Supporting Community Participation
in Designing Local Computer Science Education

Chris Proctor
University at Buffalo, SUNY


Computing will play an increasingly significant role in mediating all aspects of our lives. Consequently there are strong arguments for integrating computing more substantially into K12 education. This could take many possible forms, aligned with different values and visions of the future. Protocols and tools have been developed to support stakeholder participation in K12 computuer science (CS) design processes, however in this case study, set in a high-poverty US midwestern community largely disconnected from computing economies and cultures, they did not resonate with participants. Therefore, I report on an effort to surface participants' existing priorities and then connect them with arguments for K12 CS education. Agentic participation in K12 CS design processes—an important site of shaping technosocial futures—will require an extended process of building community capacity which starts where people already are.

Research questions

  1. How can visions of CS education be grounded in a school district's existing strengths and challenges?
  2. How and to what extent does grounding CS visions in existing strengths and challenges support agentic participation in the design of K12 CS education?


K12 CS Visions The CS Visions Framework (Santo, Vogel, & Ching, 2019) recognizes that bringing computer science into K12 schools is a speculative project aimed at a particular set of outcomes aligned with particular visions of the future. Therefore, communities, families, and children, who ought to have a role in determining their own futures, should play a key role in designing K12 CS education. The CS Visions Framework lists seven values motivating K12 CS education designs:

These values can be understood as aligning with public goods (democratic equality; social efficiency) and private goods (social mobility) (Labaree, 1997), stakeholders' equity in these goods, and with broader ideologies such as beliefs about human nature and the purpose of the state.

Supporting K12 CS Design and Implementation Recognizing the importance of broad stakeholder participation in designing K12 CS, protocols and tools have been developed to support stakeholder participation. Santo and colleagues (2018) developed a card-sorting activity to help participants identify values which might be the basis for their own K12 CS education design process. DeLyser and Wright (2019) developed rubrics for districts to evaluate their own capacity for implementing CS curricula. The CAPE framework (Fletcher & Warner, 2021) conceptualizes equitable CS education as depending on capacity, access, participation, and experience. All of these were incorporated into the CSforALL Resource and Implementation Planning Tool (SCRIPT), a framework for district workshops.

These tools are important, but they may have a limited reach. Participants in the K12 CS design processes cited above were often already involved in CS education and had powerful roles in local educational institutions. Ordinary community members without these assets may have a harder time participating. Indeed, Proctor, Bigman, and Blikstein (2019) studying a three-year K12 CS design process in a wealthy California school district, found that many of the same dynamics excluding students from CS education also excluded stakeholders from participating in the design process.

Agentic participation in community design processes The term equity implies partial ownership: having a stake and having a say. As noted above, substantial outreach and education needs to be done to create the conditions for meaningful community participation in a design process, especially when so many power hierarchies already exist between the stakeholders in a public school, and when knowledge about what CS is and why it might matter is so unevenly distributed. There are many examples of processes in which community participation was only superficial or in which a community’s vision for change has been subverted through institutional domestication (Tyack and Cuban (1985). This project’s strategies for theorizing and enacting the community design processes will draw heavily on decades of experience in equitable community-based processes in the field of urban planning. Arnstein’s (1969) ladder of citizen participation is a taxonomy of the extent to which participants in participatory design have real power, ranging from nonparticipation (e.g. manipulation) to tokenism (e.g. placation; consultation) to degrees of power (e.g. direct control; delegation; partnership). This proposal frames equity in terms of participant power to be heard, to have needs met, to build situated understandings of what CS and why it matters, and to design educational infrastructure to broaden participation in CS according to these understandings.


Context This study is part of a research-practice partnership between the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education (UB) and Miller's Hill (a pseudonym), a Title I school district located in a small Western New York city with a proud industrial past which has collapsed in the past 30 years. In 2012, only 20% of adults were working full-time, 30% of the population earned less than twice the federal poverty level, and rates of teen pregnancy and juvenile crime were very high (UB Regional Institute, 2012). At the same time, the school boasts a newly-renovated TV studio, a STEM hub, and a globally-competitive robotics team supported by a local manufacturing company.

Community survey The Miller's Hill school district began the process of looking for a new superintendent just as this study was launching. A survey distributed to stakeholders (teachers, staff, students, parents, and community members) asked about the district's most important strengths and challenges, as well as the most important qualitaties the new superintendent should have. After collecting a respondent's opinions, the survey then presented several other responses and asked them to rate the importance of these other responses. Survey responses (n=356) and ratings were shared with the public, providing a broad snapshot of the community's educational priorities. We coded responses thematically and then computed a Bayesian average for each theme, shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Average rated importance of each theme in a community survey asking about a school district's most important strengths and challenges, and the qualitaties most important in a new superintendent.

