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Digital Divas



Interest in STEM fields doesn’t necessarily translate into choosing one of these fields for a career. Although interest in STEM is high, few girls consider it their number one career choice, given competing opportunities and interests. (Modi, Schoenberg, & Salmond, 2012, p. 16)

Our starting point and motivation for this project was the observation and acknowledgement of a problem, and concern for the declining interest girls were showing in IT generally and more specifically as a career. We did not seek to explore why this phenomena has occurred as significant research on this has already been conducted. We were very aware that this is an international problem, present in most westernised democracies. The opening quote of this chapter is from a study in the USA published in 2012. We include it now at the conclusion of our program because, although it did not inform our research during its course, it does verify some of the findings from the Digital Divas project and will be discussed further in this concluding chapter.

The primary question our research set out to explore was:

Can a program such as Digital Divas, which includes specifically designed, educationally based materials, change girls’ attitudes and perceptions towards IT and IT careers in the longer term?

We believe we have demonstrated that it can be done. Our results show that, in this cohort of students, attitudes and perceptions towards IT and IT careers changed significantly (see Chapter 6). In this, our concluding chapter, we consider which aspects relating to the design of the program and the research contributed to its success. We hope that this documentation of our program design and reflection on our journey will be of value to those wishing to implement any intervention program in the future, for we know that specifically in Australia the lack of gender diversity in IT continues in 2014 and is still reported in the news media (Butt, 2014).

In addition, we reflect on the value of the evaluation framework we used and critically apprise a number of aspects of the program, in particular what did and what did not work. There were elements of our findings that surprised us initially, and we discuss these in more detail. Finally we will comment on the sustainability of the Digital Divas program and propose future research specifically relating to girls and IT.

Designing a Successful Intervention Program

Given the numerous intervention programs designed and implemented to affect change, it is important to consider the key elements in our program and our research that we believe contributed to its success. These are presented to inform future researchers and intervention program designers.

We employed a participatory research approach, that is, one in which research is conducted as a ‘collaborative, co-creative journey between members of the academy and the community.’ (McKemmish et al., 2012 p. 986). We worked alongside our participating schools, principals, and teachers. More specifically, we did not see it as our role to impose our knowledge or views (however well-informed by research) on those we worked with. We let each school inform us on how they could best run our program should they choose to do so, with the proviso that the single-sex aspect was not compromised. We invited teachers to contribute to our curriculum and employed one as our educational developer. The school community was integral in informing the design of the Digital Divas program, particularly the community in our first school, Bartik.

A solid research and implementation plan, in the form of an evaluation framework, was developed. This was essential given that it was a four-year program. The evaluation framework provided the necessary detail and guidance we needed. This is discussed in more detail in the next section.

The embedding of the program into each school’s curriculum was core to the ethos of our program and ensured that Digital Divas was treated as an authentic subject, not as an add-on or extra to the curriculum. This aspect was introduced based on our own experiences from our CC4G trial and other larger international projects, particularly CC4G. We believe this aspect contributed to normalising the notion that girls can and do ‘do IT’. The girls’ work and learning was assessed. This ensured, as far as possible, that girls took the class seriously and therefore contributed to a greater engagement with the materials.

We kept the main focus of the program in mind at all times and designed the program around that. Expert Divas (role models) and speakers were a critical component. They provided a direct, tangible connection between women and IT careers. The Expert Divas were another constant reminder to the girls that women can and do ‘do IT’ because they came weekly to the classes.

The quality of the curriculum was important. It was focused on students’ interests first, and technology second. The curriculum was designed to be fun, flexible, and to promote collaboration within the classroom. The girls were excited by the curriculum and hence enjoyed the classes, while still learning quite sophisticated IT concepts and applications. Employing a current teacher to design the modules meant that the modules were developed with both students and teachers in mind.

