Women's Studies 30

En/gendering Classroom Technology

Claire Feldman-Riordan '01

"You have five minutes," we tell the history class of high school seniors. "Your challenge is to name twenty famous U.S. women from the past or present -- no sports figures, no entertainers, and only presidents' wives who are famous in their own right. Do you think you can do it?"

The class stares back at us as if we have insulted their intelligence. As honor students in a competitive high school, several have already passed advanced placement history tests. "It's not as easy as it sounds," we warn.

...We have offered this challenge about famous women to hundreds of students in high schools around the country. We can count on the fingers of one hand the number of women who have been able to meet it. On average, students can list only four or five women from the entire history of the nation.... (Sadker and Sadker, 128-130)

When I gave my final presentation on gender bias in computer use in K-12 schools, I asked my fellow students and professor to complete this exercise. I changed it around a bit, though: I had half the students list as many famous U.S. men from the past or present -- no sports figures, no entertainers, and a maximum of five presidents -- and half the students perform Sadker and Sadker's exercise, with a limit of five presidents' wives. Participants were given three minutes to list as many as they could. Because each participant was handed a separate piece of paper outlining the assignment, no one knew what his or her peers' assignment was.

The results were right in keeping with Sadker and Sadker's work. There were far more men listed than women -- this from a women's studies class at Swarthmore College, labeled a liberal haven and "academic powerhouse" by college guides each year.

I. The Hidden Curriculum

In Failing at Fairness (1994), Sadker and Sadker present an account of the obvious and subtle ways that women are written out of pedagogical concerns in daily classroom interactions. The above example sheds light on the extent to which women have indeed been written out of history. Much of the work we have read in this course (see course syllabus) counteracts this writing-out, providing us with many examples of the work women have done, especially in a variety of scientific disciplines, that has been systematically ignored. To provide women with access to the academic disciplines, it is necessary to start from the beginning -- that is, to counteract the hidden, gender-biased curriculum and classroom interactions by providing real opportunities for girls in the classroom. An area of great potential is classroom technology -- specifically, computer use in the classroom.

II. Can Computers Do the Unhiding?

We have focused at length in this course on the power, or lack thereof, that technology seems to possess -- even the view that technology is somehow self-perpetuating, and produces itself in response to some intrinsic drive for improvement. It is important to recognize that computers are tools that enhance or act as a catalyst for existing trends or patterns, and thoughts or actions of those who do the computing. Computers are machines; they are not transformative unless we transform the ways in which we use them.

III. What Keeps Girls Out? The Computer Science Class Example

In Computers and Classroom Culture (1995), J.W. Schofield looks at the relationship between classroom computer use and sociological structure in an urban public high school. In "Girls and Computer Science," Schofield highlights some of the characteristics of a computer science class that limit girls' success:

The lack of female role models. There was only one woman teaching computer science, compared to 5 men, during the six years in which the study was conducted. While it's certainly not true that the mere gender of an instructor dictates whether girls will succeed in an academic course (see Stephanie's interview with Dr. Judy Voet), there is no doubt that it is significant for some girls. I would add to Schofield's assessment that when women role models are present, they are often treated as an exception to a rule; they are celebrated for being women in science, not for the scientific work they have done or are capable of doing.

Decisions about the departmental location and name of the course. Some girls may have been discouraged from taking computer science classes (which were electives in this case -- also problematic), in light of much research that indicates girls are less likely to choose math and science classes than boys.

Course content: an exclusive focus on programming. Not only does the focus on programming exclude girls in the way just described, but limiting computer science instruction to programming alone is simply bad teaching in the information age. Schofield informs us that programming is "only one of the three components of computer competence specified in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (1985) as important for students to learn" (171). Exposure to computer applications, including word processing, is important not only for the sake of including girls, but for good computer education in general.

Stereotyped course materials. Analyses of K-12 textbooks in a variety of disciplines consistently reveal that men appear more often and more substantially than women. This trend was also found in the computer books in the school library, Schofield observed. Sadker and Sadker warn us that "[E]ach time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less" (13).

