The failure to drive inclusion in technical education today will have disastrous implications for our future. We are beginning to understand how unconscious biases become encoded in algorithms and datasets, resulting in poor decision-making by stakeholders and negative impacts for end users. Despite a total of 4.5 billion people currently connected to the internet worldwide, the tech industry continues to be less than representative of the users it serves.
Internationally, only 25 percent of professional computing positions are held by women, and this number has been steadily declining. This downturn is also being borne out in the university classroom–while 37 percent of computer science majors in 1984 were women, that number dropped to 18 percent by 2014.
Underrepresented people of color — including those who identify as black, Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and mixed-race — make up a very small percentage of the entire tech workforce in the United States. Among Airbnb, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, underrepresented women of color do not make up even 10 percent of each of these companies’ respective employee populations.
There are real consequences for continued innovation in the tech sector if employees do not map to population demographics. As educators, we can increase diversity in tech through making technical education more accessible and inclusive. Consciously structuring equitable approaches into our institutions can lead to better outcomes for students and the technology they will build in the future.
In order to achieve these goals, here are four potential avenues to explore to ground your approach to inclusion when collaborating with stakeholders at your institution.
1. Refrain from making knowledge assumptions.
Making assumptions about students’ experience and existing knowledge can cause unintended consequences for learners in the classroom. While some students may have learned technical skills like programming prior to entering college, the majority of high schools do not teach computer science. Considering the growing population of those in the United States who do not have access to broadband at home but own a smartphone, many of those attending college today will not have had home access to laptop and desktop computers.
Educators must ensure that they are not making assumptions about access to resources (like computers and broadband) as well as knowledge (like computer science basics). In order to mitigate pre-existing expectations, educators should consider working together across a team when developing curricula and other course content. Collaborating on lesson plans with colleagues who have different and diverse experiences can begin to drive a more inclusive approach to pedagogy.
Additionally, faculty and administrators should think about ways to partner specifically with students, especially those who have recently completed a class or major. Understanding where they may have experienced challenges or learning about other coursework that may have resonated with them more can help to inform course development in the future. If your institution can make use of undergraduate or graduate TAs in the classroom, ensuring that TAs are representative of the student population can lead to successful outcomes as well.
2. Encourage interdisciplinary exploration.
Often in higher education, we find that departments exist as their own sustainable communities without extensive communication and collaborative knowledge-sharing across fields. This may be the result of how professional organizations measure success across disciplines, or in response to historical divisions across campuses. Regardless of the reason, students who may find avenues into technology through the social sciences, the bench sciences, or the humanities may not have the opportunity to do so if there is not enough interdisciplinary exchange.
There are some scholarly spaces that are interdisciplinary by design, such as the digital humanities, which benefit from connecting researchers across fields. As an area of scholarly inquiry, the digital humanities bring together computation and traditional humanities disciplines, and in some programs, the social sciences as well. Studies have shown that female students respond more to fields that include collaboration and social impact, so either demonstrating how the computer sciences have a human element, or combining the computer sciences with the humanities and social sciences can support women in deepening their interest in technology.
These findings have borne out in my own experience. In the MIT Digital Humanities Lab, where I completed postdoctoral research, we found that working across disciplines increased diversity in terms of both gender and race. Offering undergraduate research opportunities (including those that were funded), the lab drew from MIT’s student population with experience in Python programming to apply their knowledge to humanistic research. Our inaugural cohort consisted of over 80 percent female students (from a computer science population of only 40 percent female students), and nearly double the percentage of underrepresented minority students than there are at MIT as a whole.
The open-source software we shipped supported humanities scholars, and the public nature of both the software and our findings energized students as they could understand how their code made an impact in the world. The software also benefited from the diverse backgrounds of those building it, allowing for innovative solutions to the research problems we were working to solve.
3. Make educational resources accessible.
A common challenge in both the tech industry and educational spaces is ensuring that materials are accessible to those with disabilities and those who are neurodivergent. Following web guidelines for digital materials like online platforms or slide decks can help to ensure that teachers and instructional designers are taking others’ experiences into account. The A11Y Project and W3 provide documentation to support this important work. While not everyone may need to use a screen reader, have difficulty seeing colors, or need speech-to-text support, accessibility standards generally benefit everyone, including those without long-term disabilities.
For digital educational resources, performing user research with a diverse set of users will help to make sure that these materials are accessible to those with a wide range of experiences and abilities. Usability testing can benchmark how well students are understanding materials and allow teachers to design resources that meet students where they are so that they can focus on learning the material rather than spending time learning the tool that delivers the content.
4. Consider cultivating partnerships with industry.
Because innovation in the technology sector moves quickly, it can be challenging for faculty and others responsible for curriculum development to keep up with the pace of change. Fostering relationships with those who are working with cutting-edge technology can bolster fundamental curricula and provide students with real-world scenarios for their knowledge.
A number of institutions cultivate their own relationships with tech companies and other organizations outside of the education sector. Cornell Tech’s Studio curriculum, which includes Product Studio and BigCo Studio, connects graduate-level students with companies to collaborate on products and learn from professionals in their target field. The City University of New York is also working with industry advisors to inform data analytics and cybersecurity courses across seven campuses through collaboration with the Business Roundtable, a nonprofit association of CEOs.
Some local governments and other organizations are working to bring tech companies and educational institutions together, such as the NYC Tech Talent Pipeline, which creates dialogue between hiring managers and educators to provide resources for students looking for professional opportunities in tech.
For those who may not be served by their current institution or local governance, programs like the Spin Up, GitHub Education, and Major League Hacking help students and educators partner with companies either through the free educational use of their products or through resources like workshop kits and hackathon support.
While there is no perfect solution to drive inclusion for every institution, we owe it to our educational communities to do all we can to invite more learners into the technology space. By collaborating both internally and externally, we can eliminate the persistent barriers to entry that have contributed to broader social and economic inequities. It is almost impossible to overstate the transformative impact that recent technology has had on society, and as educators we need to make sure as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible have the opportunity to participate in building the innovations that will guide our future.