Access and Inclusion in K-12 CS Education: Inclusive Mindsets and Pedagogical Practices

I began my career as a special education teacher, and I was doing work around developing games and technologies to support engagement and learning for students with disabilities. We were doing participatory design studies and including students, many of whom had disabilities, in these efforts. At some point I had this “Aha” moment, where I started to shift from “Why is it that we are designing for students?” to “Why don’t we start to consider how to support the instruction of kids in computer science in developing technologies?” And now, many years later, I find myself in a department of computer science education and educational technology.

The work that I’m going to share is done in collaboration with a lot of very talented faculty, teacher educators, doctoral students, postdocs, and staff.

My primary goal is actually three goals: I look at access, I look at participation, and I look at learning of all students, including students with disabilities.

I want to position this information in terms of the larger discussion around K-12 computer science for students with disabilities. The first area is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the IDEA. It’s an educational entitlement law that essentially provides a right to a free and appropriate public education — FAPE — in the least restrictive environment. When it comes to special education services in K-12, we have this assumption that there is a range of instructional approaches that are individualized, and that students should be in what we call the “least restrictive” environment.

It doesn’t mean that everybody is, all the time, in a general education setting. It means that we have this continuum from all day, every day in this general education classroom all the way through residential programs, hospital programs, and so forth.

What does it mean when I think about computer science education in K-12 from the perspective of equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency?

Students with disabilities are a very wide range of learners, so equality of opportunity is going to look different. Full participation will look different. What does it mean to have this goal of independent living and economic self-sufficiency? It pushes me to think about everything I do from these four areas.

Another area of law that’s impacting students with disabilities is the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, specifically Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These laws essentially prohibit discrimination; they are civil rights laws. This is where a lot of students receive accommodations. They may not qualify for services under the IDEA, but access, accessibility, and accommodations come from these legislations.

It is very difficult to actually get the numbers of how many students with disabilities are receiving services and supports in U.S. schools.

According to the latest statistics we have from the IDEA, it’s about 7.2 million students: roughly 15% of the learner population. It’s much harder to know how many students are receiving accommodations and supports under Section 504 of the ADA. I’ve seen everything from 1.5 to 2.3 million, but that is a difficult number, and it makes the work of trying to understand the level to which kids with disabilities are receiving computer science really complicated when we don’t have these numbers.

In terms of who the learners are, the largest category is students with learning disabilities, about 33%. Then, we have students who have speech and language impairment, which is about 19% of kids in public schools. “Other health impairments” is about 15%. Then, autism and autism spectrum disorders are around 12%. From there, we have other categories with fewer learners.

It’s important to note that even though we have the least restrictive environment, for most students with disabilities, that is considered the general education setting. That gives an overview of who we are talking about, at least in terms of learners with identified and disclosed disabilities.

  • 7.2 million students with disabilities are receiving support services
  • 33% are students with learning disabilities
  • 19% are students with language impairment
  • 12% are students with autism and autism spectrum disorders

One of the primary approaches we take in our lab is to look at systems change in three ways. The first is in our research, and much of that research happens with our practice partners, with the school personnel. Second, we think about implementation with our practice partners, and third, advocacy that comes out of that research and implementation.

What’s important here is that many of the research questions we have around participation come from our implementation work, from our practice partners. Then, we are able to work with them to design research studies to come up with the questions, to come up with the interventions, and then we implement them, and we learn. Our aspiration is to have this research-to-practice loop, where we’re co-constructing knowledge together. So, our research is informing practice, our practice is informing research; our ideas are all coming together that way. Then, we use the knowledge that we co-construct to work on advocacy as well, and to work on systems change.

When I talk about the research, it’s going to seem very, very basic, because I feel like we are just scratching the surface. But I wanted to start with some of the big questions I have.

One of the major questions I have is around the intersectionality of disability, gender, socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, culture, and the interplay in terms of K-12 computer science education.

I’m also interested in how we provide professional development in an effective way to a broad range of folks who work with students with disabilities: general education teachers, special education teachers, parent educators, and so forth.

I have a lot of questions about how to encourage student voices to guide intervention development so that we’re not doing to kids, we’re working with kids and families. And I have lots of questions about effective practices. We come up with a lot of interventions. So, which ones have the biggest impact on learning, and for whom?

I’m interested in performance gaps. This becomes complicated once we start to say it’s very hard to identify who the learners are. So, actually understanding performance gaps becomes really difficult at scale.