Teachers' classroom examples. These examples often rely on and thus maintain traditional sex roles, for instance, referring only to sports statistics when the procedure being taught relates just as easily to movies or the stock market. Again, failing to present examples from a variety of domains is an example not only of gender bias but bad teaching. If classroom examples draw on domains that are typically male, they must also draw on domains that are typically female -- or better yet, on domains that students are likely to view neither as male nor as female.

Differences in prior exposure to computers. Because girls are less likely to have computers at home than boys (as Schofield found was the case with white versus African-American -- and I suspect with white versus Latino/Latina students), it is essential that computer instruction in schools provide equal opportunities for all students, regardless of their computer experience. Otherwise, success in computer courses is a measure of socio-economic position, not subject mastery.

The role of female students in Computer Science 2 classes. Schofield provides an analysis of the experience of the 4 girls who enrolled in computer science classes during the time of study, noting that "[t]he goal of this analysis is to shed some light on the pressures that girls who wish to pursue a traditionally male subject like computer science face" (177). Because of the small sample size, I cannot claim to have arrived at any real conclusions about girls in computer science classes. Instead, I will provide a brief summary of some of the problems these students faced:

• Fitting into an atmosphere that encourages individual competition, often invoking the language and traditions of American sport (primarily football).

• "...teasing, taunting, and even outright sexual harassment" (178) -- the frequency and extent of these antagonistic interactions is alarming, and as indicative of problematic classroom interactions in general as it is of gender bias. What is particularly striking is that in this instance, the teacher not only failed to stop the harassment, but contributed to it. (Click here for a great site, maintained by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, on sexual harassment education for adolescents.)

• The problem of "excelling" -- doing "too well" in computer science class called into question the femininity, or lack thereof, of these 4 girls.


Overall, Schofield notes that one of the most significant dangers in gender-biased computer science classrooms is that it leads to gendered patterns of internalizing success and failure. Specifically, girls tended to internalize failure (blame it on themselves) while externalizing success (attributing it to environmental factors), while boys were more apt to internalize success while externalizing failure. This culture of self-blame is hardly likely to counteract or challenge a history of excluding girls from access to technology; in fact, it plays a significant role in maintaining that exclusion.

IV. Computers as Teaching Tools: Oregon Trail II and Suggested Curricular Contexts

Many young adults recall in their early computer experiences, in school or at home, the game called "Oregon Trail," a rudimentary virtual journey westward in the 1840s. Students are surprised to find that Oregon Trail is still alive and kicking, and modern -- it's Oregon Trail II, and unlike the old monochrome version, it's in color -- in an ironic sense as well as a literal one. Oregon Trail II is multicultural.

The game involves a simulation of "real" trail life, from supplies and hunting to wagon trains and historic landmarks to snakebites and cholera. Players take on the persona of a seemingly genderless, race-less pioneer who often becomes wagon train leader, making "executive" decisions about the well-being of fellow travelers and the wisest way to cross a river.

In his 1996 article "On the Road to Cultural Bias: A Critique of 'The Oregon Trail' CD-ROM," Bill Bigelow claims that players are in fact taking on the role of a male-gendered, white pioneer, that the game "highlights a male lifestyle and poses problems that historically fell within the male domain" (14). Bigelow's article presents the ways in which the game fails to account for the experiences not only of women, but of African-Americans, Native Americans, and, rather surprisingly, the land itself. In short, he argues that "Oregon Trail is sexist, racist, culturally insensitive, and contemptuous of the earth. It imparts bad values and wrong history" (14). For the sake of brevity and consistency of focus, I will concentrate only on what he says about women, while strongly encouraging the reader to explore Bigelow's article (see bibliography) and the CD-ROM itself.

An Oregon Trail more alert to feminist insights and women's experiences would highlight relations between people, would focus on how the experience affects our feelings about each other, would feature how women worked with one another to survive and weave community, as women's diary entries clearly reveal. (15)

In short, Bigelow argues, students who learn about westward expansion exclusively through playing Oregon Trail II are missing the perspectives of anyone who was not a white male. We are reminded of the hidden curriculum, or writing-out of women (and now we might add African-Americans and Native Americans, to name only a few) from history. Can technology play a part in reversing this exclusion? Perhaps, but Oregon Trail II does not seem to exemplify feminist pedagogy at its best.

