As I blogged last week, I am currently participating in a fascinating MOOC exploring engagement in a time of polarisation. It is addressing many aspects of digital communication and engagement, and this week, it focuses specifically on understanding polarisation, and the influence of digital technologies and social media on how we perceive society.
I have found this topic so interesting, but really challenging to respond to, largely because it is such a complex and wide-ranging area. As always, I am moved to always find the education angle – what does this mean for teachers, and more specifically, what does this mean for teachers’ capacity to educate and guide students to develop their digital literacies. The huge importance of being critically information literate has come through strongly for me in this topic. As conversations on the forum have indicated, while humans have always struggled with polarisation, digital technology means that it potentially enters our lives at an earlier age, and in a more personalised way than ever before.
Zeynep Tufekci, Turkish techno-sociologist explains in her Ted Talk below how algorithms created through artificial intelligence and big data can manipulate us in ways we never imagined and that we perhaps do not even notice.
I always knew that Facebook, Google, Pinterest etc fed me what they thought I wanted to see; but the individuality of our feeds, and the potential power of non-public, or ‘dark’ posts to create a personalised interpretation of information is so clearly expressed through Tufekci’s talk, it gave me pause to deeply consider. While marketers like Sprout Social promote the positive aspects of targeting niche sectors using this type of posting, it is obvious that there is also potential for hidden manipulation in ways many Facebook and internet users would not even think about as they post their updates and share their photos.
Once again I see the need to explicitly teach students about how social media and the internet is designed. The difficulty is that with artificial intelligence and big data, the creation of the algorithms that underpin much of the traffic on the internet is moving beyond human control. As Tufekci says in the above Ted Talk:
The problem is, we no longer really understand how these complex algorithms work. We don’t understand how they’re doing this categorization. It’s giant matrices, thousands of rows and columns, maybe millions of rows and columns, and not the programmers and not anybody who looks at it, even if you have all the data, understands anymore how exactly it’s operating any more than you’d know what I was thinking right now if you were shown a cross section of my brain. It’s like we’re not programming anymore, we’re growing intelligence that we don’t truly understand.
To this reality we do not throw up our hands and give in. We educate students and each other so that we are aware of this manipulation and we engage positively where and how we can to discourage the misuse of the affordances of technology. We promote the work of people like Tufekci, and embed action such as that devised by Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver. He suggests that we begin exploring and implementing ‘info-environmentalism’. Info-environmentalism encourages us to clean up polluted information environments, to actively create and share credible, research-based, balanced information and web-artefacts.
Caulfield speaks about the responsibility of higher education to take an active role in balancing the information available online. Rather than living in ivory towers of academia, embracing open practices is just one of the ways that we can do this. However I believe that it begins much earlier than this. I believe that students even in primary (elementary) school can be taught to take an active role in identifying credible information and in creating accurate and balanced web artefacts to share online. Of course, they do not have to have their identity attached to this work – protecting children and keeping them safe is the first priority. However as this brilliant post by Pana Asavavatana demonstrates, even the youngest of students can begin to develop their critical information literacy. And their teachers can share this work online. Every contribution helps to build a more balanced web, and every lesson helps develop individuals who are aware of the strategies being used behind their information sources.
Political and commercial interests are powerful forces, and some might say that it is not possible to stand in the way of these Goliaths. However education is powerful too. Far more powerful that I believe a lot of people realise. And as I said in my previous reflection for #EngageMOOC, we may only be able to make small changes, or contribute in tiny ways. However this is how revolutions happen – by many, many individuals making their own contribution, and moving forward incrementally until the wave reaches critical mass. I believe that all is not lost, but I also believe that we must rethink, redesign and reimagine education so that we are free to make these changes. Inaction, or maintaining the status quo is simply giving in.
We live in times of incredible possibility; let’s engage with this potential.