Why children must learn to decode bias in the online world

11th April 2014 at 01:00
Awareness of partisanship and ethics is essential, report says

Teachers should educate students about the ethics behind computer programming and popular websites, instead of focusing solely on technical skills, according to a new report.

Students will only be able to lead safer lives online if they understand more about why websites are designed as they are and how they are driven by political bias, the study says.

Understanding the motivations behind websites would also help students to navigate the internet and make them better programmers, according to the report published by Nominet Trust, a charity that supports the use of technology.

In her report The Personal (Computer) is Political, psychologist Aleks Krotoski says that computer software has inherent cultural and political bias, as much as newspapers and other traditional media, but that it is less explicit. Almost everything we do online has been created by a "small cabal of people" who live in "one small part of the planet", the report states, adding that "software developers do not necessarily have your individual wellbeing as their priority".

"These technologies aren't neutral; they are influenced by their creators' personal experiences, the contexts in which they were built, the materials used to make them, plus many other elements and interactions in a complex network of creation," the report says. "Unlike other forms of media, we don't yet have the language to discuss the biases that are present in these systems."

The warning comes as more countries encourage schools to teach coding and programming. In England, all students aged 5-14 will be taught coding from this September under the new computing curriculum.

Dr Krotoski said that when searching on Google, for example, students should question the cultural and political bias behind the results they are presented with. The design of software should not be accepted at face value either, she added.

"Teachers will have to ask their students why they put in a certain request in their program that forces people to respond in a certain way: why did you require that certain piece of information from the person?" Dr Krotoski told TES.

It was important for teachers to not only teach their students the language needed to understand the technology but also to "critically assess" the software they use, she said.

"The breaking down of the mystery behind technology is one step, and a very valuable step, because it will give people the linguistics of how to make a program," Dr Krotoski added. "But it won't tell them what it means - that is the really important thing.

"They have to look at the technology - when and where it was developed. Who are the people who are building these things? What is it that they think about human beings? We have to look at the creators of this technology."

Laura Kirsop, managing director of Code Club, a volunteer network that teaches children to code in after-school clubs, said the report's recommendations fell within the remit of digital literacy. "I think the report is right to highlight these areas. Everyone, students and adults, would do well to be taught those critical appraisal skills. But many children can be very savvy when using technology, so it is not always the case that they blindly use something without questioning it."

Drew Buddie, board member of ICT subject association Naace and a teacher at the Royal Masonic School for Girls in Hertfordshire, said it was more important to teach students ethics in broader terms, which, he said, was happening already.

"I agree that we need to teach our students about bias and the veracity of information they encounter, but I would argue this is already done," Mr Buddie said. "My concern would be that asking them to question where a piece of software has come from is narrowing it down too much.

"[Dr Krotoski] is right in saying that Google only gives us links deemed `relevant' to us by a piece of code, and that is something to be questioned, but I don't think we have to then assess the code itself."

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