However, as I suggested earlier, this game happens to have extraordinary potential as a teaching device in curricula that seek to make students aware of the biases in written history and the role of authorship in constructing historical narratives -- curricula that teach good history. In my introductory education course this semester, we created lesson plans that dealt with Oregon Trail II in a constructive way. Many of us based our lessons on Bigelow's suggestions, which follow: reading primary documents that illustrate other perspectives, such as diaries and speeches; role play activities; listing the ways in which members of different groups might have experienced the Trail differently; writing letters to the pioneers that criticize them for their poor treatment of Mother Earth; inviting a Native American elder to speak to the class; writing and illustrating children's books that describe the trail from different perspectives; and finally, playing the game again, assessing the biases and inequities they might not have noticed the firs time around.

Thus educational software can indeed be educational, in a truly constructive way that works against gender bias, when used in a responsible and progressive curriculum.

V. The Math Forum: Too Good to be True?

Fortunately, sometimes our work is made easier by educational tools like the Math Forum,a resource for teachers and students at virtually all levels in their math careers. Hosted by Swarthmore College, the Forum provides homework help for students, lesson plans and other ideas for teachers, interactive projects for students and teachers, and an impressive listing of links for anyone interested in math and science education, and gender/culture issues in math education.

The site is well worth browsing freely, but a few statements about what it provides and its value for women and math education can be made here. First, it is interactive; it provides students with an opportunity to communicate in a discipline that is traditionally viewed as isolating and unfriendly. Second, it is a valuable resource for anyone involved in math education on any level, thus appealing to a community of learners that Bigelow would certainly condone. Finally, it can be used in the classroom as a teaching guide or at home for students who are looking for math help or enrichment. This site is an excellent opportunity for all students who have access to it.

Now, if only all students had equal access.... (See Section III.)

VI. Conclusions: How Can We Make Things Better?

Here are some ideas to keep in mind if you are interested in gender and equality of opportunity in K-12 computer education:

Computers cost money. Including computers in public education, in particular, is costly and is the source of local and national tax debates. It is important to remember that districts with the most money will have the most modern technology in their classrooms, and the same is true for individual schools.

It's not just about the machines. Furthermore, as we learn from Schofield, equitable computer instruction is not as simple as buying a few machines. Beyond the classroom materials involved, technology, like anything else, requires equitability in all other aspects of education -- for example, teacher expertise -- if it is to be taught and learned in a progressive, equitable way.

Computer competence is a necessity in the information age. More specifically:

a - What is computer competence? We recall from Schofield that computer competence is not solely about programming, nor is it just about word processing applications, software, or Web browsers. Computer competency means an understanding of what computers do, why we use them, and how they are relevant in a variety of disciplines and areas of life.

b - For whom is computer competence necessary? The answer, quite simply, is almost everyone. The tendency of American public education to maintain and reproduce socio-economic hierarchies is a well-documented topic, and authors on this subject often point out that computers serve further to divide the haves from the have-nots even, and especially, in the classroom. To make computer knowledge and access equitable, pains must be taken to distribute educational resources equally to schools in all districts, and within districts, to all schools; and within schools, to all students.

Clearly, all of this is easier said than done, and gender bias is only one of many considerations that we must take into account when considering what it takes to provide equal access to and success with technology in K-12 education. I suggest the readings below if you are looking for more information. I do not claim to have any real answers, but I hope I have contributed to a dialogue among people who are committed to reversing the hidden curriculum that makes education for girls -- and everyone else -- less successful than it should be.

If you have questions or comments, especially positive ones (just kidding), please email me.

To see some of my work in another Women's Studies class at Swarthmore, click here.

VII. Bibliography

Works Cited

Bigelow, Bill. "On the road to cultural bias: A critique of 'The Oregon Trail' CD-ROM." In Rethinking Schools, 14-18.

Schofield, J.W. Computers and Classroom Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Oregon Trail II: CD-ROM.

The Math Forum


Recommended Reading

Kafai, Y.B. Minds in Play: Computer game design as a context for children's learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1995.

Kozol, Jerome. Children of the city of the invincible. In Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

Sutton, R.E. "Equity and computers." Review of Educational Research, 61(4), pp. 475-503.

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last updated 12/16/98