A sweeping arc of glowing yellow and blue in the center of an atrium.
The ground floor of the Toronto Convention Center.

SIGCSE 2023 Trip Report: A Chronicle of Ideas, Good and Bad

Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior
Published in
14 min readMar 18


My first SIGCSE Technical Symposium was in 2013. I can’t understate how much has changed personally since then. At the time, I was just past tenure and promotion, just leaving my startup, and just beginning to realize I couldn’t run from my gender identity any longer. I was just starting CS education research, doing all of the things a naive newcomer does: asking the wrong questions, missing related work, missing the forest for the trees. My students and I were doing interesting work mostly by virtue of us unconventional perspectives, not because we had a deep understanding of the community and its work.

And since then, as I’ve slowly found space to not hate myself, and to be out, I’ve found more courage to say what I’ve always known and felt: the world is broken, and CS is particularly broken. It has never been, and is only marginally less so, a daily trauma for Black, Brown, disabled, and gender non-conforming folks. George Floyd, the pandemic, and the recent resurfacing of overtly homophobic and transphobic government oppression have just been reminders of what has always been true.

And so as different as SIGCSE feels for me personally, it really doesn’t feel that different at all from 10 years ago. It’s still mostly white cis non-disabled folks very slowly learning to recognize their privilege, their power, their positionality, and their harm. And I absolutely put myself amongst those groups in some ways, as have my own ignorance having grown up in predominantly passive white communities in the Pacific Northwest. The only big difference is that my internal monologue in response to the thirty microaggressions that always happen over the course of the conference each year used to be “Yep, I am a lie, and I should be dead. But I’m going to pretend everything is fine and just rot from the inside to stay alive”. Now it’s: “Yet another moment where I have to choose between exhausting self-advocacy, conflict avoidance, or withdraw.” That, and because I’ve spent so much of the last 10 years learning about the many other forms of marginalization in our community and how they intersect with mine, I also regularly ask myself: “Do I have the spoons to call this person in/out to protect my friend/student/colleague or can I just take a nap?

If you can’t quite tell, I wasn’t particularly eager to reenter this space. And it’s not because I don’t like y’all — those that know me know that I’m tragically forgiving, in ways that often end up just harming me more. So I hold no grudges against anyone, and remain eternally predisposed to grace. I’m just tired. I’ve thought regularly about just flying to Toronto and sitting alone in coffee shops instead of attending the conference, where I don’t have to do any of the extra emotional labor of being in a space of ignorance. That’s much of what I’ve done this year on sabbatical, and it’s been so peaceful.

But this is the pessimism talking. I am fundamentally an optimistic person. When I have the energy, I’m still deeply passionate about learning, educating, and making change in this community, as hard as it is. And I’m confident that the more space I can make for folks at the margins, across all identities at those margins, the less of this work we’ll all have to do, and the more our dominant groups either a) won’t feel like its a space for them anymore or b) will do the learning themselves so that it’s not such a challenging space to be in. Some of that optimism comes from a place of privilege: my position affords me the freedom to look ahead ten, twenty years and imagine where we might be, and work toward it. Some comes from working behind the scenes to make change, and watching it actually happen over the course of years: in policies, practices, and more.

And so I approached this year’s SIGCSE trying to take stock of what has changed, however small, mostly out of a need to stay motivated. So instead of a bunch of paper summaries, this is instead going to be a chronicle of noticing signals of progress and concerning constants. This is also a self-regulatory game for me, a way to stay engaged, focused, and attentive as I slowly burn in a vat of acid. Let’s see whether the optimist in me is right, and we have reason for hope, or whether I should just give up and go take a nap with my cat.

One disclaimer: this is not a callout. If you see your ideas on this page, consider it a calling in — a chance to learn, question and grow, or even push back if you disagree with me. And I expect the same for me: write me if you see something I’m doing that’s problematic. I’m always learning and changing, and don’t stay in any one mindset on the world for long.

Richard Ladner facilitates conversation amongst a group of sitting attendees.
Not actually a picture of Wednesday’s workshop — this was our companion BoF — but it is what it felt like.

Wednesday — A Pre-Conference Workshop Accessibility and Disability in CS Education

On Tuesday I helped co-organize a pre-conference workshop on accessibility. The day drew about 30 attendees overall, most of whom viewed themselves as allies, and who had a wide range of interests from K-12, higher education, workplace issues, programming languages and tools, curriculum, and professional development.

