COVID-19 brings challenges and opportunities for CS students with disabilities

For Caleb Root, computer science was an outlet for his creativity from the beginning.

The incoming high school senior is a student at The Career Academy, a hybrid program based on a collaboration between Lincoln Public Schools, in Lincoln, Nebraska and Southeast Community College. He’s about to start his final year in the school’s information technology path, where he’s learning about coding languages, web development, mobile apps, and application development in multiple operating systems. The two-year-long program allows students to earn college credit while still in high school.

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Caleb working through Code.org’s accessible AP CS Principles curriculum in 2019. The course inspired Caleb to continue studying computer science.

“It’s very high reward, and very interactive,” says Caleb, noting that the Code.org’s CS Principles course he took his sophomore year inspired him to pursue computer science and later enroll in The Career Academy program. “You can do lots of projects the way you want to, and create all kinds of software, games and anything else you can imagine.”

Caleb loves creating interactive games and puzzles and he is already a skilled developer, but his journey in computer science education has been different from many of his peers. Caleb is visually impaired, and uses a variety of tools and programs to help him bring the virtual worlds he envisions to life on the screen.

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A screenshot from one of Caleb’s games built using Quorum. The character must navigate through the cityscape and avoid hitting the boxes. Quorum is designed to be accessible for individuals who are blind and use a screen reader technology. It is used by many schools for the blind to teach programming.

He codes in part using a specialized programming language called Quorum, which is specifically designed for students with visual impairments and other types of disabilities, along with extra equipment such as monitors and text-enlargement software help him see the screen. He’s become a distinguished computer science student and an inspiration for other visually-impaired students in the district.

“Caleb is a role model for so many of my students,” says Ko Inamura, a teacher for the visually impaired for the past 26 years who worked closely with Caleb when he was in high school. “I have other students who will be following in his footsteps in our district.”

Accessibility in the time of school closures

Caleb and many other students with impairments around the country have learned to adapt to a programming world that wasn’t initially designed for them, but things became more complicated when COVID-19 disrupted classrooms and schools around the country in March and April.

Teachers and districts were left scrambling to bring coursework and curricula online in a matter of weeks, and while the transition was undoubtedly difficult for students and teachers alike, it presented a special challenge for students with learning disabilities or impaired vision or hearing.

Dr. Brianna Blaser, a counselor and coordinator at the University of Washington’s DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center, says she heard from teachers in the spring about how computer science instruction was being pared down or cut when schools initially went remote. With so much uncertainty, some schools had placed an increased focus on subjects like reading, writing and mathematics.

The DO-IT ((Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Center at the University of Washington in Seattle promotes awareness and accessibility in computer science and other tech fields for people with disabilities. You can learn more about DO-It programs here.

“I wonder how much this is going on, particularly in high schools,” she says. “We are not sure how widespread this is — it seems to vary from state to state and from district to district.”

Students with disabilities account for 14 percent of the US public school population. In 2018–2019, more than seven million students received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. With that in mind, only 45% of schools nationwide offer computer science and just 11% of STEM bachelor’s degrees are in computer science, and students with disabilities are already less likely than their peers without disabilities to learn the subject.

These issues around accessibility, connectivity, and equity were amplified by the confusion caused by the first wave of COVID-19 school closures.

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Inamura, the teacher from Nebraska, said he was unable to teach his regular computer science courses under students’ IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals because they were considered “optional activities” unless they fit the temporary curriculum guideline hurriedly put forth by the district. Districts scrambled to adjust to legal requirements for educational responsibility in the wake of the unprecedented closures causes by COVID-19, and as a result Inamura could not continue teaching his courses because his district couldn’t guarantee that all students with an IEP had equal access with equal equipment to study the subject.

Fortunately, the situation was resolved by the first quarter of the 2020–2021 school year and now Inamura is able to teach computer science to students with visual impairments as long as they are listed in the student’s IEP.

These difficulties all come at a time when multiple studies have shown that computer science is much more than an “optional activity.” Six different studies show that students who study computer science perform better in other subjects, excel at problem-solving, and are more likely to attend college.

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There is growing evidence to support the idea that learning computer science and coding helps students far beyond the direct benefits of digital literacy or careers in tech.

