun relationship with the class, praising their achievements, all the while showing them that it’s not overly hard, it’s fun, and it’s possible! It was fantastic to see how proud the girls were of their work when they really put effort in. Being a role model for the students is also a great feeling when they start to open up, talk and ask questions about not just their own work, but what I do myself at uni. [Sally_ED]

It became apparent from the data that most of the Expert Divas were motivated to participate because they themselves had a positive experience studying IT, and saw the need to encourage more girls to study IT and to pursue a career in the field.

I was attracted to the idea of computing as it is something that plays a large part in my daily activities and this is what influenced me to further explore the world of IT. [Li_ED]

I see myself in a rewarding IT-based career. I see myself not only at a desk job but in a role which incorporates both my love of computing and my need for a creative channel. [Natali_ED]

In some schools the Expert Divas were allocated the role of managing the student blogs, providing another opportunity for near-peer mentoring (Ashcraft et al., 2012, p. 58). This was part of the module called ‘Wiki Wiki’ and included an exploration of changing technology used on the World Wide Web, such as wikis and blogs. This led to the introduction of ‘blogging’ in the club environment. The impact of these interactions was evident in the feedback data. The secondary school girls reported that one of the most beneficial outcomes were the informal interactions that occurred with the Expert Divas. Many of the girls in the class had not previously met anyone who had chosen to pursue an academic degree in computing. The interactions with the Expert Divas proved beneficial in increasing student understanding of computing as an academic discipline, as well as combating perceptions that computing careers were only suitable for male ‘geeks’.

Another benefit from the program that we did not anticipate was the growth and empowerment provided to the university students through their Expert Diva roles. While this aspect of the program will be discussed further in Chapter 7, at this point it is worth noting how these young women gained personally from working in the classroom each week. The classroom teacher often supported their development and allowed them to introduce activities and explain concepts in their own words (and in some cases via actions) to the students. This comment in the reflective blog of one of the Expert Divas is an example of this growth:

My favourite thing is that you watch the kids grow, and… We are walking into the room now and they get excited when they see us, and tell us what’s happening at school, and what’s happening between their friendship groups. So there are still interactions, but the girls are pretty comfortable with telling us that they’ve got problems, or something, so we are really growing together as a group. (Sally_ED)

Invited Guest Speakers

This aspect of the program was important to allow the students to hear the stories of young professional women who had decided on an IT career. A conscious effort was made to bring in speakers who had different roles in the computing industry. There was a business information systems university graduate working for a large corporation, a network administration expert who had gained a technical computing diploma qualification after a Health Science Bachelor’s degree, and a software programmer who worked in a well-known multinational company that the students were all familiar with. All our speakers gave their time willingly to come to the schools and present to the girls. All felt passionately about encouraging more women into the profession.

The speakers were encouraged to talk about their secondary school experiences and what influenced their career choices. The sessions were held informally in the classroom, and in some schools the girls captured the talks on hand-held digital cameras. The videos were then placed on the Digital Divas portal to be used later as a reference tool for the ‘A day in the life’ unit.

We were aware that a report on the UK girls’ computer club programs (e.g. CC4G) found that while their club had been beneficial, students did not appear to build a connection between the use of various computing applications and future careers (Fuller et al., 2009). In designing this aspect of the Digital Divas program, we specifically linked the guest speakers with the research project around ‘A day in the life’, to further emphasise careers and applications. Student comments on the unit survey reflect the benefit of the invited guest speakers, for example:

She was talking about her experience in IT, and obviously how she’s become successful. She’s on channel 7, channel 9? She does the morning show, and does all the related IT work. And just her coming and speaking to us, like … Even though some people say there are not a lot of jobs in IT, she actually made us realise there’s heaps, and heaps, and heaps. And that you can be really successful out of it one day. That’s what I liked. [Student]

That women can do IT and we can do it well. [Student when asked what she had learnt from the speakers]

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]

… the speakers were fantastic, really got some of the girls engaged which was wonderful. [Classroom Teacher]

When the unit was taught for the first time at Bartik Secondary College two-thirds of the class commented that they would now consider an IT career, and when asked why wrote comments such as: ‘Every day is different apparently. I love fixing things and helping people’; ‘the travelling’; ‘being creative and every day would be different’; ‘Programming games or animation’; ‘Just learning about and using computers for many different things’. These comments confirm that this aspect of the program had succeeded to some extent in changing student perceptions about the career path.

