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Is Technology Just for Boys?

Sherry Turkle, one of the co-chairs of the American Association of University Women's 15-member Commission on Technology, Gender, and Teacher Education, shares her thoughts on issues arising from the commission's report. See the Education World story about that report, Educating Girls in the New Computer Age: A Report on Equity in Technology.

Sherry Turkle, a sociology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a noted expert on gender and identity. Turkle has written extensively on the psychological and cultural impact of the computer and Time Digital Magazine cited her as one of the top 50 "Cyber Elite."

In an exclusive Education World e-interview, Turkle shares her personal perspective on the technological gender gap and on how schools can help promote gender equity in technology education.

Education World: According to Sharon Schuster, then president of the American Association of University Women's (AAUW) Education Foundation, the report, Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age, was commissioned because "girls are alarmingly underrepresented in computer science programs and technology fields." Why, do you think, do so few girls choose to pursue technology courses and careers?

Sherry Turkle: For years, people have looked at girls and computing and accused girls of computer phobia, suggesting that they are afraid of technology. The AAUW commission had a very different perspective. We believe that girls are not afraid but that they are uninspired and alienated by the way K-12 education presents computing to them. They see computing as an enterprise divorced from subject matter and from their interest in people. They see careers in computing as isolating.

EW: What can schools do to change girls' perceptions of technology?

Turkle: We suggest introducing computing across the curriculum and developing a more dynamic view of technological fluency. In our view, fluency requires the ability to use technology proactively, to understand design issues, and to be able to interpret the information that technology makes available. Fluency requires knowledge of how to choose software that serves one's needs and the ability to evaluate materials on the World Wide Web. Perhaps most important, given the pace of technological change, fluency means an ability to be a lifelong learner of new and emerging information technology.

EW: What types of software do you see as engaging both girls and boys?

Turkle: Software that would engage both girls and boys is software that encourages students to build and design, to be active rather than passive in relation to technology, to turn it to their own purposes.

EW: Critics have said that schools introduce students to technology too early -- that technology does not belong in the elementary school. Do you agree?

Turkle: It is critical to include technology in elementary education, but not all technology is equal. For example, it is not necessarily an educational use of technology to spend class time teaching students how to use PowerPoint presentation software. A student who had played Sim City in class told me that "raising taxes always leads to riots." That student didn't understand that it was a result of the way this particular simulation was constructed and that changing the rules would lead to a very different result. This is not computer literacy. This is computer illiteracy. It cannot be tolerated because of some vague sense that "technology should be introduced in schools." Technological literacy, -- in this case, understanding how simulations work -- is necessary for being an informed citizen.

EW: Why do schools have such difficulty producing technologically literate students?

Turkle: In my view, when the computers-in-education movement turned away from an emphasis on programming, it lost a coherent educational rationale for what to teach -- so far, we've failed to develop an educational rationale to replace it.

EW: What approaches to computer education are being emphasized now -- and why aren't those approaches working?

Turkle: There are notions about using educational software. Schools of education are not preparing teachers to be sophisticated consumers of educational technology, though. They are not teaching them to be sophisticated critics of educational technology. One of the commission's most interesting findings was that the most tech-savvy teachers are also the most critical of current educational software. There are also notions about using computers as "tools." However, it is not computer literacy to take the tools approach to the extreme, so that learning to use word-processing and presentation software becomes the sum and substance of a computing curriculum.


Sherry Turkle comments on creating equity in technology education:

"Girls and boys will come to technology from different paths; however, the idea is to create a curriculum that is flexible enough so that different people (not just in terms of gender) will make the technology their own in their own way."

EW: The report suggests that boys are more interested in how technology works and girls are more interested in how technology can be used. If that's true, why not capitalize on those differences by creating separate educational programs for boys and girls?

Turkle: Girls and boys will come to technology from different paths; however, the idea is to create a curriculum that is flexible enough so that different people (not just in terms of gender) will make the technology their own in their own way.

EW: Do you think girls and boys are equally well suited for the same technology jobs -- or do you think their different approaches to technology make them better suited for different types of jobs? For example, might men make better programmers and women better instructional designers?

Turkle: I don't think it's a question of whether men and women are suited to different technology jobs. They may well have different interests, and educators need to get out the message that there is a very wide range of jobs that demand computer fluency. I cannot predict whether, in the end, there will be more male programmers and more female instructional designers -- although that would be the natural extension of current attitudes. I think that once women develop computer fluency and a sense that they belong in this field, they may well find their interests broadening considerably.

Click to read another Education World story, Educating Girls in the Tech Age: A Report on Equity, which includes one former teacher's personal perspective on the computer gender gap.

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Linda Starr
Education World®
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Updated 06/02/2005