Throughout the day, there was a whole spectrum of ideas, ranging from problematic to justice-centered. Here are some of the ones I found problematic:

  • Blaming disabled students for “failing” to disclose their disabilities
  • Avoiding conflict with powerful corporations
  • Deficit mindsets about autism
  • Looking to the APA for how to frame our work
  • Encouraging access to broken systems instead of fixing systems
  • Reducing disability to complete blindness
  • Reducing equity to accommodation
  • Well-meaning but misguided saviorism

And here are some of the ideas I was more fond of:

  • Evolving our language past notions of “special” accommodations
  • Resisting ableist systems by leveraging institutional power
  • Expanding literacy about accessibility
  • Getting the word “accessibility” into learning standards and guidelines
  • Embracing the diversity of autistic experiences
  • Intersections between accessibility, culture, and language inclusion
  • Including chronic mental health challenges in disability
  • Decoupling audio and visual representations with underlying structure
  • Thinking critically about the power and peril of labels

After the workshop, I checked in to my hotel and set out for a dinner with some of my PhD students, a few colleagues from the SIGCSE organizing committee, and others. We had lively conversations about hybrid conferences, peer review, and our various research topics.

Robert stands on stage in front of large projector screen showing a shuttle cockpit.
Robert begins his story of a shuttle launch.

Thursday — Keynote, Diversity, BoFs

I woke up early Thursday morning for a big breakfast at a nearby cafe and then ambled over to the exhibit hall for the opening plenary and keynote. The opening session was full of announcements, and behind them were many ideas. Some were great:

  • People should be recognized for their contributions to community building
  • Our community is global and diverse and we should celebrate that diversity
  • We should especially recognize those who work toward equitable participation in computing education
  • We should use microphones, respect people’s pronouns, verbally describe visual content on slides, not block aisles, and engage with remote attendees

Others were more problematic:

  • People who can’t travel should be segregated into separate virtual conference unlikely to be attended by those who can travel.
  • A successful program means a large volume of submissions and a low acceptance rate
  • Our best scholarship involves quantitative measurement of student knowledge and intentions
  • Captions in presentations are optional. (Note: this is more complicated than just blaming the organizers: the root cause of this far more systemic, e.g., platform providers viewing it as optional, PowerPoint setting captions as off by default, IT providers breaking contractual obligations. Calling out any specific individuals or leaders here is unhelpful because it overlooks the root causes.)

The keynote was Dr. Robert Thirsk, a Canadian astronaut, who has been in space for a lifetime total of 204 days. He isn’t an expert on pedagogy, but he had a lifetime of experiences he wanted to share. I won’t summarize his talk here, but rather surface some of the key underlying ideas of his biographical narrative. I’ll start with some of the ideas I liked most:

  • Space travel is a marvel of human accomplishment and dreaming
  • Astronauts require an nuanced understandings of how shuttles work
  • Training to the point of routinization is essential to safety, not just in space, but in public health and other forms of crisis
  • Teachers can be influential in shaping careers.
  • Nurturing of non-technical skills is as important as technical skills.
  • Students need audacious visions of the future to inspire them

The only idea that I found problematic was the pervasive sense in the talk that technology and training will save us. I felt it overlooked what I think is vastly more important: a moral compass that shapes what we do with technology and training, and what work we do to engage everyone in that work, equitably and inclusively. Without that, all is lost.

After the keynote, I went to chair our first TOCE sister session, which had three excellent presentations of TOCE journal articles from the past year. The authors — Linda Sax, Kaitlin Newhouse, Joanna Goode, Tomoko Nakajima, Max Skorodinsky, Michelle Sendowski; Sharin Jacob, Jonathan Montoya, Ha Nguyen, Debra Richardson, Mark Warschauer; and Kayla DesPortes, Kathleen McDermott, Yoav Bergner, William Payne—had many important ideas underlying their work, or revealed by it:

  • Courses may not be the dominant factor in students intent to learn CS in the future; sociocultural and socioeconomic factors appear to be more powerful forces.
  • Learning should build on students’ assets, including their language skills and cultural knowledge, even if those don’t intersect with those of dominant groups in a community.
  • Learning is relational, particularly for children, who often view their CS learning through the frame of their friendships and family.
  • CS can support identity work, linking computation to a process of self-authoring narrative identity in sociocultural ways, but it requires many things, such as psychological safety around identity.

