Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Not Every Idea Needs a Tool, But Every Tool Needs an Idea

Last semester, I conducted a test-run on a new assignment I had devised for my courses-- the "Technology and Human Values" project-- and I was, quite frankly, floored by the work that students did for it. The basic assignment is for students to work in groups of four or fewer to devise a merely-possible technological solution to a real-world "value-laden" (social, political, or moral) problem. Each group is required give a 50-minute presentation of their project and each individual group member must write a 2-page analysis of the project. After last semester's experiment, I made a few minor adjustments to the Technology and Human Values Project assignment and, this semester, I unleashed it on all three sections of my Contemporary Moral Issues classes (which is the gen-ed requirement, intro-level Ethics course at my home institution, Christian Brothers University.) And, again, I have been absolutely astonished at the sophistication, innovation, and genuine thoughtfulness of students' work this semester.

So, I thought I'd share the details of this assignment for anyone out there interested in mixing things up a bit in their classrooms.  Consider this Open-Source pedagogy.  If you like this idea, feel free to take it and use it. If you want to tweak it, no problem. (But please do send me your suggestions for improvement!)  I'm only a couple of terms into using this assignment, but it has already had a major impact on my courses, so for whatever it's worth, I highly recommend giving it a try,

[NOTE: This is a long post, most of which includes details of the actual assignment.  If you want to see examples of the best of last year's student projects, here are the 2015 Standout Projects.  If you want to skip all the hullabaloo and just get to examples of this year's best projects, just scroll on down until you see the "2016 Standout Projects" section waaayyyy below.. If you want to download a copy of my "Technology and Human Values Final Project" explanation and instructions to read later, just click here. For the rest of you dear, patient folks, what immediately follows is the blow-by-blow account of this assignment.]

Students who invented MORCAL, a moral calculator app, and also made tshirts!
From L to R: Oscar Garcete, Kim Nguyen, Jordan Taylor, Jack Charbonnet

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.

Students are required to work in groups (of 4 or fewer) to: DEVISE A MERELY-POSSIBLE TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTION TO A REAL-WORLD “VALUE-LADEN” (SOCIAL, POLITICAL, OR MORAL) PROBLEM. Each group prepares a 50-minute presentation-- that's a normal MWF class session-- explaining the problem that their project is meant to address, how their project does so, and how it might work. Additionally, individual members in each group are be required to turn in a 2-page analysis of their project.
In my course, the Final Project counts for 30% of students’ final grade in this course. Groups will receive one (collective) grade for their project/presentation. Individual members of each group will receive a separate grade for their short paper. The project/presentation grade will count for 20% of each student’s final grade and the individual paper will count for the other 10%. Group presentations will be graded on (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) significance of the value-problem the project is meant to address, and (8) group members’ ability to effectively respond to questions. Individual papers will be graded on insight, clarity and sophistication of their analysis.

What follows is the exact text of the "why" I provide to students in the Technology and Human Values Final Project explanation and instructions:
• Short answer #1: To borrow, and slightly amend, a line from Robert Browning’s famous poem, I’d say:
A person’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s philosophy for? 

 • Short answer #2: To further amend that same line from Robert Browning’s famous poem, I’d (also) say:

A person’s reach should exceed their grasp, or what’s technology for? 

 • Long answer: For the first half of the semester, you spent a great deal of time and effort reading, learning, analyzing, reflecting upon, and discussing moral theories. That was just the groundwork, the preparation necessary for seriously and critically thinking about what is the primary subject of this course, “contemporary moral issues.” In the second half of this semester, we’ve focused our attention on the many and varied aspects of our lives qua moral agents who are shaped, influenced, and oftentimes determined or restricted by our interactions with various technologies, as well as the merits and demerits of our (social and political) interactions with each other via various technologies. This final project is your opportunity to put all of that knowledge and reflection to good use.

