Blog Post

Examining glitches, switches, and weaponized elements of educational technologies

Our colleague, Raoul Roberts, created the above visualization titled Glitches, Switches, and Weaponized Elements inspired by our class session and readings. His reflections on the class session and explanation of the visualization are below.

Image Credit: Raoul Roberts created the above visualization titled Glitches, Switches, and Weaponized Elements inspired by our class session and readings. His reflections on the class session and explanation of the visualization are included in his reflection.

The Context

In spring 2020, the students and educators in our class Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences gathered weekly on various digital platforms both synchronously and asynchronously to sort though ideas about what it means to be a student and educator during a pandemic. As the shift to distance learning in accordance with social distancing protocols was rapidly ushered in across the City University of New York, our break-out working groups began to imagine and enact community and Prof. Eduardo Vianna’s idea of the collectividual without the possibility of being physically together. 

As so often is the case with new technology, innovation driven by practical exigencies outpaced our ability to consider and weigh the critical/ethical ramifications of this digital swerve away from in-person classroom learning. We found ourselves fleshing out a provisional, critical/ethical relationship to new, technological modes of communication with distance learning practices and platforms underway and in use. 

While fraught, this time was tremendously fruitful because the stakes of our critical/ethical involvement with technology were high and immediately relevant to our lives and centers of learning. Our working group originally hoped to address “quantitative storytelling,” but as the pandemic reshaped the framing and significance of our inquiry, we too shifted our topic to develop a strategy for empowering students and educators to hold onto a measure of agency over their interactions with and responses to algorithmic biases in ed-tech. Our group included: Jessica Brodsky, Elizabeth Che, Zach Muhlbauer, Raoul Roberts, and Kendra Sullivan.   

The Presentation

In the context of distance learning and the increased reliance on technology, our class presentation focused on drawing attention to how algorithms may have inherent biases. The presentation consists of an opening writing prompt to connect with Ruha Benjamin’s chapter on glitches, a class discussion on affordances of technology during distance learning, and a concluding writing prompt to determine which pitfalls and possibilities of ed-tech need to be most urgently and clearly communicated to students and instructors alike as part of a syllabus and/or class contract. 

In the asynchronous portion of our class, we asked students to read the following excerpts from “Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic?” in Race after Technology by Ruha Benjamin, who studies the social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine and founder of JUST DATA lab at Princeton University. We asked our classmates to respond to the following prompt in a Google Doc.

The Prompt 

Glitch (def.)

  • A minor problem
  • A false or spurious electronic signal
  • A brief or sudden interpretation or irregularity
  • May derive from Yiddish, glitsh – to slide, glide, “slippery place.” (page 77)

“This chapter probes the relationship between glitch and design, which we might be tempted to associate with competing conceptions of racism. If we think of racism as something of the past or requiring a particular visibility to exist, we can miss how the New Jim Code operates and what seeming glitches reveal about the structure of racism. Glitches are generally considered a fleeting interruption of an otherwise benign system, not an enduring and constitutive feature of social life. But what if we understand glitches instead to be a slippery place (with reference to the possible Yiddish origin of the word) between fleeting and durable, micro-interactions and macro-structures, individual hate and institutional indifference? Perhaps in that case glitches are not spurious, but rather a kind of signal of how the system operates. Not an aberration but a form of evidence, illuminating underlying flaws in a corrupted system.” (page 79-80)

When we use the term “default” to mean the norm, a “glitch” is an interruption of the norm. What parallels can you draw between Benjamin’s discussion of “the default” and “glitches” and the current state of higher education in the midst of the current pandemic?

Class Response & Discussion 

Our colleagues responded by drawing parallels between glitches and the government’s response to the pandemic, as well as fears of the consequential outcomes (e.g, budget cuts, larger class sizes, inadequate social distancing measures in overcrowded schools). They drew parallels and wrote about experiences in the classroom. One colleague noted how “people of color, people with disabilities, queer people, people who are all of these things and more, etc. – are made to feel as if they are the ‘glitch.’” For many of our colleagues, the transition to distance learning has again brought out the existing glitches in our communities. The glitches are not new, they are recurrent, and are felt by those who don’t match the “standard.”

