Last week I experienced one of my proudest moments in the classroom. It was the last day of the summer session, and students in my Web design course were busily working in the computer lab on final multimedia projects. The room was filled with the sound of keyboards clacking and a hum of conversation. I was moving around the lab helping students troubleshoot the missing quotation mark in HTML or errant action on a Flash scene.
Suddenly, and without warning, one student, who had been working quietly, excitedly exclaimed, “I feel like I can do anything!” She was sitting in front of a computer screen, editing video in iMovie. Obviously proud of her creation, she was moved to this empowering declaration. Here she was, a female undergraduate student, getting excited about something she created on a computer and associating that with a general sense of agency and confidence. It warmed my heart to the core.
I have taught numerous students in technology labs over the past ten years, and the majority of them have been female. This is due mainly to the gender representation in the communications discipline in general, which in most programs I would venture is in the 70% female/30% male proportion. It’s not unusual for me to have a class in which only one or two men are on the roster (we had two men in the recent class). I have had much experience in watching female students move from the attitude that “the computer hates me” to a swelling sense of accomplishment as they complete each project. Many have expressed that these skills helped to increase their confidence with technology, and several have gone on to careers in which technology was an integral aspect, including Web design and development roles as well as marketing or communication positions in which usage and understanding of online and social media are essential. It makes me proud every time I hear one of them talk about the latest issue of Wired or explain the professional benefits of Twitter to a fellow student (or professor).
We have a unique opportunity in media education to train our students in advanced technology skills and concepts, particularly due to the high concentration of women in our discipline. I have discussed this opportunity before and continue to believe it is not only our responsibility but should be our discipline’s mission to effectively impart communication technology skills to our students in a way that instills an innovative spirit and a sense of agency for influencing the direction of the profession.
Advanced skills in database design and programming are fueling some of the most exciting new journalism projects (see the Pulitzer-price winning Politifact of the St. Petersburg Times or the many Knight-Batten-award-winning projects of The New York Times. But, by and large, those teams are staffed by men. There is no reason why women can’t take part in this new and innovative means of storytelling. We just have to introduce them to the concepts and make them feel that it is a realm that is available to them.
Can you imagine scores of young women exclaiming “I feel like I can do anything!” just because we took the time to introduce them to, not only technology skills, but also to creative outlets and processes that emphasize judgment and perspective on the digital landscape? Can you envision the effect of legions of journalism grads going out in the world with a sense of passion and optimism about the digital future of news and their ability to direct it?
I am reminded of the words of Kathy Sierra, a female technologist and author that I have seen many times at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival. Sierra’s mantra is “creating passionate users.” Her approach has helped to define my teaching philosophy. I hope to quickly help students over what Sierra calls the “suck threshold,” and get them feeling good about using technology in creative ways. I want them to be excited about the things they are making and their ability to share their creations with the world.
Whether students shout it out in your classroom or ponder it quietly, it is important to understand education’s role as confidence and empowerment builder. We can debate whether teaching skills or theory is more important and what level of technology exposure our students need. But if we aren’t empowering them to positively view their contributions and to understand their role as innovators, then we are doing a disservice.