The philosophical and theoretical work you’ve done this term, the discoveries you’ve made about the way you value and evaluate your world, its problems, its virtues and vices, as well as the virtues and vices of the people with whom you share it, is not pointless work. Philosophy permits us to conceive of a different and better world, and it provides us with the tools for figuring out how to make it so. Technology, in different but equally important ways, does the same.

Not every idea needs a tool, but every tool needs an idea.

This project is your opportunity to think, critique, imagine, evaluate, collaborate, and innovate in all the ways that your generation is uniquely capable of doing and which you are (unfortunately) so infrequently given the chance to do. You have the ideas and the skills to make the world better than it is. Now, invent the tools.
What counts as a "merely-possible technological solution to a real-world "value-laden" (social, political, or moral) problem"? 
This is the point where, when I was still in the design-stage for this assignment, I initially worried that my own reach had exceeded my grasp.  It took a great deal of tweaking to get the explanation of this project to a place where I felt it was sufficiently descriptive without being too prescriptive, but I'm very happy with it now.  As a general rule, I tend to err on the side of overly-broad descriptions of my assignments (e.g., essay questions, blogging prompts, etc.) because, in my experience, extra breadth leaves room for unexpected depth in students' work, where the inverse is almost never the case.

Still, this is a novel assignment, and you can't just live the kids out there to die on the vine.  So, here are the three explicit recommendations I give them for projects that would count as satisfying the very basic requirements. The following is excerpted directly from the assignment I give to students:
1. First, and most obviously, an app. Technological “applications” are, quite literally, nothing other than created, designed and manufactured “problem-solvers.” One example that we addressed in class was the Good2Go app, only one of several recently-developed applications (discussed at length here) meant to provide technological solutions to the real-world social, political and moral problem of non-consensual sexual encounters. Similarly, the American Civil Liberties Union developed an app in 2014 called Mobile Justice, intended to provide a technological solution to the real-world problem of police misconduct. Uber, familiar to many of is, is an app that provides a technological solution to the problem of easily coordinating ride-sharing in a way that is mutually beneficial and affordable for both riders and drivers. Snapchat is another app that provides a technological solution to what is, arguably, THE problem of our limited control over how private our digital communications are and how long digital communications can be preserved. Each of these is an example of what would count as an excellent group project, as each addresses a value-laden “real world” problem. As many apps as we have at our disposal, there nevertheless remains far more value-laden problems than there are available apps to resolve or ameliorate them.

[NOTE: There are countless apps that, although they do solve real-world problems, do not solve problems that I would consider “value-laden” in a significantly social, political or moral sense. For example, the Find My Phone app finds my phone, but there aren’t really significant social, political or moral consequences to my losing my phone.]

Should your group choose this option, be aware that you are not required to develop an app that is ready to go “live” at the time of your group presentation. However, groups are required to present a comprehensive demonstration of their “app” idea, which means that groups must spend the appropriate amount of time thinking through how their app could possibly work and what it might look like if it did. I expect app presentations to be visually compelling, to illustrate the important elements and functions of the proposed app, and to clearly communicate how it does or might do what it is designed to do. There are a number of user-friendly, free sites that allow you to design working apps, e.g., AppyPie, AppsBar, iBuildApp, and others. If your group chooses to devise an app, you should utilize one of these sites and have a working version of it ready-to-go for your presentation.

Presentations of obviously “impossible” ideas (e.g., time-travel apps, or mind-control apps, or superpower apps) will not be taken seriously and will not receive a passing grade. However, I will be very generous with regard to what counts as “merely possible,” though groups should be aware that the onus is on them to present the most compelling case for the mere possibility of their project.

2. A website or web-based service. Think about Facebook, Twitter, Google, JSTOR, YouTube, DropBox, or any number of other websites and web-based services that have radically altered the social and political world in which we live, communicate, think, and learn. I do not expect that groups in this class will come up with the “next Facebook,” so I am not setting that as the bar. Then again, Zuckerberg came up with Facebook when he was in college, just like you are now, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

[For the record, if any group does manage to come up with the next Facebook, DO NOT FORGET THAT YOU DID SO IN THIS CLASS!]

