Does Facebook need ethics education?

There has been outrage over Facebook’s psychological experiment on 700,000 unwitting users. In order to test its ability to manipulate users’ posts, Facebook used an algorithm that altered the emotional content of their news feeds. (In half of the cases, it omitted content associated with negative emotions; in the other half, positive emotions.)

According to an abstract, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” The findings were published in the March 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and reported in numerous places, including the Wall Street Journal article that informed this post).

Now, these findings aren’t surprising–who wants to be all cheery when your “friends” are down in the dumps?–but they left many people angry. An experiment of this kind isn’t just a misuse of data; it deliberately provokes people to post things they might not otherwise have posted, in a “space” (i.e., the news feed) that many consider their own, since it includes only what they want to include. (Yes, they’re mistaken in considering it their own, but Facebook does a lot to feed that illusion.)

Did Facebook have the right to conduct this experiment in the first place? Kate Crawford, visiting professor at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, says no. Moreover, she holds that ethics should be part of the education of data scientists. (For a more detailed exposition of this view, see danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679.)

What would “ethics education” look like in this context? Would it focus on the issues at hand, or would it examine ethics more broadly, with readings  and analysis of ethical problems? Would it take the form of a professional development course, or would it start in high school or earlier?

It is possible that the Facebook controversy (and others like it) will lead to a greater emphasis on ethics in education. That could be promising if handled well. One pitfall of ethics education is that it may be reduced to specific issues and even mistaught. That is, those studying the “Ethics of Big Data” may never consider ethics outside of Big Data, or ancient ethical problems that relate to their own, or even the distinction between ethics and morality (which has been articulated in different ways but is worth considering in any case).

So ethics education, if taken up by “big data” and other nebulous entities, will need to go beyond a crash course or PD. Study ethics, but study it well. How do you do that? Read seminal texts, raise questions boldly, stay aware of your errors and fallacies, and put your principles and reasoning into practice. That’s just a start.

Zuckerberg gives another $120 million

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan will give $120 million to Bay Area schools in “underserved communities,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, will donate $120 million to public schools in the Bay Area.

Helping improve the quality of public education in this country is something we both really care about,” write Zuckerberg and Chan in an op-ed essay. Chan was a teacher and is now a pediatrician.

They live in Palo Alto, which has excellent public schools, within easy walking distance of East Palo Alto, a perennially low-performing district.

Zuckerberg gave $100 million gift to Newark public schools and was criticized for spending too much on consultants and failing to raise test scores. But there are signs of progress, the op-ed argues.

Newark now has the leading teacher contract in the country that was developed with teachers to reward good performance. New district and charter schools run by organizations with a track record of success have started, as well as 50 new principals. Across the district, the graduation rate has grown by 10%. It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.

In the Bay Area, the first $5 million will go to high-poverty school districts in East Palo Alto and Redwood City and to “high-need” San Francisco schools, reports the Mercury News. (East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood district has received millions of dollars from high-tech donors over the years with few results.)

They’ll work with partners “to start new district and charter schools that give people more high-quality choices for their education,” Zuckerberg and Chan write. They also pledge to listen to “local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students.” Priorities are providing computers and connectivity, teacher and principal training and parent outreach.

Photo not worth 1,000 words

chokehold
A Facebook photo of a principal restraining a girl who’d been fighting resulted in suspensions — for 10 students who “cyber-bullied” the girl.

Principal Todd Whitmire isn’t in trouble, despite a Facebook photo that appears to show him choking a ninth-grade girl. Ashley Johnson, 15, fell as he was pulling her away from a fight, Whitmire told the Contra Costa Times.

Ten students were suspended for “racist and derogatory comments” about the photo, the principal said. “It was the reposting, the retweeting, and keeping it alive and assigning negative comments to it and creating a hostile environment.”

The fight apparently had been planned on social media, which is why the principal was right there.

Johnson and the boy she was fighting also were suspended. She’s now wearing a neck brace and blaming Whitmire. In an at-home interview, she claimed to be “unable to move,” but a classroom video taken the day before by a school resource officer shows her moving easily, the Times reports.

District monitors students’ social media posts

In hopes of preventing violence, drug abuse, bullying and suicide, a suburban Los Angeles school district is monitoring middle and high school students’ social media posts, reports CNN.

