Informal Learning in Computer Science: Social and Conceptual Factors Related to Women's Persistence
This project formed a partnership between a research team with experience in computer science (CS) education and learning sciences research and a newly fashioned practitioner team focused on building a grassroots, informal, volunteer group created to help women help themselves and others learn to write computer code. This research-practitioner partnership had a two-pronged focus, first on improving the program offered to learners through making adjustments based on research findings, and second on investigating the phenomenon of how women in the workforce informally learn CS skills that enable them to rewrite their career paths to contribute to what we know from research. The context of the study was situated in the virtual community that has formed around the phenomenally successful Salesforce Customer Relationship Management software platform.
This Exploratory Pathways project aimed to fill a gap in the research; we know little about the phenomenon of adult women in the workforce who are patching together resources to learn CS skills with a goal of job enhancement or job change. This project took an ethnographic approach to studying the informal learning (both through online, written resources and through sharing of knowledge with others) of the women involved in a 10-week, virtual Women’s Coaching and Learning group. The organization of this group consisted of learners—novice coders in the Apex language that is used on the Salesforce software platform, of coaches—more knowledgeable coders, and of a steering committee that ran the group and created the informal curriculum followed in the 10-week course.
Our overarching research question in this study was: In what ways are informal CS learning opportunities being used and created by adult women, what are their experiences with those opportunities, and how does this suggest ways to enhance those opportunities in the future to increase effectiveness in broadening access to and engagement in informal CS learning experiences for women?
We broke the question down into a number of sub questions, including:
- Sociocultural context: What past gendered interactions do women report that discouraged (or encouraged) them from learning to code? What do interactions look like in female-only coaching and learning groups? In what ways does a coaching and learning group support persistence? What social barriers and supports outside the group affect persistence?
- Personal context: What are the characteristics and backgrounds of female administrators who seek out resources to teach themselves to code? What are the motivations for these women to teach themselves to code? What motivates them to seek out and join all-women coding groups?
- Physical context: How are women learning to code both through written resources and in virtual, informal coaching and learning classes? What are the conceptual barriers and supports that they encounter, and what works for women in these classes to overcome barriers? What conceptual barriers and supports affect persistence?
- Persistence and identity: In what ways does participating in a learning group with female coaching motivate (or not) women to persist in learning to code? How do their goals or reasons for learning to code change through their participation? How does their identity as a “coder” change or shift as they participate?
Our findings for these subquestions are summarized in the “project products” linked to below.