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Computing skills, beliefs and identities in young people from underserved communities

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Abstract

Despite increasing access to computing curricula within schools, the number of young people from diverse backgrounds choosing computing qualifications and careers is still low. It is important to understand the reasons for this lack of engagement directly from young people in order to identify potential avenues for intervention. Furthermore, it is vital to consider these reasons within their specific educational and social contexts. This qualitative pilot study aimed to provide insight into how young people from underserved communities in the United Kingdom viewed computing and how it related to their current lives and future aspirations. We interviewed thirteen young people, aged 9-22, who were at risk of educational disadvantage. Thematic analyses identified a mismatch between a stereotyped computing identity and the identities or personal interests of the young people. Although they felt comfortable with using computers in general, the young people seemed to lack belief in their own ability, or to understate it, during the interviews. Future research should expand on these themes and take an intersectional approach to promote context-specific interventions and support to encourage a more diverse workforce in computer science.
Computing skills, beliefs and identities in young
people from underserved communities
Thom Kunkeler
Raspberry Pi Foundation
Cambridge, United Kingdom
thom.kunkeler@raspberrypi.org
Hayley C. Leonard
Raspberry Pi Foundation
Cambridge, United Kingdom
hayley.leonard@raspberrypi.org
Abstract—Despite increasing access to computing curricula
within schools, the number of young people from diverse back-
grounds choosing computing qualifications and careers is still
low. It is important to understand the reasons for this lack
of engagement directly from young people in order to identify
potential avenues for intervention. Furthermore, it is vital to
consider these reasons within their specific educational and social
contexts. This qualitative pilot study aimed to provide insight into
how young people from underserved communities in the United
Kingdom viewed computing and how it related to their current
lives and future aspirations. We interviewed thirteen young
people, aged 9-22, who were at risk of educational disadvantage.
Thematic analyses identified a mismatch between a stereotyped
computing identity and the identities or personal interests of
the young people. Although they felt comfortable with using
computers in general, the young people seemed to lack belief
in their own ability, or to understate it, during the interviews.
Future research should expand on these themes and take an
intersectional approach to promote context-specific interventions
and support to encourage a more diverse workforce in computer
science.
Index Terms—broadening participation, computing education,
identity, self-efficacy, educational disadvantage
I. INTRODUCTION
In the United Kingdom (UK), computing is taught in some
form in all schools across K-12. While this means that all
children have an entitlement to a computing curriculum, an
issue still persists in the number of females, as well as young
people from low-income families and some ethnic groups,
who choose to continue with computing past the compulsory
age and into their later careers [1]. This mirrors levels of
participation in computing in other Western countries which
do not have a mandatory computing curriculum [2], [3]. It
suggests that universal access to computing in school is not
enough to keep diverse communities engaged and that more
needs to be done to understand young people’s attitudes and
beliefs towards computing as a subject and as a future career.
Recent school closures and lockdowns due to the global
pandemic have increased educational inequality, with many
disadvantaged young people having little or no access to suit-
able technology for home learning [4], [5]. Within this context,
the Raspberry Pi Foundation has been working with youth
and community organisations around the country to provide
free computers to those at risk of educational disadvantage
in underserved communities. As part of this programme, we
conducted a pilot study to speak with some of the young
people about their experiences of computing, their attitudes
towards the subject, and how it fits into their future plans.
II. BACKGROU ND
In England, only 10-20 percent of students taking optional
qualifications in Computer Science (CS) in high school are
female, and those from more low-income backgrounds and of
African/Caribbean descent are most proportionally underrepre-
sented in the subject [1], [6]. Previous research has highlighted
a number of structural, social, and psychological explanations
for this lack of diversity in CS qualifications and careers,
including reduced access to computing in and out of school
[2], [3], narrow stereotypes of computer scientists [7]–[9], and
lack of interest and confidence in the subject [10]–[12].
In terms of access, while all schools are required to teach
computing in some form in the UK, they do not all offer CS
qualifications after the age of 14. Thus not all young people
have the same level of access to continuing CS education,
and this may disproportionately affect some groups more than
others [12]. A lack of diverse representation within computing
may lead to a “fallacious archetype” of a computer scientist
being male, white, middle-high socioeconomic status, and
young [8, p. 220], which seems to permeate Western culture.