And then also, how do we change mindsets? This is a very important and difficult question too. We all have our own biases. We all have our own ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t belong. Those are shaped from our own experiences. So, how we change mindsets is an important question that I have.

Enter one of our projects: It’s called UDL4CS, and it is a research practice partnership. We think about how to develop professional development materials. How do we collaborate on data collection and analysis? It’s called UDL4CS, so universal design for learning is about being proactive in how we design instruction to meet the needs of all learners.

Are students with different disabilities included in computer science coursework?

Asking this question allows us to dive pretty deeply into something that should be really, really simple, but it is difficult for us to actually get.

From that perspective, we don’t often think about, “This is an intervention for a student with a learning disability,” or “This is a support for students with autism.” We think about the functional needs of kids, and how we provide all of that within a classroom. But, there’s a tension here. We want to focus on the broad range of learners, and we talk about learner variability as the norm, rather than disability focus — but we have to acknowledge disability, and we have to collect data and look specifically at learners with disabilities within that. This tension is real, in terms of providing instruction for all and having a very specific focus on disability at the same time.

Those questions that I just mentioned — here is where we are in this work. Even though I want to be able to study learning, at this point we have no research about who participates in computer science education in K-12 at scale. It’s just not out there. It’s very difficult to get this information for a wide range of reasons. Confidentiality is one. Another one is, a lot of times, people don’t collect this information. So, we can’t find it. So, I have to start here.

Are students with different disabilities included in computer science coursework? It’s a yes/ no, looking at students from this perspective. Is this happening in different settings? Because we have this idea of least-restrictive environment, are students along the continuum also receiving computer science education? Asking this question allows us to dive pretty deeply into something that should be really, really simple, but it is difficult for us to actually get.

So, that’s where we are: we’ve collected some of this data.

Here is our next step. Not only is it hard to tell where students, or if students, are receiving computer science education, it’s also difficult to actually tell — even if they are enrolled — if they are actually receiving computer science education. Because oftentimes, a student might be enrolled in a class that has computer science, but they may be pulled out for part of that time to receive services. Or there may be other reasons behind why a student may not have access to that course.

What we’re doing to be able to actually get this data is sending out a lot of surveys to teachers and asking them, “How many students in your CS class have IPs or receive supports under Section 504?” Then, of those, “How many of them are getting pulled out for some reason or another?” Those surveys are going out this fall.

We’re going to take the data we have in this particular setting, and others, to see the participation data, and then compare that with what teachers are saying. Then, the next step, and where I’m hoping we’re going to get — but we’re just not there yet — is that ultimately, we need to know whether instruction in computer science is actually resulting in learning gains for students with disabilities. We do this at a small scale with our intervention studies, but we have not done this at scale yet.

We know in other content areas that there are performance gaps — in math education, in science education, in literacy. Those performance gaps are very widely known and have been known for a long time, for multiple reasons. We suspect that is probably the case in computer science education, but we don’t know. So, being able to look at that at scale is super important. Again, it’s difficult to do, but we are hoping to get there.

That’s where we are in terms of the studies that we’re doing under the umbrella of universal UDL4CS. Earlier, I mentioned that this is a research practice partnership. The questions that are being asked were asked because they were important to our practice partners. That’s really important, to be able to inform them. None of this is happening in isolation.

So, “Are students with disabilities taking CS? Yes? No? Maybe? It’s complicated?” When we look at all kids — and we put all kids with disabilities into a single category, and we compare them to students without disabilities — at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, there are differences in participation, but they’re not extreme.

Let me back up by saying that in this particular setting, there is a CSforAll initiative.

For students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, the aim is to have everybody have access to computer science education.

At the elementary level, it’s much more integrated into regular instruction. As children move into middle school and high school, it becomes much more of an opt-in to computer science. So it’s not surprising that there is a decrease from elementary, to middle, to high school. It’s also not surprising that we’re seeing these differences between students with and without disabilities.

This is what happens when we lump everybody together, but what happens when we disaggregate the data and we look at kids of different disability types? Earlier I mentioned the largest categories of students with disabilities: learning disabilities, speech/language, other health impairment, and autism. In looking at some of these high-incidence disabilities, it’s a little different when we don’t lump all kids together. When we look at students with learning disabilities, they’re doing pretty well at the elementary school level, but then there are some pretty significant drops from middle school to high school. But when we look at students with autism, or we look at students with emotional behavior disorders, the story is a little different too. So, we can’t lump all students with disabilities into the same category. That’s one of the other things that I’m hoping is acknowledged in this work.