On a slightly smaller, but no less significant scale, I’d encourage you to think of other websites or web-based services that we use and which address challenges that are prohibitively difficult to address in “meatspace,” many of which very few of you may consider particularly imaginative or revolutionary anymore because they are such a part of our everyday life. For example, Walgreens and CVS pharmacy services make it easier for people to manage and refill prescriptions. Web-based “cloud” services make it easier for people to store and access information across spaces and devices. The web-based service Amber Alert automatically notifies anyone with a cellphone of a child abduction in their area. Sites like TurnItIn.com make it easier for students to avoid plagiarism (and for instructors to detect the same). Sites like HumansofNewYork, it could be argued, open our eyes to the diversity of humans and human experience in a way that we could never achieve in “real” space and time.

It isn’t always the case that a “great” idea is also “radically new” idea. Often, slightly-tweaking the form or function of an already-extant idea is sufficient to solve an entirely new problem and, in doing so, to radically alter the world as we know it. As with the “app” option above, you are not required to develop a website or web-based service that is ready to go “live” at the time of your presentation. However, you must have a fully functional demo-site at the time of your presentation. (As with the app option above, there are a number of user-friendly, free sites that you can use, most notably Wix.com.) I’m looking for a “merely possible” idea from your group, but also one that is fully thought-through, comprehensively and completely presented, with all of its potential functions worked out in advance.

3. Third, a machine, device, or some other “made” thing, i.e., an object of techne. For this option, the possibilities are almost endless. Some human being, at some time in history, had an idea that subsequently became the hammer, the pencil, the mosquito net, the moveable-type machine, the steam-engine. Some other human being, at some significantly later time in history, had an idea that subsequently became the camera, the automobile, the telephone, the computer, the micro- and telescopes, the Electrocardiogram machine, the air conditioner(!), the Xbox, even the humanoid robot. You, dear students, are members of a very peculiar species of thinking, talking, self-reflective apes that is capable of making things. So, for this project, ask yourself: what is still left to make that might transform meatspace itself into something more manageable, less insufferable, more beautiful, less cruel?

Please note that you are not required to actually bring to class a “working” thing on your presentation day, only to present the idea/design for a merely-possibly working thing. Whatever your group invents must be fully thought-through and comprehensively presented. Among other things, this means that your group will need to thoroughly research, and be prepared to explain in a clear and compelling way, any complicated scientific, mechanical or technological elements that your device may include. (See, for example, the excellent student project BioCan, which included a number of sophisticated biological and engineering innovations that required both significant research and a clear explanation for non-experts.) Again, presentations of obviously “impossible” ideas—time-travel machines, mind-control machines, any device that violates fundamental natural laws of space and time—will not be taken seriously and will not receive a passing grade. (Unless… well, I’m afraid to complete that sentence!) I will be very generous with regard to what counts as “merely possible” but, again, groups should be aware that the onus is on them to present the most compelling case for the mere possibility of their project.

This third category of projects (“any object of techne”), is the broadest, the most mysterious and murky, and so I will grant a serious amount of latitude to groups that choose this option for their project. Today, many people argue that Bitcoin is the greatest technological innovation since the Internet, for example, though Bitcoins are (technically speaking) neither an app, a website, a web-based service, nor a machine/device. They are a purely technological, non-“real” but “made” thing, designed to address significant meatspace (social, political and economic) problems. Bitcoins are, in effect, nothing other than technological “values.”

Of course, anytime you introduce a non-standard assignment into a course, you've got to be prepared for everything to go wrong.  So, I devised a couple of safeguards for the Technology and Human Values Project: (1) a Guideline for Preparing an Excellent Group Presentation, and (2) a Final Checklist for Group Presentations.  I won't include those here-- though I do think they are extremely worthwhile-- but you can take a look at them here in if you're interested. 


