Computers benefit students with learning disabilities – but not always in the long term

The research summary is a brief overview of interesting scholarly work.

The big idea

When computer science lessons are taught as part of vocational and technical education in high school, the lessons can help students with learning disabilities feel better about their ability to succeed in STEM. The courses also help students see the usefulness of computing.

That’s what we found in a recent study with our co-authors – education specialists Michael Gottfried, Jennifer Freeman.

We used data from a national survey of more than 20,000 students across the country to dig into that connection between computer science and science, technology, engineering, or math, a group of subjects commonly known as the name of STEM.

In our work, we found that – compared to other students with learning disabilities – those who took computer science courses in a vocational and technical program were more likely to believe they could succeed in STEM. . They were also more likely to believe STEM was useful for future employment or college options.

We also found that in vocational and technical programs, students with learning disabilities were just as likely to take computer courses as students without learning disabilities. All of our results were still evident even after controlling for key student characteristics, such as family income, native language, gender, and racial or ethnic identity.

Students with learning disabilities in our study are those who have a disability that affects their learning of writing, reading, spelling, or mathematical calculations.

why is it important

Computing is one of the fastest growing fields in today’s economy. Employment experts predict a 13% increase – about 667,000 new jobs – in these IT occupations from 2020 to 2030. That’s more than three times the expected overall job growth rate.

However, there have not been enough computer science graduates in recent years to fill these positions.

Based on our work, computer classes appear to help students with learning disabilities develop positive attitudes towards STEM. These attitudes are linked to perseverance in IT and STEM more generally. It is therefore important that educators encourage students to study and stick to IT and STEM and ensure that these students have access to these courses.

Currently, students with learning disabilities are underrepresented in computer science fields in college and in the labor market. Specifically, less than 8% of students in undergraduate computer science programs have a disability. This is compared to around 19% of all undergraduates.

What is not yet known

A big question that remains is why students with learning disabilities do not persist in computer science fields in college and ultimately pursue careers in the field. Even though computer classes in high school help build confidence and a sense of purpose, it may not be enough to encourage them to stick with it longer term.

A possible explanation could be that students with learning disabilities do not see themselves as part of the STEM community. In our research, we sought to see if there was a link between computer science courses and sense of belonging to the STEM community. We found this link for general education students, but not for students with learning disabilities.

Another possible explanation may be that students with learning disabilities start secondary school with lower levels of confidence in STEM and less of a sense that computing will be useful to them in the future. Merely attending computer classes may not be enough to make up the difference in this regard.

And after

An important next step will be to examine the factors that help students with learning disabilities pursue their studies in computer science and STEM. For example, does a positive attitude toward STEM actually lead students with learning disabilities to study computer science or pursue careers in the field? We plan to explore such a question in future work.

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