With so much still much up in the air about what the new school year may look like, teachers, districts, and researchers are working harder than ever to ensure these students can continue learning computer science for the 20–21 school year.

“I’ve never been in this situation, and neither have my colleagues or the administrators,” Inamura says. “We’re all just trying to figure out what will work and how.”

Finding ways to continue studying CS

Despite the closures, many students and teachers have come up with ingenious solutions to keep learning.

For Caleb, the shift has meant creating a new schedule. His classes met weekly via Zoom, and continued through the end of the regular school year. He was also able to keep some of his visual aids, such as magnifying tools and extra screens.

“I have a system and I’m used to the new routine now,” he said in early June. His school year has since ended and he says he’s looking forward to continuing the final year of the program in the fall — however it may look.

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A test shape made by Caleb in a 3D modeling program. Caleb is interested in game design and practices making objects in 3D environments.

Amanda Rodda, a computer science and technology teacher at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash., says her school’s transition to online learning was largely successful. She used a combination of Zoom and Google Classroom to teach, both of which she says are accessible for students with visual impairments. The school also coordinated with teachers, staff, and paraeducators to drop off or mail materials, equipment, and WiFi hotspots to students who were scattered around the state.

“There’s been changes, and hiccups here and there, but we’re pretty much rolling along,” Rodda said in late May. “Our students are attending online class at least 80 percent of the time. We’ve got really good engagement numbers.”

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A student in Amanda Rodda’s class working on the Explore Performance Task as part of the AP Computer Science Principles curriculum in 2019. Rodda teaches at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash.

For others, the transition has been more complex. Sarah Ciras, a high school computer science teacher at the Landmark School in Beverly, Massachusetts, said many students at the school live on campus. The school’s 315 students all have some form of a language-based learning disability, and many require special equipment and devices to complete coursework and participate in class. When schools shut down unexpectedly, she said many students didn’t have time to grab their equipment or projects.

“We were on spring break and we just never came back,” she says. “I had students who were doing physical computing projects, and it was tough to figure out how to get their work to them.”

But despite the difficulties, the school was able to get projects and aid equipment to students who needed it most. Prior to the closure, her 16 students were largely working on their own self-directed projects, which ranged from game development using Python, to physical computing projects to tackle real-world problems, to building chatbots. That work was easy to transition online, and she also used email and Google Classroom to assign coursework and extra-curricular activities to her students.

One activity in particular, the Hour of Code Flappy Game, was a big hit with students beyond just her computer science classroom.

“I made a video on how to use the Hour of Code tutorials, and sent that out to the whole school as part of a big list of electives across all subjects,” she said. “One student in particular loved it. ‘Thanks so much for recommending this,’ they said!”

Looking ahead

The future of in-person classroom instruction remains unclear, but what has become clear is that we need to provide more opportunities for students with visual, auditory, or learning disabilities to learn computer science.

With support from Microsoft, which has made significant investments in accessible products and tools, we’re piloting their Immersive Reader tool and exploring ways we can make improvements across our site, tools and curriculum for computer science students of all abilities.

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A look at Microsoft’s Immersive Reader technology in action in a Code.org lesson.

We hope to share more developments soon!

Meanwhile, the team behind Quorum—the programming language used by Caleb and many thousands of other visually-impaired students—has submitted a proposal for funding to the National Science Foundation to create an accessible version of Code.org’s CS Discoveries curriculum. This effort comes on the heels of the group’s successful release of an accessible version of Code.org’s CS Principles curriculum in 2019, which was widely adopted and utilized by more than 100,000 users across the country in 2019.

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The Quorum team is led by Dr. Andreas Stefik at the University of Nevada and Dr. Richard Ladner at the University of Washington. The team received a Champion of Computer Science Award for their work in 2018.

Dr. Andreas Stefik, an associate computer science professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas who helped develop Quorum, says the group is in the early stages of creating the curriculum and hopes to hear if they’ll receive funding to continue the work before the end of 2020.

“All of us are really hoping this gets funded somehow, so we can get cracking on it,” he says.

Above all, despite the rapid shifts and changes in what the classroom looks like, some students aren’t daunted by the prospect of continuing their computer science education. For them, computer science is a necessary tool to bring their visions to life.

“I love putting my ideas to action through computer science,” Caleb says. “Creativity is big.”

-Kirsten O’Brien, Code.org

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Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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