And now, at last, the fun stuff!  Here are a few of the more impressive student projects from this semester (in no particular order):

1. BioCan: a device that converts your trash into energy
[BioCan presentation here, BioCan website here]
Prior to this semester, I had not had any student groups who chose the third ("any object of techne") option for this project, so I was especially pleased to see an actual "tool" created by one of the groups this year.  BioCan employs specific varieties of bacteria to "eat" the waste in an oxygen-deprived trashcan and then (when that process is oxidized) convert it to energy. The students in this group were engineering and biology majors, so kudos to them for clearly explaining what appeared to me, at first glance, to be science fiction.  In fact, as it turns out, this is far from science fiction.  As the students demonstrated in their presentation, there already exists a device (about the size of a wallet) that can effectively perform all of the functions of the BioCan,so the only thing preventing their "merely possible" project from being "actually possible" is the failure of engineers (so far) to scale-up the idea.

Obviously, BioCan is a brilliant and genuinely novel technological solution to the real-world problem of not only pollution, but also the need for easily-accessible renewable-energy sources.  I was especially impressed with the imagination (and foresight) exhibited by the group in this slide  from their presentation, which shows the BioCan situated in a normal household kitchen, with an iPhone plugged into it.  As a matter of fact-- and I told the students in this group as much-- this was an idea that I would've have immediately forwarded to Shark Tank if I could.

2. HotSpot: Warmth for the Homeless
[HotSpot presentation here, HotSpot website here]
The image to your left may not look that impressive, but the idea and the website associated with it are brilliant.  HotSpot is another one of the rare examples of group projects that devise actual "objects of techne," this time in the form of a solar-powered, heat-generating, energy-efficient (and wifi-enabled!) "island" that is designed to address the tragic under-availability of shelters for homeless people in cold weather months.  This doesn't often happen when I evaluate students group projects, but in this instance I really learned a lot from HotSpot.  For example, I did not know that hypothermia is a risk whenever the temperature drops below 50°F.  And, as the HotSpot website makes clear, most "emergency" winter shelters for the homeless in the United States do not open until temperatures drop well below that.

Often in the course of researching their projects, I find that students are so convinced of the urgency of the problem they have chosen to address that their presentation of the problem extends much further than their project could possibly serve to ameliorate.  That, of course, is NOT a problem in the grand scheme of things.  In this case, I was more than happy to overlook the hand-drawn engineering of HotSpot in light of the overwhelmingly compelling and thoroughly-researched situation of its use on the HotSpot website.

3. Pa$$theBuc: a cash-free, intra-campus bartering site
[Pa$$theBuc presentation here]
Okay, yes, of course there are pollution and renewable energy problems of global significance, there are neglect-of-the-homeless problems that are widespread and tragic, and there are many, OH SO MANY other pressing social and political problems in the world... but, sometimes everyday moral agents just have to start with the problems that are most immediately knocking at their doors.  And, for many (most!) students, those problems are economic.

First things first, the Christian Brothers University mascot is ("Bucky") the Buccaneer.  Hence, Pa$$theBuc.

Pa$$theBuc was one of the group projects this semester that I thought had a lot of "potential."  I don't mean that as a back-handed compliment. I also think this was a great idea, but I think both the group's presenters and myself realized, in the course of the Q&A that it could possibly be an even better idea than it already was.  The basic problem that Pa$$theBuc was attempting to ameliorate was the truly wallet-crushing price of textbooks for students these days.  Pa$$theBuc was designed to facilitate a barter-system that might allow students to trade items or services of value that they do have (tutoring hours, dorm furniture, event tickets, college-branded "gear") for textbooks that they needed but were prohibitively expensive. In the Q&A portion of their presentation-- and this really is one of the greatest things about this assignment, in my view-- other students immediately realized  the implicit potential in this project and, before the session was over, it had grown into a full-blown concept for a cash-free, intra-campus bartering system than (imho) is desperately needed on every campus today.

