Is Technology Destructive By Design?

Technology is good. Technology is bad. Both are true. 

The highest tech has transformed the world. It has changed our culture, made information accessible to many more people, altered businesses, education, and the economy.

I came across the book, Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design, by Dipayan Ghosh recently. Ghosh was a Facebook public policy adviser who went into government work with President Obama's White House.

The book's title is a play on those terms of service that products offer and are often not even read by users. Though you can view this book as being negative on the effects of technology, it actually offers ideas for using technology in positive ways, such as to create a more open and accessible world. That was actually part of the original plan (or dream) for the Internet. The extra level of service he sees as lacking is consumer and civilian protections.   

Ghosh is a computer scientist turned policymaker so much of the focus in the book is on industry leaders and policymakers. Technology has done a lot of good but it has also exacerbated social and political divisions. This year we are hearing again about how technology in the form of social media and cyberterrorism has influenced elections. Civilians has wittingly and unwittingly given private information to American companies which was wittingly and unwittingly passed on to terrorist groups and foreign governments.

We have heard this on an almost daily basis, and yet it seems that nothing is being done to stop it.

In an interview with the LA Review of Books, Ghosh was asked about what a broader “digital social contract” would look like. He answered, in part:

"If we can agree that this business model is premised on uninhibited data collection, the development of opaque algorithms (to enable content curation and ad targeting), and the maintenance of platform dominance (through practices that diminish market competition, including raising barriers to entry for potential rivals), then three basic components of possible intervention stand out. First, for data collection and processing, all the power currently lies within corporate entities. For now, Google can collect whatever information it desires. It can do whatever it wants with this data. It can share this information basically with whomever.

Europe’s GDPR has begun to implement some better industry norms. But to truly resolve these problems, we’ll need to transfer more power away from private firms...

We also need more transparency. Basic awareness of how this whole sector works should not be treated as some contrived trade secret. Individual consumers should have the right to understand how these businesses work, and shouldn’t just get opted in by default through an incomprehensible terms-of-service contract. We likewise need much better transparency on how platform algorithms and data-processing schemes themselves work.

And finally, we need to improve market competition. We need data-portability arrangements, interoperability agreements — and most importantly, a serious regulatory regime to contend realistically with monopolistic concentration."

One of the takeaways from this book is that these institutions are destructive by design. It reminds me of the late revelations about the American tobacco industry that they knew their products were addictive and caused health problems and designed the products to increase that addiction while they ignored and even covered up the health concerns. Can the same be said of technology products? 

Useful Free Tools for Back to School From the Internet Archive

As students around the world resume their education - perhaps in a physical classroom - probably online - there is still a lot of uncertainty.

The nonprofit Internet Archive is dedicated to Universal Access to All Knowledge. They provide a number of free resources for parents, students, teachers, and librarians around the world—check out these tools for remote learning!

Over the past several months, the Internet Archive has collaborated with a number of educational specialists to determine how our collections can best serve teachers. You can leverage the Open Library to get new material or find lesson plans to make curriculum preparation easier.

oregon trail screenStudents can also access the Open Library books. For younger students, there are Kid-Friendly resources. For homework help, The Internet Archive has a huge array of textbooks and study guides. If you’re looking for primary sources to cite in your History assignments, our 26 million historical books and texts are a great place to start; if you’re trying to get through English class we also have thousands of works of literature from around the world.

There is even a huge collection of educational (and some less-educational) software and computer games if you need a study break.

The American Libraries collection includes material contributed from across the United States including the Library of Congress, many local public libraries, including material in the public domainand materials sponsored by Microsoft, Yahoo!, The Sloan Foundation, and others.

Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

Jeff Selingo's new book - Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions - will be out September 15 and he has been doing a number of virtual events around the topics in the book. Here are three that are coming up this week. 

There's no doubt that the past 6 months have changed much of the admissions process for high school students and for college admissions officers. Will we ever return to the admission process of the past?

