Use of Tablets, Online Testing on Rise, but Gender Gaps Persist in ‘STEM’ Fields

Managing Editor

Cross posted from the Digital Education blog

By guest blogger Danielle Wilson

Students’ use of technology continues to grow in and outside of schools, though that digital expansion has done little to reduce gender gaps in the so-called “STEM” fields, a new nationwide survey shows.

The findings were reported this week in the Speak Up 2014 survey, as part of a report, “The New Digital Learning Playbook: Understanding the Spectrum of Students’ Activities and Aspirations.” The survey was conducted throughout 2013 by Project Tomorrow, a nonprofit group based in Irvine, Calif., that seeks to improve the role of technology in the education of K-12 students.

The survey found that 29 percent of high school boys said they were very interested in pursuing a science, technology, engineering, math, or STEM career, while only 19 percent of girls had the same ambition. Girls in grades K-12 are more likely to identify their technology skills as average in comparison to boys, who are more likely to describe their tech skills as “advanced” throughout their academic career:


Those measures of motivation matter, because students’ perception of their technology skills in comparison to their peers had a strong correlation to whether they displayed interest in STEM career fields as well, the Project Tomorrow survey found.

The disparity in STEM interest remains among girls who identify themselves as having “advanced” technology skills. Forty-four percent of high school boys who see their tech skills as advanced expressed interest in a STEM career, while only 29 percent of girls of the same skill level had a desire to enter the STEM field.  Project Tomorrow reports that those disparities are similar to what its earlier surveys have revealed over seven years of polling:


The authors of the survey say that girls could be encouraged to stick with STEM topics if greater attention is paid to individualized engagement of students beyond career exploration programs, field visits and teachers with science and math-focused backgrounds. Girls have shown a particular interest in individualized, digitally based career exploration, according to the survey.

Districts across the country have implemented 1-to-1 technology initiatives, blended-learning programs, and similar efforts in recent years to expand the use of digital devices in schools, and the survey’s findings seem to underscore the scope of that activity.

For instance, 47 percent of middle school students reported taking teacher-facilitated online tests, a significant increase from 32 percent in 2009. Twenty-five percent of high school students in school wide Title 1 programs said they had a school-provided tablet, while 13 percent of non-Title 1 high school students had that type of device.

The results also showed a growing acceptance of the use of mobile technology in classrooms. Sixty-four percent of parents said they would purchase a tablet or laptop for their child, if it was allowed at their school.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the report also found that students’ use of technology extends beyond the classroom. These “free agent learners,” as described in the report, identify themselves as having advanced technology skills and are using social media tools and online games to learn about different topics. Twenty-eight percent of high school students reported using Twitter for communications and information. Fifty percent of boys and 49 percent of girls in middle school reported using an online game for learning.

At the same time, the survey identified education administrators and leaders also see a need to create more equitable access to technology, with 46 percent saying that providing students with Internet access at home is one of their most challenging issues they face, a significant increase from 19 percent in 2010.

The report is based on nationwide responses to an online survey from 325,279 K-12 students, 32,151 parents, 37,756 teachers, 2,230 librarians, 933 district administrators, 3,020 school administrators, 577 technology leaders and 1,346 members of the community representing 9,005 public and private schools from 2,710 districts.

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