Moving forward with our synchronous discussion, we prompted our colleagues to critically reflect on the affordances of educational technology in our current moment of distance learning. Our dialogue in turn made a point of analyzing the way in which educators may perhaps take instructional continuity for granted, equivocating onsite and online modes of learning in an effort to support their own default instructional practices. With this in mind, we invited the group to explore the role of student-monitoring software in today’s online educational landscape, which then prompted inquiry into CUNY’s recent negotiations with Respondus - an online monitoring system that educators may use to record and proctor students during test-taking procedures in an effort to ensure online academic integrity. This conversation led to questions of institutional accreditation as it pertains to online learning—and how in particular we might resist the power structures at play within proprietary ed-tech platforms like Respondus. 

Major Takeaways

In the last portion of our class, we asked students to respond to the following prompt in the class Google Doc:

From this class, what is one thing that you would share with your students or colleagues or family / friends about the technologies we use inside and outside the classroom?

In posing this question, we called on our colleagues to help us think about how we can transform critiques of educational technologies into actions. Our colleagues offered a diverse set of advice, including calling on institutions to actively engage students in decision-making about which educational technologies are adopted and how they are used. Our colleagues were especially concerned about the use of educational technologies to surveil and police students, all the more reinforcing the need for students to be “at the table” for discussions about these technologies. At the course level, our colleagues recommended that instructors integrate discussions and activities about how students’ data is collected, used and stored. They also noted that instructors should be transparent with students about their reasoning to use (or avoid) specific educational technologies in their courses. To conclude, students and educators should always have leadership positions during any ed-tech decision-making and implementation processes.

References: 

Benjamin, R. (2019). Default Discrimination: Is the Glitch Systemic? In Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (1 edition). Polity.

Watters, A. (2017, December 11). The Weaponization of Education Data. Hack Education. http://hackeducation.com/2017/12/11/top-ed-tech-trends-weaponized-data

Further Reflection: Transforming the System =  Designing a New System, by Raoul Roberts

Efforts to reform the “system” – the way an aspect or all of society truly functions – are essentially addition-based; they involve either an expansion of existing statutes, or an increase in the number of statutes. This is a global reality. Significant reforms in education, healthcare, civil rights, and voting rights, have been exercises in addition. However, implicit in that equation, the status quo (the original rule) is preserved, albeit less conspicuous in the enlarged crowd or less identifiable beneath the added layers. Logic dictates that true reform – that which seeks to be inclusive of all people – is achievable either by subtracting discriminatory elements within the existing system or designing a new non-discriminating system.

Subtraction is troublesome because it requires taking away privileges or currently enjoyed by those whom the system favors; therefore, questions regarding who determines the subtracting, what is to be subtracted, and when is the subtraction to be done, create conflict, division, and the eventually an entrenchment of the status quo. Nothing changes. What if all the subtraction were done simultaneously so that no one is favored over the other? At first, that idea may sound appealing, but a system stripped bare of rules would ignore the uncontrollable inequities such as those presented by a disability or an unfortunate circumstance of birth. Besides, the work involved in subtraction may be so overwhelming, it may prove to be more efficient to resort to the other alternative: creating a new system designed by everyone that works for everyone. Unconvinced? Let us examine our current system. 

The glitch, in common parlance, is akin to a hiccup – an involuntary, short-lived disruption. Superficially, no significant change occurs, so save for the glitch, events are unchanged, and everything continues as normal (the blue path). However, a closer examination of the glitch reveals a substantial disruption in which an alternate path – a different reality – is channeled for those significantly affected by the glitch (Benjamin, 2019). The flicker on the surface was the outer manifestation of the diseased inner-workings of the system in which “the other” or “the lesser” are switched onto a discriminated track (the black path). Now segregated, this lot is routinely profiled, their identities mined for data, and those are weaponized against them in the algorithms that automate the system (Watters, 2017), and in the policies and institutions that govern the system. This other norm is default discrimination.