After a luxurious lunch with a colleague and wonderful chat with another about how to make space for challenging conversations in CS, I helped facilitate two birds of a feather sessions. The first was on disability (organized by AccessComputing) and the second was on neurodiversity (organized by my fabulous PhD student Mara Kirdani-Ryan. Throughout both, there were so many powerful ideas present:

  • Everyone is unique, and recognizing that rather than making assumptions about identity, ability, and experience is central to everyone’s liberation and participation.
  • There are numerous barriers to progress around disability and neurodiversity, including stigma, fear of making “mistakes”, a general lack of literacy about ability, disability, and neurodiversity, and a lack of spaces to build community.
  • Powerful nuances about intersections between ability, race, ethnicity, religion, and more, and the need to account for all of these when talking about accessibility.

There were also many problematic ideas that surfaced:

  • Ableist ideas about needing to “fix” disabled people
  • Dated ideas about what autism is, grounded in stereotypes
  • Reductive quantitative characterizations of the autism spectrum

After a long reception of conversation and demoing my deliciously secret creative coding platform, Wordplay, I had a quiet evening in my room catching up on podcasts.

Susan accepts her award.

Friday — Teaching, Teachers, and Community

I started the morning with a wonderful cortado from Pilot Coffee Roasters in Union Station and a salty Tim Horton’s breakfast sandwich. I did a bit of prep for my talk, responded to a few time-sensitive emails, and listened to some quirky new tracks from M83.

The plenary covered a number of topics, including logistics, please for reviewer volunteers for next year, and then an award talk by the passionately committed Susan Rogers. She began by thanking an list of colleagues and students, then talked about her journey and her teaching. Throughout, she shared many powerful ideas:

  • So much of encountering computing in its earliest days in academia was accidental; her story reflected that.
  • A celebration of loving teaching, resisting academia’s extreme bias towards research over teaching.
  • The importance of entrepreneurship in pursuing visions of CS in K-12, where there is little infrastructure and much to build.
  • It is ridiculous that we continue to see having a PhD as sufficient qualification to teach in higher education

There were also some ideas she encountered in her life experiences that were more problematic, and created barriers to her participation:

  • Graduate schools should gatekeep around formal assessments and learning disabilities.
  • It’s okay that CS departments have no women faculty.
  • Ableist hiring practices that assume ability to travel, drop everything to interview.
  • It’s acceptable to burden new (women) faculty with difficult new preps that senior faculty don’t want to do
  • Only centering for-profit applications to motivate students.

Perhaps the most problematic idea, which I felt was more implicit in people’s choice of when to applause, was the idea of celebrating overcoming all of these barriers without discussing the injustice of the barriers themselves. Susan should absolutely be recognized for persistence through all of these broken systems, but we can’t ignore the fact that the only reason she had to persist through these systems was because they were unfair, sexist, ableist, and more. And they still are — so praise without discussion of these ever present inequities is problematic. To be clear, I don’t blame Susan for not raising these: people have a right to their own evolving narratives — but the community has too long been imbalanced in its conversations about equity, celebrating persistence through inequity but not resistance, progress, and change.

After the plenary, and a short break, I went to my session to present our experience report on planning and launching STEP CS, our new pre-service CS teacher education program. The papers, all of which looked at primary and secondary education from a systems level to a degree, embodied several important ideas:

  • There may mathematical and language skills that primary level programming depend on, at least when using Scratch.
  • Some CS self-efficacy differences appear to be gendered at the primary level.
  • Most of what we know about primary is grounded in youth experiences with Scratch.
  • There are an overwhelming myriad of resources need to enable capacity for primary and secondary CS education, ranging from HR, funding, policies, standards, curriculum, pedagogy, school culture, and community culture.

There were also some problematic trends the work revealed:

  • Interpretation of correlation as causation
  • Limited interpretability of ceiling effects on measures of self-efficacy

After my session, I had a long lunch with a colleague, then went north to meet up with a colleague at the University of Toronto Information School to strategize on how to help radicalize and awaken more folks in CS to systems of power and oppression.

