Kaylene Clayton was awarded the 2009 ACPHIS PhD medal.
The influence of metropolitan Brisbane middle-school ICT experiences on girls’ ICT study and career choices.
The under-representation of women entering into Information and Communication Technology (ICT) programs is a long-standing and increasing problem, commonly referred to as the shrinking IT pipeline. Over the past two decades, numerous studies have investigated the low and declining female participation in the ICT educational and vocational pipeline and have identified various factors that may influence female ICT career decisions. Some of the factors identified include national and organisational culture, lack of, or poor quality ICT career information, societal influences, discriminatory work environments, practices and policies, along with the need for appropriate ICT role models. If you add to this mixture the changing and individual needs of the students, the problem becomes increasingly complex. While some studies in this area have contributed by identifying issues and making recommendations for change, some of which have been instituted, many of the efforts have centred on senior secondary school and tertiary students. However, many of the decisions that affect future career choices have already been made by this stage and there is a lack of research exploring Australian primary and lower secondary student ICT experiences and attitudes, prior to their elective subject selections.
This thesis, conducted in the emerging transdisciplinary field of Social Informatics, involves an embedded single case study of metropolitan Brisbane middle-school students. It explored the ICT attitudes and perceptions of Year 4 and Year 8 students, their ICT experiences at home and at school and the influence that these ICT perceptions, attitudes and experiences have on girls’ ICT study and career choices. This study drew on literature from a variety of research disciplines including IS and computer science, education and educational psychology, career psychology, psychology, gender science and sociology. The setting for the case study involved three school types, with strong links between the Year 4 and Year 8 levels, including a government (free tuition) coeducational school, a private (tuition charged) female single-sex school and a private (tuition charged) coeducational school.
In total, 58 Year 4 and Year 8 classroom visits took place. The classroom observations lasted from one lesson block (approximately 1 hour) up to a full day, depending on the availability of the students and the type of activities planned. Eleven semi-structured group interviews were held involving 49 Year 4 students and 20 Year 8 students, and individual semi-structured interviews were conducted with six teachers. These interviews generally took place at the end of the respective school term and lasted for approximately thirty minutes each. Information about classroom ICT artefacts and documents that provided information about curriculum, subject availability and subject selection options were also collected as they became available.
The main findings were that middle-school girls’ study and career choices take place in an environment specific to the culture in which the choices are made, in this case the Australian context, and involve social and structural factors and individual attributes. Socioeconomic factors further shaped ICT access, ICT resources and teaching to impact on the middle-school girls’ interest in ICT study and careers. The social factors included socialisers such as family and peer groups who act as positive and negative role models and share gender and ICT stereotypes. Parents also offered career advice to the students, but none of the parents encouraged the students to be involved in ICT pathways. The girls were enthusiastic and confident users of ICT, but some of the Year 8 girls were observed downplaying their scholastic ability, possibly to fit in with their peers. The media was also found to influence and reinforce the negative perceptions of gender roles and ICT stereotypes.
Structural factors, including the teacher’s interest and training in ICT, the curriculum content and teaching practice, and reliability of ICT resources, had a positive or negative influence on the students’ ICT experiences. These experiences were important to the students’ motivation to choose ICT study and career paths. The Year 8 Computer Studies classes seemed to be used as a form of electronic babysitting, with the content and delivery given little importance. Moreover, this research confirmed that ICT subjects are regarded as being synonymous with computer literacy, and low-level skills are being taught in these classes. This study also demonstrated how the teachers’ ICT interest and enthusiasm influenced the implementation of ICT in their classroom and the enthusiasm of their students. All of the students in this study had access to computers at school and most had at least shared access at home. However, poor quality and unreliable ICT resources had a strong negative impact on the students’ desire to engage in ICT study or career paths. These ICT resources differed between schools, with low socioeconomic status schools having unreliable and poorly maintained ICT resources.
Individual attributes, such as personality, aptitude and attitudes; goals and general schemata; subjective task value and interpretations of experience, were identified as being influential to girls’ ICT study and career choices. This study demonstrated that, by encouraging peer support and allowing exploration, the teachers increased the girls’ confidence and enthusiasm for ICT. Unlike the boys, the girls did not explore the computer, were generally compliant with the rules and concentrated on completing their work. However, the girls’ demonstrated compliance with classroom expectations and being careful with resources may discourage tinkering, which has been linked to increasing ICT interest and preparation for future ICT studies. While the girls were interested in using ICT, they expressed an ‘I can, but I don’t want to’ attitude towards ICT or being involved in the ICT field. Finally, the girls did not enrol in the ICT subjects as they felt that they did not fit the stereotypical image of someone who was interested in ICT.
This research has shown that interest in ICT wanes in the late middle-school years and it is highly probable that most of the students in this study will not pursue an ICT career. As a result of this research, a Model of Girls’ ICT Study and Career Choices has been developed to illustrate the factors, and their interrelationships, that influence middle-school girls’ study and career choices. Furthermore, a number of recommendations for education authorities, schools and teachers have been proposed to address the problem.