Feedback from both teachers and girls following the presentations clearly demonstrate that these women fulfilled a vital role in our program and provided a crucial link between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the workforce. As well as showcasing the breadth of possibilities relating to IT careers, it appears that these women were successful in dispelling persistent myths and stereotypes associated with IT. In addition, many of these women described the experience in positive terms, and felt encouraged to volunteer for future presentations.

3. Normalising the IT Environment Sphere

During the three years of conducting the program the third sphere of ‘influence’ underwent a number of name changes. Initially it was called ‘showcase/celebration’ (Lang, Craig, Fisher & Forgasz, 2010) but it has now morphed in to ‘Normalising the IT environment’ as we recognized exactly what we set out to do with the ‘celebrations’; showing girls that it is acceptable and normal to be interested in computing and allowing the girls to claim ownership of the space.

Our purpose was to enable students to own the Digital Divas program within their school setting. The girls were able to make the decisions about aspects of the program such as the ‘bling’ (key rings, lanyards, t-shirts, posters featuring their logo design) as visible outcomes of the program. They created, printed and displayed colourful posters to identify Digital Divas in the computer classroom, a space normally not decorated with these types of images. One student commented ‘I liked that we all got to design our own logo, how the symbol of Digital Divas was created by the Digital Divas’. We encouraged teachers to put student designs up in different parts of the school including the computer rooms, to normalise the space as female. A ‘club’ atmosphere was reinforced with cooperation, collaboration and discussion encouraged as we attempted to make the class a positive and welcoming experience.

In one school we conducted an end-of-semester celebration with the school principal, media and, of course, parents. This enabled the students to showcase their work and celebrate being part of the Digital Divas program. Unfortunately this type of celebration did not become the norm in the other schools, with too many obstacles preventing it from being conducted.

The other two influences supported the concept of normalising the IT space. The engagement of students in creative and interesting activities was achieved through a curriculum that spanned multimedia applications, research, and spreadsheet applications, and was designed in a purposeful manner to create activities that were perceived as engaging by the majority of the students. Our overriding objective was not to teach IT through applications but demonstrate how it can be taught through interest (food, image, creativity). The programming language focused on storytelling using a tool that was created specifically to capture the imagination of young girls. A comment on the feedback survey reflected the positive aspect of using Alice; when asked what was the best aspect of the course one student wrote, ‘Doing the Alice project, I feel that I have found something that I am good at’.

Conclusion

Through their relationships with the Expert Divas girls heard true stories of ‘real’ women in technology and gained a sense of increasing the visibility of young women in IT. This was further reinforced through the ‘a day in the life’ as part of module 5. These initiatives helped make IT ‘normal’ for girls and help them visualise themselves and other women in an IT career.

In this chapter we have provided insight into our design thinking when we created the Digital Divas program, our three spheres of influence. The centre point of these three spheres, as displayed in Figure 5.1, is putting ‘Careers in IT’ onto the possible future career options for these students because evidence from earlier research clearly indicated that IT is often not considered in future career choices (Lang, 2012). From the outcomes of previous research we know that to have success a multifaceted approach was needed and this is validated by our results. Whether this approach was successful is presented in Chapter 6.

Images of the girls’ work and other photographs taken during our program are presented in the final report and can be found online at

http://digitaldivasclub.org/vic/webfm_send/8.

http://digitaldivasclub.org/vic/sites/default/files/2010-Digital-Divas-Presentation-VITTA-conference.pdf


5 VELS was the curriculum delivered in Victorian government and catholic schools from 2005 to 2012 (http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/Pages/foundation10/curriculum/previouscurricula.aspx). In 2013 the AusVELS provide the Australian Curriculum in Victoria (http://ausvels.vcaa.vic.edu.au/)

6 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hibyAJOSW8U

Digital Divas

   by Julie Fisher, Catherine Lang, Annemieke Craig, Helen