Accessibility in Computer Science Education

I am currently exploring the ISTE Standard for Coaches that focuses on Digital Learning Environments.  Part of this standard focuses on how technology coaches can use technology to maximize the learning of all students.  This led me to an introspection on how my school makes instruction accessible to our computer science students.

Disabled students commonly report that they feel they have to work harder than other students because they have to manage both their disability and their study. (Seale et. al, 2014)

I had two recent experiences on this topic in my classroom.  The first experience involved a student that requested different furniture than what is offered in the classroom.  I teach a 3-hour programming language course in the largest classroom that has 6 tables with 6 positions at each table, each with a desktop computer, keyboard and mouse.  The student requested an adjustable height table and an ergonomic chair with a desktop computer, keyboard, and mouse.  My school delivered the furniture before the first day of class.  However, the furniture was placed at the side of the classroom, separate from the other tables, and without a good view of the projector screen.  The student ended up sitting at one of the 6 standard tables, allowing more interaction with other students and a better view of the screen.  We got along in the class by taking frequent breaks.

Accessibility - sight, touch, hearing, and mind

“a11ylogo500”by Terrill Thompson is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

My second experience involved an email exchange with a prospective student three days before classes started.  The student is not able to attend in person any of the classes due to a disability, and wanted to know if it were possible to take my course completely online.  The student’s disability did not allow for more than about 20 minutes of study before having to take a break.  Unfortunately, my course required that quizzes, midterm, and final exams be taken in class, with the midterm and final taking more than an hour to complete.  With some work, I could have changed this, but did not have enough time to make these changes for this particular course due to the short notice.  The student ended up dropping my class before classes started with no financial impact.

These experiences had me wondering how my department measures up in terms of accessibility.  My school has an accessibility policy which focuses mostly on making course content accessible in our Learning Management System and providing student services like the ergonomic request in my first experience mentioned above.  The policy is applicable to all departments at my school.  However, the policy does not provide any department specific policies, particularly for STEM instruction.

Despite an increased national focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) instruction, students with disabilities continue to struggle with STEM content at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels. As a result, very few students with disabilities pursue STEM careers. (Basham & Marino, 2013)

A fellow student (thanks, Christine) pointed me to a terrific blog on How to Support Students with Disabilities in Higher Education.  This site makes the following five recommendations for improving accessibility in higher education institutions.

    1. Create a sophisticated office of accessibility with resources for students.
    2. Develop a university-wide training program for faculty and staff.
    3. Increase accessibility to instructional material and technology.
    4. Develop a peer program for students with disabilities.
    5. Build out a specific support program to accommodate different ways of learning.

These recommendations support a resource I came across in the past from the University of Washington called the Center for Universal Design in Education.  I did not have time to explore this site at the time, but I remembered that the site divided up accessibility resources into four categories:

    • instruction
    • student services
    • information technology
    • physical spaces

My school does provide accessibility support for several of these categories, particularly in student services and physical spaces.  However, even in these areas, the implementation sometimes falls through the crack.  This is evident in my first experience described above in which the student made a request for ergonomic furniture.  The school came through with the furniture, but the placement and arrangement of tables in the classroom did not meet the student’s needs.  I intend to work with student services in the future to make sure that appropriate changes are made to the classroom to support similar requests.

The two categories in which accessibility support is lacking in the computer science department at my school are information technology and instruction.  In the second experience mentioned above, the student had requirements in both of these areas that are not met at my school.  Several of the resources provided by my school’s Information Technology (IT) department require physical presence at the school.  For example, many of the computer science courses require specialized software that may not be available on student’s home computers.  My school provides several computer labs with all the required software installed.  However, these computers are only accessible on the school’s local area network.  My school does provide a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access the school’s local area network, but VPN access is only available to faculty, not students.  Finally, to access the lab computers, students would also need remote desktop functionality.  Although the lab computers have the remote desktop software installed, the remote desktop service is not available to either faculty or students, and is used by information technology personnel to maintain the hardware.  I am in a dialog with our IT department to open up access to both VPN and Remote Desktop to all faculty and students.

The category of instruction is the last area I investigated.  I found that much of the work in this category falls on my shoulders.  Specifically, disability or not, I have found that my students have very different needs in learning computer science concepts and programming languages.  Simply put, students learn and solve problems in very different ways.  This led me to a exploration of neurodiversity in the classroom.  The article ‘Valuing differences: Neurodiversity in the classrom’ (Rentenbach et. al., 2018) provided me some interesting ways to shake up my class room to make it more useful to a broader range of students.

“Solving puzzles in brain”by lifeonroll is licensed under CC CC0 1.0

Specifically, I have found that the traditional ‘sit and get’ or ‘sage on stage’ teaching approach is not very effective with most of my computer science students.  I have tried in the past to ‘flip’ my classroom by having students read textbooks or view lectures at home and come into class prepared to solve a programming assignment that is typically given as homework.  The shortcoming of this approach is that a large percentage of students simply do not read the textbook or view the lecture before coming to class, thinking that they can do it shortly before class or during class.  This ultimately leads to an unproductive classroom.

I consulted my fellow computer science faculty at my school to see if they had similar experiences.  I found that several instructors were exploring ‘flipped’ classroom techniques, and were using different technologies to solve problems similar to what I experienced.  Specifically, the instructors were asking students to use interactive textbooks and coding web sites at home in order to prepare for class.  Each of these resources require students to take quizzes or do coding assignments.  These resources provide the instructor a simple way to see whether students have passed the quizzes and completed the coding assignments.  I am working with three other instructors at my school to form a faculty learning community to explore such tools and investigate how we can simplify the implementation of these technologies across our different classrooms.


3 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Hi Nat,
    Your paper brings up an essential issue on accessibility. In my school, we also have this problem that most of the resources teachers required students to use are not available at home because of the VPN. Teachers and IT department must collaborate to find out some helpful interactive textbook or resources can help students to show their learning progress on specific content. Also, I like your idea of building a community with other faculties to find a way to implement technology into different classrooms to support student learning.

  2. Nat- After reading your blog post I feel as if accessibility is a bigger issue than most schools let on. Teachers like yourself are beginning to make a difference by looking at the situation through a different point of view. You began with how you can make your classroom more accessible to students and are now branching out further into the computer science department. I praise you on all of your hard work and dedication to making a change in your school! Through your research I am now reflecting on how accessible my school is and ways I can begin making my classroom (possibly my school) more accessible to families. Thanks for sharing!

  3. It is so important to be aware of what is working and what is not in education and accessibility is a crucial part of the heart of education. The steps you are taking to fix these issues at your school are so important and trying things out and determining what will be the best fit is problem solving at its best! I love that you are collaborating with other teachers and fine tuning strategies, like flipped classrooms, so that they work better for all learners. The interactive textbook sounds really cool, too! …and I am so glad that blog was helpful, yay!

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