Thursday, December 03, 2015

Technology and Human Values

If this were a post on Buzzfeed or Upworthy or some other such listicle-driven site, the thumbnail caption would read: "You won't BELIEVE the AMAZING things these COLLEGE STUDENTS did in their PHILOSOPHY class! Check it out!"

That would be a 100% true description, but I will attempt to be more measured in what follows.

This semester, I assigned what I called a "Technology and Human Values" Final Project in two of my courses, which required students to devise a merely-possible technological solution to a real-world, "value-laden" (social, political, or moral) problem.  What they have generated is really, and in several cases unbelievably, impressive. So, I thought I might share the assignment, some background for why I designed it, and a few examples of students' work. You're more than welcome to steal it (though not the students' work, of course).

First, the nuts-and-bolts:  since this was my first semester experimenting with this assignment, I selected only two of my courses-- an Honors section of Contemporary Moral Issues (PHIL220) and my Technology and Human Values (PHIL324) course-- to try it out.  Here is a link to the Final Project explanation, guidelines, and requirements that I distributed to students.  Each group had one 50-minute class period to present their Final Project.  Group projects were graded on the following: (1) evidence of research, (2) originality, (3) clarity of explanation, (4) technological sophistication of the project and the presentation, (5) relevance to course content, (6) "mere possibility" of the project, (7) value-ladenness of the project, and (8) group members' ability to effectively respond to questions.

As I explained in the assignment, I recommended that students consider devising one of three types of "technological" solutions: (1) an app, (2) a website or web-based service, or (3) a machine, tool, or some other "made: thing, i.e., an object of techne.  Students were not limited to these three options, but should they elect to design something else, the burden would be on them to demonstrate how their project was "technological."

Why I Assigned This Project
As I've mentioned before on this blog in reference to other non-traditional pedagogical strategies of mine (see here, here and here), I worry that we-- and by "we" I mean, generically, the professoriate-- are often taking the wrong approach to what is widely bemoaned as this generation of students' language-competency deficiencies. Students come to college with sub-standard reading and writing skills, so the story goes, in large part because they've been brought up on the Internet, which primarily utilizes language as a non-essential tool for "merely" transferring data/information from one (real or digital) site to another.  Students' exposure to the many and varied, rich and complex, dimensions of language are too minimal, their attention spans are too short, their patience with the labor-intensive work of language is too uncultivated, it is said, because language itself is reduced on the medium of the Internet to abbreviations, contractions, compendiums and, wherever possible, words themselves are dispensed with in favor of images (emoticons, even!) for the sake of brevity/efficiency and at the expense of meaning. For whatever it's worth, I think this is a not-wholly-untrue, but terribly ungenerous and unimaginative, evaluation of what the Internet is, does, and can do.

My pedagogical strategy has been, on the whole, to think that rather than forcing upon students the sorts of language-skills practices that are the most familiar to "us" and that effectively worked for us-- which are, let's admit it, no longer effective strategies-- we ought instead, first, take seriously (and really learn to value) the set of skills that students are bringing with them to our classroom and, second, work to design ways for students to use the skill-sets they do have to supplement and improve the skill-sets they don't (yet) have.  Yes, students (in general) don't enough have enough experience and/or facility when it comes to reading long-form texts, thinking through protracted or complicated positions and arguments, writing in professional and/or even grammatical ways... but they do come to us with an otherwise incredible skill-set, which it is only to our detriment to ignore.

The average freshman's skills are, by a long shot, greater and more sophisticated than my generation's (exponentially so for generations before mine) when it comes to "reading" and thinking and interpreting images, for example.  The same goes for reading and interpreting cultural and structural formations, I think, phenomena about which today's college-aged students are hermeneutically-attuned almost by default.   And-- in a case that I sometimes find myself rigorously resisting, to my own detriment-- they are, in general, primed and ready to understand (intuitively, if not yet thetically) that their very "selves" are as really and truly digital as they are real and true in flesh-and-blood "meatspace."

So, why did I assign this Technology and Human Values Final Project?  Because it seemed to me that I ought allow for a qualitative expansion of the manner in which I consider the value of students' consideration of contemporary moral issues.  That isn't to say that I won't continue insisting every semester, as I do, that students read a lot of texts, write a lot of essays, and participate in a lot of difficult conversations that require a lot of difficult thinking. Nor will I stop requiring, as I do, that students articulate a choice in the Trolley Problem, or learn (and recite from memory) Aristotle's definition of virtue, or the three formulations of the Categorical Imperative, or the Felicific Calculus in order to pass my courses. And I won't stop requiring, as I do, that students say aloud, at the conclusion of every single class: "Read more. Write More. Think more. Be more."

