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Digital Gender Divide?


In a recent article, National Board-certified media specialist Kitty Boitnott argues that school laptop programs should be about more than test-score results. She contends that schools need to prepare students for the digital age and that laptop programs could help "level the digital playing field between teen boys and girls." Boitnott found that laptop programs can help girls, who are less likely to pursue careers in information technology, develop more positive attitudes toward computer technology.

What's your view? Do one-to-one laptop programs benefit students and help prepare them for the 21st century careers? Are their effects on boys and girls different? How do boys' and girls' attitudes differ with respect to technology? In what other ways might schools help girls become more interested in information technology?


I was in a laptop program like this as a graduate student. It enabled me to supervise student teachers and write my dissertation. I don't know how I would have gotten by without it. In addition I took advantage of the many classes and projects in structional technology offered by the University of Texas. The results were impressive both in the public school classrooms but also the learning between student teachers and their students.

A critical component in success or lack of success in a laptop program is the professional development and readiness of the teachers to effectively use computers to generate thinking. All to often,in the hands of unprepared faculty, computers become expensive notebooks or as the TV has become an alternate babysitter.

Using laptop computers early in children's education, is a definite rewiring of the mental process of students and how they learn. This is an information tool, and very valuable as we all know, but it does not take years to learn how to do what most people do with computers. It will cost huge sums of money for school districts and will force them to eliminate other valuable resources needed to keep young students motivated. We can give them all a computer and they will all become little disconnected people absorbed in what a computer does. High school and college yes, but brief exposure in elementary school, unless we all want to become robotic obedient non-thinking people. I, for one do not think that this is healthy! Saying that teachers are not capable of using computers properly is a bit of false information. It is not difficult and certainly does not take 12 years of education to become computer literate, and making teachers the scapegoat here is another example of trying to change the game of education from whole child learning to a tech model. It's a lie that corporations will hire all these people with high tech skills. Many can't get jobs now.
I'm afraid it's all about selling programs and huge amounts of money which will not in the final analyse create an educated society that we need in a democracy. I don't think the brightness of the screen is even good for young developing eyes.
Giving them all jump ropes might be better and healthier.

I think there will have to be a cultural change before girls flock toward information technology in the kinds of droves that are needed. There have been setbacks in this area as the Religious Right and political conservatism have influenced culture in the last 20 years with its encouragement of more traditional roles for men and women. It is like culture has gone backwards. Girls may get the message that they are the 21st century equivalent of tomboys if they are interested in technology and the last thing a young girl wants to be labeled as inappropriately, especially in middle school as "gay" simply because she has different interests from the majority.

Plus, most gamers are boys. Some start playing video games in preschool and the sexual stereotypes, sports themes and violence in video games are usually more suited to the tastes of males. Recently a rerun of the Simpsons brought this home. In the story the students were separated by gender in school. The boys remained in the crusty old building and learned real math. The girls were given a beautiful multimedia environment, but instead of mentally challenging coursework, they were given a touchy-feely "self esteem" program. Mathematically gifted Lisa got in drag and "became" a boy at school. She won the school math award and denounced the girls program even though, in the boys program she had to abandon her whole value system. The Simpsons is allegory and extreme, to be sure, but, as with many themes it covers, it makes a strong point regarding gender roles and stereotypes.

For girls to go into technology fields they need to be encouraged to explore technology from the preschool years. Dolls and housekeeping should not be the only thrust of their play lives.

Girls need female role models who are computer literate in order to become computer literate at the same level as boys in order to become interested in IT. They also could benefit from having mentors similar to what is done for inner city African American boys through groups like 100 Black Men.

There is another very important role model. Girls need teachers who are comfortable with computers and proud of it. Because of the pay scales and culture, the situation remans that most teachers are women. This change will take extensive, intensive professional development and college methods courses that teach technology to potential teachers. There needs to be long term and frequent mentoring and access to the technology on a daily and ongoing basis in the classroom. It does not help at all to go to a workshop if you don't have the technology in your classroom.

Literacy should be getting better with the generation coming up as the kids who cut their teeth on Writing To Read is maturing into adult hood. However, because young teachers are often flighty and always heading to the suburbs or even the field within 5 years, a majority of teachers, especially the females, are not geeks. It takes a long time to become computer literaate. I have found that the teachers in my graduate classes who are most literate are the ones with husbands who work in the field.

