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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Digital Divas: working to change students' perceptions about ICT courses and careers

Julie Fisher
Catherine Lang
Helen J. Forgasz
Annemieke Craig

Currently, women occupy less than 20% of places in the ICT courses offered by higher education institutions in Victoria and, as of 2007, women held only 16% of ICT jobs in the state (Multimedia Victoria 2008 p 25). At the secondary school level there has in fact been a marked downturn in girls' interest in such courses, reflecting a more general decline in female participation in ICT courses and careers. Given that there has also been a decline in overall student ICT numbers, there is a strong case to develop programs aimed to convince female students that an ICT career or course is an attractive option for their future. The Digital Divas program is one such course.
 

The program

Digital Divas is a single-sex elective offered to female Year 8 students at Brentwood Secondary School in Glen Waverley, in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. First trialled in 2008, the program continued this year, and has been over-subscribed by girls wanting to enrol. The program involves four 48-minute teaching periods each week over one semester.

The decision to offer a single-sex elective was based on recommendations from research that documented the value of a single-sex environment for ensuring that girls have full access to facilities, and for encouraging girls to explore and discover together rather than remain passive onlookers (Margolis and Fisher 2002). The school also offers mixed-sex ICT classes.

There are three aspects to the Digital Divas program.

Curriculum
The first and most important aspect is an engaging curriculum that is also aligned to VELS. Girls participate in group work around creative and interesting activities using multimedia and spreadsheet applications. They are also introduced to programming using Storytelling Alice, a tool designed specifically to engage adolescent girls.

The students also create 'Digital Divas' keyrings and lanyards using a variety of multimedia and image manipulation software. This helps demonstrate the wide-ranging applications of ICT, and allows girls to experience creative success in using it.

Informal mentoring by university students
The second aspect of the program is informal mentoring by female university students undertaking ICT degrees. Officially classroom assistants, they act as ongoing role models to the Year 8 girls, and also provide online mentoring as 'blog buddies'. Students indicated that they greatly valued the opportunity to informally interact with the classroom assistants, and suggested in the end-of-unit feedback to the teacher that the online mentoring start earlier in the elective. Many of the Digital Divas students had not previously met a woman who had chosen to pursue a higher degree in ICT.

Bringing ICT career women into the classroom
The final aspect of the program is the organisation of regular presentations from young women working in a variety of areas within ICT, an approach designed to demonstrate the diverse career pathways available. The speakers are encouraged to talk about their own secondary school experiences and the influencing factors in their career choices. They also describe what a typical day at work may involve, helping to dispel the stereotype that an ICT career only involves programming. These descriptions form the basis for a 'day in the life' research project undertaken by each student.

The speakers have included a Business Information Systems university graduate in a graduate placement year at a large corporation; a network administration expert who had taken a pathway to ICT after beginning her career in health science; and a software programmer working with a well-known multinational company.

The girls capture the talks, which are held informally in the classroom, on hand-held digital cameras. These videos are then placed on the Digital Divas portal as a reference tool for the students to return to later.

Previous analysis of similar girls' computer club programs has found that, while these programs were both enjoyable and helped build ICT skills, they did not lead girls to pursue career paths in ICT. By inviting university students and ICT professionals into the classroom, and through the 'day in the life' research project, Digital Divas aims to bridge this gap.
 

Concluding remarks

The researchers are conducting a longitudinal evaluation of the program's effects, and are particularly interested in its long-term impact on participants' perception of ICT, and the extent to which this cohort of Year 8 students selects ICT courses or careers in later years. The longer term effects of the program are not yet known, but two-thirds of Digital Divas participants have indicated that they would consider studying ICT in the future.

Brentwood Secondary has now committed to timetabling this elective in both semesters each year. An Australian Research Grant will see the program expanded into other schools and provide for the development of new curriculum resources. To date three other schools are planning to implement Digital Divas as part of their 2010 curriculum, with plans for further expansion in 2011.

For further information on the Digital Divas project, or to get involved, please contact Julie Fisher: julie.fisher@infotech.monash.edu.au.
 

References:

Margolis, J. and A. Fisher (2002), Unlocking the Clubhouse: Women in Computing. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, The MIT Press

Multimedia Victoria (2008), 2008 ICT Skills Snapshot: The State of ICT Skills in Victoria. Melbourne, State Government of Victoria

 

Key Learning Areas

Technology

Subject Headings

Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Girls' education
Secondary education