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Stories from CanvasCon: Helping Karlstad University Ensure Gender Equality


At CanvasCon, our annual event for education professionals, technologists, and industry innovators, we are always privy to inspiring stories about how technology is making a meaningful difference to institutions across the globe.

For us, the most powerful examples of edtech in action are those which succeed in bringing disparate groups together; encouraging collaboration and strengthening working relationships. And, that’s exactly what we heard in a session from Karlstad University in Sweden.

During the session, Frida Gråsjö, Sandra Berginge and Claes Asker from the Rethink:Kau project at Karlstad explored the issue of gender equality.

As an institution with a strong heritage in science and technology, leaders at Karlstad are well versed in the importance of encouraging more women to enroll in STEM subjects, to fill a significant gender imbalance in the field. However, while tackling a shortfall of women recruits to particular subjects is a hot topic across the industry, our speakers tackled a less well discussed subject: how to deal with classes which - currently, at least - have a significant gender imbalance.

This, said our speakers, was an issue faced not just by Karlstad but by institutions around the world - as they grapple with how to provide the same level of quality of education for gender minorities.

Karlstad’s speakers revealed that gender minorities across disciplines struggle to maximise the benefit of their learning experience. For example, the university finds that women in engineering courses often felt expected to excel at the theoretical work, but defer to their male counterparts for the more practical elements of the course when taking part in group work.

The student group asserted that it’s in issues like this where technology can be an important leveller, encouraging free collaboration, formalising the sharing of ideas and ensuring equitable teamwork. Indeed, as part of its Rethink:Kau widening participation project, Karlstad University harnessed the power of Canvas to encourage more proportionate group work.

An initial project group - a large team of 25 - used Canvas Groups to define and create a way of working that would ultimately benefit classes across the institution. This trial period saw a group of men from a social studies background and a group of women from a technical background test the ability of Canvas to facilitate a more fair and open communication. Over a five-week period, they saw how Canvas could give women more confidence to communicate in groups and how both genders were able to share ideas and learn from each other in a more even-handed way.

To all intents and purposes, the project was a resounding success. All 25 of the students felt that this exercise helped them gain confidence, establish their own voice, and work better with others from different backgrounds.

A group of 25 students - 10 men from a social studies background and 15 women from a technical background - were part of the study and they were followed by the design team over a seven-week period. Gathering of data was conducted by students writing diaries on their experiences of being in gender minorities and followed by in-depth individual interviews.

Many insights were established and especially group work stood out as a problematic areas for students in gender minority. As one student said "In groups with mixed gender I get the role as coordinator and controller", and a voice from another student "When it comes to practical work I experience that men usually don’t invite me to collaboration. It feels like it’s obvious for them that it’s a task for them and that I should do the theoretical part of the work".

With service design methods and co-creation, the design team then built a Canvas course app which could be used more widely across the institution. And, perhaps the most exciting part - and the reason why we believe that ultimately adoption levels will be high - is that the students were an integral part of the whole procurement process, from expressing experiences, identifying needs and generating ideas, testing concepts, prototypes and developing product in reality tests.

Of course, this is just a starting point to gender equality - and widening participation schemes have a hard road to travel, but we’re heartened and inspired by tales like this which show institutions commitment to addressing the disparity and the innovative use of technology to solve an important and pressing problem.