Tools of Design

A robot, with white eraser lines criss-crossing its body

In the ten weeks before the camp began, the camp teachers met regularly to discuss logistical planning for the camp and get more comfortable with the software. When we first met after having spent a week each with GIMP, we questioned whether it might prove too frustrating for ten- and eleven-year-olds. The toolbars looked different in different versions of GIMP, made for different operating systems. Accidentally clicking off a selected area could undo twenty minutes of work. It takes time and dozens of mistakes to figure out how to work with layers effectively.

We decided to set trepidation momentarily aside and give it a go—after all, one of the goals of the camp was to help show girls that they can master technology even when it is frustrating. In fact, several studies have pointed to differential frustration levels as key to the gender divide in technology: low self-esteem about technological competence, Bauer (2000) suggests, makes it far more likely that users of technology will get overwhelmed by frustration and choose to give up. And a 1999 meta-analysis found that women consistently test lower on self-esteem measures (Kling, Hyde, Showers, and Buswell), a difference that other studies have found to be particularly large in math, science, and technology education, which Orenstein (1995) calls "the confidence gap." These findings are supported by the interviews we conducted—one girl, Makayla, when asked in an interview near the beginning of camp if girls know about technology, answered swiftly and unequivocally, "No." Pressed for an explanation, she emended, "Well, maybe Morgan," another camper who picked up new tools with apparent ease; even within a camp full of girls self-selected as interested in technology, girls who seem to be comfortable and confident users are quickly identified as outliers. This gender-tied lack of confidence is somewhat surprising given that six of the girls, including Makayla, named their mothers as a primary resource for learning about technology. Some girls, of course, talked about learning about technology from their brothers and fathers, but nearly as many talked about teaching their brothers and fathers. The disconnect between girls' impressions of their innate ability and the reality of their capacity for learning new technologies did not surprise us—but it made us especially sensitive to their expressions of frustration.

Indeed, girls in the camp did experience significant frustration with GIMP, when we threw them in at the deep end on the second day. We asked them to take a picture of a robot and add to it a picture of a musical instrument, to make a robot band. It was, at first, chaotic. They would close toolbars accidentally and not be able to get them back, distort images by resizing them without stabilizing the aspect ratio, and realize twenty steps too late that they had accidentally erased a critical portion of the instrument. Though some girls were unhappy with their products, each girl was ultimately able to make her own robot band member. The exercise sparked a discussion about technological compromise, about accepting products that fall short of our aesthetic goals.

A robot with a guitar, bowler, and moustache A robot with a purple-bedazzled flute A robot with a guitar on a red background A robot with a saxophone A robot with a guitar, cat ears, whiskers, and a tail

While we decided to introduce girls to GIMP before iMovie because we thought it made sense to work with still images before working with moving images, the choice also had the effect of introducing girls first to a more complex, more difficult to understand technology. This approach might seem at first to run counter to Vygotsky's (2012, p. 178) notion of zones of proximal development—usually, of course, educators try to introduce challenges of increasing levels of difficulty or intensity, beginning with the easiest problems. Yet the skills we were hoping girls would learn were not so much specific and technological—while we did hope they would gain an understanding of interface gestalts, there is little overlap in tools or functionality between GIMP and iMovie—but rather affective and attitudinal. We wanted them to be willing to work through frustration. We wanted them to encounter an intimidating user interface with the confidence that, given time to explore and perhaps some guidance, they could become comfortable in the space.

A pie chart demonstrating that of the 18 girls interviewed, 10 mentioned GIMP as their greatest camp frustration but 7 of those 10 ultimately felt successful with the program

When they came back to the lab after lunch to work on their "I Am" projects, they had already spent an hour in the muck and emerged at least semi-victorious. They entered the new project with varying levels of engagement and excitement, but over the course of the camp many girls returned to GIMP voluntarily, either in their free time between projects or to create part of their final group videos. This cycle of engagement, disengagement, and reengagement matches Hannah O'Brien and Elaine Toms's (2008) model of user engagement, wherein engagement is not always linear. Frustration may result in a user disengaging from software, but we ought not see one moment of disengagement as an ending of the engagement process: "Users may cycle through the stages of engagement several times during a single session. Thus reengagement is intrinsic to the model" (O'Brien and Toms, 2008, p. 948). Allowing girls the time to disengage and reengage with GIMP repeatedly meant that, by the end of the camp, many girls had gone through the engagement cycle several times—girls who returned to GIMP as part of their final group projects came back to it with expanded confidence in other areas. They had been successful with a range of processes and products. This extended period of disengagement gave them the chance to reengage with GIMP with a changed attitude: a handful of girls, mostly those who came back to GIMP at the end, pointed to that process as their greatest success in all of camp. In response to a final blog question about what they were "excited about learning," six out of 18 girls mentioned GIMP specifically. In their end of camp interviews, when asked about a time they felt frustrated in camp, 10 girls immediately indicated GIMP as a frustration; however, seven girls also mentioned it as a success or something they're glad they learned. For five of these girls (Alexa, Aria, Alicia, Emily, and Eliana), GIMP was marked as both a frustration and a success in some measure.