What I aim to do in my classroom now is to recognize that I am (and, I think, the students are) far better served by my parlaying the skills students do have in the service of generating, cultivating or supplementing skills that they don't yet have.  It's really that simple. I think this Technology and Human Values Project does that.

Take a look at the range and complexity of what my students have done this semester. I've summarized below (in no particular order) only a few of the projects students submitted this semester for the Technology and Human Values Project.

Read these, think about them, take the time to click through their links... and then just sit there for a minute and reckon, as I've been (fortunately) compelled to do as I've sat through students' presentations over these last few end-of-the-semester sessions: FIRST, how much students can and do and want to read, write, and research in exactly the ways we want them to, given the right conditions.  But also, SECOND, how students can and do think, critique, imagine, collaborate and innovate in all the ways we too infrequently permit them to do so.  When you loosen the reins, open the track, reconfigure the rules of the race just a little bit, you will be astounded, I think, to learn how skilled students already are, how unbelievably imaginative they are, how primed and ready they are for acquiring more and different skills and, perhaps correspondingly, how our commitment to certain very-limited configurations of how we understand "thinking skills" diminishes possibilities for both us and them.

[NOTE: Students' presentations of their projects for the Fall 2015 semester are still ongoing-- and will continue through next Friday, December 11-- so I will update this post as new projects are completed, presented, and go "live" online.]

Here they are, a small selection of my students' Fall 2015 "Technology and Human Values" Fina Projects.

wearable device and corresponding smartphone app developed by Efren Luna, Sam Tope-Ojo and Theresa Havelka

You can read the student-creators' brief description of their project here and a link to their full presentation of it is here. First, I want to commend Luna, Tope-Ojo and Havelka for the amount of research they put into this project, which is remarkable on a number of levels. Although we're all aware that drunk-driving, alcohol-related violence and binge drinking are indisputably "real world," "value-laden" problems, these students did a solid job of communicating the stats and values of that problem in an effective, succinct, visually compelling and persuasive way. I would say urBAC is definitely one of the most sophisticated projects I've seen this semester, as it includes not one, but TWO, "technologies": (1) a wearable wristband-device for real-time monitoring of blood alcohol content and (2) a multi-functional app designed to protect and assist users who find themselves having drunk too much.  I especially like the name of this device/app, which the students suggested could be parlayed into the eminently clever hashtag #WeGoturBAC for marketing purposes.  Drunk driving was the "value-laden" issue this technology was primarily intended to address, but I think its various functions would likely serve to combat alcohol- and drunkenness-related violence as well.

In fact, two of the most ingenious and well-designed elements of this project, in my view, were the gentle reminders/suggestions that designers pre-programmed into the app (see first image below) and the "preset messaging" options (second image below) they made available for users.  As you can see, urBAC is programmed to ask users if they'd like to "call a friend" once their blood alcohol content exceeds the limit for driving.  (In Tennessee, that limit is .08%)  And, before users even go out for drinks, they can set urBAC to automatically contact pre-selected friends with pre-written text messages, to be delivered when the user passes certain BAC levels.


The urBAC wristband device is likewise smartly designed.  Luna, Tope-Ojo and Havelka did a lot of work to research the design of their device and ensure that it satisfied the "merely possible" criterion of the assignment (which requires that students, even if they cannot actually produce the technology they have designed, are at least staying out of the realm of science fiction).  These students researched several devices similar to urBAC and presented a persuasive argument for why theirs was not only feasible, but an improvement over currently extant technologies.  

Over the course of an evening (or afternoon, I suppose), urBAC tracks users' BAC levels transdermally and in real-time, changing color to indicate changes in blood alcohol content. Once the user is no longer fit to drive, urBAC begins to periodically vibrate, and it vibrates at greater frequency the drunker the user gets.  The superadded "vibration" function was one that I found to be particularly original, imaginative and important.  


Again, my assignment asked for a merely-possible technological solution to a real-world "value-laden" (social, political or moral) problem and, in my view, urBAC nailed it on every single level. I suspect that all of us, professors, have experienced that moment when a student says or writes something that causes us to think ohhhh that's soooo good! I wish it were mine!-- but we all know, and most of us respect, that we're all collectively bound by the rules of academic integrity.  We cannot, we ought not and we do not take credit for students' words or ideas.

However, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that urBAC really made me consider, for a moment, inviting a couple of venture-capitalists to my classroom and then making a strong case for crediting my assignment with at least some small contribution to the realization of this idea.

In lieu of stock-options, I suppose the experience of ecstatic, immoderate pedagogical satisfaction will suffice.

