The Cyber Sisters Club: Using the Internet to Bridge the Technology Gap with Inner City Girls
Strains of the Winnie thePooh theme song mix with the Backstreet Boys' "We Got It Goin' On".In one corner, Yesenia waits impatiently for her photo of LeonardoDiCaprio while the printer cranks out the 13th page of the Titanicpassenger list. At a table in the middle of the room, Tahisha andLashonya hunt and peck on their keyboards as they "talk" to eachother in the Headbone Zone Chat Room. Two girls at another tableexperiment with different backgrounds on their Web pages. The weeklymeeting of the Penn State Lehigh Valley Cyber Sisters Club is in fullswing.
For 15 girls from an innercity elementary school in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the after schoolCyber Sisters Club means a rare chance to experience the technologythat is changing the world around them. Like many schools indisadvantaged neighborhoods, their elementary school makes do with anaging computer lab. With only three phone connections to the office,the health room and the Counselor's office, the school cannot provideeven a modem connection to the Internet.
The plight of MosserElementary School is ech'ed across the nation. A study in 1996 foundthat schools with the highest proportion of poor and minoritystudents were the least likely to have Internet access. In schoolslike Mosser with over 70% of the students qualifying for school lunchassistance, 53% had any Internet connection, and only 7% had Internetaccess in an instructional classroom.
Students from theseschools, many of whom live in Federal Housing projects, also lackaccess to technological tools in their homes or neighborhoods. Unliketheir suburban counterparts, these children do not spend hours oftheir free time surfing the Net or playing "Dr. Brain" on the familyroom computer. Not only do economically disadvantaged youth miss outon the educational enrichment provided by many computer activities,they begin their employment search with an inadequaterésumé of skills in a job market that highly valuestechnology literacy. Add to this the increasing importance of theInternet in political and social discussions, and the disadvantage ofthe disconnected becomes a critical problem for our society as awhole.
Not surprisingly, minoritystudents, many of whom live in these economically depressed areas,are w'efully under-represented in all computer related fields.According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1996 only 7.2% of allcomputer scientists were African-American and 2.6% were of Hispanicorigin. Respondents in a recent survey of IS network workers byNetwork World reported that minorities made up only 5% of theirnetwork staffs.
Poverty may be only one ofthe factors contributing to the lack of technology experience amongHispanics. Dr. Anthony Wilhelm, Director of Information TechnologyResearch at The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, recentlystudied middle-class Hispanics in California and found that"Spanish-speaking participants and recent immigrants emerge from abackground in which there is little or no direct experience withcomputers...Lack of familiarity, exposure and direct experience withcomputers among Hispanic parents manifests itself in feelings ofanxiety, apprehension and fear over the role computers are playing inthe lives of their children".
The members of the CyberSisters Club, daughters of poor minority families, experience anotherhandicap in the world of technology: their gender. A number of recentstudies have confirmed the disparity between girls and boys in theirtechnology skills and attitudes. The low number of women who take theAdvanced Placement test for computer science, who choose computerscience as a field of study and who are employed in technologyrelated fields confirms that computer science is far and away a maledominated world.
Analysts of the gender gapin technology cite societal, psychological and marketing factors. Themyth that girls can't excel in science and math stubbornly enduresdespite many advances by women in these fields. Girls look to theirmothers for examples and too often see hesitant and reluctant usersof technology. One study polled 10th graders and found that a muchhigher percentage of girls than boys had never talked with a parentabout science and technology issues.
When girls do sit down ata computer, they tend to wait for instructions and blame themselveswhen something d'esn't work. In contrast, boys often approachtechnology with an aggressive, experimental attitude, clicking theirway to a solution of any problem online. The manual never makes itout of the shrink wrap. The boys develop the confidence which resultsfrom an intimate knowledge and mastery of technology.
The instant fascination ofboys with video and computer games encouraged software companies tomarket to them rather than to their more hesitant sisters. From DukeNukem to Leisure Suit Larry to Total Control Football, the shelves ofan Electronics Boutique store attest to a male dominated computerculture. Only recently have women, recognizing the role of thesegames in stimulating an interest in computers, founded softwarecompanies like Girl Tech and Purple Moon devoted to the design ofgames for girls.
