The challenge of engaging African-American men in computing

March 16, 2010 at 11:44 am 9 comments

Betsy DiSalvo defended her dissertation proposal (based on her Glitch project) this morning. Her presentation was amazing — engaging and thought-provoking.

Betsy is coming at the question of engaging African-American men in computing from a cultural perspective.  What do these teens value?  What do they want to achieve?  She designed Glitch in a participatory fashion, with several smaller activities and workshops to inform her design of Glitch.  She learned that the middle schoolers whom she was trying to involve in game testing just weren’t engaging, but the high school students bought in.  She asked students to look at a user interface (with bugs in it) then challenged them to fix the underlying code, where they’d never seen program code before.  Her subjects found that fascinating:

I learned that I might take interest in that career…With the language, I really want to learn how to read stuff like that, to understand what it means not just letters and objects in a square, but to understand.

The real challenge in teaching computer science to these students is that learning about technology is not a value for them in their culture.  As Betsy phrased it, as a research question: “If the collective identity of young African American men does not encourage technology production for the love of making or learning, then how do face-saving tactics allow for participation, and what are the limitations?”  While she believes that the Glitch game testers were actually interested in learning the computer science, she had to provide them with face-saving tactics in order to give them a way of engaging in front of their peers.  So, she set up competitions, because competitiveness and sportsmanship were part of their cultural values, and her participants could work hard at finding bugs because, “I want to win.” Betsy paid them, so that they could put in extra hours because “It’s my job” and “to make money,” where having a job was important to their culture and family values.

One of the things she found was pushback from some (not all) of her students for using Alice.  It was “a toy,” and not what real game developers used.  It was hard enough for the kids to find a way to engage in CS, and then to be “insulted” with a toy was a significant issue.

Betsy’s results are already really interesting. She’s getting some big changes in attitudes about studying CS and going on to college.  In her dissertation study, she’s going to explore more these issues of “face-saving” and about providing strategies for learning that avoid conflict with cultural values.  Her work tells us a lot about how to make computing into a viable career choice for students in different cultural settings.

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