Making Technology Just and Equitable

learning redesign during distance learning

Technology and free markets helped lift a billion people out of poverty in less than a generation. Cheap devices and ubiquitous broadband have narrowed the digital divide. It’s never been easier to start a business, code an app or launch a campaign.

As we solve old problems, new challenges arise. The previous year has taught us that polling is broken, news is occasionally fabricated and we live in filter bubbles. Now that most people are connected, the new divide is between those who can use new tools to create value in the innovation economy and those who don’t.

Anil Dash

Anil Dash (@anildash), CEO of Fog Creek Software, describes tech as “things invented after you were born,” and admits that what was new is rapidly on the way to being boring. On that path from novel to boring, he asks, “How can I be sure that they are just?”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, argues that our technology has created a set of global challenges that require global responses. That could be a problem given the rise of nationalism evidenced in OECD countries over the last year. Harai argues that challenges like climate change become zero-sum problems if the only way we can address them is locally or nationally.

In his recent manifesto, Mark Zuckerberg echoes Harai: “Our greatest opportunities are now global–like spreading prosperity and freedom, promoting peace and understanding, lifting people out of poverty and accelerating science. Our greatest challenges also need global responses–like ending terrorism, fighting climate change and preventing pandemics.”

Zuckerberg thinks Facebook is the answer–it’s the “social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” He outlined efforts to build a supportive, safe, informed, civically engaged and inclusive community. He claims job one at Facebook is “to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation.”

Design = Values

Whether you view Facebook as the problem or solution, Zuckerberg’s ambition is grand and his stated intent is refreshing.

Intent is important. It’s reflected in the design of tech tools—the governing rules of platforms and the algorithms that build our social feeds. Anil Dash said, “We bake our values into the choices we make when we design these tools.”

One problem is that, unlike older professions, there are no professional standards for computer science. “There is zero ethical curriculum,” said Dash. “You can get a top-of-the-line, the highest credential computer science degree from the most august institutions with essentially having had zero ethics training.”

In the tech sector, notes Microsoft research principal danah boyd, “We imagined that decentralized networks would bring people together for a healthier democracy. We hung onto this belief even as we saw that this wasn’t playing out. We built the structures for hate to flow along the same pathways as knowledge, but we kept hoping that this wasn’t really what was happening. We aided and abetted the media’s suicide.”

What Can EdLeaders And Policymakers Do?

There are eight things EdLeaders and policymakers can do to help make technology more just and equitable.

1. Access. Schools still need to make sure that every student has a production device and broadband access.

2. Media literacy. We need to do a better job of teaching media literacy. A Stanford University study suggested that 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website.

If we are to help our students to become critical and independent thinkers and responsible citizens, we need to empower them with the tools to take on fake news and other manipulative media,” said Getting Smart contributor Christina Gil.

3. Safety. Along with media literacy, we need to teach and promote digital safety and security.

4. Measurement. We need to do a better job of teaching and managing measurement—particularly probability and statistics. Researcher danah boyd laments that “data itself has become a spectacle.” She is critical of media outlets that “throw around polling data without any critique of the limits of that data, to produce fancy visualizations which suggest that numbers are magical information.” She’d like to see more responsibility and less entertainment.

5. Guidance. Our most recent book, Smart Parents, argues that the most important divide is between young people who benefit from thoughtful guidance on tech use and those who don’t. Every child needs one person who is informed, involved, inspirational and intentional about learning and tech.

6. Ethics. Tech is surfacing new and complex ethical issues (watch Jennifer Kahn on gene editing). Youth deserve the opportunity to learn about emerging issues and an ethical framework for approaching tough decisions.

“We need to actively work to understand complexity, respectfully engage people where they’re at and build the infrastructure to enable people to hear and appreciate different perspectives,” said danah boyd.

7. Navigational skills. Young people will face a tech change larger than Baby Boomers did, and will need increased exposure to novelty and complexity. Attack skills for this include design thinking, project management and learning how to learn. They can be developed through project-based learningplace-based education, STEM and the performing arts.

8. Fight the hype. “We live in a world shaped by fear and hype. Not because it has to be that way, but because this is the obvious paradigm that can fuel the capitalist information architectures we have produced,” said dana boyd.

As Harari notes in his new book Homo Deus, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases, and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. Longer life and lower crime rates don’t make the news.

Let’s help kids develop a balanced view of the real challenges we face and the great opportunity they have to make a difference.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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