The Penn State CyberSisters Club was created to bridge the gap between thetechnologically advantaged and disadvantaged, in this case minoritygirls from a low income, inner city school. The Club is part of theYouth Enrichment Partnership program, begun in 1990, which provideseducational enrichment activities after school and during the summerwith a dual emphasis on writing and technology. As part of a Y.E.P.program serving children from a local Federal housing project, theCyber Sisters Club received funding for its first session this yearfrom the Allentown Housing Authority.
Penn State Lehigh Valleyseemed uniquely positioned to launch a program to encourage girls totake part in the technological revolution. At a time when women arethe minority in computer related fields, virtually all technologyrelated positions at the campus, including the computer sciencefaculty, network coordinator, instructional design specialist, campusWebmaster, and reference librarian are held by women. These womenwere invited to visit the Club during meetings to serve as rolemodels, and some volunteered their time to work one-on-one with thegirls.
The first group of CyberSisters met on seven Thursdays in the spring of 1998. Fifteen girlsfrom Mosser Elementary School's fifth grade classes were selected bytheir teachers and counselor to participate in the program. Amajority of the students were Hispanic, many from families who hadrecently come to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico. The girls were busedto and from the Penn State campus, located about 30 minutes fromtheir school, by the University. Club activities focused on using theInternet and creating personal Web pages. As Sherry Turkle noted inher EDUCOM '97 address, the Internet, more than any other advance incomputing, has the potential to bring girls and women into theculture of technology due to its social and creative aspects such ase-mail, chat rooms and Web page design.
A "Girl Friendly"Environment
The activities andsurroundings chosen for the Club reflect the results of educationalresearch focusing on girls and their preferences in a learningenvironment. In D'es Jane Compute, Roberta Furger documentstechniques that have been used successfully to draw girls intocomputer activities. These include assigning collaborativeprojects that emphasize cooperation rather than competition,acknowledging girls' expertise as they gain computer skills, usingthem as peer assistants, making computer activities relevant togirls, and creating a more nurturing "girls only" sanctuary wheregirls will not be intimidated by more computer-literateboys.
One problem observedduring group work on a computer is a tendency for the mostcomputer-savvy student in a group to take control of the mouse sothat other students finish the project without gaining new skills andconfidence. To avoid this pitfall but still maintain a collaborativeenvironment, each Cyber Sister worked on her own computer whileseated with other girls at a circular table. In this way the girlswere able to share their online experiences as they worked and tohelp each other with problems. This arrangement also providedopportunities to publicly recognize the girls by asking them to helpother students with something they had mastered or discovered on theInternet.
Penn State Lehigh Valley'swireless "CoLab", completed two weeks before the first Club meeting,provided the perfect setting for this type of cooperative learning.In the CoLab, modular, mobile tables can be configured to encouragecollaborative learning in various size groups. The room during thefirst sessions of the Cyber Sisters Club resembled an "intimatecafe," with six small round tables and dimmed lighting. One drawbackto this design was a lack of interaction among girls from differenttables. Sites and skills discovered by one group weren't shared withthe others. Also some girls were disappointed that they couldn't sitwith friends at another table. By rearranging the table segments intoone large oval, we changed the segregated groups into one largecommunity. Although this added somewhat to the noise level in theroom, it gave everyone a sense of belonging and also allowed newdiscoveries to spread around the table. Girls who wanted a quietspace to write or to consult with staff on an element of Web pagedesign could move to one of three smaller tables in the back of theroom.
For males the hook oftechnology is often the machine itself, whereas females buy intotechnology when they see how it relates to their interests ortasks. During early Internet activities in the CyberSisters Club, the students linked to sites of special interest togirls like Girl Power!, Netgalz! and chat sites from the Club'shomepage. They quickly began to pick out favorite sites of their ownfrom these links and by searching Yahooligans (advertised on theClub's homepage as a source of info about LeonardoDiCaprio).
By the third session apage of their favorite sites was attached to the homepage. The girlsrevisited these sites on Winnie the Pooh, Leo DiCaprio, Disney andthe Titanic every session. Once they discovered the audio clips ofthe Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys and other favorite musicians,CDNow became the number one favorite of the Cyber Sisters. As MaggieSteele experienced with third grade minority students, popular musiccan provide a very effective lure into the world oftechnology. Anyone who uses computers regularly knows thattechnology and frustration sometimes go hand in hand. Because girlsare more likely to give up on computers after negative technologyexperiences than boys, it is important to minimize failure in thecomputer lab. In the Cyber Club, we tried to maximize feelings ofsuccess by anticipating problems, by controlling technical factorsand by adding new skills gradually.
