Equity in Computing Education: How do we do better?

Yim Register
May 2 · 7 min read
This collection of ideas was too beautiful not too include. Equity in the Center: https://equityinthecenter.org/ [whiteboard-like drawing of different words and concepts about equity, including “Equity in the Center”, Awake to Woke to Work, and more]

Edit: I’m publishing this a few months after the conference because we waited for all collaborators to make sure we spoke about this in a representative and careful way! Also, check out all the links to these wonderful centers and initiatives mentioned!

Lately, I’ve entered every conversation about “equity” in a flustered, exasperated manner. As a female-presenting person in academia, I know that the heat in my cheeks and the quaver in my voice is probably not helping me to get my point across. If only I could gently explain the pitfalls of “diversity and inclusion” rhetoric; if only I could provide airtight arguments to convince others why ‘political correctness’ matters for computing education; if only I could mathematically prove the utility of radically acknowledging our privilege. Instead, I find myself bewildered and frustrated, trying to voice the complexity of living through trauma while trying to succeed in an engineering field.

Last year I came face to face with the damages of sexual assault and harassment on university campuses, and how deeply it runs into academic power structures. I’ve watched the fight for undocumented Latinx students and their families unfold while in the middle of midterms. I’ve watched countless friends accommodate their disabilities by themselves in order to make it through school. I know programmers who have grappled with poverty since childhood, or un-diagnosed learning disabilities that shape their identity and self-efficacy. We’ve heard these rhetorics; maybe we even feel sympathy. But what is missing is a genuine commitment to elevating stories and radically questioning our peers and authorities. It is simply not enough to stand for equity. We must define it, make it explicit, and speak freely on who we are helping and why. We do not get to wear the badges of “inclusion” if we cannot deeply explain why what we do is inclusive.

[picture of seven panelists at their presenters table during the conference]

I was genuinely blessed to attend the panel on “Going Beyond the Platitudes of Equity: Developing a Shared Vision for Equity in Computer Science Education” at the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education 2019 conference (SIGCSE). I was beginning to feel that our vague commitments to diversity and equity were simply falling short; lacking Women of Color on the stage for the keynotes; showcasing minorities in CS programs like tokens to collect; assuming that we all share a goal of inclusion when we so clearly do not know the true sacrifices of power that is required to achieve that. I cannot express enough gratitude for the speakers at the panel, who reminded me that we can inspire one another to carry on: Jean Ryoo, Jamika D. Burge, Frieda McAlear, Allison Scott, Sonia Koshy, Lien Diaz, and Kamau Bobb. Right off the bat, Jean Ryoo reminded us that “It takes big families to make things happen.” And WOW are they making things happen!

“It takes big families to make things happen.”

Let’s step back a bit, to acknowledge the truly genuine good intentions that I see in Computing Education. We are already a fringe group, set on helping others! What a thing to celebrate. I know for certain that I am surrounded by bright individuals who care genuinely for the success of young learners. Talk to any teacher and watch them light up as they describe their students’ success. Talk to any builder and watch them fawn over a new educational tool that brings delight and joy! Talk to the researchers who engage so deeply in the most basic of questions because they believe in a better world that can be systematically supported. We are a group of very rad people. But the engagement, connection, and commitment to a better world is often sidestepping systemic racism, poverty, ability, and culture. I still believe that many of us care about these things. Educators and academics in our field each recognize systematic inequities and wish to combat them. But I argue that we are simply not explicit enough.

“We think we know what the students are thinking about, but let’s hear them tell us.” — Jamika D. Burge

Jamika D. Burge emphasized the importance of listening to our students and vulnerable populations. She is the co-founder of Bright-CS, the Fun, Fresh, and Free Computer Science programs to empower girls of color. She noted how, as educations, “We think we know what the students are thinking about, but let’s hear them tell us.” And young Black girls are asking:

“How do we become good leaders?”

Ask others about their identities. At 5 years old, Jamika knew her identity as a Black girl. Frieda McAlear knew her identity and connection to Native lands, and graciously reminded all of us attending the panel about the land that we were appropriating. Personally, I’ve watched my students in Thailand begin to explore gender identity and feel the very real effects of colorism. Real-CS (“Researching Equity, Access, and Learning in CS Education”) prioritizes the voices and perspectives of high school students historically underrepresented in CS, conducting research into their experiences, identity, and engagement.

Each and every learner or peer brings a perspective and their own funds of knowledge of their cultural identity and the struggles they face as a participant in the educational and political systems. We need to learn to listen. These panelists offered such a rich wealth of knowledge for us to learn from and celebrate, and I wish that it could have been the keynote at SIGCSE.

“Students have wisdom. We can learn from them.” — Jean Ryoo

How do we begin learning from vulnerable populations and pushing for the change needed to grapple with the hard questions? I suggest that we begin with our work groups, our social groups, and our labs. Ask specifically for their definitions of “inclusion”, “equity”, and “diversity”. Each project that is proposed, ask how it serves a specific problem in the world. Be less afraid to ask “How can I make sure that my work helps Black youth?” Be less afraid to ask “Where can I learn more about the Native lands that I am occupying and how my work can serve Indigenous communities?”. Be less afraid to ask “How can I modify my computing examples to include nonbinary people?” Be less afraid to ask “Is my work comprehensive for non-native speakers of English?”

“We are up against realities that we need to say out loud. Call it out for what it is.” — Kamau Bobb

And as always, continue to ask “Am I doing all that I can to learn about the struggles and triumphs of others who are not like me? Am I supporting others who want to learn about systematic injustice, and am I contributing to that kind of injustice myself?” Note: if you do ask anyone from a marginalized group to teach you about Blackness, Queerness, Disability, etc. make sure to compensate them for their time. Maybe it’s coffee, helping out at an event of theirs, or paying an actual consulting fee.

“We can share knowledge in a loving and supportive way.” — Jean Ryoo

I challenge us all to be less afraid, and to radically engage and push each other as researchers and practitioners when we can. We may not always have the energy to carry the true weight of inequity. But it is our responsibility to spend the energy that we do have to bring attention to injustice, and promote concrete ways that we can address it in our classrooms and publications. We can also financially contribute to initiatives that deeply think about these issues and are committed to integrating educational practice and research in order to advocate for representation and justice in tech. Promote and talk about programs like SMASH, Constellations Center for Equity in Computing, Kapor Center, and other important initiatives that are committed to bringing justice into Computing Education.

“We all can elevate these conversations and learn from each other.” — Lien Diaz

We are actually facing an incredibly lucky opportunity; there is a shortage of teachers, researchers, programmers, and resources in Computing Education. There is enough room for all of us to grow, shine, and celebrate our individual gifts and differences. There is more than enough room for each of us to explore how we can empower learners in identity, play, and problem-solving. An important example brought up at the panel was the pros and cons of separate gender tracks for learning CS. On one hand, the cohort and community of young Black girls was socially fulfilling and motivating. The celebration of “Black Girl Magic” and “Black Boy Joy” was inherent to the systematic decision, and what a wonderful thing that is! But what about the children who haven’t committed to a gender identity yet? Or the sharing and communication and role-modeling that can happen among genders, and the guidance we can provide for mixed perspective teams? Freida McAlear described the importance of context and how “We can get there in so many different ways”.

“We can get there in so many different ways”. — Frieda McAlear

Let’s continue to better equip ourselves and others to deeply listen to the context and serve the needs of our populations as lovingly as possible, while acknowledging our role in the larger computing community.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Yim Register

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Radical developer. Radical optimist. Machine learning literacy.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.