All posts by Pati Ruiz

two VR goggles hang from hooks

Virtual Reality in K12 Education: A Reality Check

by Aditya Vishwanath

Aditya Vishwanath is a PhD candidate and Knight-Hennessy scholar in the Learning Sciences program at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. With his advisors Roy Pea and Jeremy Bailenson, Aditya researches the merits of immersive virtual reality for learning. He is also the co-founder of Inspirit, a 3D and VR lab platform that offers immersive simulations for STEM education.

It is Spring 2015, and schools around the country are being visited by colorful Subarus packed with new ‘Google Cardboard’ headsets: a virtual reality platform that promised to be affordable for classrooms around the world. We imagined the VR platform might be a killer app, which in the tech world means it would make a major impact and everyone would want it. It was called Expeditions and it offered a suite of 360-degree virtual ‘field-trips’ to almost anywhere on the planet, the moon, and inside the human body. I was lucky to be part of a project team from Georgia Tech in 2015 that brought Google Expeditions to a low-income after-school center in Mumbai. Our students and teachers were thrilled to visit the seven wonders of the world or explore a 3D rendering of the human heart with existing basic $30 Android phones and a standard 3G internet connection. Following this project, our team introduced Google Cardboard to a charter school in Atlanta, a Title I school near the Georgia-Tennessee border, and many suburban public schools. Again, more excitement from all involved!

Unfortunately, today, none of the schools we visited in India or the US use Google Expeditions, and our cardboard headsets mostly collect dust on the library shelf. It turns out that the field trips were too disconnected from the syllabi and lesson plans of the teachers. It is 2020, and in a pandemic-hit world where the stage was set for VR and apps like Expeditions to shine, why don’t we see use of this technology in classrooms or the home? What went wrong?

A few numbers: 81% of the USA owns a smartphone and recent statistics show that over 90% Americans live in an area that has access to 4G internet. Shouldn’t we, at the very least, expect to see some use of basic $10 Google Cardboard VR content in classrooms, given the amount of 360-degree field trip content available out there? Clearly, the challenge at hand is not limited to hardware and infrastructural costs of VR. Prices are rapidly falling and access to high-quality VR hardware is steadily improving. So what are some other bottlenecks beyond the technical and cost barriers that we would need to overcome to make VR mainstream in K12? And what can we learn from the Expeditions pilots?

Curriculum and standards alignment
Despite the proliferation of VR education content, there is still a gap between the everyday activities of the classroom and the suite of VR offerings out there. On the cusp of 2020, VR is still a very new medium. And there is still not enough K12 content available to incentivize a school, district, or classroom to invest in this technology. For most teachers, VR is that one-off underwater coral reef educational experience you used with your students in 2016, and now  the headsets collect dust on a shelf. To overcome this gap between content libraries and everyday classroom use, content creators will need to work with curriculum experts to better align content with standards, curriculum, and possibly even develop robust and flexible lesson plans that can support frequent (and meaningful) use.

Integrating pedagogy
VR is new, and with this, it carries a certain charm or ‘charisma’. Most people are overwhelmed by the very first time they experience VR, not because the underlying content experience was good, but because the experience was new. Novelty wears off. Will VR still stimulate the same curiosity and excitement it created the very first time? Scholars like Roy Pea and Chris Dede have demonstrated, through years of research on virtual environments, that designing experiences with sound pedagogical methods allow you to move past novelty. Implementing teaching and learning methods with VR will maintain engagement beyond the initial novelty-phase. Most teachers already know this from their experiences with other digital aids. Most experimental research with VR till date has occurred in expensive labs, often many degrees removed from the complexities of an everyday classroom. In the coming years, we need to witness more real-world VR deployments and studies alongside the rapid growth of VR-education companies.

Tapping into the unique capabilities of VR
Most content creators come to VR with the question,  “How can VR outperform video” but that is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask, “What can VR offer that is impossible to offer with video, or any other medium before VR?” Researchers such as Jeremy Bailenson have consistently advocated that tasks that are physically expensive, dangerous, or impossible to simulate or experience are ideal candidates for VR. It is critical that educators ask fundamental questions: how is VR uniquely adding value to the learning experience? What is it doing that cannot be accomplished by video or any other digital or non-digital learning aid? If we can develop these simple filters and then apply them, we’ll see that most of the unnecessary use-cases that are enamored by the glamor of VR will fall away and we’ll be left with a narrow but very powerful set of application areas that deeply promote learning.

Additionally, collaboration between practitioners, researchers, and developers is key. The VR technology expert needs to build bridges with the district administrator, school teacher, and student. Each group here has a unique area of expertise that will contribute to furthering the collective vision of making VR real for the classroom. We must also support more systematic experimentation grounded in theory with VR learning content in real-classrooms (or homes during remote learning periods) and not protected laboratory spaces to learn what really is needed and what will work.1
As costs keep falling, and as access to quality hardware rapidly improves, we are seeing VR increasingly enter K12 learning environments again. Oculus, which released the popular Quest headset last year, just announced a cheaper and more powerful Quest 2 headset a few weeks ago. Quests are among the first high-end non-tethered consumer headsets that are cheaper than the standard laptop or tablet in your average public school classroom (though there are concerning trends around forcing users to log in with a Facebook account, which will certainly slow down adoption). Is this the beginning of rapid adoption of VR in the classroom? Is VR now here to stay? Or is this another wave of optimism like Google Cardboard and Expeditions? The last thing we want is to build a virtual hammer and search for virtual nails.

Note: This article mostly centers the discussion around the use of mobile-VR and basic headsets, which offer no more than 3 degrees of freedom (or movement) in space (we call these 3dof headsets). Recent research has shown that these 3dof headsets do not necessarily offer any learning benefits besides improving engagement in the short term, and studies show conflicting findings2. Future work may need to focus on immersive, high-fidelity, headsets that offer more degrees of movement — 6dof and above. (Examples include the Quest, HTC Vive, and others.) Findings on training, learning, and learning transfer with these high-end devices are more promising, though there are practical considerations to keep in mind with these devices, since they can be bulky, non-portable, and expensive. This is also something to consider as we go forward.

Thanks, Aditya Vishwanath for sharing this post on VR in K12 classrooms. From CIRCL Educators we want to ask teachers and other practitioners, what are your thoughts on VR in the classroom? How does it work for your students? Do you use it? Why or why not? How does it work for students who have IEPs or physical disabilities? What do developers need to know? Tweet @CIRCLEducators and @Adi_Vish and let us know.

1One project that demonstrates collaboration was led by Laura Shackleford and colleagues: “Teaching social science through virtual reality and game-based learning”

2Makransky, G., Terkildsen, T. S., & Mayer, R. E. (2019). Adding immersive virtual reality to a science lab simulation causes more presence but less learning. Learning and Instruction, 60, 225-236.


Building Classroom Community through Trust

By Angie Kalthoff

Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and most relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well.

I recently participated in an informal conversation with other educators where we were discussing teaching and learning in a distance learning setting. Current teachers were sharing ice breakers and back to school activities that they were finding for their very different-than-normal back to school. I asked for resources around how to talk to kids about their current situations due to the state of the world. People are dealing with a lot of emotions right now. World events like a pandemic, wildfires, and social justice conversations around the murder of George Floyd are a lot for adults to digest. I can’t even imagine how children or teens are processing it all. In this conversation, no one had a resource to share that was specific to online learning but we did talk about Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. I learned about this book when I was a technology integrationist. Additionally CIRCL Educators has been focusing on it, and other books and topics related to social justice, bias in algorithms, techequity, and other anti-racist practices over the past few months.

In Ms. Hammond’s book, I learned about the importance of trust. Research shows that a positive relationship between students and teachers is crucial for students to reach their fullest potential. Of course! Ask any educator and they can talk to you about the importance of relationships and trust. I experienced this early on in my teaching career. But, if you would have asked me to explain why, I wouldn’t have been able to connect it to the research and history shared in this book. This phenomenon is rooted in our history, from the time when humans roamed the earth and started to live in communities to get protection from animals. From these experiences, it is thought that the brain created a social engagement system to ensure humans form communities, build trustful relationships, and work to maintain them. In this post I will present an introduction to help you understand how to use the research around neuroscience in your classroom to influence positive behaviors, discuss why we developed these systems, and how this relates to your classroom with a culturally responsive response in mind.