The laptop initiatives might help, but they do not need to start in high school or even middle school. From pre-K, students should have constant computer access and be encouraged to use it freely. A computer with age appropriate programs can be added to the Free-Play corner and the students encouraged to play "office" as well as "house". Children should be taught to use the Internet for simple searches in Kindergarten. (When they talk about the kinds of animals they can find and print pictures of those creatures by learning to go to Google Images and typing in "tiger".) Such activities will mean, of course the school providing unlimited paper and cartridges as well as adequate numbers of printers and going from lab based technology to extensive classroom based equipment.

Getting girls into technology is going to require making it available and a normal part of education. The boys seem to be attracted naturally by competitive games and are going to continue to be. The inclusion of girls will probably take more deliberate action.

Rhonda, Why do you think we need to flock toward education technology in droves? Other than selling alot of equipment, what is the real benefit to a first grader of finding a word and picture. Would not writing a word and drawing a picture be a more advanced thinking process?(and cost so much less) When young children play house, they are acting out their own ideas in the play. With the computer it is a click and a click here and there. Eye hand coordination, but writing a word is thinking about which letters go with which sounds and the order and sequence and how to manipulate the pencil to form those appropriate letters, and drawing a picture is the language of children. Girls like to write more than boys
and rather than try to change that characteristic why not let them develop writing skills instead of thinking they are somehow falling behind if they don't want to sit in front of a computer. When they grow up they will learn to use the computer in a few classes , there really is no need to push this technology on children. Not everybody will become a programer anyway.

I agree with Boitnott that middle school laptop programs can be a powerful tool in maintaining girls' interest in technology at a time when it often drops off. The girls in my school play with their laptops, mastering the technology, usually outside of school hours. I no longer have to teach them how to manage files, change preferences, or other simple tasks. Instead we can go beyond the basics to learn how to do those tasks well and concentrate on many higher order skills including programming. I have seen a measurable positive difference in their attitudes and comfort with computers since we implemented a laptop program.

Rather than being limited to using the computers in class, students who are interested can continue working outside of class, allowing me to differentiate assignments based on interest and also allowing slower students time to finish without slowing the whole class down.

I read the original article about Boitnott's study. It seems to be based on nothing more than an opinion poll with no real effort to show whether giving students laptops had any positive influence. Educational decisions need to be based on real research not pseudo-science. The bottom line is that genuine scientific research shows laptop programs are ineffective and expensive. What girls (and boys) really need to succeed in technological fields are solid math and science skills.

I almost didn't bother to respond to Tefft's remarks. Clearly she has some personal bias of her own. However, I feel compelled to take issue with the allegation that my study was not based on "real research." If she were to read the whole study, she would see that the survey instrument that was used was based on an instrument developed and validated out of a university in Texas by two well-respected researchers who have been working in this field for over a decade. I surveyed 8th graders in a school district that has been using a laptop program for the past five years. I had a 60.6% return with a total of 2,077 surveys that were returned reporting on how students use their computers, when they use their computers, and what their attitudes are regarding computer technology as possible careers in their futures. This study was based on previous reports by the AAUW and other reputable groups that report that there is a shortage of women entering information technology fields. As a result, there are thousands of jobs going unfilled which has a negative implication for our young women in particular and the country as a whole. I would invite Tefft to be less quick to find fault with research that doesn't reveal the findings that she likes and be more open to the possibility that she may not know all with regard to this important issue. I do not disagree that girls and boys need to have a solid math and science background. But we live in the 21st century, after all, and to ignore the implications of computer technology as it impacts those fields and others is a serious mistake on the part of those who would rather teach the way we did 30 years ago.

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Recent Comments

  • Kitty Boitnott, Ph.D.: I almost didn't bother to respond to Tefft's remarks. Clearly read more
  • Judy Tefft: I read the original article about Boitnott's study. It seems read more
  • Michelle Hutton, Director of Technology, The Girls' Middle School, Mountain View CA: I agree with Boitnott that middle school laptop programs can read more
  • Deanna Enos Nobody Left Behind One Child's Story About Testing: Rhonda, Why do you think we need to flock toward read more
  • Rhonda---Special Educator: I think there will have to be a cultural change read more




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