Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Girls and Tech

OK, this is totally unscientific. But my hypothesis today is that social media are helping to create a new class of tech over-achievers - and these IT stars are female.
Teaching several sections of Grades 5-8 IT there is no shortage of observations to be made. It is always so interesting to watch the students who excel when you put them in front of a computer, sometimes in sharp contrast to their achievements in other academic areas. Each year I always have a student or two who are unbelievably proficient – lightning fast on the keyboard, knowledgeable about many different softwares, able to learn intuitively when given a new and unfamiliar app or task, able to teach others in a sort of shorthand.
(This is not to say that the end products created by these students are necessarily better in all cases than the other learners. Occasionally, yes, their innate ability does translate into a superior thoughtful or creative project but, just as often, others are able to succeed as well, at their own pace, with beautiful, well-designed work.)
What I am really talking about is a natural facility with technology combined with an intuitive speed in learning and leaps in achievement that far outpace their peers.
In the past, these students of mine have without exception been boys - in fact that special category of boy who spends many waking hours in the gaming world day in and day out.
This year, for the first time, my most technically intuitive student is female.
“Erin” is in my grade 8 core class so I have the opportunity to see a broad range of her work. She is very bright, but doesn’t put forth a big effort, and by and large lacks confidence in subjects such as English, math and history. Her marks could be high, but are actually average. She is pretty and very social, has many friends, both girls and boys, likes to listen to music especially Justin Bieber, and just seems like a regular Grade 8 girl.
Right away in September I noticed that she seemed to have quite a few keyboard shortcuts mastered. In one lesson, I was teaching the students how to use the print screen button to put a screenshot from Google Streetview into Paint and then save it as a jpeg. Erin was way ahead of everyone else and hadn’t asked any questions. I walked by and asked her how her work was going and she just shrugged and said, “Fine, I use print screen all the time.” I have to say that is the first time I have ever had that response.
As time went by, I observed that she was always finishing tasks early, demonstrating an excellent graphic design sense, exploring new apps to the fullest not just doing the basics, eager to have free time on the Internet, and able to follow complex instructions easily and also to troubleshoot problems that the class was bogged down in.
A month or two later, I called Erin out into the hall during IT, following up with my usual, “No, you’re not in trouble.”
I told her I just wanted to ask her a couple of questions about computers, and I started with, “Do you play a lot of video games?” I thought I already knew the answer. During our Halloween party, I had let the kids bring in an Xbox and I noticed that they were trying to teach her how to play the games.
As I predicted, she shot me a skeptical look and said emphatically, “No.”
I then asked if she spent a lot of time on Facebook or other social media sites. “Yes,” was the answer. She was reticent to talk any more and didn’t really understand what I was trying to explain to her, so back she went to her computer.
I think Erin has in fact spent a huge amount of very enjoyable time investigating Facebook, configuring her own profile, accessing a wide range of other pages, and uploading content. Not to mention the time spent on what I think is her mom’s cell phone and her iPod Touch. It is also interesting that money or the lack of it does not seem to have stood in Erin’s way. Our school community is largely rural and at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum and Erin is not an exception to this profile.
Is this a shift? Are girls now going to outpace boys the field of technology? Who knows? A real study is needed. But I am very happy to see that as tech is evolving into the social realm it is being (unconsciously) used as a stepping stone by girls to achieve at the same pace as their game-addicted male peers. I also often take the time to encourage all of my students to enroll in tech courses as high school, from business software-type courses to the intro to programming options.

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