To start, if you are new to Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT), one of the questions I continually ask myself is “am I thinking of my students whose lived experiences are different than mine and what perspectives am I not thinking about?” in her books she focuses on  “How do I treat my students who are different from me? They could have a different skin color, they could speak a different language, they could have different abilities than I do, and have different lived experiences. And, am I building their self esteem or am I creating the positive affirmations that will benefit them in life outside of my classroom?” Ms. Hammond defines CTR as the process of using familiar cultural information and process to scaffold learning. She emphasizes communal orientation and focuses on relationships, cognitive scaffolding, and critical social awareness. 

I began my teaching career as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher in 2008. This title has now transitioned to Multi-Lingual and has also been referred to as English Language (EL) teacher and teacher to English Language Learners (ELL). Many of my students spoke more than one language and I appreciate the thought that has gone into the transition of the title. I learned a lot about teaching and the importance of relations early in my career. As a white teacher, who grew up in the MidWest, my background and lived experiences are very different than many of my students. While students in my classroom moved to Minnesota from all over the world, a large part of my student population came from refugee camps in Somalia. It was during this time I learned about the importance of building trust with students and families. I wish I had a resource like Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain but I didn’t. In this post, I will share specific research based practices that you can take into your classroom whether it is online in a virtual settings or in person in a physical building.

Neuroscience for Teaching Practice


When your brain feels safe and relaxed it sends oxytocin (the bonding hormone) out which in turn makes us want to build trusting relationships with the people we are engaging with. Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and most relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well. How does the brain know when to do this? In most people, the brain releases oxytocin when any of these actions happen:

  • Simple gestures
  • A smile
  • Nod of the head
  • Pat on the back
  • Touch of your arm

Affirmation in your school environment.

One way that you can bring this into your learning situation is through an affirmation. In the book, a study is described where a principal takes the time to greet each student by giving them her full attention, getting to their level, and offering a bow. Students in this study would light up based on this affirmation and respect, both figuratively and literally.

Mirror Neurons

When we are around others in that we have a trusting relationship with, mirror neurons may help  keep us in sync with them. Some researchers think mirror neurons help us have empathy with others. Additionally, they may help us make and strengthen bonds. Have you ever thought about why you smile when someone smiles at you? This action may be connected to the mirror neuron system. Early studies showed that mirror neurons mirrored what you see. For example, when we see a behavior such as smiling, mirror neurons in the region of our brain that relate to smiling activate. Some researchers believe that we also mirror the behavior we see by also performing the behavior (smiling in this example) and that this mirroring signals trust and rapport.

This section had me searching the Internet for more information and one analogy that often came up was “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” This makes me think about young children and babies. Have you ever had an interaction with a young one where they try to copy a noise, facial expression, or gesture, it may be related to the mirror system. You can watch this introductory video if you want to learn more. (It’s from early on when we were just starting to learn about mirror neurons, but it presents many questions that researchers are still investigating.) Note, the mirror system is fascinating but there is still much research to be done to fully understand it.

Mirror Neurons in your school environment.

While researchers are still learning more about how the mirror system works, many of the big ideas discussed are important for practice. We definitely have areas in our brains that help make us feel connected to others. It may well be that the synchronized dance of mirror neuron systems between people is what is responsible, or it may be something else. Regardless, there is no doubt that connections are related to feeling more relaxed and trusting — important for learning. As a teacher, it really is important to make a personal and authentic connection with your students.

To apply the research from this chapter and begin building a different kind of relationship there are two things you can start working on today that relate to empathy and connection; listening with grace and building trust.

To Listen with Grace

In chapter five there are a few examples of how to listen with grace. They include:

  • Give one’s full attention to the speaker and what is being said
  • Understand the feeling behind the words and be sensitive to the emotions being expressed
  • Suspend judgement and listen with compassion
  • Honor the speaker’s cultural way of communicating

I know we are all so busy that it’s hard to sometimes take the time to be fully present, but listening and connecting in whatever ways we can is even more important in the online space.

Trust Generators

In the book, Zaretta Hammond shares five ways to help create trust, I will discuss one of those, Selective Vulnerability. I chose Selective Vulnerability due to the state of the world we are living in as we live through a pandemic. Our lives and routines have changed. For many, this means taking what we have known as education and changing it drastically. Educators who have been teaching in classrooms for their whole careers are now expected to move to an online environment. Children who have benefited from the in person learning environment are now having to learn from a device outside of school. I think, as a learning community, we might all benefit from selective vulnerability. CIRCL Educator Sarah Hampton and I both agree that there is room to grow in being transparent with students in our own growing pains as learners.

Trust Generator: Selective Vulnerability

Definition: People respect and connect with others who share their own vulnerable moments. It means showing your human side is not perfect.

What It Looks Like: Sharing with a student a challenge you had as a young person or as a learner. Sharing new skills you are learning and what is hard about it. In either case, the information shared is carefully selected to be relevant. Think about who you are talking to and what you have in common. The goal here is to connect and show that you are a fallible human being. A student with a very different background may not be able to understand certain examples and there is the possibility that your example could alienate rather than build rapport.

As I mentioned before, one of the important questions in the book is “How do I treat my students who are different from me?” I think the focus of thinking about the perspective of the person in the interaction is so important. This year has brought so much for all of us to deal with, and as teachers, we need to know who we are talking to and what experiences have shaped them, so that we can work to make connections as a foundation for teaching and learning. If you want to dig deeper into listening with grace and building trust, Ms. Hammond has that and so much more in her book.

What do you think? Connect with us on social media @CIRCLeducators and share how you show affirmation to your students!

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Algorithms, Educational Data, and EdTech: Anticipating Consequences for Students

By Pati Ruiz and Amar Abbott

The 2020-2021 school year is underway in the U.S. and for many students, that means using edtech tools in a fully online or blended learning environment. As educators, it is our responsibility to consider how students are using edtech tools and what the unanticipated consequences of using these tools might be. Before introducing edtech tools to students, administrators should spend time considering a range of tools to meet the needs of their students and teachers. In a recent blog post, Mary Beth Hertz described the opportunities for anti-racist work in the consideration and selection of the tools students use for learning. Hertz identified a series of questions educators can ask about the tools they will adopt to make sure those tools are serving the best interest of all of their students. Two of the questions in Hertz’s list ask us to consider data and algorithms. In this post, we focus on these two questions and Hertz’s call to “pause and reflect and raise our expectations for the edtech companies with which we work while also thinking critically about how we leverage technology in the classroom as it relates to our students of color.” The two questions are:

  1. How does the company handle student data? and,
  2. Has the company tested its algorithms or other automated processes for racial biases?

To help us better understand the issues around these two questions, we will discuss the work of two researchers: Dr. Safiya Noble and Dr. Ruha Benjamin. This post expands on our previous post about Dr. Noble’s keynote address — The Problems and Perils of Harnessing Big Data for Equity & Justice — and her book, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. Here, we also introduce the work of Dr. Ruha Benjamin, and specifically the ideas described in her recent book Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.

Student Data

In order to understand how companies handle student data, we need to first consider the concept of data. Data are characteristics or information that are collected in a manner capable of being communicated or manipulated by some process (Wiktionary, 2020). In Dr. Noble’s keynote speech, she discusses the social construction of data and the importance of paying attention to the assumptions that are made about the characterization of data that are being collected. In her book, Dr. Noble shows how Google’s search engine perpetuates harmful stereotypes about Black women and girls in particular. Dr. Benjamin describes the data justice issues we are dealing with today as ones that come from a long history of systemic injustice in which those in power have used data to disenfranchise Black people. In her chapter titled Retooling Solidarity, Reimagining Justice, Dr. Benjamin (2019) encourages us to “question, which humans are prioritized in the process” (p. 174) of design and data collection. With edtech tools, the humans who are prioritized in the process are teachers and administrators, they are the “clients.” We need to consider and prioritize the affected population, students.


