Alexa, tell me: how can I smash the patriarchy?

20th January 2017 at 00:00
If tech companies want to win over hearts and minds, they could do a lot worse than starting to take their female audience seriously

Any discussion of educational technology in the classroom is always greeted in one of two ways: excited evangelism or outright hostility. What unites both arguments, however, is a total lack of evidence of its long-term effects and plenty of emotion.

It’s a busy world. Not a day seems to go by without the launch of a sparkly new product or a warning about the impact of technology on our lives, and especially on those of children.

The latest research making the news claims that a fifth of secondary school pupils regularly wake up in the night to check social media on their device, causing them to be constantly tired at school. However, it should be remembered that the same complaint used to be levelled at TV and even books.

“Digital technology is the shiny new object in our world, and it can be very distracting,” says Larry Rosen, emeritus professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. And not only to children: we are all working out how to deal with it in our lives.

However, despite all the scaremongering stories, there’s very little hard evidence about the impact of technology on children’s brains and how they learn. It’s just too soon for good-quality, long-term studies, but early indications are that the true story is far more nuanced than many would have you believe, says science writer Kat Arney (pages 32-39 of this week's magazine).

Tech is still a man's world

One thing we do know about technology is that any discussion is marred by an absence of female voices. Except for synthethic ones such as Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Amazon Echo’s Alexa, that is. Indeed, it is curious that whenever a digital servant is launched, its default voice tends to be a female one, presumably chosen by its programmers – who will be predominantly male.

Go to next week’s Bett show, and you’ll find it’s predominantly populated by men. Despite teaching being 75 per cent female, you’d be hard pushed to think of high-profile women in the ed-tech social media and blogging space. There are quite a few over in the US, but over here, only a handful spring to mind. One is Claire Lotriet, who reinforces the point by recounting how at a large digital conference, “I was told I was the first female to speak on the main stage” (see our Ed Tech supplement – free with this issue – pages 14-15).

 

It is curious that whenever a digital servant is launched, its default voice tends to be female

So what’s the answer? It’s a vicious circle as far as Stem is concerned: until more girls study the subject, men will be overrepresented in the Stem industry. And while they are in the majority, they talk mainly to one another: marketing and magazines are all targeted at men. Sadly, when companies do attempt to address females, the best they can usually do is to pinkify their products.

So classroom teachers have an obligation on two fronts. If technology brings with it issues that may have a profound effect – good or bad – on children and their learning, teachers have a duty to at least engage with it and try to understand it. Otherwise, they will always be on the back foot. And they also need to do so in order for both girls and boys in their classes to see that technology is for everyone, not just boys with their toys in their own time.

Meanwhile, if tech companies want to win over hearts and minds in UK classrooms and beyond, they have to start taking the female audience seriously.

I can ask Alexa whether my football team won last night, to open the pod bay doors or ask her to beam me up, and I will get an answer. But ask her why women don’t like technology and the response is: “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”

@AnnMroz

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