We made regular visits to the schools so we were able to observe operations and help reinforce our involvement and commitment to the program in the schools. The visits also supported the participatory research approach, giving the teachers the opportunity to share with us what they were doing, changing and learning. This was also an important outreach for each of our universities and helped build links between the two sectors. It was fortunate that all the researchers had backgrounds as teachers, therefore allowing us to appreciate the complexities of the environment in which our program was being delivered.

Implementing the program for a longer period of time was critical in our planning and structure. In most of the cases Digital Divas ran for 20 weeks (a semester), with most schools timetabling between two to four classes each week. In one school it ran for one term only (10 weeks). However, after this trial it then became a regular addition to the timetable and ran in both semesters for several years following. This longer period of delivery time increased the chances of the program having a sustained impact on girls’ attitudes to IT. Regular timetabled classes enabled teachers to reinforce positive messages about IT through a variety of activities and exercises.

The diversity of skills and backgrounds of the team helped ensure that we explored a wide range of approaches and were not closed in our thinking. The team members all worked as academics; one in an education faculty, two in faculties of IT in different universities and one in an Information Systems school within a faculty of Business. All four team members also had backgrounds in both IT and education, all having started their careers as secondary school teachers. In addition, and this was very important, the research fellow employed had excellent skills in interviewing and conducting focus groups and had an education background. Having the same person conduct the interviews ensured consistency. The project also funded a PhD in education (see chapter 8).

The Evaluation Framework

In Chapter 2 we discussed our rationale for using an evaluation framework and provided details of its design. In any four-year project, there is the potential for the research team to lose their way, or drift from the original plan. The detailed evaluation framework that we developed at the start of the project became an important anchor and reference point throughout the project. The design of the research instruments and the analysis of the data were guided by the assumptions we developed.

As we reflect now, at the end of the project, the importance of the evaluation framework is evident. At the beginning the four researchers on the project team spent time agreeing on what the project was investigating and framing the assumptions that we made. Before resources could be allocated, money and people, we needed to agree on what our goals were in line with our assumptions. The framework provided not just a starting point but helped in identifying what decisions had to be made and when, then the activities could follow.

What Worked, What We Could Have Improved and What was Surprising

In any longer-term research project there are elements that are successful, things that we do that work exactly as anticipated, and things that surprise. However, we must also be realistic and acknowledge what did not work or what we would do differently next time. It is only through these reflections that others can learn.

What Worked:

Given that teachers are time-poor, providing them with module guidelines, teacher instructions, student handouts, assessment options and other guidelines worked to ensure teachers were generally able to teach the modules as planned without having to invest much more of their precious time.

Employing a teacher to design the modules was the right decision. All the modules except one were considered a success. The Alice programming module, however, was one that many girls and some teachers struggled with, and was not widely adopted by schools.

The additional materials we provided on the portal were used by teachers.

The all-girl classes were appreciated both by the girls and the teachers as highlighted in their qualitative comments. Although we anticipated difficulties with co-educational schools being able to run an all-girl elective, in practice this was not a problem. Only one school that initially wanted to participate in the program pulled out because an all-girl class could not be guaranteed.

The training we provided for the teachers worked. Teachers valued the opportunity to talk with us further, giving us the opportunity to ensure that the program’s aims and objectives were understood. The first roll-out of the program involved teachers being released from school for a half-day. This release was supported by the principals. After this, teachers attended training in their own time, often during school holidays, in preparation for delivering the class in the next semester. The one issue we had was when one school changed the teacher taking Digital Divas; the new teacher was unable to do the training.

Allocating an Expert Diva to each new school was a success. These undergraduate women studying an IT degree were a constant support to the teacher and the research team in the schools. The girls related to our Expert Divas because they were closer to their ages compared to their teachers. As the program progressed we learned to use the Expert Divas as our conduits of communication, delivering and collecting surveys and providing additional support to the teacher alongside their informal role-modelling.

As the program grew it became increasingly necessary to provide follow-up visits to each school by the web administrator. The portal was designed to allow teachers to add and remove the names of students in their classes. When teachers in the schools were not confident in doing this, our web administrator visited them on-site and spent time with them. Often the Expert Divas also assisted the teachers in this aspect of the program.

