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An Invitation to Reimagine: Reframing the Dialogue Between Educators, Students, and Employers

Headshots of Kevin Lin and Alannah ("Al") OlesonAuthors:

  • Kevin Lin, he/him, Assistant Teaching Professor, Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, University of Washington, Seattle campus
  • Alannah (“Al”) Oleson, they/them/all, Postdoctoral Researcher, Information School, University of Washington, Seattle campus



Project Description

For many students studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, their education empowers them to access high-paying tech jobs. By focusing on job preparation, our education prepares students to walk well-trodden pathways to tech jobs that offer financial means to escape poverty and provide for loved ones. But our education can also disempower by positioning students, educators, and the university as subservient to industry. Contemporary social conditions have not only called into question the economic stability provided by these career paths, but also revealed the collateral consequences that society has to pay for their work. What assets can higher education draw on to empower students to not only better conditions for themselves, but also better the worlds they design?

Iterative design might provide one answer to this challenge. In my data-centric computing courses, I employ iterative design as a pedagogical frame to teach students about reflection and action in the design of the technologies they create. First, we critique the design of a technology by identifying the values and assumptions embedded in the abstraction and imagine specific ways the assumptions can impact people with diverse abilities, needs, contexts, and goals for using the technology. Then, we design and implement new features to address assumptions before evaluating our work using both technical and sociotechnical methods. Finally, we repeat this process to generate new critiques and even more redesigns. When employers interview my computing students, I hope they will feel empowered to not only answer the questions employers thought to ask, but also surface unstated assumptions, redesign technologies to address them, and communicate the value of their redesigns.

By questioning the assumptions embedded in the design of technologies and redesigning technologies to address them, we empower students to navigate power dynamics inherent in job employment and take action to create the worlds we all need.

Project Question

How might computing education empower students toward critical reflection and action through their future work? A more empowering computing education might teach computing students to address design assumptions that adversely impact people with diverse abilities, needs, and goals.

This work aims to bridge 3 dichotomies at once: (1) between technical concepts and social, cultural, or historical ways of knowing; (2) between individual proficiency of technical concepts and social goals for education; and (3) between what employers ask and how we train students to answer.


I used this approach in Data Structures and Algorithms, a large-lecture course offered in-person every quarter on the Seattle campus that regularly enrolls 240 to 300 students. It is an elective course for non-CSE majors following a 3-quarter sequence in computer programming.

Many enrolled students are interested in tech jobs such as software engineering, project management, or user experience design. Students vary in prior experience with sociotechnical approaches to computing education.


First, I created a way to bridge the first dichotomy with affordance analysis: a framework for analyzing programs from a sociotechnical lens. I then invented a pedagogy around affordance analysis called Critical Comparative Data Structures and Algorithms (CCDSA) that uses a motif of “critical comparison” as a means of realizing ethics in the curriculum, identity in the learning environment, and political vision—bridging the second dichotomy. Finally, to bridge the third dichotomy, I worked with Alannah Oleson to introduce Critique, Imagine, Design, Expand, and Repeat (CIDER), an iterative design method to help students think beyond “average” users by highlighting how technology can fail to serve diverse needs and can be made more inclusive.


My teaching assistants and I recently conducted a quantitative and qualitative survey evaluation of our most recent course offerings that employed these methods. The following paragraph is an excerpt from our arXiv:2312.12620 preprint:

We found a significant increase in the following attitudes: computing confidence and sense of belonging. While women, non-binary, and other students not identifying as men (WNB+) also increased in these areas, they still reported significantly lower confidence and sense of belonging than men at the end of the quarter. Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern and North African, Native American, and Pacific Islander (BLMNPI) students had no significant differences compared to white and Asian students. We also analyzed end-of-quarter student self-reflections on their fulfillment of expectations prior to taking the course. While the majority of students reported a positive overall sentiment about the course and many students specifically appreciated the justice-centered approach, some desired more practice with program implementation and interview preparation.

Future work should continue to address the dichotomy between employers and students. The students most disempowered are often the ones who are most hesitant to adapt to new pedagogies, even when these pedagogies provide values that employers seek. Additionally, teaching assistant preparation is an open problem considering the literacy needed to teach sociotechnical methods and navigate conversations.


This work makes three key contributions: (1) I identified an opportunity for critical reframing of the dialogue between students, educators, and employers; (2) I described 3 educational dichotomies at this site of critical empowerment; and (3) I shared a way to address the 3 dichotomies through the affordance analysis framework, the CCDSA pedagogy, and the CIDER iterative design methodology. The elements of this approach are most adaptable to courses that can be broadly involve “design” work: affordance analysis applies the value-sensitive design principles to data structures and algorithms; CCDSA prompts students to consider how our designs might look had we considered other approaches instead; and CIDER connects “social thinking” to “technical thinking” in a satisfying loop to help students imagine new ways of conducting their work.

Beyond technology-focused design work, the idea of iterative design can be more generally understood as an invitation to reimagine the work we ask students to do. In teaching a subject, we teach the historically-dominant practices and questions that experts use. But experts often question what they do in order to improve their work. When we respect students by inviting them to reimagine work like experts do, what new questions might they raise about the practices and assumptions that we’ve taken for granted? How might our disciplines benefit from new methods if we encourage our students to reimagine the work we ask them to do?

Additional Insights

There are limits to empowering students given the power dynamics in favor of industry. Under capitalism, employers provide jobs so the sources of stress and uncertainty that students face are unlikely to drastically change even if students can communicate the value of their redesigns. Furthermore, teaching critical empowerment by focusing on students’ individual skills may lead to hubris if we fail to teach students to dialogue with the people their technologies will inevitably impact.

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