Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Using a "Socio-Cultural" Approach in Teaching Information Technology to African American Students with Academic Difficulties

Academic journal article Journal of Information Technology Education

Using a "Socio-Cultural" Approach in Teaching Information Technology to African American Students with Academic Difficulties

Article excerpt


The fields of computer science and information technology are essential knowledge domains for the information-based economies of the 21st century. Accordingly, they will be areas in which much of the decision making for these economies will occur. These are also fields in which there is a low representation of African Americans (Tapia, Chubin, & Lanius, 2000). This paper is the case study of a project conducted at a charter middle school in the southeastern United States to investigate the usefulness of a "socio-cultural" learning environment to introduce a selection of African American students experiencing academic difficulty to the field of information technology.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than 5.5% of the nation's engineers and 8.5% of the nation's computer systems analysts and scientists were African American in the year 2001 ( When one looks at the breakdown of academic majors, it is easy to understand. For example, in 1996 approximately 3% of the Master's degrees granted in computer science went to African Americans, and less than 2% of the Master's degrees in engineering (National Science Foundation, 1996). Advanced degrees are a good predictor of increased income potential over the course of a career. The National Science Foundation has issued a call for high schools, colleges, and research universities to do more to increase the level of participation in the field by women and minorities (Tapia et al., 2000).

Many African-American students experience academic difficulty during their encounters with the public school systems of the United States (Ogbu, 1992, 1995). It is quite possible that some of these difficulties are related to assumptions made about thinking, knowing, teaching and learning by those who make decisions about curricula. Often these assumptions drive decisions about the nature of public education--what will be its objectives and what will be its methodology. But the assumptions themselves are seldom brought to the fore and examined as part of the decision making process. Writers such as Hilliard (1994), Ladson-Billings (1994), Steele (1997) and Wilson (1991), have questioned these assumptions, in one way or another, and a substantial body of literature suggests that it is important to assess the assumptions made by the learning environment to gauge their efficacy for the learners in question.

What are these assumptions? They are sometimes overt and sometimes subtle. For example, one of the most popular constructs in the field of educational psychology is that of "self-efficacy," whereby a student's self-perceived mastery of a discipline is highly correlated to their performance in that field. There is evidence, however, that this construct is influenced by the culture of the student. Students of different ethnic backgrounds demonstrate varying orientations to self-efficacy (Eaton & Dembo, 1997).

Another assumption that the mainstream American school culture makes is that standardized testing provides useful information about a student's progress in a discipline. This is not necessarily the case, and both the American Educational Research Association ( and the American Evaluation Association ( have taken strong positions against putting too much emphasis on "high stakes testing." An emerging (but not new) testing methodology, based on item response theory (IRT), has a much narrower view of the trait or traits that are being assessed by testing (Hambleton & Swaminathan, 1985). In both varieties of the IRT model--the unidimensional (one trait) or the multidimensional (more than one trait)--the abilities being assessed are fairly specific. This is in stark contrast to "norm referenced" tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), which is used to make global assessments of a student's cognitive development at a given point in time. …

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