Focus groups We held focus group meetings with various stakeholder groups, using an adaptation of the card-sorting task developed by Santo and colleagues (2018). The prior card-sorting task presents rationales for CS education (e.g. "We should teach CS because youth shouldn’t just be consumers but also producers of technology."), and groups are asked to select and group cards which resonate with them, hopefully yielding shared values.

However, preliminary meetings with multiple stakeholder groups revealed that few of the rationales resonated, even after substantial scaffolding. Unlike the coastal cities in which most CS education research is conducted, CS (and computing more broadly) plays a minimal role in the social life and imagination of Miller's Hill.

Therefore, we developed a preliminary card-sorting task in which each card describes a strength or a challenge of the district, sourced from the community survey (see Figure 2). In the first part of the focus group meeting, participants were asked to select the cards which felt most important, and then to discuss these issues (with no relation to CS). Then, in the second part of the meeting, we asked participants to use the card-sorting task developed by Santo and colleagues (2018) to identify and group rationales for CS education which were connected to existing strengths and challenges.

Each workshop involved 4-8 participants, selected by the school leadership team from various stakeholder groups: arts teachers, social studies teachers, 9-12 STEM teachers, K-4 STEM teachers, mathematics teachers, counselors, two separate groups of high school students, and another group of students from the alternative high school. Focus groups of parents (not selected by the school administration) are planned.

We recorded and transcribed focus groups, and then used a qualitative coding approach piloted in Proctor, Bigman, and Blikstein (2019) to surface themes from the fieldnotes, transcripts, artifacts, and other documents (collectively, the corpus) using an iterative process of open coding and integrative memoing. We coded the corpus focusing on the following conceptual framework: Participant roles and identities; Big questions about CS; Situated understandings of CS; Design ideas.

We are currently in the process of cross-tabulating local strengths and challenges with values and rationales for CS education, in terms of connections made by participants and connections made by our research team.

Figure 2. Examples of cards used in the adapted card-sorting task, listing strengths and challenges of the district sourced from the community survey.


The initial card-sorting task sourced from the community survey was very effective. Although focus group participants had little to say about computer science, they had a lot to say about the district's strengths and challenges. The card-sorting task helped groups quickly engage with unconfortable truths and contentious issues. In some cases (e.g. "The district has few teachers or administrators of color") the card seemed to give permission to discuss an issue which was then affirmed as an important issue. In other cases the card seemed to point to a well-recognized ongoing conversation. For example, issues of district transparency to parents and community were clearly grounded in several past incidents well-known to participants (though not to the research team). It was helpful to hear how different focus groups told their side of the story.

Some of the themes emerging from the community survey were closely-aligned with values behind CS visions. For example, online discourse was discussed repeatedly in the context of bullying and district-community mistrust. A vision of CS grounded in "citizenship and civic engagement" could engage with the frequent discussions of online discourse related to bullying and district-community mistrust, as well as students, parents, teachers, and staff all empahsizing that their voices are insufficiently included in decision-making. Similarly, a CS vision grounded in "personal agency, joy, and fulfillment" was identified as potentially supporting the school's robust extracurricular offerings through integration with CS. A CS vision aligned with "economic and workforce development" could richly engage with the district's increasing poverty rate and its strong vocational education program.

We identified major barriers to an equitable CS design process related to participant roles and discourse patterns. For example, there is a major divide between (largely white and privileged) district insiders, and those who feel excluded from district decision-making. The imagined community which the district serves does not include all the people physically in Miller's Hill, and the population who has the power to act on the imagination (school board, LEA, teacher) is similarly not inclusive. The insider/outsider divide manifested in the community survey in terms of demands for fairness, flexibility, transparenct, and includion on one hand, and demands for strong leadership and enforcement of discipline on the other. There were stark differences across different focus groups in how participants interpreted, explained, and assigned responsibility for problems within the district.

Next steps

A subsequent article will juxtapose two corpora: first, records of a district CS design committee which included parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community members. These records include fieldnotes collected during committee meetings, interviews with participants, and artifacts produced by the committee such as white papers, presentations, and proposals. Second, a broad community survey conducted as part of the process of selecting a new district superintendent, focusing on the district’s strengths and weaknesses, and on priority areas that should be addressed by the new superintendent.

Our next step at Miller's Hill is to convene a CS design committee charged with proposing a local vision for CS education as well as possible implementations which could enact that vision. One major open question is the extent to which stakeholder agency requires that they be personally involved in all aspects of the design process, or whether authentic representation, or even a more distal process of listening and needfinding, would be sufficient.



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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2219433. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.