Equity in the Computer Science Education Research Community

I’ve been involved in some conversations recently about the upcoming Latice 2017 conference, which I have found both personally painful and thought provoking. Latice 2017 will be held in Saudi Arabia, with a partial motivation at least of making the Computer Science Education Research community more accessible to the large number of female academics in Saudi Arabia who are interested in this space, but due to cultural and legal reasons, find it difficult to attend international conferences.

The decision to hold Latice in Saudia Arabia poses many challenges for our community. There are significant restrictions on women entering and staying in Saudi Arabia, including restrictions on unaccompanied travel, communication across genders, and requirements to adopt dress conventions. There are further issues for anyone who identifies as QUILTBAG (“Queer/Questioning, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans (Transgender/Transsexual), Bisexual, Asexual, Gay”), or for individuals openly expressing themselves according to religions alternative to that accepted in Saudi Arabia. These individuals face potential danger simply by attending the conference. 

I will not be attending Latice 2017, and I wanted to share here my thoughts on why I have made this decision, but also my views on how we might approach more equitable and diverse support for our community in future conferences. 

My colleague, Mark Guzdial, has written about his views on this conference, including a thoughtful presentation of the issues as he sees them, but also the potential opportunity to make a difference to the community in Saudi Arabia. While I disagree with the decision that Mark has made to support the Latice conference, I can see that we are both motivated by a pursuit of equity in Computer Science Education, and our Computer Science Education Research community.

One of the comments that Mark made in his posting referred to his thoughts that foreign women shouldn’t attend Latice 2017, unless they were prepared to abide by the laws and customs of the country. From a personal perspective, I don’t think I can do this. I don’t feel that I can attend a conference as an academic, while knowing that my communications may be restricted as well as my movements around the confence. I am also not prepared to encourage colleagues who simply by being themselves, are in violation of law to attend. If your own person is in violation of law, you cannot attend and abide by local law – what we are asking in those cases is for members of our community to lie about who they are. That is not something that I can support in any way. 

Over the past week, I have tried to balance feelings of anger with my community, with a desire to support us moving forward in a positive way. I am angry because the decision to hold this conference in this location has made a choice between the rights of subgroups in our community. By supporting the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, we are excluding the rights of others in our community.  

I am also angry that this decision was made without consulting our community. As an individual, I’m tired of having decisions about my rights to education, to communication, to culture, being made by others. I am the only person who should be deciding whether I wish to waive my rights to anything.

If we had a chance to discuss and agree on the goal here, perhaps we could have come up with a better solution that would not violate the rights of some members of our community? Perhaps we could have come up with a solution that would have supported inclusivity and diversity in full? 

I am disappointed that members of our community are now being forced to make a choice here between whose rights they should support. No one’s rights are more or less important than others. We shouldn’t be putting our colleagues into this position. 

In his post, Mark points out the difficulties faced by the local community in Saudi Arabia, which I would like to help address if I could. I have also read comments in some of the discussion about this topic from others from remote communities, or communities with financial difficulties, who expressed their frustration in not being able to easily access the research community. The issue of access to our research community, and access to participate fully in research collaborations, is a broader issue than that identified with Latice, and I would like to see our conversation move towards how we can better support equity and inclusivity in our research community.

I’d like to pose some ideas that I have had, and also some that I have seen discussed within the community, to move this forward. We can do better than we have done. And we can certainly do better than we are doing with Latice 2017.

Increased access to conferences and community

Increasingly, I’ve seen other conferences (in other Computer Science disciplines) either record and publish, or stream all conference presentations. I am currently at the Learning@Scale conference and all presentations and discussion sessions are streamed live to our broader community. I’ve also attended industry conferences, where it is possible for members of our community to post their comments and questions on the streamed presentations, via Twitter for all to engage with, usually with massive Twitter displays projected on the walls of the conference venue. 

Can we follow this approach further? Can we have all sessions at Computer Science Education Research conferences streamed live? Can we encourage questions and discussion using social media, but bring it into the conference format?

We are here to present a poster at this conference – we have prepared for this is a different way from the normal paper poster. All poster presenters were invited to build a small scale EdX-based course on our poster topic. The conference participants can engage online with the poster, and ask us questions as we work through the course, while those in the room with us can also discuss. 

Why can’t we use means like this to support broad and rich discussion and engagement for all of our community?

With our work with the Australian teacher community, we have become involved with an interesting community engagement model – the Twitter teach meet. These Twitter-based conversations support teachers from the remotest locations in Australia to get together to discuss professional learning – the teach meet is advertised for a specific time, and facilitated by one or two of the community members, who pose some starting questions to help build the conversation and networking. It quickly expands to a rich and open discussion of teacher needs, across the country and across all education contexts.

Why are we not embracing these forms of education, collaboration, and community engagement?

Why do we require all conference attendees to actually be physically present? Can we support individuals in presenting remotely? Can we support greater forms of financial support and sponsorship for those that wish to attend? 

I’d like to see us openly discuss how we can take a stronger responsibility towards equity and inclusivity in our community, but equity and inclusivity for all. I’d love to discuss this with you, and to read your thoughts.


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