When it comes to the collection and use of educational data and interventions for education, there is much work to be done to counteract coded inequities of the “techno status quo.” In her keynote, Dr. Noble offered a list of suggestions for interventions including:


  1. Resist making issues of justice and ethics an afterthought or additive
  2. Protect vulnerable people (students) from surveillance and data profiling


Center Issues of Justice and Ethics

As described by Tawana Petty in the recent Wired article Defending Black Lives Means Banning Facial Recognition, Black communities want to be seen and not watched. The author writes:

“Simply increasing lighting in public spaces has been proven to increase safety for a much lower cost, without racial bias, and without jeopardizing the liberties of residents.”

What is the equivalent of increasing light in education spaces? What steps are being taken to protect students from surveillance and data profiling? How are teachers and students trained on the digital tools they are being asked to use? How are companies asked to be responsible about the kinds of data they collect?

Schools have legal mandates meant to protect students’ rights, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the U.S. and other policies that protect student confidentiality regarding medical and student educational records. Although a lot of forethought has gone into protecting students’ confidentiality, has the same critical foresight implemented when purchasing hardware and software?


In Dr. Noble’s keynote speech, she described the tracking of students on some university campuses through the digital devices they connect to campus Internet or services (like a Library or Learning Management System). The reasoning behind tracking students is to allocate university resources effectively to help the student be successful. However, in this article, Drew Harwell writes about the complex ethical issues regarding students being digitally tracked and an institutions’ obligation to keep students’ data private. So, before software or hardware is used or purchased, privacy and ethics issues must be discussed and addressed. Special energy needs to be dedicated to uncovering any potential “unanticipated” consequences of the technologies as well. After all, without the proper vetting, a bad decision could harm students.

Protect Vulnerable Students

Protecting vulnerable students includes being able to answer Hertz’s question: “Has the company tested its algorithms or other automated processes for racial biases?” But, even when the company has tested its algorithms and automated processes, there is often still work to be done because “unanticipated” results continue to happen. A Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley recently posted a tweet saying: “thanks to everyone who raised this. we tested for bias before shipping the model and didn’t find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing, but it’s clear that we’ve got more analysis to do.”

She was responding to the experiment shown below where user @bascule posted: “Trying a horrible experiment…Which will the Twitter algorithm pick: Mitch McConnell or Barack Obama?”

Twitter’s machine learning algorithm chose to center the white face instead of the black face when presented with where the white profile picture was shown on top, white space in between, followed by the black profile picture. But it did the same when the black profile picture was shown on top, white space in between, followed by the white profile picture.

A horrible twitter experiment with face recognition. The algorithm selects the white face regardless of placement

As we can see, the selection and use of tools for learning is complicated and requires balancing many factors. As CIRCL Educators we hope to provide some guidance to ensure the safety of students, families, and their teachers. Additionally, we are working to demystify data, algorithms, and AI for educators and their students. This work is similar to the work being done by public interest technologists in the communities and organizations described by both Noble and Benjamin. We don’t have all of the answers, but these topics are ones that we will continue to discuss and write about. Please share your thoughts with us by tweeting @CIRCLEducators.



Benjamin, R. (2019). Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

data. (2020, August 12). Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 15:31, August 26, 2020 from

Noble, S. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: NYU Press.

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Breaking Barriers in Computer Science via Culturally Relevant Educational Tools (Part 3)

By Joseph Chipps, Ed.D.

In the last post, I gave background on ethnocomputing and culturally situated design tools, two constructs I used to develop culturally relevant education in newer, equity-designed computer science classes (e.g., Exploring Computer Science (ECS)1 and AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP)2). It is much more challenging to build those theories and tools into AP Computer Science A due to the use of shared tools and languages. So what can be done in AP Computer Science A?

First, we can increase sociopolitical awareness. In computing, we invite students to identify and address social inequities as developers of technology. For example, in the e-textiles unit of ECS, students construct a textile computing artifact with touch sensors, and collect the ranges read by the sensor when their peers use the artifact. As each student will produce a different range, the developer must synthesize the data while coding to make distinct cases for their product to follow. Inevitably, some students will be unable to use the product due to gender or race because of the way the technology was developed. This then leads to discussions of technology as biased (i.e., airport scanners discriminate against people of color (POC) and facial recognition not recognizing POC). An opportunity I took in the AP Computer Science A curriculum was to introduce the concept of variable declarations using a Student object that contains data (name, age, gpa, and gender). I invited groups of students to discuss what type of data they would make each variable, and to explain their reasoning. Some of the groups assigned gender to a boolean variable (one of two possible states, i.e. true/false) while others assigned gender to a String variable (any array of characters, i.e. “Female”). As students shared stories and engaged in dialogue, the class quickly realized that assigning gender to a boolean value transfers human bias to technology, and rejects the existence of non-binary genders.

Second, we can implement practices from culturally relevant education by using the experiences of students as an asset in the classroom. One of the ways to attach learning to the experiences of students is to connect curriculum to the real world. For example, DiSalvo, Guzdial, Bruckman, and McKlin3 studied how high school Black and Latino male students negotiate between geeking out and being cool when testing games. When students learned it was a real job in the world, students were more likely to maintain their interest and identity in computer science. A second way to attach learning to the lived experiences of students is to connect to students’ perceptions of self (or self-identity). Frederick, Donnor, and Hatley4 conducted a meta analysis of culturally responsive education (CRE) programs in technology education, and determined that courses that utilize CRE should acknowledge students’ representations of self. To achieve this, curriculum should present diverse and realistic perspectives as well as provide spaces for students’ voices and self-expression. I cannot think of examples in computer science; however, Nichole Pinkard’s5 (2001) Rappin’ Reader and Say, Say, Oh Playmate expertly used oral traditions and play rituals, prior knowledge of African-American children, as a method of early literacy instruction. Furthermore, the authors advise that those who acknowledge lived experiences of students also need to find ways to counter harmful narratives and deficit identity formation.

Third, we can build connections with local community members. For example, Lachney6 leveraged the expertise of programmers, students, and schools in the development of the cornrow curves CSDT. The programmers worked with community hair braiders to help develop the computational patterns in the software. But how do we build culturally situated design tools that can be part of the shared tools and languages of industry? Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, Smith, To, and Toyama7 adapted critical race theory to human-computer interaction (HCI) and concluded that the technology sector is prone to interest convergence; that is, the inclusion of POC in technology requires benefits to those in power. For example, changes in designs may not occur unless they help all people, not just POC. Talking with students about this helps create awareness. This overlaps with good techquity practices.

Finally, we can invite students to personalize computing artifacts. Kafai, Fields, and Searle8 studied the experiences of students personalizing electronic textile projects. The final project of the e-textiles unit invites students to develop any textile artifact of their choice as long as it has touch sensors and LEDs, and exhibits four different behaviors based on the user input. Projects have included play mats that force arguing siblings to hold hands for a certain amount of time, t-shirts and hats that display teams and schools in bright lights, and plush dolls that play music when squeezed. The authors found that allowing for personalization showcased aesthetic designs while revealing the diversity embedded in technology development.

When I design CRE curriculum for computer science, I frame the class as project-based, where students collaboratively construct videos, images, applications, presentations, pdfs, and other artifacts to demonstrate their understanding of material. Rather than present information for them to consume, I provide methods of inquiry, where students must reflect, research, discuss, and build their own understanding of content from their unique sociocultural context. Inquiry is situated on real-world contexts. When I can, I invite students to develop their artifacts using culturally situated design tools. To go beyond the curriculum, I challenge students to question the impacts of computing on the economy, society, and culture while providing space for ideas and dialogue, independent of a patriarchal, capitalist, and white framework. Which algorithms are biased, and how can we deconstruct bias within the logic? What does an anti-racist programming language look like?  How do we counter deficit narratives in classes like AP Computer Science A, where the shared tools and languages could negatively impact purposefully excluded communities (PEC)s. And to reiterate, what does anti-racist eduction look like when students are forced to use the shared tools and languages of a profession that purposely excludes them?

Read Part 1 of the series.

Read Part 2 of the series.