Stereotypes about computer scientists are evident relatively
early: 10-14 year-olds in the US who were asked to draw
a computer scientist were significantly more likely to draw a
male than a female [9], to show the computer scientist wearing
glasses, and to describe them as smart or geeky/nerdy [9], [13].
Having narrow stereotypes of computer scientists can con-
flict with a young person’s own sense of identity or desire
to fit in with a peer group or appear ‘cool’; there is often a
disconnect between young people “doing computing and being
a computer person” [11, p. 299]. It can also affect interest in
a subject; if students believe that computer scientists reflect
“geek culture” [14, p. 360], which does not appeal to them
personally, then they may fail to see the relevance of CS to
their lives and future careers.
A further important psychological factor is students’ com-
puting self-efficacy, or their confidence in their ability to un-
dertake particular tasks [15]. Research has reported relatively
high levels of computing self-efficacy early in high school,978-1-6654-4905-2/21/ ©2021 IEEE
but suggests this tends to decrease with age [12]. Male stu-
dents tend to have higher computing self-efficacy than female
students, and their confidence is usually better calibrated to
their actual performance than females (who are more likely to
underestimate their ability; [16]). Computing self-efficacy may
also be indirectly affected by socioeconomic background, for
example through a reduction in the opportunities to develop
skills outside of school [11].
Much of the previous work relating to the under-
representation of people from low-income communities in
computing has been based in the United States or countries
where the teaching of computing is not mandatory. The focus
may be on access to computing, through the capacity of
schools to teach CS, and students’ access to courses and
equipment. The CAPE framework [17] highlights that capacity
and access to computing (C and A in the framework, respec-
tively) are only part of the challenge in making CS equitable;
students’ participation (P) in and experience (E) of computing
are key factors in keeping them engaged over the longer term.
In England, mandatory computing education provides more
equitable capacity and access to computing in schools than
in other countries, but participation by students from low-
income backgrounds in CS qualifications is often still low [1],
[6], although this can differ based on gender and ethnicity
[6]. Very little work has been done in this context concerning
these students’ experience of computing. One study that was
conducted in the UK reported on 13-19 year-old young peo-
ple’s views and experiences of computing in and out of school
[11]. However, the young people were attending a computing
summer school and were therefore likely to be interested in
computing, which may not be representative of students from
low-income families.
Building on previous research, the present pilot study fo-
cused on a group of young people who were from low-income
communities who were at risk of educational disadvantage
due to lack of access to computers for school work. They
represented a wide age range, as well as different ethnicities
and genders. Specifically, we aimed to address the following
research question: How do young people from underserved
communities feel about computing and their own digital skills?
III. MET HO DS
Interviews conducted in this study were part of a larger
evaluation process measuring the impact of a scheme to deliver
computers to young people at risk of educational disadvantage.
From 947 young people receiving computers in the first wave
of the programme, 24 who had agreed to be contacted for
research purposes were shortlisted, representing different areas
of the country along with a mixture of gender, ages and
ethnicities. Nine young people did not reply to the interview
request, resulting in an initial sample of 15 interviewees.
The young people and their families who agreed to be
contacted were sent an information sheet explaining the topics
to be covered in the interview (see below), how their data
would be used, and their right to withdraw at any time
without affecting any ongoing or future support from the
organisation. This information was repeated at the beginning
of the interview to ensure comprehension. All interviewees
under 18 had their case worker from their organisation and/or
a parent present. Interviews lasted up to 30 minutes and were
conducted via video or telephone call, depending on the young
person’s preference.
After the interviews, one young person’s data were excluded
from analyses because it was clear during the interview that he
had low language proficiency and struggled to understand the
questions and respond. A further young person’s data were
excluded because the parent often interrupted and the data
collected were therefore not reliable.
The young people were identified to receive the comput-
ers because they belonged to underserved communities and
therefore tended to be from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.
Many of them did not have a computer at home for academic
work before participating in the programme, although most
had access to some digital device (most often a cellphone).
Demographic information for the thirteen interviewees in the
final sample are presented in Table I. The sample consisted
of six females and seven males, and around half of the
interviewees identified as White British.