In looking at some of the students with some of what we call low-incidence disabilities, though we don’t have as many numbers, it’s still important to look at their participation. So, we put some categories together here, though we do not lump students together in our data.

If we look at students who are deaf, have deafness/blindness, or a hearing impairment, their profile looks very different, for example, from students with intellectual disability, or students with multiple disabilities. In looking at this data, what does it mean for a student who, for example, has a visual impairment? They are participating, but what does that look like?

Taking this data, and then asking what happens when we put in race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, gender, is where we’re going next, and that is data we are currently analyzing.

Let’s now ask another question: Is this happening the same in different instructional settings? Typically, students with disabilities are taught in the general education setting. There are different models, too. There is co-teaching, when you have a computer science teacher and the general education teacher working together with the special education teacher, and they’re all responsible for all the students learning. Another model is students who are generally taught in the general education classroom but are pulled out for part of the day to receive some intensive supports. In another model, students are receiving all of their education in what we call “self-contained settings,” primarily with a special education teacher. All of these are happening in regular schools as well.

“Does computer science education meet everybody’s needs across all these settings?” is another question that we ask — and no, it doesn’t.

In co-teaching settings, things are looking pretty good. Students who have both a special education teacher and a general education teacher primarily throughout the day are receiving computer science education.

For students who are in self-contained settings, and students who are receiving resource room support for at least part of their day, things look a little
different. This is what I mean when I say that it’s a little complicated.

Let’s look at what we’re doing about this. Of course, we’re working together. We are going to talk about a couple of models. I’m actually going to just mention them very briefly, and then go into our intervention.

One of them is to look at where the issues are, and what we can do at the systems-change level, at the school level, and at the classroom level.

Another way to do this is to think about it from this multidimensional approach. Thinking about a school at the organization level: Is there time for planning?

At the academic level: Are there tools available in the school that are accessible? It doesn’t matter how engaging and how universally designed instruction is — if the tools are not accessible, then the students cannot actually learn computer science.

At the assessment level: Are the assessments actually measuring students’ strengths, and not just their deficits?

At the social level: Are students with disabilities proportionally included? Do they feel like they belong?

In terms of UDL4CS, we’re creating professional development materials and case studies, and we’re sharing strategies across our partnerships. The hope is that these materials can be used across different settings, so those working on professional development or doing teacher preparation, and looking at how to do those from a universally designed perspective, will have those resources available to them.

One of the things we’ve created is an interactive table of universal design for learning. UDL is predicated on three principles: multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. Within each one of those we’ve recorded some videos, and we’ve also put in some strategies.

We have identified four areas with our practice partners: an introduction to inclusive computer science, advocacy, frameworks, and instructional practices. We have it by grade level, resource type, and the CSTA teacher standard. For example, you could go into “Introduction,” and filter through a curated list of resources.

That’s UDL4CS. The idea is to provide professional development that also includes students with disabilities. It’s an important piece of the work.

Now I’m going to describe another project. Whereas UDL4CS is very much focused on professional development and building professional development resources, Time4CSforAll is focused on how we design curriculum for teachers to implement that takes project-based learning — in this particular case, it’s science and computer science at the elementary level focused on project-based learning — and embed universal design for learning and culturally responsive pedagogy right into that.

We’re looking into the extent to which these are usable by teachers. This is also a research practice partnership involving Broward County Public Schools, the University of Chicago, and the Outlier Center. The first thing we did was take the eight elements of project-based learning and align them with different components of universal design for learning and culturally responsive pedagogy. We are developing an interactive crosswalk that will include each one of the project-based learning components, along with checkpoints to consider how to embed universal design for learning and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Next, we created our unit with lesson plans. We took these elements, and we embedded them right into the lesson plans. So, every single lesson plan we have has something called an “equity spotlight.” In that spotlight is the range of UDL and CRP approaches that we want to call out to the teachers.

It’s important to note we are not asking the teachers to do the crosswalk themselves. It’s a pretty heavy lift to be able to look at frameworks and embed those in lesson plans, and then teach those lesson plans. We have done a lot of this work for the teachers.

The lesson plans are being tested right now. But in addition to the crosswalk, we have created some videos that have a lot to do with our invasive species unit but can be generalized.