  1. Goode, J., Chapman, G., & Margolis, J. (2012). Beyond curriculum: The Exploring Computer Science Program. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 47–53.
  2. Astrachan, O., Cuny, J., Stephenson, C., & Wilson, C. (2011, March). The CS10K project: mobilizing the community to transform high school computing. In Proceedings of the 42nd ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 85-86).
  3. DiSalvo, B., Guzdial, M., Bruckman, A., & McKlin, T. (2014). Saving face while geeking out: Video game testing as a justification for learning computer science. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 23(3), 272-315.
  4. Frederick, R., Donnor, J., & Hatley, L. (2009). Culturally responsive applications of computer technologies in education: Examples of best practice. Educational Technology, 49(6), 9-13.
  5. Pinkard, N. (2001). Rappin’ Reader and Say Say OH Playmate: Using Children’s Childhood Songs as Literacy Scaffolds in Computer-Based Learning Environments. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 25(1), 17–34.
  6. Lachney, M. (2017) Culturally responsive computing as brokerage: Toward asset building with education-based social movements. Learning, Media and Technology, 42(4), 420-439. doi:10.1080/17439884.2016.1211679
  7. Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, I. F., Smith, A. D., To, A., & Toyama, K. (2020, April). Critical Race Theory for HCI. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-16).
  8. Kafai, Y. B., Fields, D. A., & Searle, K. A. (2014). Electronic textiles as disruptive designs: Supporting and challenging maker activities in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 532-556. doi:10.17763/haer.84.4.46m7372370214783
Close-up of hands on a laptop computer

Breaking Barriers in Computer Science via Culturally Relevant Educational Tools (Part 2)

by Joseph Chipps  Ed.D.

In the last post, I gave background on my school, situation, and the problems I was trying to address to bring in more people of color (POC) and females into the white and Asian male dominated Computer Science (CS) courses in my school. I also gave background on Culturally Relevant Education (CRE)1 the term I will use that encompasses culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally relevant teaching.

In order to develop Exploring Computer Science (ECS)2 and AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP)3 using a culturally relevant educational framework, curriculum developers of those courses relied on theories and tools positioned within culturally relevant education: ethnocomputing and culturally situated design tools.

Ethnocomputing attempts to bridge the gap between culture and computing in that it assumes that computing is not a neutral activity; rather, computing is informed by capitalist, patriarchal, and western logic, beliefs, and tools4. Ethnocomputing originated from the idea that computing should be taught using relevant cultural artifacts and references of the local learners; that is, the cultural contexts of the learner5. In the ECS curriculum, through collaborative practices and methods of inquiry, students develop their own understanding of computing using journal writing, dialogue, construction of culturally meaningful artifacts, and presentations. In the AP CSP curriculum, students develop a protocol for sending a color image through a network by creating their own personal favicon, the little icon at the top of a browser tab. This activity allows students to develop icons from their sociocultural backgrounds; students create their own symbols for computing, and through those symbols construct meaning as well as perception of self. Furthermore, the biases of the instructor are acknowledged as students work together to construct their own ideas and interpretations of computing.

AP Computer Science A externally tests students’ understanding of Java, an object-oriented programming language. Object-oriented refers to a style of programming in which we use data structures called objects to hold data that belongs to the object (i.e. a Student’s name, age, and gpa). I give a detailed example at the end of the post, that shows how I attempt to use items from students’ lived experiences to construct the rationale and embedded logic of encapsulating data within a single entity while using a design artifact from industry to help students code-switch.

As I teach about Class and Object in Java, I know they are symbolic tools, shaped by generations of programmers over time. Even the diagram in the example below is a constructed symbol, formed by decisions and negotiations over time within the programming community. So I have to ask: am I acclimating my students to cultural norms embedded within a larger system that purposely excludes them or am I supporting their futures by teaching them tools and languages required for code-switching?

ECS and AP CSP have the privilege of using tools and languages not shared by the programming community because they were designed to exist outside of professional communities for the specific purpose of increasing participation, but activity within a course that has historically used industry standard languages will always be mediated by the shared tools and languages of the professional community. Yes, I can create student-centered activities that allow students to construct their own ideas of concepts and logics, and invite students to raise sociopolitical consciousness in their and other communities. But am I doing a disservice to those students by forcing them to construct the logic, symbols, and beliefs of a culture that purposely excludes them? Or am I helping them enter this community?

Culturally Situated Design Tools (CSDT) support ethnocomputing in that they are collaboratively developed tools that exist outside of the shared tools of computing, and are inspired by purposefully excluded communities (PEC) culture. For example, a collaborative project in ECS requires students to present the cultural background of Native American bead looms, connections between bead looms and mathematics, and their own authentic bead loom designs that they construct using a CSDT. Embedded in this lesson is the realization that computing and mathematical concepts are not singularly defined and owned by white, patriarchal, western history; rather, embedded within Native American cultures. Alternatively, in ECS, after learning the history of cornrows, students use a CSDT to design and reflect on the mathematics of cornrow curves. Students investigate recursion through a CSDT that simulates cornrow curves. When I was taught recursion in a Java class, I heard names like Fibonacci and solved problems that required some understanding of basic number theory. Students constructing recursive artifacts using a non-western tool like a cornrow design simulator is anti-racist computing education. We are putting the stories that were removed from education back into the curriculum.

But what does a CSDT look like when the purpose of a course is to introduce students to the shared tools and languages of the professional community? How can we leverage the experiences and voices of those who have not been included in the development of tools we use to design and execute computing? How do we promote anti-racist education when the tools and languages we use are embedded in exclusionary culture6? These were the barriers I faced when trying to implement ethnocomputing via culturally situated design tools in my AP Computer Science A curriculum. I still do not have answers. Perhaps a next step in computing is to design anti-racist computing tools and languages for industry. How can we use heritage cultural artifacts and vernacular culture to support the development of anti-racist computing tools and languages that can be used in industry as well as education? In my next post, I will explore what can be done in courses like AP Computer Science A such as increasing sociopolitical awareness, using the experiences of students, building connections within the community, and personalizing student-constructed artifacts.

Java Example Details:

For example, a class called Student would be an archetypical framework for how to define a student in a computer, and would include three parts: what data a student has (name, age, gpa, etc); how to create a student (which data can we set initially vs which data can be set later) and; actions we can do with the student data (update data, access data, add new scores to the gpa). While a class is a template for an object, an object is an instance that we can create. For example, once I have defined the template for what a Student is in a file called, then in a runner file, I can create a Student named Alice and input all of Alice’s data. I can then store all of Alice’s data within the object called Alice. Over time, I can access and manipulate Alice’s data, and even have Alice’s data interact with other Students’ data if, for example, I want to know the average GPA of the school or any selection of Students. The concept of objects is essential to AP Computer Science A. Consequently, I developed a lesson inspired by ethnocomputing for the first week of the course that would invite students to interpret experiences from their life into an object (discussed above). Figure 1 shows an example of what students must create.

– chefName : String

– ingredientNum : int

– temperature : double

+ getChefName(): String

+ getIngredientNum(): int

+ getTemperature(): double

+ setChefName(String): void

+ setIngredientNum(int): void

+ setTemperature(double): void

+ toString(): String

 Figure 1. Example of object design from my Java curriculum

Read Part 1 of the series.

Read Part 3 of the series.

  1. Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206. doi: 10.3102/0034654315582066
  2. Goode, J., Chapman, G., & Margolis, J. (2012). Beyond curriculum: The Exploring Computer Science Program. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 47–53.
  3. Astrachan, O., Cuny, J., Stephenson, C., & Wilson, C. (2011, March). The CS10K project: mobilizing the community to transform high school computing. In Proceedings of the 42nd ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 85-86).
  4. Tedre, M., Sutinen, E., Kahkonen, E., & Kommers, P. (2006). Ethnocomputing: ICT in cultural and social context. Communications of the ACM. 49(1), 126-130. doi: 10.1145/1107458.1107466
  5. Babbitt, B., Lyles, D., & Eglash, R. (2012). From ethnomathematics to ethnocomputing. In Swapna Mukhopadhyay & Wolff-Michael Roth (Eds.). Alternative forms of knowing mathematics (pp. 205–219). doi: 10.1007/978-94-6091-921-3_10
  6. Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holmes, J.J. and Nao, K. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
Dr. Chips in front of water

Breaking Barriers in Computer Science via Culturally Relevant Educational Tools (Part 1 of 3)

By Joseph Chipps, Ed.D.