TABLE I
DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION FOR THE THIRTEEN INTERVIEWEES
Interviewee Age Sex Ethnicity
i-1 13 Male White British
i-2 13 Female White British
i-3 16 Male White British
i-4 11 Female Asian
i-5 19 Male White British/Caribbean
i-6 9 Female Black British
i-7 22 Female White African/Caribbean
i-8 13 Male Black African
i-9 13 Female Asian
i-10 15 Male Black British
i-11 16 Male White British
i-12 16 Female White British
i-13 17 Male White British
Interviews focused on the young people’s feelings about
computing, specifically their own self-efficacy and feelings of
belonging in the discipline, the type of people they thought
of as ‘computer people’, and whether computers would be
important for their future careers. Once the interviews were
conducted and transcribed, thematic analysis was used to
search for themes and patterns in the data [18]. First, the
researchers read through the transcripts and, through an it-
erative process, agreed on a set of codes. These were then
used to code the interviews, after which major themes were
identified. The researchers met frequently to discuss the coding
process and to agree on certain interpretations of the data,
while acknowledging their own positions in relation to the
social context of the study.
IV. FINDINGS
Two main themes were identified across the interviews.
The first theme, mismatch between computing and own
identities, had three main elements: the interviewees’ under-
lying beliefs about ’computer people’, their self-perception
in computing, and gender conventions in career aspirations.
The second theme, understated self-efficacy, consisted of a
sense of the interviewees holding back in how they presented
their computing ability, and reports of a range of barriers to
computing. The themes are described in more detail below.
A. Theme 1: Mismatch between computing and own identities
1) Underlying beliefs about ’computer people’: From the
interviews it became clear that the majority of the young peo-
ple described a ‘computer person’ as someone who is smart,
clever, and/or intelligent, as exemplified by this quote: “A bit
smart. Very, very logical, because computers are very logical.
Things like smart, clever, intelligent, because computers are
quite hard. Really skilled, maybe” (i-2). Two interviewees
characterised this imaginary person as someone who is nerdy
or geeky: “Intelligent, logistic, I wouldn’t say nerd but.. . No,
actually, yes, I would say nerd. Nothing bad about that” (i-1).
And two others said this person would be good at problem
solving.
When asked to describe the looks of this ’computer person’,
most of the interviewees said that it could be anyone: “I
don’t think it’s like a person with glasses and all that. I think
I know loads of different people. I use computers now, do
you know what I mean?” (i-11). When it comes to gender,
however, four interviewees were more likely to associate this
person with being male: “Oh, they’re a boy, and they have
loads of technology stuff in their house” (i-4).Three of these
responses came from females, indicating potential identity
issues surrounding computing when it comes to gender [14].
What these stereotypes suggest is that while anyone could be
a computer person, this person would also likely need to be
smart, clever or intelligent, and in some cases, a male.
2) Self-perception in computing: The majority of the young
people in the study said that they could be this ’computer
person’. Even for those who did not see themselves working
with computers in the future, being a ’computer person’ was
still a possibility: “I feel like maybe, yes. I feel like I’m quite
good at using a computer. I know my way around. Yes, you
never know. I could be, eventually” (i-7). For others, some
work was still required to become one: “I think so. I think I’d
have to work quite hard at it, but I think I could be” (i-2).
For those who were unsure about being a ’computer person’,
this was mostly because their view of computing did not match
with their view of themselves or their personal interests: “Well,
I don’t know. I’m more of a practical person” (i-11). One
other interviewee did not see herself doing the things that a
’computer person’ does: “I do use the computer, but I’m not
an expert at it. And I feel like, with the computer, it relates
to loads of online games. I don’t normally play those kind
of stuff. . . . Maybe, I don’t know. I think I could change my
opinion of computering [sic] a bit, but I don’t think I would
be a ’computer person’, I guess” (i-4).
This mismatch between the computing identities of digi-
tally skilled youths and the assumed identities of computing
professionals fits with previous research in which young
people construed computing enthusiasts as people who are
different and “not like us” [11, p. 310]. That study found
that popular stereotypes of computing enthusiasts still persist,
with “committed, analytical, clever but antisocial” as popular
associations [11, p. 305]. There is an interesting similarity
with the stereotypes found in our study, namely “smart, clever,
intelligent” and to some extent “nerdy” and good at “problem
solving”. We found that none of the young people in the
current study had a strong identity as a ’computer person’,
however they did feel that they could become one through hard
work, improving their mathematical skills, and putting their
minds to it. It is not immediately obvious to them that perhaps
they are ’computer people’ already, even for those who chose
computing in school, or who are already digitally skilled. As
in previous research [11], there is a distinction between doing
computing, for instance in school, during leisure time, or for
creative things, and being a ’computer person’.