Using new equipment isoften a challenge for hesitant or novice users. At their school, thegirls had become familiar with Macintosh computers. Although themultimedia IBM laptops were usually very popular with young users,differences between the two systems could cause problems if notaddressed. For example, the IBM's right mouse button is assigneddistinct functions, which students accustomed to a single buttonMacintosh mouse tend to accidentally activate. Making the studentsaware of Mac/PC differences, like the mouse buttons, on the first dayhelped to avoid potential frustrations.
Although our ISDNconnection generally provides good access speed on the Internet,downloading large graphics and audio files can require a degree ofpatience alien to excited 5th grade girls. The students tended tokeep clicking instead of waiting for a file to load. After the firstfew sessions of the Club, the students used the stickpoint andbuttons on the laptop instead of the mouse, which slowed theirclicking down to a more productive rate.
When the inevitableglitches with equipment or the Internet did occur, the staff stressedthat these problems were minor and that difficulties with technologywere unavoidable but worth enduring. The students were shown how toget back on track, and were given any tips for avoiding the problemin the future. Introducing too many skills at once can also causeproblems.
Each meeting the girlslearned a few new skills while practicing those mastered in previoussessions. The first day they began by sitting down at a computerconnected to the Cyber Sisters site on the Internet. They learned thebasics of navigating the Net through an online Internet Primer. Usingthis tutorial, they learned to click on links, to use the back andstop browser buttons, to enter a URL in the address box, and tosearch Yahooligans! for a subject. For the remainder of the class,they explored the Internet using their newly acquiredskills.
On day two the girls againsat down to computers ready to go from the Club homepage. Thissession they learned to bookmark sites, were shown a few samples ofgirls' personal Web pages, and then set off on their own to findsites via the homepage links and Yahooligans! searches. They began tobookmark their favorite links, which would later be added to theirown personal pages. After a demonstration of an online chat room,several of the girls spent much of the meeting chatting. The girlsenjoyed the chat room so much that they often sat typing messages toeach other even when girls from other sites were not in the chatroom. At the end of this session they learned how to shut down thecomputer.
After the second meeting,there was a two week break due to vacations and in-service days.During this time, the girls were asked to work on shortautobiographical writings on a handout with writing prompts such as"If I were president, I would...", "Five words that describe meare...", "If I had a million dollars I would...". These writingswould provide the body of each girl's personal page.
The Club was reconvenedfor a third meeting two weeks later, and the girls learned how to"shop" for graphics for their pages at clipart sites listed on thehomepage. Although the staff anticipated that the students mightexperience some problems naming and saving the graphic files, afterseeing a demonstration onscreen and receiving individual help withone or two saves, the girls were soon adept at grabbing animated gifsfrom the clipart sites. At this meeting, the Sisters also used the"favorites" page that had been added to the Club homepage to revisitlinks, and some new favorites were bookmarked.
Between the third andfourth week, a template for the girls' personal pages was developedand added to each disk with the girl's writing entered on thetemplate. Fifteen backgrounds chosen from the clipart sites were alsocopied onto every disk. Shifting gears from surfing the Net to usinga new program (Corel WordPerfect) to begin designing the personal Webpages was somewhat of a challenge. The girls, however, enjoyed seeingtheir name and writings on a Web page, and became engrossed in tryingdifferent backgrounds and changing text on their pages.
Only half of the girlsattended the fifth session, due to an early dismissal from school.With one volunteer, a Penn State student who served as a teacher'sassistant, and the teacher to help eight students, we had the luxuryof giving each girl lots of one-on-one assistance. With the extraencouragement and technical help, two of the quieter girls reallyblossomed at this meeting. It was obvious that a higher ratio ofstaff to students in future sessions, perhaps including more PennState students, would enhance the program.
The Instructional DesignSpecialist brought the digital camera to the sixth session, which wasthe highlight of the meeting. While the girls worked on their pages,printed graphics of celebrities and cartoon characters, correspondedin chat rooms or looked for new sites, the photos were taken andadded to each disk. That day each girl took home a form asking forpermission to add her photo to her Web page, with an explanation thatno family names, addresses or phone numbers would accompany thepages. Despite these precautions, some parents would not allow aphoto to be used.