What We Could Have Improved:

We needed to be more realistic. We had an expectation that the portal would be used for more than storing the teaching materials for downloading. It was expected that teachers would communicate with each other and share materials and experiences through the portal; this did not happen. On reflection, these were unrealistic expectations as teachers are busy and time-poor and were unlikely to have the spare time to do this.

The surveys we devised for the girls were too long. In hindsight, more than 50 questions, both quantitative and qualitative, was too many.

We gathered a significant amount of data from the long survey tools, focus groups, and interviews, and we have not been able to use all the information. Some of the data, on reflection, did not inform the core of our research project. Despite this, collecting both qualitative and quantitative data throughout the project was important and helped us refine what we were doing.

While we asked the Expert Divas to keep a blog as part of their role, these blogs were not completed as frequently as we would have liked. We should have put more time into following up with students to provide the expected data. There was a misunderstanding by some Expert Divas of what was required. Some provided short reports on classroom activities rather than reflecting and commenting on their observations of student engagement and the mentoring they had provided.

What Surprised Us:

There were some elements of the program that surprised us. Some related to our assumptions and some were incidental. For example:

Not all teachers allocated by their principal to deliver the Digital Divas program had IT backgrounds. When planning the program we had not considered this possibility. In our trial school, the teacher not only had an IT teaching background but had been an IT professional before re-training as a schoolteacher. Most schools need their IT-qualified teachers to take their senior classes. Thus, junior and middle-school classes are likely to be staffed by teachers who volunteer or have had some marginal experience with IT in the past. Since Digital Divas was delivered primarily to Year 8 and 9 students, many teachers in our program did not have any formal IT teaching qualifications. This proved to be a great test of our materials and served as affirmation of their quality, as these non-IT trained teachers were able to teach with our materials and learn alongside their students as discussed in Chapter 7. There was one exception. In one school the art teacher was allocated to teach the Digital Divas program. He adapted the materials to teach what he had previously taught as part of his art class; this negated the aims and objectives of our program.

Our female speakers from industry were very enthusiastic to come to the classes and speak to the girls. They brought this passion to the classroom. Many were willing to talk to more than one group and would ring us in consecutive years to volunteer for activities. We were made aware of major IT corporations where community work (such as speaking to school students) was encouraged; in some cases this was included in key performance indicators. Industry supported our program indirectly by allowing these women to work with us.

As reported in Chapter 7, we had an impact on the teachers themselves, particularly the non-IT teachers. Our program contributed to building teacher IT self-efficacy through the provision of detailed and accessible teacher instructions in the modules, which was complemented by the presence of a current undergraduate IT student in the class each week to further help and explain issues or problems with software and programs. Experienced and confident IT teachers used our materials as a springboard and developed further materials to suit their own students. The removal of the dichotomy of gender in these usually male-dominated environments – IT classrooms – was regarded as a positive experience by all.

We were somewhat surprised to find that the majority of girls in the high-SES schools reported that they would never consider an IT career, despite often being the most IT-savvy of our cohort. They reported that they were interested in IT and enjoyed the class. The highest SES school in the study ran the program twice a year for several years. However, many of the students at the school aspired to what are considered to be high-prestige careers, such as medicine and law; IT careers were not in their sights. This finding is not dissimilar to that reported by Modi et al (2014). In their survey of 852 students, 74% reported that they were interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Of this percentage ‘only 13% say that it [STEM] is their first choice. Two-thirds of STEM girls are interested in medicine/healthcare (careers such as a doctor, veterinarian, nurse, pharmacist, dentist) as a career choice and STEM girls choose this field as their number one choice over any other career.’ (Modi et al, 2014, p.16).

