Sept. 3, 2019
About a month ago in Pittsburgh, we brought together a group of educators, students, and technology users to ponder some big unwieldy questions about the intersection of education, artificial intelligence, and youth media. But instead of having attendees passively ingest ideas from a speaker on stage, the event started by giving every guest a chance to pause, think, and respond to a series of questions. They gathered around big pieces of blank paper topped with tweets, images, and questions, then picked up colorful markers, and started to anonymously scrawl their thoughts:
How often do we draw the line between what we can do with tech to what we should do with it?
I see a lot of focus on the “risk” of online spaces. What about the possibilities of taking transformative action?
When profit is the motivation of AI systems, there is always an overlooking of what people actually need and/or want. We often strive for this idealistic win-win scenario, where companies can make a profit while improving society. However, I think that is a false premise.
I suppose it falls under “information literacy” but I think a big part of digital citizenship needs to be “don’t believe everything you read.”
If culture is the broth that contains what a society values, (its) inequities, fears and challenges, then anything “new” created from it will also contain those values, inequities, fears and other challenges.
These are some of the nearly 100 provocative statements and questions that emerged from Learning Power: Examining the Future Of Education Amid Automation and Artificial Intelligence, the first in a series of events (#connectedconversations) that New America and local partners are holding in Pittsburgh and the Southwestern Pennsylvania region throughout the rest of 2019. The full event series, Overcoming Obstacles to Connection: A Humanities+Tech Approach, is designed to help individuals and community leaders connect while also hearing new voices and making links between innovative programs in the tech+humanities space.
The event on July 24 was hosted at the University of Pittsburgh’s Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School in partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, and New America.
In addition to the interactive writing session, the event also featured a conversation with Nicole Mirra, author of Educating for Empathy: Literacy Learning and Civic Engagement, and an assistant professor of urban teacher education at Rutgers University.
Mirra writes about how to use “critical civic empathy” to help build human connection at a time when questions about AI and automation are leading people to wonder how people will gain a deep understanding of each other. In her writing, which is informed by youth culture and digital media, Mirra defines this kind of empathy as “more than simply understanding or tolerating individuals with whom we disagree on a personal level; it’s about imaginatively embodying the lives of our fellow citizens while keeping in mind the social forces that differentiate our experiences as we make decisions about our shared public future.”
As Mirra said at the event: “If we’re not using empathy to make a more just society, then what is the point?”
New America’s Kristina Ishmael moderated the discussion and prompted attendees to ask questions and discuss their own perspectives on how to do a better job of harnessing technology for human connection and learning. One of the discussants was Jhaunea Sherer, a rising senior at Nazareth Prep and a TeenBloc leader with the equity-advocacy group A+ Schools. Sherer spoke about the need for educators to be more available to students as they are grappling with these issues. “Teachers shouldn’t just settle. They need to step up,” she said.
Other high school students were also at the Falk Lab School that evening, affiliated with the YMCA’s Lighthouse Project and Steeltown Entertainment. In addition to having discussions among themselves and with educators about the promise and pitfalls of technology, these students also documented the event through audio and video recording, which will be available as part of the Humanities+Tech event series in the coming months.
One of the many issues that emerged from the discussions was how to ensure that technology in education is informed by the needs of teachers and their students. A few participants asked how to include more educators—as critical friends or otherwise—in the development of technology used in classrooms. Another concern came through in an anonymous note written on the papers used at the beginning of the event, responding to a prompt about a chatbot whose datasets and algorithms led it to start spewing racist language: “We worry that educators and all learners can’t see inside the black box of AI (chatbots).” As another commenter wrote: “We can be more intentional than just doing/inventing just because we can.”
Our next event in the Humanities+Tech series will be on October 5 at the Oakland branch of the Carnegie Library as part of the Historic Pittsburgh Fair. Throughout the fall we will be assembling video and audio to produce a dynamic summary of the series, which is made possible by grants from the Grable Foundation and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.
Photos by Jason Miczek for the National Writing Project. Photos above, from top to bottom: A group of educators add their notes, thoughts, and questions to papers that prompt ideas about artificial intelligence, digital citizenship, and other topics that affect the future of education; Author Nicole Mirra answers questions from moderator Kristina Ishmael of New America; and youth and teacher artists from Steeltown Entertainment work to capture some of the interactions at the event.
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