Some of the girls who hadparticipated in a Y.E.P. summer session taught by a Visiting Scholarfrom the University of Puerto Rico sent brief e-mail messages to hervia my account during this meeting. Unfortunately we weren't able toprovide each Cyber Sister with an account and link them with ane-mail penpal, but this gave some of the girls a taste of e-mailcommunication. At the final meeting, the girls were very excited tosee their own homepages, which could be accessed via the name buttonson the Club homepage. Each Sister received a folder with acertificate and a card with the URL of her personal page. They wereencouraged to take friends and relatives to the local public libraryto show them their Web creations and to introduce them to theInternet. The role of the Internet as a source of information forschool projects and papers was also emphasized.
A technology attitudesurvey, based on an elementary reading attitude survey using theGarfield cartoon character was created for use as a quick gauge ofthe girls' attitudes toward using computers before and after theClub. The scale uses a cartoon "Snooker" character withfour expressions ranging from excitement to anger. The student isasked to circle which of the four snookers best matches how she feelsabout questions such as "How do you feel about using a computerinstead of playing outside?" and "How would you feel if a classmateasked you to help him use a computer?"
The girls answered the sixquestions when they first arrived at Penn State and on the last dayof the Club. The survey was given anonymously, which may be changedin the future so that individual comparisons can be made. As a group,the girls reported overwhelmingly positive feelings toward computersboth before and after the club. In retrospect, the girls' answers mayhave been colored by their excitement and anticipation that first dayas they walked into a high-tech room with laptops ready to go at eachplace with the Cyber Sisters Club page beckoning them. The studentsmight have given more accurate responses had the survey beenadministered in their home school before they were aware of the CyberSisters Club. Hopefully we will be able to arrange with the homeschool for pretesting at the school for the next group.
On the other hand, onecannot rule out the possibility that the girls had genuinely positiveattitudes toward computers even before the Cyber Sisters Club. Recentstudies have suggested that girls' interest in computers rivals thatof their male peers until age 11. Ages of the first group of CyberSisters ranged from 10 to 12, with many of them still within the agewhen reported interest is high. Comments and recommendations by othereducators related to the scale are very welcome. The Snooker Scale,Internet Primer and writing prompts handout can all be accessed fromthe Club homepage.
At the end of each meetingof the Cyber Sisters Club the staff was faced with the biggestchallenge of the day: persuading the girls to shut down thecomputers. It was very difficult on the final day to say goodbyeknowing that the Cyber Sisters would return to an environment thatoffered little access to the technological tools they had worked withand enjoyed in the CoLab. It is hoped that the excitement that filledthe room on Thursday afternoons will stay with the girls and motivatesome of them to seek out technology in places like the publiclibrary.
As witnessed in thisprogram, the interest and the ability to use emerging technologieslie waiting to be tapped in all of our children, whatever handicapsmay have limited their experience in the past. We need only to putthe tools of technology into their hands and encourage them toexplore.
Judy Lichtman serves as Reference Librarian and coordinates the YouthEnrichment Partnership program at Penn State Lehigh Valley inFogelsville, Penn. She developed and taught the Cyber Sistersprogram. Other Internet sites she maintains include "Teens inTrouble: A Survival Page for Parents," the "R.M.S. Titanic ReadingRoom" and the "Virtual Library Research Assistant."
- U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics (1998), Issue Brief: Internet Access in Public Schools, Washington, DC: NCES 98-031. Available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs98/98031.html.
- Bruno, Charles (1997), "Diversity Disconnect," Network World,14(40), pp.1,93-100.
- Wilhelm, Anthony (1998), Buying into the Computer Age: A Look at Hispanic Families, Claremont, CA: Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. Available at http://www.cgs.edu/inst/aw1-1.html.
- Furger, Roberta (1998), D'es Jane Compute?, New York, NY: Warner Books.
- Brunner, Cornelia (1997), "Opening Technology to Girls," Electronic Learning, 16(4), p. 55.
- Steele, Maggie (1997), "Using Music to Increase Interest in Computers for Girls and Minorities," Teaching and Change, 4(4), pp. 293-311.
- Brunner, Cornelia (1998), "Technology Perceptions by Gender", The Education Digest, 63(6), pp. 56-58.
- McKenna, Michael C. (1990), "Measuring Attitude Toward Reading: A New Tool for Teachers", The Reading Teacher, 43(9), pp. 626-639.
This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.