  • For parents of high schoolers: On Monday at 8 p.m. ET, I’ll be hosting another discussion on college admissions in the COVID era – this one focused on how to conduct the virtual college search when admissions representatives aren’t visiting high schools and campus tours are canceled. More details and register here.
  • For college officials: On Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll be in conversation with one of the leading accreditors as well as two academic leaders in online learning about how to assess students in remote instruction this fall. More details and register here.  
  • For parents and counselors: On Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET, I’ll be joining Education Consultant Katy Dunn of PrepMatters for a town hall on admissions. Join us to hear more about the book and what I’ve learned from admissions officials in recent months. Register here.

The book as described online:

"From award-winning higher education journalist and New York Times bestselling author Jeffrey Selingo comes a revealing look from inside the admissions office—one that identifies surprising strategies that will aid in the college search.

Getting into a top-ranked college has never seemed more impossible, with acceptance rates at some elite universities dipping into the single digits. In Who Gets In and Why, journalist and higher education expert Jeffrey Selingo dispels entrenched notions of how to compete and win at the admissions game, and reveals that teenagers and parents have much to gain by broadening their notion of what qualifies as a “good college.” Hint: it’s not all about the sticker on the car window.

Selingo, who was embedded in three different admissions offices—a selective private university, a leading liberal arts college, and a flagship public campus—closely observed gatekeepers as they made their often agonizing and sometimes life-changing decisions. He also followed select students and their parents, and he traveled around the country meeting with high school counselors, marketers, behind-the-scenes consultants, and college rankers.

While many have long believed that admissions is merit-based, rewarding the best students, Who Gets In and Why presents a more complicated truth, showing that “who gets in” is frequently more about the college’s agenda than the applicant. In a world where thousands of equally qualified students vie for a fixed number of spots at elite institutions, admissions officers often make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors—like diversity, money, and, ultimately, whether a student will enroll if accepted.

One of the most insightful books ever about “getting in” and what higher education has become, Who Gets In and Why not only provides an usually intimate look at how admissions decisions get made, but guides prospective students on how to honestly assess their strengths and match with the schools that will best serve their interests."

Mentoring High School and College Students

NJIT campusAbout 58% of college students now get their degrees within 6 years. When I was presented with a statistic like that during a campus tour with my son, I thought the percentage seemed low, but the admissions people were clearly proud of their number. What happened to graduating college in four years? Four years was the standard when I attended college a half-century ago.

The official four-year graduation rate for students attending public colleges and universities is 33.3%. The six-year rate is 57.6%. At private colleges and universities, the four-year graduation rate is 52.8%, and 65.4% earn a degree in six years.

The difference between public and private schools probably has to do with the smaller numbers of students and greater availability to counseling and mentoring. There's not much a student or parent can do about what services are available on campus (other than complain) but I have found a way that a student can get a college mentor.

UStrive is a free virtual mentoring platform that was launched in 2015. They can introduce both high school and college students to verified mentors. A mentor should be able to help guide a student through the college admissions process and the work with them to set and achieve their educational and career goals.

I learned about it because NJIT has a partnership with Strive for College that allows students to participate in a free pilot program over the next year aimed at helping them complete their courses, earn a degree and prepare for living-wage careers after college.

Strive for College was founded in 2007 by Michael J. Carter to help acutely under-served area high school students apply to college and navigate financial aid. At the start, college students volunteered as in-person mentors for high school students, and mentored students achieved substantially better college go-on rates than their non-mentored peers. Strive for College grew to allow students to select a volunteer mentor from companies (such as American Express, Deloitte and EY) to work one-on-one with a student.

Mentoring can help a college student choose courses, fill out the FAFSA, pursue scholarships, and identify career options based on skills and strengths.

Getting mentoring at the high school level may be one way to improve that 4-year graduation rate. Some students get a jump on college graduation by taking AP classes, doing Dual Credit courses, or taking the CLEP exam in order to earn college credits in high school. High school counselors can be aided by college mentors and those mentors might follow the student into their college years.

There are other ways to find a mentor - friends, family, school counselors - but won't work for everyone. Using a matching service like UStrive can help make that transition from high school to college. Students find a verified mentor that attended a particular college or majored in something that you find interesting or are planning to major in yourself. This platform offers real-time chat with the mentor over messaging, video, or phone calls. Students pick a topic to work on with the mentor, and the platform provides information about each step of the journey. For a high school student, admissions and applications would be the start. For a college student, choosing a major and courses might be the starting place.