4. JOGO: a Fitbit-like device designed to combat childhood obesity
[JOGO presentation here]
By far, JOGO was one of the most popular group projects this semester, and I think that is because it managed to effectively "tweak" a number of already-existing technologies, combine their best elements and, in the course of doing so, to innovate a new technology that effectively addresses a widely "felt" social problem.  JOGO is a Fitbit-like device that tracks the activity of its users (in this case, children) and "locks" their access to electronic devices until they have accomplished a pre-set amount of physical activity for the day.

This is obviously a great idea that addresses an obviously serious problem.  I was particularly impressed with the extesive research that the group did not only on childhood obesity and its long-lasting effects on the health and welfare of Americans, but also the group's careful consideration of what would and would not be effective limits to children's use of technology.  (For example, they were aware that there was a certain amount of device-access that could not be "locked" for a child, and had thoughtful answers for how to work around those parameters.)  Another virtue of this group's presentation was their "framing" of the problem, which included a rather insightful discussion of the importance of habituation (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as the sometimes necessary deployment of the "stick" (restricted access to electronic devices) over the "carrot" (rewards for good behaviors) when attempting to develop healthy habits in children.

5. FreeFlo: an app for locating free feminine products
[FreeFlo presentation here.  FreeFlo website here.]
There are those times when a student says something in class and you think to yourself: would that it were true! And there there are THOSE TIMES when a student says something in class and you think to yourself: OMG IKR?!  The FreeFlo presentation was definitely an instance of the latter for me.  As every American woman must have thought to herself at some point in her lifetime: why oh why is every bathroom equipped with free soap and toilet paper, and NO bathroom is equipped with free tampons and pads? Did every legislator skip their basic sex education classes?  

No, the truth is, they probably didn't skip whatever grossly inadequate sex-education classes they got in public schools in Tennessee. But the truth is that legislators consistently neglect to recognize that the failure to provide free, basic, requisite feminine hygiene products is only part of the much larger cost (up to $11,000) that women pay for the "benefit" of having a period over the course of a lifetime.  FreeFlo, perhaps not surprisingly, was the product of an all-female group in one of my classes this semester.  Not only did they have a great idea, and not only did they execute it well, but they also deserve extra kudos for calling attention to a real-world "value-laden" problem that is relevant to a particular demographic, but no less pressing for being so.

6. VoteUSA: a web-based voting service and voting app
[VoteUSA presentation here. VoteUSA app here.]
Here's a project whose time has come.  Or is coming soon, at least.  VERY soon.  As I said to the presenters in this group, I am more confident that, in my lifetime, I will vote on my phone for a President than I am confident that I will see a female President in my lifetime.

Obviously, there are a number of serious and seriously consequential (security) problems that come along with an app like VoteUSA, but the presenting group was quick (and right) to point out that our votes are already digital and so any objections we might have to the security of digital voting are objections to the voting system as it already is, and not objections to VoteUSA, which is trying to do it better,  #Micdrop

To my mind, the greatest virtue of the VoteUSA group's presentation was their emphasis on the untapped potential of the under-25 voting demographic, which they (rightly, I think) anticipated would be far more likely to exercise their franchise if voting were digital than they are now.  I really want to encourage you to take a look at the incredibly well-researched and well-presented VoteUSA slides, which clearly show that if under-25 voters voted at only half the rate as over-65 voters, they would all but determine the outcome of every single election.

As Whitney said, I believe that children are our future,  LET THEM VOTE AND LET THEM LEAD THE WAY!


There were a number of other truly impressive and genuinely innovative presentations for the Technology and Human Values Project this semester.  This is just a selection.  I can confidently say, though, that even the worst of the presentations only re-confirmed my confidence in the value of this project.

I'm leaving the comment section open on this post. Please do send suggestions and amendments to the Technology and Human Values Project if you have them!

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