Dr. Chipps is a computer science teacher at Granada Hills Charter High School as well as an adjunct faculty member of the secondary education department at California State University, Northridge. He has an Ed.D. in Learning Technologies, and wrote this to share his thoughts and expertise on developing culturally relevant educational tools in computer science.

Part 1

Science, technology, engineering, and math are all segregated fields, but computer science is particularly segregated1. Although new K-12 courses are being developed using culturally relevant education tools in order to increase participation among women, BIPOC, English language learners, and those with disabilities (and intersections thereof), the number of students taking a first year college equivalent computing class is still very low. Building culturally relevant educational tools in a first year college-level course is difficult due to the inherent goal of introducing students to the tools and languages of an exclusionary professional community. This issue is not just an issue in computer science. I raise the following question to all teachers: how do we authentically provide culturally relevant education to those who use the shared tools and languages of a professional community that has a history of purposely excluding others? My hope is that students can become part of industry and help change this, but not lose their own culture.

This 3-part blog series is about my attempt to develop culturally relevant educational tools for AP Computer Science A. Additionally, I offer an analysis of how programmer culture is generationally embedded within shared tools and languages, and what needs to change in computer science education to remove barriers for purposefully excluded communities (PEC)s. I should note that I am a white male, and I believe that education is an inherently political act due to white supremacy as an embedded culture within all institutions. I do what I can to change it and work to not perpetuate the problem.

I began teaching at Granada Hills Charter High School (GHCHS) in 2008, and each year between 2008 and 2012, we offered one to two sections of AP Computer Science A with twenty to thirty students per section (4500 students in the school). I took over the class in 2010 when the previous computer science teacher retired, and I was shocked by the lack of female students as well as non-white and non-Asian students. This was not a local phenomenon; rather, enrollment in AP Computer Science A is historically low. According to AP, only 0.05% of the approximately 1.9 million California public high school students took the AP CS A exam in 2017.

In addition, students of color comprise over 60% of California’s high school-aged population, and yet the number of students of color who take the AP Computer Science A exam in California is incredibly low.

California Population (≅1.9 million) AP CS A Test-takers (10,286)
Latinx 53% ≅ 1 million 15% ≅ 1543
African American 6% ≅ 114,000 1% ≅ 103
Native American / Alaska Natives ~1% ≅ 19,000 * = 5

*Only 5 Native American/Alaska Natives passed the test out of the 10,268 test-takers from California in 2018.

Low participation rates among students of color have resulted in computer science not being offered at 75% of schools nationwide with the highest percentage of PECs and only 2% of schools with large ratios of PECs offering AP Computer Science A2.

The CS10K Initiative3 provided a space and opportunity for new courses such as Exploring Computer Science4 and AP Computer Science Principles5 to transform computer science education for the purpose of increasing participation among PECs, and these courses have demonstrably been successful. In 2013, I began offering Exploring Computer Science at GHCHS, and in 2016, I introduced AP Computer Science Principles. In the 2019-2020 school year, over 800 students took computer science at GHCHS; the ethnicity of students parallels that of the overall school demographics, and we have a 3:2 ratio of men to women (we are still working on that). Between 2010 and 2019, GHCHS saw a 1700% increase in students taking computer science.

The College Board also notes that since the introduction of AP Computer Science Principles in 2016, AP computer science classes (cumulative) have observed a 343% increase in Black students, a 315% increase in Latinx students, and a 257% increase among female students. Courses like Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science Principles were developed based on current research in equity-oriented computer science education, and were purposefully designed to increase participation.

So what is the big deal about developing a culturally responsive curriculum for AP Computer Science A? If it was done for other courses, why is AP Computer Science A still a problem? For that, we need to understand what culturally responsive education means in computer science.

The development and consequential nuances of culturally relevant education is important in realizing the inherent differences between building curriculum for Exploring Computer Science and AP Computer Science A. When I received my credential, multicultural education was still being taught as a framework for cultural diversity; however, little attention was paid to the inherent biases and belief systems of those who developed curriculum and facilitated learning experiences, and multicultural education was criticized for its reliance on cultural symbols such as food and holidays6. Additionally, despite good intentions, those cultural symbols tended to be byproducts of bias, and further flattened groups to stereotypes and single stories7.

In response to the criticisms of multiculturalism, two frameworks emerged: culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally responsive teaching empowers students by increasing awareness of their lived experiences and acknowledging their sociocultural frames of reference in order to situate experiential learning within the needs of students8,9. Alternatively, culturally relevant pedagogy10,11 refers to the beliefs and approaches that guide curriculum development12. Culturally relevant pedagogy aims to use students’ cultural references and positioning within systems of power to guide curriculum and transform learning experiences by challenging social inequities11.

Both of these frameworks use a social justice approach to education in its view of student identity and experience as an asset. It should be noted that culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy are used somewhat interchangeably in literature, so, going forward, I will use the term culturally relevant education (CRE)12 as an umbrella term that covers both approaches. In my next post, I’ll discuss using Exploring Computer Science (ECS) and AP Computer Science Principles (AP CSP) that were developed to be culturally relevant using ethnocomputing and culturally situated design tools.

Read Part 2 of the series.

Read Part 3 of the series.

  1. Margolis, J., Estrella, R., Goode, J., Holmes, J.J. and Nao, K. Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race, and Computing. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
  2. Margolis, J., & Goode, J. (2016). Ten lessons for computer science for all. ACM Inroads, 7(4), 52–56.
  3. Astrachan, O., Cuny, J., Stephenson, C., & Wilson, C. (2011, March). The CS10K project: mobilizing the community to transform high school computing. In Proceedings of the 42nd ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 85-86).
  4. Goode, J., Chapman, G., & Margolis, J. (2012). Beyond curriculum: The exploring computer science program. ACM Inroads, 3(2), 47–53.
  5. Cuny, J. (2015). Transforming K-12 computing education: AP® computer science principles. ACM Inroads, 6(4), 58-49.
  6. Banks, J. A. (2013). The construction and historical development of multicultural education, 1962–2012. Theory into Practice, 52(sup1), 73-82. doi: 10.1080/00405841.2013.795444
  7. Kim, S., & Slapac, A. (2015). Culturally responsive, transformative pedagogy in the transnational era: Critical perspectives. Educational Studies, 51(1), 17-27. doi:10.1080/00131946.2014.983639
  8. Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed).Multicultural Education Series. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  9. Gay, G. (2013) Teaching to and through cultural diversity. Curriculum Inquiry, 43(1), 48-doi: 10.1111/curi.12002
  10. Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). What we can learn from multicultural education research. Educational Leadership, 51(8), 22-26. Retrieved from
  11. Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: Aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74-84. doi:10.17763/haer.84.1.p2rj131485484751
  12. Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206. doi: 10.3102/0034654315582066

Introduction to Culturally Responsive Teaching

by Pati Ruiz and Judi Fusco

At CIRCL Educators, we’re on a journey to help students and we think culturally responsive teaching is an important part of it. Since we will have more posts that fall under this topic we wanted to share a few definitions and a few of our favorite resources that have helped us start thinking and talking about culturally responsive teaching. This is a starting roadmap. The terms mentioned are similar, but distinct. In the research world different terms represent different emphases. We’ll discuss the differences more in the future. We provide this glossary of terms and full references to the articles discussed below.


Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: credited to Ladson-Billings (1995), this term “loosely refers to teachers’ ability to incorporate knowledge of students’ background and culture in their instructional practice to enhance student learning” (Gist, 2017, p. 289). However, it seems Ladson-Billings (2014) grew dissatisfied with how her term was used saying: “What state departments, school districts, and individual teachers are now calling “culturally relevant pedagogy” is often a distortion and corruption of the central ideas I attempted to promulgate. The idea that adding some books about people of color, having a classroom Kwanzaa celebration, or posting “diverse” images makes one “culturally relevant” seem to be what the pedagogy has been reduced to” (p. 82).”

Culturally Responsive Teaching: This term comes from Genva Gay’s work, which built on the Ladson-Billings ideas, and directed the approach more toward the act of teaching. “Gay (2010) explained culturally responsive teaching by arguing that such practices are a means for unleashing higher potentials of ethnically diverse students by simultaneously cultivating their academic and psychosocial abilities.” (Gist, 2017, p. 290). Gay characterized culturally responsive teaching by the use of ‘cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: is an umbrella term used by Gist (2017) that includes Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Culturally Responsive Teaching as well as the intentional strategies that teachers should implement to create an environment in which all children have equitable opportunities to learn.