Our first video is just an introduction to the curriculum. The second video is about inclusive frameworks — universal design for learning and culturally responsive pedagogy, and how we see that in this integrated approach.

The others are specifically tied to the different project-based learning steps. For those doing work in project-based learning and thinking about how to design proactively in a way that is more inclusive, hopefully these videos will be helpful. The lessons should be up after our treatment control study ends. Look for the website to grow.

I have talked about research, and I have talked about implementation. I want to actually get to some of the advocacy work that comes out of this. Essentially, we are trying to inform our advocacy work based on both what we know from our research and from our practice.

We have to acknowledge it is not one-size-fits-all. Within my lab, there are a lot of areas of advocacy. We look at four areas, because we can’t do it all.

  1. First, we do work on technology accessibility. This involves demanding that technology companies that design technology for children in K-12 design with accessibility in mind. Because, as I said earlier, all these amazing instructional practices that our fabulous teachers are doing don’t matter if the tech is not accessible.
  2. Teacher professional development (PD) and teacher preparation. Within the PD that is being developed in computer science education, within all the new computer science teacher preparation programs, to what extent are those programs actually thinking about CSforAll that includes students with disabilities? We have some advocacy work there, and some education work — insisting that, when we look at our PD that is provided to teachers in our teacher preparation, we really are thinking about all kids.
  3. Our curricular resources. Many of the teachers we work with are not designing their own lessons. They are using curriculum that is adopted by their school district or that they’re finding on websites. So, working with these curriculum developers to focus on inclusive practices within their curriculum as well is another area of advocacy we are involved with.
  4. Thinking about the students themselves, and their family, and making sure that they have a voice and a place at the table in this work. There is a saying, “Nothing about us without us,” that comes out of the disability advocacy community. It’s really important that, if we’re doing work related to learners with disabilities and their families, they be at the table. So, we want to make sure that folks who need to be at the table are at the table at the decision-making stages — at all decision-making stages.

I’m going to just share, for closing, what we are doing within our teacher preparation program here at the University of Florida. We’ve been working on computer science education for the past three or four years. We focus on equity within these teacher preparation pathways, across all of them. We are also advocating for that to happen, not just with me in my classes, but everybody who is teaching within our program, just to make sure that we are all on the same page.

For example, we have an onramp that includes a microcredential for folks who are not necessarily going to be computer science teachers, but they want to learn about computer science.

We have microcredential programs for pre-service teachers. We also are developing some for in-service teachers. One of the ones we are starting to work on now, that hopefully will be ready by summer of 2023, is a microcredential related to access and inclusion in computer science education. It will be fully online, and anybody who is interested in it can take it and earn a badge in inclusive and accessible computer science education.

We teach two CS pedagogy courses for K-12 teachers. We embed inclusive practices within that: universal design for learning, high leverage practices, culturally responsive pedagogy, and translanguaging. Then, finally, we want to build a pipeline of teachers who are prepared to work with all students — students with disabilities — as part of that.

Not only are we working on the microcredential and students who are in our computer science certificate program, but we are also integrating computer science into the content areas with the same approach of thinking about inclusion. We are also hoping to develop our mentors who work with our teachers so that they are also thinking about it from this particular mindset.

To summarize, we started off thinking about how to improve access, how to improve participation, and how to improve learning for all learners, and including students with disabilities within this work. We are just scratching the surface here. This is a community of folks across the country, not just in our lab, who are doing this work. It is a pretty small community, but it is growing. We need more people to do the research, to do the implementation, and to do the advocacy for this together.

Maya Israel, PhD is an associate professor of Educational Technology and Computer Science Education at the University of Florida. She is also the Director of CSEveryone: The Kenneth C. Griffin CS Education for All Initiative as well as the Creative Technology Research Lab at the UF. Prior to entering higher education, Dr. Israel was a special education teacher. Her research focuses on strategies for supporting students with disabilities and other academically diverse learners’ meaningful engagement in computer science education through Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

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Magazine cover design for Volume 3: "The disability and accessibility issue" of re:think magazine, published by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and bearing the logo for The cover art features seven photo sections in a variety of bright colors showcasing the eyes of a diverse group of people, with the person in the middle wearing sunglasses.
In the third edition of re:think magazine, we turn to issues of disability and accessibility and how they relate to inclusion and the creation of inclusive cultures. Discussions of inclusion often focus on navigating “visible” differences between people, yet we must always be mindful of all the invisible identities people inhabit, and the importance of creating inclusive cultures across these identities.

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