Emory sociologist’s book presents five learning habits to fight digital inequality

If kids now are essentially born with tech skills, why do women and marginalized groups remain underrepresented in the field?

Cassidy Puckett, a sociologist in Emory College of Arts and Sciences, argues the problem lies not just in lack of role models, access or opportunities. In her new book, “Redefining Geek,” she shows that tech-savviness comes from five core habits that help tech-savvy people build their skills but they are not equally identified, developed and rewarded.

“For all of the talk of the digital divide and how girls are scared of tech or poor kids don’t have access, my research points to a bigger problem of not recognizing people’s talents,” Puckett says. “The good news is, these talents relate to underlying habits that are the foundation of being good with technology. We can intervene and encourage the habits, but they need to be recognized and rewarded more equitably.”

Three of the habits Puckett identified in her research apply to general learning: being willing to try and fail, coping with frustration and boredom and being able to use models such as people or information.

The other two are more tech-centric: having the ability to use design logic by thinking about why tech is made a certain way, and being able to identify efficiencies, essentially finding shortcuts and hacks.

Recognizing these habits lets educators observe them in students, intervene where needed and provide more advanced opportunities for those who are ready for them.

Puckett developed a 15-question survey for students to answer to help determine where they are regarding those habits. She then examined differences among groups for the resulting measure, which she calls the Digital Adaptability Scale.

Her findings show that girls use the tech-specific skills less than boys do, suggesting a type of gatekeeping from peers, educators and family who aren’t sharing the insider tricks and knowledge that help the tech-savvy learn.

There were not, however, similar differences when Puckett examined race, ethnicity and class, indicating that those marginalized groups are unrecognized and unrewarded for their technological talents. That, in turn, perpetuates stereotypes about students’ capabilities that can affect course offerings and structures that reinforce incorrect assumptions.

Real-time applications of findings

Gwinnett County School District administrators and teachers have seen firsthand how tech- savviness can be developed in students. They are debating ways to apply Puckett’s research and intervention ideas to build those habits in all students in an artificial intelligence (AI)-themed cluster of schools set to open this fall.

“Every student needs to swim in the technologically advanced future,” says Babak Mostaghimi, Gwinnett’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instructional support and innovation. “While some may just wade into the waters, we know that most kids will need to get to the snorkeling level. And, there will be some of our students who will naturally want to become scuba divers, using their passion for AI and technology to go deep into these areas.

“The neat part is that by focusing on and building habits, we can help all of our students develop the foundation and the tech-savviness they will need to be a scuba diver,” Mostaghimi adds.

Real-world experience informs research

Puckett’s role in flipping the narrative of who is tech-savvy — the “geek” in her book title — has been years in the making. Her low-income high school’s tech education was limited to teaching how to type on electric typewriters, given a shortage of available computers.

Her interest expanded in college, though. Her move to the San Francisco Bay area for an AmeriCorps job coincided with the region’s boom and bust as the country’s tech hub.

Puckett’s decision to share the tech skills she was learning by teaching technology classes at a low-income Oakland middle school became the seed of her book. She earned a master’s degree in education in learning, design and technology from Stanford University in hopes of applying theories to design her classes. She quickly discovered there was no standard for how to evaluate the tech learning process.

She took those experiences, and four years working at an educational research company, to her doctoral project on digital adaptability and social inequality. Part of that work included observing teens who were expert tech learners, to see what had helped them.

Puckett later built and refined the Digital Adaptability Scale by turning those observations into lists of habits that she again ran by teens. The goal was to get a manageable list — she settled on questions around the five habits — that would be practical in classrooms.

She plans to continue her research, including discussing her techniques in undergraduate classes and working with school districts to apply the lessons from her research to stay on top of technology as an ever-changing part of our landscape.

“Can we please dispel the idea of who is and who isn’t good at technology?” Puckett asks.”We can use the survey to help dispel that myth, understand who needs help and who is ready for new challenges, and help create a more equitable technological future.”

“Redefining Geek” book launch

Thursday, April 21, at 4 p.m.

Emory Barnes & Noble Bookstore

Hear from author and Emory sociologist Cassidy Puckett and listen to a panel discussion about equity in STEM education.

Speakers will include Puckett along with Tamecia Jones, a STEM education professor at North Carolina State University, and Kinnis Gosha, the endowed division chair for experiential learning and interdisciplinary studies at Morehouse College. Emory sociology graduate student Matthew Rankin will moderate the panel discussion.

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