A related term is Culturally Relevant Education (Aronson & Laughter, 2016). This work places the work of Gay on teaching and Ladson-Billings on pedagogy at the center of an effort to create a social justice pedagogy.



Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163-206.

Gist, C. D. (2017). Culturally Responsive Pedagogy for Teachers of Color. New Educator, 13(3), 288–303.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3. (Autumn, 1995), pp. 465-491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2000). Culturally relevant pedagogy in African-centered schools: Possibilities for progressive educational reform. African-centered schooling in theory and practice, 187-198.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: Aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74-84. doi:10.17763/haer.84.1.p2rj131485484751


Krasnoff B. (2016) Culturally Responsive Teaching

We’ll close this post with this quote from Gist (2017, p. 290)

In both Ladson-Billings’ (1995) and Gay’s (2010) theorizing of culturally responsive practices, common themes of high expectations, acknowledgement of student cultural capital, critical sociocultural/political consciousness, and passion and dedication are apparent. Unfortunately, terms such as culturally responsive pedagogy can become so commonplace that teacher educators lose sight of what teacher candidates need to know and be able to do when attempting to cultivate culturally responsive practices with their future students. Moreover, even if culturally responsive pedagogy is emphasized and addressed in a teacher candidate’s preparation experiences, it can be inappropriately applied in ways that differ sharply from the original intent of culturally responsive pedagogy theorists (Ladson-Billings, 2014).

Thank you to Joseph Chipps, Ed.D. for reviewing this post. You can reach us by tweeting @CIRCLEducators. Please let us know what you are reading and thinking as we take this journey.

Book Cover for Biology Everywhere

Reaching Outside the Classroom: Connecting Science to Daily Life and Other Disciplines

by Melanie E. Peffer, PhD

Dr. Melanie Peffer has a BS and PhD in molecular biology from the University of Pittsburgh and completed a postdoctoral appointment in learning sciences from Georgia State University. She combines her expertise in molecular biology and the learning sciences to study how people learn, understand, and engage with biology content.

When am I EVER going to need to know this?

We’ve all heard students say that before. It’s even more pertinent now in the digital age when so many of the concepts we teach in classrooms are a simple Google search away.

It’s not a matter of if a student needs to know something – but when and how they’ll need the information they learn in our classrooms.

When the time comes in which a student needs to engage with a scientific issue in the course of their daily lives, how can we ensure that students leave the classroom feeling empowered to engage?

Book Cover for Biology Everywhere

Biology Everywhere bridges the gap between the classroom and practical biology knowledge needed in the real world. Copies are available at

I wrote Biology Everywhere: How the science of life matters to everyday life with this question in mind. The bedrock of my book, and the associated online course, seeks to empower individuals to engage with science issues by presenting them through the lens of our daily experiences and in connection with other disciplines. This is especially important to consider in light of the COVID19 pandemic – which is forcing society to engage with science issues on a daily basis.

Teaching science in connection with our daily experiences.

Science content can feel abstract to students. That fuels the idea that science is inaccessible, and drives students away from engaging in the classroom. They feel like they can’t do it, or aren’t smart enough and so they shut down. They disengage with scientific issues, not just in the classroom but in society as well, and may even choose to align what they consider to be good science with their political party affiliation.

When we think about the applicability of science to our daily experiences, the content becomes relatable and therefore more accessible. This approach is also more student driven, too.  One easy lesson that can be done in person or remotely is to task students with finding something interesting or mysterious to them and ask a question about it. Then, build a science lesson around the child’s question. Allowing students to ask their own questions is also a powerful way to deepen student learning and engagement.

child mixes contents in bowl

Cooking and baking is rife with opportunities to talk about practical applications of chemistry.

Kitchen chemistry is very accessible. I cook with my son – and he gets very excited to see the bubbles that appear when we add baking powder to the mix when making pancakes. It becomes a very easy science lesson to talk about the bubbles that form make the pancake fluffy. You can adapt this for an older student by talking about the exact chemical reaction that is occurring. If you aren’t sure, this is an opportunity to look it up and learn together.

In the context of biology, I look towards big issues in today’s society to highlight and discuss with students. When I cover ecology, I demonstrate how ecological principles apply to our daily lives – such as issues around conservation. For example, what makes reusable eco-friendly or not and some of the trade-offs around reusable products. You can watch this video on plastic versus reusable bags that is based on my book here.

Teaching Science in Connection with Other Disciplines

If you think about a traditional school, there are science teachers in a science classroom … the music teacher in the band room … the history teacher in the history classroom. And the history teacher is going to teach … well, history!

In the real world though, the lines between disciplines are much more blurry. Helping teachers connect lessons in their disciplines to science content is a major thrust of Chris Woods’ work with dailySTEM and his podcast series, STEM Everyday.

How about in the context of biology? What if I said art was foundational to biology?

We hear about the STEAM movement – adding an A for arts to STEM. But what does that really mean?

When thinking about how science really works in the real world, it’s fundamentally a creative process. Coming up with new questions to ask, methods for studying the world, and making sense of the data we get – it all requires creativity and thinking outside the box.

The fine arts have had a measurable impact on biological science as well. Take for example Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s drawings of neurons. His ability to accurately draw neurons with his artist’s eye towards form and function led to one of the most important discoveries in the history of neuroscience: that the neuron is the functional unit of the brain, a discovery that continues to inform modern neuroscience.

Or John Audobon’s paintings of birds. Some of the birds he painted, like the Carolina parakeet, have gone extinct – so his paintings are important parts of natural history.

Conversely, biology also tells us about our experience with the arts, too. Why do we feel chills when listening to music? Dopamine release. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or chemical that is released by neurons to communicate with one another. Dopamine regulates motivation and pleasure – including the pleasurable responses we have to music. Scientists found that if you inhibit dopamine release, people enjoy music less. If you do the opposite and increase dopamine release, music is even more enjoyable.

Making Science Accessible in Light of the COVID19 Pandemic

The COVID19 pandemic is forcing people to engage with the realities of how science works – and for some, it’s their first experience with the messy, iterative, constantly evolving nature of authentic science inquiry.

The pandemic brought the question “when am I EVER going to need to know this” into a new light. It can’t be avoided or subverted – as a society, we’re grappling with real scientific (and mathematical) issues.

Whether it’s mask wearing, applying the basic principles of life to define what a virus is – and why we can’t treat it with antibiotics, or understanding the process of developing and testing a COVID19 vaccine or treatments, it is necessary for us all to engage with these issues and make informed decisions.

Where to start? We can teach the student in front of us – but also recognize that the general public is struggling too. I suggest we start with building the confidence in science first – present it through the lens of our daily experiences and in connection with other disciplines. Then, when the time comes to engage with scientific issues, people feel empowered to engage and make an informed decision.

Students sit around a large paper on the floor and draw on, look at, or point to it.

Considering Techquity in the Classroom

By Merijke Coenraad

Merijke Coenraad is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Teaching & Learning, Policy & Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Maryland. She is a former middle school teacher. Her research focuses on the intersections of educational technology and equity including the creation of materials, platforms, and experiences in partnership with teachers and youth through participatory design methods.

Flashback to a Spanish Classroom (2016)

Chromebooks out. Hushed silence. Each student leaned over their computer. Tension in the air. I yell, “GO! “ and with one word, the room erupts and groups hurriedly work together to identify vocabulary words before their classmates. In loud whispers students ask their partners for words, “Calcentines, who has socks?” One mistake and the group will have to start over; the stakes are high, and no star student can single handedly win the game for their peers. 

Quizlet transformed flashcards, a time consuming (and often lost or forgotten) physical learning tool into a digital learning experience. My students practiced their vocabulary words through drills and games all week and on Friday, we played Quizlet Live.