3) Gender conventions in career aspirations: When asked
about their future career aspirations, only two interviewees
wanted to pursue a career within computing, as developers
in games and software. Both identified as White males, fitting
with the archetypal stereotype of computer scientists [8]. Other
careers for the male interviewees included two engineers, a
plumber, a paramedic or electrician, and sports. For the female
participants, two of them wanted to become an architect, and
three jobs related to healthcare: doctor, nurse, and midwife. It
is interesting to note here how the males chose jobs related to
computing or engineering, with some vocational professions,
whereas the females were were more likely to choose roles
in caring professions. Previous research suggests that young
people, especially females, might be put off from a career in
computing because of social and cultural ideas associated with
being a computer scientist [10]. Previously the interviewees
described a ’computer person’ as a boy, smart, or nerdy.
Individuals who do not perceive themselves as such will
be discouraged from adopting a similar identity [11], [14].
However, it was evident that even those who did not wish to
pursue computing as a career understood the potential value of
it to their chosen profession, as one of the females who aspired
to become an architect explained: “because if I want to make
structures on computers, or 3D models, then I’m obviously
going to use a computer, so I’m going to need Computer
Science” (i-9).
B. Theme 2: Understated self-efficacy
1) ’Holding back’: From the interviews it became clear
that a majority of the young people felt like they were good
at using computers. They spoke about making games (i-6), 3D
modelling (i-3), programming in HTML (i-1), making music
(i-8) or websites (i-7), and fixing problems on the computer
(i-9). One interviewee said “compared to some of my teachers
who don’t know that Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V are a thing, I would
say I’m pretty good. Maybe not a computer wizard that knows
everything about what he’s doing, but I know some things.
I can do things” (i-1). Another interviewee also talked about
picking up digital skills during computing at school: “We have
done ICT from Year 7 all the way to Year 10. I think I know
what I’m doing” (i-7). Both males and females reported similar
self-efficacy in computing.
Despite this, the interviewees also tended to hold back from
saying they were able to become a ‘computer person’, perhaps
due to modesty or not fully believing in their own abilities.
One young person specifically wanted to become a game
developer, indicated that he had access to different digital
technologies, was thinking of studying computer science, and
acknowledged he had relatives who work in the field of
computer science. Nevertheless, the young person felt there
was more to being a computer person: “I would say I already
am to some extent, but I could definitely be more” (i-1).
Similar uncertainty was present for two other young people
who, although they indicated they were good at computers,
said they “had to put their mind to it” (i-12), or “could be one
eventually” (i-7).
2) Barriers to computing: For those five young people who
indicated relatively lower self-efficacy in computing, more
barriers to becoming a computer person were reported. For one
young person, mathematics was an issue: “My maths is okay,
but not the best. In the future, most probably. But right now,
no” (i-13). One young person who wanted to pursue a career in
sports said that computers were not really his “style” (i-5). It
is interesting to note how self-efficacy in computing, whether
high or average, does not make young people associate more
or less with a computing identity. Even for those who were
digitally skilled, or seemed destined to pursue a computing
career, there were still barriers reported in order to become a
computer person. As Wong [11] has pointed out, an identity
in computing seems to consist of highly stereotyped attributes
and expectations. What this means, in the context of this
study, is that young people set high expectations of computer
scientists, in effect making it harder for themselves to relate
to. Although young people are digitally skilled, and able to
become computer scientists, it seems difficult for them to
acknowledge that they meet the high standards they imagine
for these people.
V. DISCUSSION
Given the differences in educational and social contexts
across countries, it is important to understand which factors
tend to be more commonly associated with young people
disengaging with CS, and which influences are more country-
specific. Confirming previous reports that young people often
have a narrow stereotype of computer scientists [9], [11],
participants in the current study tended to identify those who
were good at computing as “smart” or “geeky”, with half the
females suggesting these people would more likely be male.