I then returned to the SIGCSE business meeting for some community advocacy. There were a lot of issues raised, many of which had implicit ideas that were problematic:

  • Deprioritizing the needs of those who can’t travel in favor of the needs of those who can.
  • Delegating the very hard problem of reimagining incentives around peer review to overwhelmed steering committees with little capacity to make change.
  • Limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion work to communication and diversity chairs rather than bold systemic changes in structures, processes, and policies.
  • Segregating online participation from in-person participation rather than reconsidering budget priorities to sustain hybrid participation.

(For those on the board and steering committees, thank you for the service and for being open to feedback. I know how hard it is to make change in your positions — I’ve been there myself. I hope you’ll look to those on the margins for the best ideas and courageously implement them, lest we continue to systematically narrow participation.)

After the business meetings, I had a gloriously queer evening, talking about the desperate need for more discoverable queer community in CS and CS education. If you’re feeling that too, reach out to me, and let’s do something about that.

Nichole on stage in a blazer in front of a large white screen.
Nichole kicks off her talk.


In the morning, I chaired the second TOCE sister session, which had two papers, one led by Maya Israel on universal design of learning and disability, and one led by Ethel Tshukudu. Ethel was unable to attend due to ACM and Canadian visa delays, and so I offered to share Ethel’s work on her behalf. The session was rich with important ideas:

  • The importance and challenging work of examining positionality in allyship work for students with disabilities and the global south.
  • The risk of saviorism, but also withdraw, in trying to find ways of supporting progress.
  • The often unspoken but ever present role of colonialism in shaping our actions, teaching, materials, resources, and support.

I recommend reading Ethel’s paper for examples of the effects of these forces on a global scale.

After the session, I went to the closing plenary to hear Nichole Pinkard talk about opportunity landscaping for healthy learning communities. She does this work with a large team from across Chicago, but has explored contrasts between Chicago and Silicon Valley. Nichole started with her positionality as a Black woman who often grew up feeling like the only of her kind, and then finding her way to Stanford to study CS. Her talk focused on how to create trusted learning opportunities in communities. Her work has surfaced several important ideas:

  • Examining youth’s entire learning ecologies, including their identities and experiences at home, in school, and out of school all have to be central in imagining communities.
  • Geography, and how transit and demographics are layered upon it, is a crucial systems lens on what is possible in shaping learning communities.
  • It can be helpful to think about shared conversations to develop shared commitments about what youth should learn as a kind of “soft” infrastructure that lives in the minds of a community and evolves through shared discourse.
  • Systems and historical views of equity work in learning enable more explicit analysis of how systemic racism is woven through communities, structures, and activities today.
  • Don’t underestimate the need to build capacity through training, growing a communities ability to grow itself.

Dr. Pinkard’s talk was an exemplary articulation of how central identity, context, power, and relationships are in making meaningful change in a community (and secondarily how much such change can teach us about making change more broadly). Alas, placing this at the end of the conference instead of the beginning was tragic; it would have been such a more powerful way to kick off our conference this week, as fun as space travel can be.


Has anything really changed? Yes and no. When I think back to ten years ago, the change really has been dramatic: most of the equity and justice topics above just simply had no place at SIGCSE: reviewers rejected them, education researchers weren’t here, and nearly everything was about tinkering with CS1 assignments and assessments. All of that discourse is still here, and the community still has a strong bias toward recognizing and rewarding that narrowly conceived work, but the amount of discourse here about equity, justice, identity, and systems is dramatic on the ten year scale.

Of course, none of this is enough. All of this should have been central decades ago, and still isn’t, because the dominant groups in our community, mostly white cis men and women, have disregarded and deprioritized the need. To all those fighting to make more space in computing education for all of these ideas, keep fighting. You’re why this change has happened, and I’ll be there right along side you making sure that the next 10 years is even more dramatic.

And if you haven’t been part of this change, start examing your feelings about some of the ideas above that I labeled as problematic. If you don’t see why they are, what can you read that would give you the literacy to understand why there are? How can you reallocate your time to make room for that learning? How can you network with others who are learning to grow your literacy and move from barrier to ally to co-conspirator in creating a more just world of learning and teaching about computing? If all of that sounds overwhelming and intimidating, it should be; it’s no less than completely replacing your worldview with one of ignorance with one of humility, action, and continual growth.

But don’t worry: I’ve been there myself, and continue to be, since this work takes a lifetime. And what could be more apt than centering our learning in a community about learning? Let’s be proud of where we are in 2033, and get started today.



Amy J. Ko
Bits and Behavior

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.