On My Own
A mobile-friendly website aimed to educate young (18-25 years old) voters about political issues, developed by Emily Conrad, Michelle Elsberry and Kelsie Richardson.

You can see the demo On My Own website that the student-developers created here, and a link to the full presentation of their project is available here, As the tagline on their website indicates, On My Own is meant to serve as tecnological "political advisory for the modern student." The real-world, value-laden issue that Conrad, Elsberry and Richardson were attempting to address, as they explained in their presentation, was (1) far too many college-aged voters admit to not exercising their franchise and (2) the reason they give for such is that young voters feel uninformed (or insufficiently informed) about specific political issues and/or candidates' positions on specific political issues.

 There are the seeds of several really good ideas evidenced in the On My Own demo site.  Chief among these is the need for centrally located, well-organized and timely access to information about current political issues.  However, the way the students organized the On My Own site is very clever.  In particular, the "What About Me?" tab allows visitors to enter certain demographic information about themselves (class, race, gender, etc) and then view a more "tailored" collection of information that frames whatever political issues they've selected in terms of how it may or may not effect them personally.  (Again, the demo site mostly includes "seeds" of these ideas and is not fully-functional, but the seeds are potentially generative ones to say the least!)  Conrad, Elsberry and Kelsie conceded that they had not yet fully worked out how On My Own might manage the difficulty of presenting "unbiased" information, especially with regard to issues like climate change, where the differences between candidates' positions often amounts to a difference between fact and fiction.  They acknowledged that in the instance of climate change, for example, On My Own site developers might elect to present information that is "biased" in favor of the scientific truth, but that information would inevitably be viewed by some as "politically biased" in the pejorative sense.  (Fwiw, I recommended they embrace bias in favor of truth!)

One thing that may bot be entirely clear from the website, but which played a large part in the students' presentation of On My Own, is the #OMOBus. The #OMOBus, as the students envisioned it, would be akin to a mobile version of On My Own-- literally a bus (equipped with laptops and user-stations) that would travel to campuses and promote the On My Own website, provide opportunities for college-aged voters to access it and, more generally, advocate for young voters' exercise of their franchise.

Conrad, Elsberry and Richardson suggested that students who visited the #OMOBus might, at the end of their information session, be provided with a "demo ballot" for their upcoming election, which they could fill out and, upon completion, be given a QR code to a record of their ballot. Then, on Election Day, these young voters would simply stop by their polling station, scan their QR code, and "vote."  This, I think, was a great idea... even if only still the seed of an idea.

H4H: Hearts for the Hungry
A mobile-friendly web-based service that coordinates the distribution of restaurants' excess food to those who are hungry and/or experiencing food insecurity, developed by Jennifer Davidson and Madison Cranford.

You can see the demo Hearts for the Hungry website that Davidson and Cranford developed here, and their full presentation is available here. Special kudos to these students for embracing the full spectrum of social media possibilities for their project-- they created the hashtag #H4H and utilized it prominently and effectively, they created a Twitter account @HeartsfortheH in advance of their presentation (and tweeted me about it!), and they designed a very attractive sticker-logo (see below) that they made very imaginative use of in both their project and presentation.

Davidson and Cranford's project addresses the real-world value-laden problem of hunger and food insecurity, and I was especially impressed with the research they presented concerning not only the ubiquity, but also the complexity, of these social, political and moral problems.  They did such good work on their demo site that there isn't a whole lot of additional information for me to provide here about the basic contours and operations of their project.  (Please do take the time to navigate through the #H4H demo site, though!)

One thing I do want to note, which played a significant part in Davidson and Cranford's presentation but which does not feature prominently on their demo site, is the use of an #H4H logo-sticker (pictured left).  Davidson and Cranford suggested that restaurants might opt to display this sticker in their windows or doors, not
only to indicate their participation in the #H4H network, but also as a notice tot those in need that that they had excess food available.  One recommendation that came up during the Q&A portion of their presentation was that the same sticker might be displayed at restaurants willing to give patrons the option of "double-purchasing" their meals.  That is to say, restaurant patrons could choose to purchase their meals twice, in effect buying an extra meal that the restaurant would make available (through #H4H) later. This would have the doubly-positive effect of not only encouraging  restaurants' participation in the #H4H network (since, in this case, restaurants' "waste" becomes "sales"), but would also encourage diners to favor participating restaurants.

And, extra bonus, it gives me yet another golden opportunity to realize how thankful I am for students' imagination and ingenuity.

(I'm stopping with these three at the moment because I'm still waiting on "final" versions of other student Projects that I want to highlight.  Keep checking back here, as this post will be updated regularly over the next week,}

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