The culture of computer classrooms in single-sex and mixed-sex secondary schools in Wellington, New Zealand
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The participation by females in computing education has become an issue in the Western world. Fewer females than males are observed at all levels of computer education. As the level becomes more advanced the loss of females is both cumulative and progressive. Reports from the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand indicate that at secondary level boys significantly outnumber girls in higher-skill computing courses and at tertiary level the numbers of females enrolling has declined over the past decade. The motivation for this research was a desire to understand why females were not enrolling in computing classes, and when they did, why their retention was poor. A review of the literature regarding females and computing indicated that there were certain features evident in the computing classroom believed to contribute to a unique culture existing in the computing learning environment. These included the context in which computing is historically embedded, the lack of female teachers as role models and the nature of the classroom itself, where male attitudes towards computers and games play a critical role. Throughout the literature the culture of computing was shown to be strongly embedded in male values, and unattractive to many females. For this reason, some researchers suggest that single-sex classrooms or schools may provide a more supportive learning environment for both female and male students. Therefore this study explored the computer classroom learning environment of senior secondary school students at three different types of school, single-sex girls' and boys' schools and mixed-sex schools. A mixed-method research design was adopted to investigate the nature of the classroom learning environment in which computing is situated and to determine ways by which it might be made more equitable.A questionnaire with seven subscales was used to measure students' perceptions of the computer classroom learning environment. Data were collected from senior students taking computing at seven secondary schools in the central Wellington area, and the differences between the perceptions of girls and boys at single-sex and mixed-sex schools were analysed. The results suggested that, on a number of subscales, students from single-sex schools were more satisfied with their learning environment than students from mixed-sex schools, and that girls were less satisfied than boys. These findings suggested that the sex of the student and the type of school attended were associated with students' perceptions of the computer classroom. The questionnaire data were supported by interviews with students and their teachers and by observations of some of the classes. The analysis of the qualitative data confirmed many of the concerns expressed in the research literature, and revealed significant differences in the behaviour of boys and girls in the computer classroom, thus leading to the proposition that both sexes might benefit from single-sex classes. The results also highlight the critical role played by the teacher in the transfer of cultural values in the classroom through the teaching style and organisation of class activities. Taken together, the findings from the study, in the context of the research literature, enabled recommendations to be made for providing a more equitable computer learning environment for both girls and boys. Suggestions for future research, particularly in light of the changing national computing curriculum, are made.
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