When I was still in the classroom, I loved to bring new technology into my social studies and Spanish lessons. I got excited discovering tools like EdPuzzle and Padlet when they were first breaking onto the education stage. With 1 to 1 Chromebooks in my middle school classroom, there was hardly a class period where students were not somehow connected to technology and each of these technologies meant creating a new account. Looking back, I realize that I was naïve while teaching. As I brought tool after tool to my students, I didn’t think deeply about the data collection ramifications and the way that the very tools that could enhance learning might be treating my students inequitably and perpetuating the structural racism and human biases that I worked each day to dismantle. The educational technology that I brought into my classroom had positive effects, but it also had hidden consequences, most of which I might never know.

Four years after leaving the classroom to begin my PhD, my work focuses on one thing, Techquity, or the intersection of technology and equity. This focus is driven by the students I taught and the many times I saw technology act as both an access point and a barrier to their education. Even though I wasn’t thinking about data collection, algorithmic bias, and the effects of AI for the students in my classroom, I was still focused on how technology helped and hindered my students’ education. But those barriers and hindrances go beyond the devices and internet access I have long considered. In the last year, I have learned a lot about forces within and around technology that cause inequities. I have learned about the Coded Gaze of AI Technologies from Joy Buolamwini and the New Jim Code from Ruha Benjamin. I’ve learned about the biases inherent in the very design of technologies with Sara Wachter-Boettcher and how algorithms can be Weapons of Math Destruction from Cathy O’Neil. It has led me to focus on how I can not only be more cognizant of the biases of technology, but also teach students about them.

Techquity: Co-designing with Kids

To learn more about what kids think about Techquity concerns, I partnered with a youth design team to hear what they had to say about Techquity and learn which Techquity concerns were of the most interest to them. I find that kid insight is critical whenever I am discovering new topics to teach to students. The team was constructed of 7 Black youth between the ages of 8 and 13 who meet twice a week to design technologies and learn about being a designer.

Let’s look a little bit at what the kids had to say about Techquity.

While they didn’t have the vocabulary to name algorithmic bias or biases in voice recognition technology, the kids quickly began offering examples of how technologies can be good and bad and how even single technologies can have good and bad sides. For example, one group identified Siri as helpful because “she” can give information without typing, but they also were worried that Siri doesn’t always understand them and “SIRI CAN LISTEN TO US!!!!” While the AI in their phones allowed the students to access all sorts of information, they were not immune to considerations of what it meant for a device to always be listening for, “Hey Siri…”

As our conversation turned and I introduced the kids to some common examples of Techquity concerns such as data collection, targeted advertising, misidentification by AI, and non-diverse tech design teams, the kids continued to describe their own examples. They could recollect times when they received targeted advertising based on location or a recent website visit.

Techquity Concerns

10 common Techquity concerns we discussed are:

  • Algorithms (computer programs) don’t treat everyone fairly
  • Technology development teams are frequently not diverse
  • Alexa, Google Home, and Siri are always listening to me
  • I get personalized ads based on data companies collect about me
  • Technology is not always accessible for individuals with disabilities
  • Companies sell my data
  • Sensors and systems like Alexa, Google Home, and Siri get confused about how I look or what I say
  • People don’t understand how technology works
  • Machine learning and facial recognition isn’t trained well enough to recognize everyone

The kids each ranked the 10 Techquity concerns from “very important to me” to “not very important to me.” The two most highly ranked ideas were algorithmic bias and non-diverse tech companies. The kids were especially concerned that individuals who looked like them were not being represented on design teams when they themselves were and what this meant for the technologies being designed.

As their final design task, the kids designed ways to teach other kids about Techquity by drawing their ideas out on an online platform mimicking paper and pencil. Interestingly, the kids didn’t want to move away from technology just because it could be biased, they just wanted it to be created in more equitable ways and to be used to teach others. Their teaching often included advanced algorithms and even AI. They designed scenarios using robots and adaptive software to allow other kids to experience obvious Techquity concerns and learn from their experiences. One girl, Persinna, explicitly discussed the three-member design team shown in her game as having 2 girls and 1 boy because “that is Techquity.” Kabede felt very strongly that data collection by tech companies was a big concern. He started making connections to actual tools he knows such as DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not profile users and focuses on user privacy.

What I Would Consider Now If I Were Still a Teacher

I’d start from what these kids already know about Techquity and how algorithms and AI are affecting their lives and build on that. I would educate students about the biases inherent in Google searches, which sort not by popularity of links as is commonly assumed, but based on user profiles and advertising. I would use Kabede’s recommendation and have students use a search engine like DuckDuckGo to prevent tracking and allow for private searches. I would challenge students to think about where algorithms, AI, and technology design are already affecting their lives and how technologies might work better for some individuals than they do for others. We would talk about the sensors in automatic sinks, paper towel dispensers, and medical devices and how those sensors work based on light, but oftentimes work better for people with lighter skin. We would discuss Joy Buolamwini’s experiences and work and talk about how machine learning training sets are often not adequate to identify all people well and how this has direct consequences for the use of AI in policing and surveillance.

While the students in my classroom wouldn’t be the ones causing the technology bias, I would make sure they were aware of it and how it had direct implications for their lives. Most of all, I would base these discussions in students’ lived experiences. Just like the kids on the design teams, it is inevitable that my students experienced technology bias, they just might not have had words for it or known why it was happening. The more I could teach my students and bring Techquity concerns to their knowledge, the more they could protect themselves (and their communities) and make educated decisions about their lives with technology. I know that my middle school students wouldn’t give up their technology and knowing about the biases held by the designers of that technology probably wouldn’t change their opinions of technology being, as Joshua said in the design session, “the best thing ever,” knowing more about their digital footprint and how companies are using their information gives them a small advantage. In this case, knowledge of Techquity concerns could give them power over their data and their technology use.

Student Hands

Why assessment?

by Kip Glazer Ed.D.


In a distance learning environment, assessment can become much more challenging. This article makes six suggestions as to how a high school teacher can assess students effectively to improve student learning.


In my first article, I made four suggestions to support our staff in a distance learning environment. This article will focus on the importance of assessment and how we should leverage that in the new era of learning, sometimes only remote and sometimes without large-scale standardized assessments. I suggest teachers consider six different ways to leverage assessment to improve student learning:

  1. Ask your students to create tests and quizzes
  2. Integrate student-created tests and rubrics
  3. Focus on critical assessing skills
  4. Give students a place to interact meaningfully
  5. Leverage peer evaluation to scaffold student learning
  6. Create consistency in grading across all similar courses


Many teachers are trained to create learning experiences for our students known as teaching. Especially for secondary teachers, teaching includes creating lesson plans that deliver specialized content to our students and then giving the students assessments (i.e. quizzes and tests) to gauge what the students have learned. However, in an online learning environment, traditional assessments such as quizzes and tests are not as effective due to altered learning environments.

In an in-person learning environment, many teachers rely on the publisher’s test bank or textbook questions for assessment for a variety of reasons including a teacher’s desire to align his or her assessment to the approved curriculum that a teacher is asked to deliver. Others use them to save time; some use them because they don’t feel confident enough to create their own assessments. Over the years, I have worked with many teachers who were not terribly thrilled with the quality of the publisher’s assessments yet used them because they felt that they were not skilled to create test questions. Even if a teacher is well-trained in generating effective assessments, they often struggle to create them as constructing valid assessments takes time and expertise. Furthermore, high school teachers have the added pressure of preparing students for high stakes standardized tests such as the SAT, ACT, or AP that are created by experts. Even if a teacher knows and wants to implement skill- or competency-based assessment, the pressure to prepare his or her students for standardized tests can create tension. I personally experienced this as an AP English Literature teacher for many years.


Having only had high school teaching experiences, I do not presume to know a lot about how this article will apply to the K-6 setting. Although some of the suggestions will likely be applicable to the 7-12 setting, I do not presume to be an expert in every subject being taught in secondary schools. I intend to provide a few examples and strategies that are grounded on sound learning theories so that the teachers can augment their instructional practices should they find this article useful.


High school teachers need their instructional leaders to provide a clear and concise standard for instruction and assessment as the results of assessment lead to grades that are reviewed by the colleges as a factor in the college-admission decisions. Variability in assessments, therefore, is directly related to many practical and long-lasting consequences. Furthermore, having a clear understanding of what is being assessed and how it will be assessed can guide instructional practices. Having good assessments is vital in measuring the effectiveness of teaching and learning.