Reengaging with GIMP helped girls develop the pluralism and future-orientation that Purdy (2014) identifies as key to design thinking. The process was plural in that girls generated "many, diverse solutions" (p. 626), both individually and as a group: we asked girls to make at least two products that first day they worked in GIMP, but many made more. At the end of the robot exercise, girls saw the variety of ways that everyone else in the room responded to the same fairly constrained prompt. The process was also future-oriented (Purdy, 2014, p. 620): in their interactions with GIMP, girls were encouraged to be focused more on the current task and future solutions than on past struggles. In thinking like designers, girls focused on process over product. In developing confidence in their abilities as producers (and not just users) of technological tools, they began to open up the "black box" of GIMP (Latour, as cited in Sheridan & Rowsell, 2010, p. 19). What had previously been overwhelming and intimidating over time became a collection of tools that enabled them to do the design work they wanted to do.


What Is DMA? And Why Does It Matter?

We offer here a brief overview of the camp and our goals for it. In brief, we wanted DMA to provide girls an opportunity to create—rather than merely consume—digital texts. Twenty rising sixth grade girls participated, from two historically low-performing elementary schools in lower-income neighborhoods in Louisville. Using tablets, desktop computers, and digital cameras, girls learned, used, and played with image manipulation and video editing. We selected technologies that would give girls the opportunity to develop their projective identities, to imagine a technological place for themselves both within their projects and in their futures. We chose two focal technologies: the Mac-standard video-creation software iMovie and the free Photoshop-like image manipulation program GIMP. Since Sheridan and Rowsell (2010) identify strong support for social sharing as key to building architectures of participation for digital media literacy (pp. 46-7), we also asked girls to leave daily comments on the camp blog and share photos with one another on Instagram. Then, during the second week of DMA, girls designed group projects that proposed solutions to problems in relation to the camp's theme, Designing Your Future, and presented their projects to an audience of family, teachers, and university community members.

The primary exigency for DMA was the worsening underrepresentation of women in technology-related fields—and the particular risks for girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. A U.S. Department of Commerce study found that in 2009 women held just 27% of science and math jobs, a drop of three percentage points since 2000. Many researchers suggest this gap is the result of adolescent girls' tendencies to underestimate their own abilities and to have higher anxiety in science and technology (Andre, Whigham, Henrdickson, and Chambers, 1997; Britner and Parajes, 2005). Peggy Orenstein (1994) called this the "confidence gap," and her research has suggested that this anxiety and underestimation often begins in middle school. Furthermore, adolescents in low-income schools are also affected by what Henry Jenkins (2009) called "the participation gap"—they are much less likely than peers at wealthier schools to use technology outside of highly restricted academic applications, and thus much less likely to see themselves as participants in digital environments. Jenkins argued that, in our current cultural moment, children have "unequal access to the opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare [them] for full participation in the world of tomorrow" (p. xii). More equitable digital participation, he argued, is how children and adolescents come to understand interface gestalts and develop creative technological problem-solving skills. Thus, DMA aimed to offer girls going into lower-income middle schools a chance to build technological confidence at a critical age, right before they were asked to make one of their first significant decisions about their educational futures: which elective classes to take in middle school.

We wanted DMA to be a confidence-building experience for girls that offered them two sets of possibilities: one as active bodies on a university campus where they might envision themselves, and another as thoughtful producers of digital texts. To address the former, we chose the theme, Design Your Future, as a way for girls to think about how they might pursue degrees and careers using technology in whatever futures they plan for themselves, whether as a wedding designer, soccer player, or student in an advanced math class in middle school. To emphasize the latter, we borrowed from composition's disciplinary emphasis on text creation as well as reading and critical analysis (see Selber, 2004). As a discipline, we make text creation the center of classroom learning based on a foundational understanding that students learn to write by writing. By extension, many scholars in our field have taken up a similar stance that students learn to compose for a range of audiences and contexts by composing in forms including but not limited to print-based text.

From our initial survey and participant interviews with DMA participants, we discovered girls often associated technology use in school with testing, gaming, or, at most, text consumption rather than any active creativity or design thinking associated with text creation. When asked in interviews about technology use in schools, girls often referenced "computer class," where the main objective was to use computer programs to complement curricular learning (e.g., "Cool Math"), not to engage in media creation. Further, our initial survey results indicated that, while the majority of girls at DMA had watched videos online, only two reported making their own videos. Yet every participant indicated a desire to make videos during camp. It was this fuller participation in digital spaces that DMA sought to encourage.

To help girls imagine themselves as active producers and participants in digital spaces, we turned to the scholarship of Gee (2004) and Selber (2004) as theoretical frameworks. First, we used Gee's projective identities as the trajectory for how we hoped girls would participate in digital design. Gee (2004) characterized projective identities in two parts: as acts of projecting values and desires, and of seeing these projections as projects in the making (p. 112). The goal is for learners to see these acts "as their own project in the making—an identity they take on that entails a certain trajectory through time defined by their own values, desires, choices, and goals" (Gee, 2004, p. 114). For DMA, we hoped that girls would imagine future identities as capable, confident creators in and through digital projects. To trace these identities in the making, we used Selber's (2004) framework from Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Based on Selber's categories, we developed three objectives for girls: to be users (functional literacy), questioners (critical literacy), and producers (rhetorical literacy) of digital media. We hoped that, through play and collaboration, girls would participate in Purdy's (2014) approaches to design thinking: not only in analysis but also in synthesis, designing their futures in and through digital texts that might "shape the future and motivate the ways in which we (learn to) represent and communicate" (p. 626).



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