So, how does one change this system for the greater good of all people? Adding one or more elements, each one constituted of the highest ideals and purest intent, will do little to nothing to alter or expunge the reddened discriminatory cores. Even so, where along the path(s) would these additions be made? It would be wonderful if we could turn the switch to the off position: everyone will travel on the same path, the discriminatory cores will be deactivated, However, for that to happen, we must all be non-discriminating all the time; otherwise, we will simply be turning the red lights off and on endlessly. We already explored what subtraction portends, so that option is also futile. Only creation will lead to transformation.

Hence the reason we must create a new system. What will it be? I have a suggestion, but it’s not for me alone to decide. No one person, no one race, no one ethnicity, no one socioeconomic level, no single ability, no one sexual preference, no one religion gets to design this new system. If all interests are present and active in the formative stages of the new system, then the system will work for all. This is especially true in the field of education. Transformative education demands rethinking the education system. My contribution to any structure would be that it is founded on, guided by, and actively promotes the Golden Rule. In such a system, each person is respectful of each other’s differences, and recognizes that those unique perspectives present learning opportunities and foster harmonious relations among all people.  

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5 comments

Thank you so much for such an engaging discussion. Looking at education and the systematized responses to differences and opportunities for change created space for looking at how these continue to impact us till this day. 

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The single most significant takeaway from this class for me was how you brilliantly applied Benjamin's framing of "the Glitch" to our current situation in higher education. This demonstrated immense flexibility as you changed gears to create a class on a topic that felt relevant to where we were at, as evidenced by the robust conversation we had! In a sense this class built on one of the main themes of the semester: that the structures of the university were and are human creations with racism, patriarchy, coloniality, ableism, and more at their core. They can be abolished. We can create something new and better. 

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Thank you for such an interesting and engaging discussion. I think one of the things that really stuck with me is how carefully the system is set up to convince you that the systematic and systemic violences are just "glitches", rather than the entire foundation upon which the system is built. Thinking about this on technological terms is useful precisely because our world is becoming increasingly - sometimes distressingly - technological. Understanding the ways that technology, too, perpetuates these ideologies is becoming increasingly important.

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Our class discussions through distance learning have brought greater nuance to what we are experiencing now, in real time. Seeing others in education actively discuss the "disruptions" caused by the pandemic and the "adjustments" made to accomodate everyone as best as possible (through this course and online platforms) relieves me, in the sense that we are all critically thinking of how to transform ways of connection, knowledge-exchange, and feedback-reception. It is disheartening to hear stories by people who are struggling to have their humanity recognized--before and during this pandemic--because of the "glitches" in a conventional system of learning... But gathering folks to publicly acknowledge the faults of the "default" system is the big step towards transforming a new and improved system.

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This was a very helpful discussion post for me. Thank you for sharing it. These glitches in the system remind me of the necessity of inclusivity and accessibility in teaching environments. How these parameters can affect the way we deal with this issue? In other words, what can we do at the time of pandemic when redesigning a whole new system may not be the fastest possible approach?

I think that as we gradually develop our systems to use algorithms with no bias, we may start by being more inclusive in our learning services which might be something that can affect the quality of education. Considering diverse people in the decision-making process for the education system can be helpful in developing a better structure. For example, using an asynchronous option for classes can provide a student with better access to educational services. Using discussion boards can be another option to give students more accessibility in participating in discussions at different times. Having multiple modalities for delivering projects and class assignments also could have a big impact on students’ accessibility and give students with different situations the chance to use algorithms that are more appropriate for their learning experiences. In addition, a sense of inclusivity teaches them their rights and helps them in coping better with systems with biases.

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