Implications of Our Findings and Recommendations for Future Girls in IT Intervention Programs

Based on our experiences with the Digital Divas program and this research study, we feel well-placed to provide informed recommendations for those contemplating future intervention programs to change girls’ attitudes towards IT; increase girls’ confidence using technology; encourage further study in the field of IT; and aspirations to enter related career paths.

Recommendation 1:

Work with school principals and senior administrators who fully appreciate the aims and goals of the program. Ensure that the school community (teachers, students, and parents) are aware of the program and fully support it.

Recommendation 2:

Secure enthusiastic and committed teachers who are aware of the issues associated with girls’ under-representation in the field of IT. Teachers should preferably have an IT background or, at least, functional IT skills. Teachers should not be forced to move outside of their discipline area and their comfort zone to implement such a program. If they are, then further support needs to be provided.

Recommendation 3:

Develop and implement extended programs that run as part of a school’s curriculum (e.g., as an elective) and not as co-curricular or short-term oneor two-day activities.

Recommendation 4:

If possible, run the program in single-sex classes. Our research shows this to be the most effective context in which to run these types of program.

Recommendation 5:

Use existing materials, such as those developed for the Digital Divas program, and/or develop materials that are relevant to girls’ interests and that simultaneously develop IT skills and computer software familiarity. Include role models such as female guest speakers from the IT industry and/ or organise visits to IT workplaces in which woman are prominent.

Recommendation 6:

Produce a comprehensive implementation plan and evaluation framework, which will guide the development of valid and reliable instruments to evaluate the program and gauge its success.

Future Research

Two years on from the formal end of the Digital Divas research program the activities continue. The website is still active for teachers to download the modules and implement in their own schools. In Chapter 4 we commented on which of our schools continued with the program after the completion of our data-gathering for this research study. In the years since concluding our data-gathering there have been many approaches by a variety of schools to use our resources. We have also been asked to provide input on an appropriate classroom design to support and encourage collaboration in the classroom. There have also been suggestions for the portal coming from interested people internationally.

In 2014 we added a Creative Commons licence to the materials and extended our web presence for the next five years. We have had interest from teachers around Australia and overseas. Specific modules have also been added to an online repository for all Australian teachers, funded by the Education Ministers across the Australian states and territories to complement the roll-out of the new Australian (national) curriculum (Scootle, 2014). It is important to note that this new curriculum has Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as the third (of seven) listed general capabilities after Literacy and Numeracy (

Our research team continues to work in the area of promoting IT to girls although there has been a subtle shift in our focus, learnt from the Digital Divas project, to focus more on developing the digital technology selfefficacy of all teachers, not just IT teachers. The influence of an enthusiastic teacher who is competent and skilled in IT will support the education of all students and, as has been noted by (Ashcraft, Eger, & Friend, 2012), can be a powerful influence to encourage and maintain girls’ interest with IT into the future.

We were determined to ‘do it right’ and believe we have avoided the following salient warning by an expert in the field:

Too often well-intentioned individuals embark upon intervention programs without a clear understanding of what ‘the problem’ is for which the intervention is the solution. At best, such endeavours could be ineffective; at worst such ‘interventions’ could end up doing more harm than good if they are reinforcing damaging gender assumptions. (Trauth, 2012, p. 53)

The ‘Digital Divas Club’ was included in the regular school curriculum with a set of materials designed specifically to focus on female student interests as well as current issues, not as an extra-curricular club. The curriculum modules were created with the direct input of a practicing schoolteacher with many years of experience in this field. The resulting modules were strongly visual, focused on health, diet, and body image; at no time was a computer application taught in isolation. The introductory modules led to a gentle programming introduction using Alice, an object-oriented programming tool. An active informal mentoring aspect was added to the program. This linked university students currently undertaking a computing degree (called Expert Divas) with each school. The Expert Divas visited the class weekly to maximise the mentoring opportunities.

We have confidence that through our research study we have delivered more good than harm, and that our findings provide a roadmap for those looking to implement a similar intervention program in future.

Digital Divas

   by Julie Fisher, Catherine Lang, Annemieke Craig, Helen