Privilege and CS1

With all of the recent discoveries about the unequal access of MOOCs, the bias in the lecture format, and access to computer science education in general, I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege.

One of the places that privilege crops up most in my environment is around undergraduate admissions. In The Information School’s Informatics program, for example, we try really hard to account for all of the sources of bias in our evaluations, in both our admissions form, our recruiting, and our decision processes. One of the most problematic part of our process, however, is our reliance on UW’s CSE 142 grades.

Now, UW’s CSE 142 is an amazing accomplishment in many ways. It’s one of a few departments making significant efforts and inroads into diversifying its student body, and doing so in a way that best leverages our university’s strengths. I commend everyone in CSE who not only innovates in broadening participation, but is developing sustainable practices for keep participation broad.

On the other hand, 142 is inescapably a “weed-out” course. There simply aren’t enough faculty to teach all of the students who want to be CS or Informatics majors, and so admissions committees rely heavily on student performance in 142 to predict future success in our programs. If we believe that the grades assigned in 142 reflect aptitude—and I believe they largely do—it seems entirely reasonable to use this as a significant factor in admissions.

And yet, if we dig deeper on what these grades actually reflect, I’m not convinced that introductory courses like 142 are really a fair test. The vast majority of students who succeed in the course came in with prior programming experience, and the access to this prior experience is highly privileged resource. The students who took a CS class in high school probably came from one of the few high schools in the United States that invests in computing education teachers and courses, which tend to be highly affluent. The students who had experiences from summer camps in middle and high school only enrolled because 1) they or their parents learned about them somehow, and 2) could afford the registration fees. For the students who were self taught, they needed 1) free time to learn, rather than work part time jobs, 2) access to the internet, and 3) someone to introduce them to the possibilities in computing. All of these are things that the vast majority of American’s don’t have.

There are some fantastic efforts to rectify these inequities. code.org, CS NYC, and even No Child Left Behind 2.0 are attempting to level the playing field. Until these efforts pay off, however, what do we do in the mean time? Is it reasonable to continue to just admit the mostly wealthy, mostly white and asian, and mostly urban students who succeed because of their prior exposure to computing? And if its not, is it really fair to exclude some students from these groups to make room for a more diverse cohort, even though the more diverse cohort has less practice?

I don’t know. The U.S. Supreme Court seems to have an opinion on the matter, at least for college admissions broadly. But at some point, we need to have a serious discussion about the balance between likelihood of success in our programs, the diversity of our workforce, and the more advanced types of teaching that it might take to achieve both.

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