In order to maximize the impact of the assessment, I suggest 6 assessment practices. The suggestions are rooted in Papert’s Constructionism.

Learning, according to Papert, is both situated and pragmatic, and the construction of artifacts to demonstrate learning are not only useful but imperative (Papert & Harel, 1991). I argue that we focus on moving towards more student-created assessments.

1. Ask your students to create tests and quizzes

I suggest that the teachers use fact-based and time-bound quizzes and tests as learning tools rather than as  grade-bearing assessments by allowing your students to create them.

In an online environment, students tend to have more resources available on their fingertips including their peers. It is not uncommon for your students to have additional off-line conversations while they are in your class, known as the “dual-screen interactivity” (Nee & Dozier, 2017, p.5). Examples of dual-screen interactivity include searching for additional information in addition to looking at the primary screen, connecting with others who are interacting with the same content, and creating external posts such as social media posts or memes. (Nee & Dozer, 2017). In fact, a teacher should expect this behavior to happen. Rather than fighting against them, I suggest you leverage them for learning.

For example, consider giving a group of students a section of a textbook to create multiple-choice, true-false, or sequential questions. I used this strategy often when I taught social studies where the knowledge of facts is very important. Not only did each group have to create the quiz questions, but each group also had to explain why they chose the topics and the content to be included in the test. Once the students created the questions, I had others in the class take the quiz to verify that the questions were of high quality based on the justifications provided by the authors of the questions. Then I as the teacher chose questions that I thought were great and added them to the official assessments. This practice allowed my students to interact with the materials multiple times without having to listen to a lecture. Also, this taught the students to look for critical information rather than focusing on obscure facts to trick each other. Finally, this allowed me, the teacher, to leverage the four out of five principles of game-based learning, such as competition and goals, rules, choices, challenges, (Charsky, 2010) as students to compete for the coveted position of becoming the author of the final assessment. Even if a group chose to find the questions online, they had to figure out the justifications and answers, which was harder to copy.

2. Integrate student-created tests and rubric

If you are teaching a course such as English, where foundational skills development becomes the center of the course rather than acquiring more discrete information, I suggest you encourage your students to create the rubric that they can use to grade their own learning as student-created tests and rubrics can improve student agency in learning. I used to have my students research various rubrics and evaluate them and create their own to evaluate each other’s work.

According to Garrison and Ehringhaus (2007), students learn best when they are involved in the assessment process. By allowing the students to be a part of their rubric creation, a teacher can not only improve student learning but also assess what they know about the skills that they are being taught.

3. Focus on assessing critical skills

When I say skills, I mean quoting, citing, summarizing, paraphrasing, and video creation. Because students have unrestricted access to additional resources, being able to create new content to demonstrate what they learned is becoming increasingly important. No matter how much teachers try to secure their assessments, a student can always take a screenshot and share it with other students. If the test only requires recalling facts, it is likely to be ineffective in measuring the authentic level of learning. Rather than spending time to limit access to additional resources, I suggest teachers encourage students to add in new information and then the teachers should examine the new information to understand  why the students thought it was important to include in their final products.

Mathematics teachers can also encourage students to find the problems online that assess the procedures and content of the lesson and ask the students to explain why a question should or should not be included in a future assessment. They can also take it a step further and ask the students to create an instructional video and have them evaluate each other’s video to see which one provided the clearest instruction.

4. Give students a place to interact meaningfully around the subject matter

I also suggest using a discussion forum as an assessment tool. According to Balaji and Chakrabati (2010), a robust online discussion forum has a significant positive effect on student participation and learning. However, the forum should not be used as one more place where the teacher can ask questions of their students. An online forum should be a place where students pose questions of others. Also, teachers should not consider the number of posts as the indicator of student engagement and learning (Song & McNary, 2011). Instead, teachers should encourage the students to pose better questions to each other based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (1997, 1999 & 2005).

5. Leverage peer evaluation to scaffold student learning

As teachers leverage peer-to-peer interactions to improve earning, I suggest that teachers leverage peer feedback as a component of every assessment.

For example, I used an embedded feature of the star rating system when I used the discussion forums. Rather than posing questions for my students to answer, I asked my students to create 2-3 questions each week based on their reading. Then they would be required to answer 2-3 questions that were posed by other students in the class. If they discovered that the questions were similar or identical to what they posted, they were to post one additional question to indicate that someone else already posted the same question, which encouraged them to get to the forum quicker than the others. As they answered each other’s questions, they were also encouraged to critique the quality of the question by giving them 1-5 stars. Once again, they were to provide feedback as to why they gave the stars based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (1997, 1999 & 2005). After a few rounds of questioning, I asked the students to justify why they felt that DOK level 1 and 2 questions were necessary for some context.

6. Create consistency in grading across all similar courses

Finally, I suggest leveraging the Professional Learning Community (PLC) to create consistency in grading across all similar courses. Even more so in a distance learning environment, parents and students may feel that their students are not being fairly assessed based on their personal feelings and perceptions rather than what is actually happening in the class. I strongly suggest that each PLC creates common practices around the type and frequency of assessments for the benefits of all PLC members to reduce subjectivity among all its members in regards to how their students are being assessed. In a distance learning environment, sharing expertise and saving time around assessment is not only useful but also vital to all of us as it will allow us to preserve our most precious commodity: our time.

Specific considerations for Educators

As we discuss assessment, we should consider the following:

  • Even though a grade can be an indication of student learning, we must look at assessment independent of grades as there are many ways to assess student learning without assigning a grade.
  • Unfortunately, many high school students will not take an assessment seriously unless there is a grade attached. Therefore, any discussion around assessment in high school should address the connection between assessments and grades.
  • In an online environment, traditional assessments that are time-bound and facts-based are not as effective as many opportunities to circumvent even the most effective security measures.
  • Additionally for California EducatorsThe California Education Code 49066 (a) states, “When grades are given for any course of instruction taught in a school district, the grade given to each pupil shall be the grade determined by the teacher of the course and the determination of the pupil’s grade by the teacher, in the absence of clerical or mechanical mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency, shall be final.” In other words, teachers have the final say in a grade.


Being able to accurately assess student learning is one of the most challenging parts of being an effective teacher. We (teachers and administrators) often used our state-based large-scale standardized assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of our teaching. As states suspend these conventional tests that may not have been the most effective way to assess our teaching, we need to look to new assessment options. The absence of these tests may be a great opportunity for us to look at assessment from a completely different perspective. As we move forward with the 100% distance learning model, I urge instructional leaders to pay close attention to how teachers are assessing their students. By paying close attention to our assessment practices, we will be able to improve our understanding of student learning considerably.

Additional resources:

Authentic Assessment – Indiana University, Bloomington

Introduction to competency-based Education – Aurora Institute


Ackermann, E. (2001). Piaget’s constructivism, Papert’s constructionism: What’s the difference? Retrieved from

Aurora Institute (n.d.). Introduction to Competency-Based Education. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from /

Balaji, M.S., & Chakrabati, D. (2010). Student interactions in online discussion forum: Empirical research from “Media Richness Theory” perspective. Journal of Interactive Online-Learning, 9(1), 1-22.

California Legislative Information (n.d.). California Law. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from

Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (n.d.). Assessing Student Learning: Authentic Assessment. Retrieved July 26, 2020, from

Charsky, D. (2010). From edutainment to serious games: A change in the use of game Characteristics. Games and Culture, 5(2), 177-198. doi:10.1177/1555412009354727

Garrison, C., & Ehringhaus, M. (2007). Formative and summative assessments in the classroom.

Nee, R. C., & Dozier, D. M. (2017). Second screen effects: Linking multiscreen media use to television engagement and incidental learning. Convergence, 23(2), 214-226.

Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating constructionism. In Constructionism. Retrieved from

Song, L., & McNary, S. W. (2011). Understanding Students’ Online Interaction: Analysis of Discussion Board Postings. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 10(1).

Webb, N. L. (1997). Criteria for Alignment of Expectations and Assessments in Mathematics and Science Education. Research Monograph No. 6.

Webb, N. L. (1999). Alignment of Science and Mathematics Standards and Assessments in Four States. Research Monograph No. 18.

Webb, N. L. (2005). Web alignment tool. Wisconsin Center of Educational Research. University of Wisconsin-Madison.