Interestingly, the male participants tended to be more open in
terms of the characteristics of a computer scientist, although
they still highlighted the need to be intelligent and focused
on gaming or computing in a broader sense. The concept of
“geek culture” [14, p. 360] thus still seems to surround CS
as a discipline, and is likely discouraging many young people
from continuing to engage with computing.
The general agreement about the high level of intelligence
needed for CS also seems to be a negative influence on the
young people’s enthusiasm for computing in the present study.
In some ways it seems that being digitally skilled is not
enough to be a computer scientist, and those who continue
in computing are somehow “not like us” [11, p. 306]. Unlike
in some previous research, females were just as likely to report
confidence in their digital skills as males, although both sexes
tended to understate how good they were in comparison to an
idealised view of a computer scientist. This may have been
due in some part to the nature of the interview, which was
conducted with an unfamiliar adult, and may have affected
the young person’s self-presentation [19]. For example, it may
have caused them to play down their ability, so as not to appear
arrogant, in an attempt to gain social approval [20]. It may
also have been related to their backgrounds in underserved
communities; most of the interviewees had only started having
access to a home computer for academic work by participating
in the programme, and are therefore less likely to have been
able to practice skills outside of school or develop greater
interest in the subject [11].
The current study allowed us to focus on young people
from low-income families, although the diversity within the
sample meant we could also examine other characteristics.
Interviewees presented very similar attitudes and beliefs about
computing, including who it was for, and whether it would be
used for their future career goals. Only two White male partici-
pants considered computing as a career, with one White female
interviewee understanding that choosing it as a qualification
might be important for her future career. This aligns with
statistics from CS qualification choice at age 14 in England,
which highlight the interaction between income, gender, and
ethnicity: White females from lower-income families are more
likely to choose CS than their more affluent counterparts, but
females from Asian, Black and Chinese low-income back-
grounds are very poorly represented in CS qualifications [6].
VI. CONCLUSION AND FU RTH ER WO RK
The current study aimed to assess whether factors affecting
young people’s engagement with computing in other educa-
tional and social contexts were similar in the UK, specifically
amongst those who were at risk of educational disadvantage.
Narrow stereotypes of computer scientists do seem to pre-
vail, highlighting that interventions developed elsewhere to
improve diversity in representations of computer scientists and
computing as a career could also be applied in the UK [13].
More detailed interviews concerning identity, self-efficacy, and
different demographic characteristics, will be important to
better understand these complex issues from an intersectional
perspective and from a wider range of young people. This will
enable context-specific interventions and support to be put into
place to ensure computer science attracts a more diverse and
representative workforce.
ACK NOW LE DG ME NT S
We thank the charity partners, young people and their
families for their support and participation in the research.
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As computer science (CS) education expands at the K-12 level, we must be careful to ensure that CS neither exacerbates existing equity gaps in education nor hinders efforts to diversify the field of CS. In this paper, we discuss structural and social barriers that influence Blacks, Hispanics, and girls, based on surveys of 1,672 students, 1,677 parents, 1,008 teachers, 9,805 principals, and 2,307 superintendents in the United States. We find that despite higher interest in CS among Black and Hispanic students and parents, these students experience greater structural barriers in accessing computers and CS classes than White students. And while girls have the same access as boys, social barriers exist with girls reporting lower awareness of CS opportunities outside of classes, less encouragement from teachers and parents, and less exposure to CS role models in the media. It is critical for expanding CS opportunities to address the unique issues for each group.
Article
A growing number of programs aim to increase girls' interest in computing courses and careers, but there is little research on their effectiveness. In this study, we describe how girls in an after-school and summer program changed over time. Activities were based on the expectancy-value model of motivation and included computer game programming and career and college exploration via virtual mentors and field trips. Data from 59 (mostly Latina) students who participated for over 50 h show an increase in computing career goals, expectations for success with computing, the value they placed on computing and computing-related jobs, as well as perceived parent support. There was no change in their depth of interest in problem solving, endorsement of gender stereotypes, or perceived support from school-based peers and teachers. Different data sources yielded different findings about girls' stereotypical beliefs about computer jobs. Implications for designing interventions at the middle school level are discussed.