Glendale is paying $40,500 to Geo Listening to track middle and high school students’ posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

When the idea was piloted last spring, monitoring identified a suicidal student. “We were able to save a life,” said Superintendent Richard Sheehan.

Recently, a student posted a photo of what appeared to be a gun, but turned out to be fake, Sheehan said.

“We had to educate the student on the dangers” of posting such photos, Sheehan said. “He was a good kid. … It had a good ending.”

Geo Listening sends a daily report to principals on which students’ comments could be causes for concern.

A 12-year-old Florida girl committed suicide after months of bullying on social media, her mother says.

Tech-distracted students study — for 2 minutes

Asked to “study something important,” students stayed on task for two minutes before they “began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feed,” reports a study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. The middle, high school and college students spent only 65 percent of the 15-minute observation period doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Media multitasking while learning means less learning, writes Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

. . .  evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a 2010 survey, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium.

College students are used to texting, emailing and surfing the web in class. Eighty percent of college students admit to texting in class.

Young people think they can do two challenging tasks at once, but they’re “deluded,” says David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor. “Listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

He adds,“There’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

It’s all going on your permanent record

Data mining kids crosses the line, argues Joy Pullmann, a Heartland Institute fellow, in an Orange County Register commentary.

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating how public schools can collect information on “non-cognitive” student attributes, after granting itself the power to share student data across agencies without parents’ knowledge.

The feds want to use schools to catalogue “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes and intrapersonal resources – independent of intellectual ability,” according to a February DOE report, all under the guise of education.

To get stimulus funds in 2009, states had to agree to share students’ academic data with the Education Department, Pullmann writes. But federal databases could expand to include “health care history, disciplinary record, family income range” and more — potentially lots more.

The department recommends schools start tracking and teaching kids not just boring old knowledge but also “21st Century Competencies” – “recognizing bias in sources,” “flexibility,” “cultural awareness and competence,” “appreciation for diversity,” “collaboration, teamwork, cooperation,” “empathy,” “perspective taking, trust, service orientation,” and “social influence with others.”

What will the feds do with all this information? It’s a “disturbing question,” writes Pullmann.

Data miners can figure out your intelligence, sexual orientation, politics, religion and more by looking at what you “like” on Facebook, according to University of Cambridge researchers. Men who “like” Glee tend to be gay! Who knew? People who “like” curly fries tend to be intelligent. That’s because curly fries are tasty.

Stopping cyberbullies

Predatory adults are rare on social media, compared to mean girls and crude boys, writes Emily Bazelon in How to Stop the Bullies in The Atlantic.

Facebook gets millions of complaints a week about cyberbullying, she finds. Employees are expected to decide in a few seconds which have merit.

Henry Lieberman, an MIT computer scientist, is working on a program to spot nasty posts immediately. In middle school, he  was a “fat kid with the nickname Hank the Tank,” he tells Bazelon.

. . . he and his graduate students built a “commonsense knowledge base” called BullySpace—essentially a repository of words and phrases that could be paired with an algorithm to comb through text and spot bullying situations. Yes, BullySpace can be used to recognize words like fat and slut (and all their text-speak misspellings), but also to determine when the use of common words varies from the norm in a way that suggests they’re meant to wound.

In tests, BullySpace caught 80 percent of the insults flagged by human testers.

Lieberman also hopes to use “ladders of reflection” to persuade kids not to harass others.

Think about the kid who posted “Because he’s a fag! ROTFL [rolling on the floor laughing]!!!” What if, when he pushed the button to submit, a box popped up saying “Waiting 60 seconds to post,” next to another box that read “I don’t want to post” and offered a big X to click on? Or what if the message read “That sounds harsh! Are you sure you want to send that?” Or what if it simply reminded the poster that his comment was about to go to thousands of people?

“Ash” and “Katherine,” members of the hacker group, Anonymous, publicized the identities and vicious tweets of four high school boys who were harassing a 12-year-old girl with rape threats and suggestions she commit suicide. She’d followed one of the boys on Twitter, then angered him by un-following him.

At first the boys railed against Ash on Twitter, and one played down his involvement, denying that he had ever threatened to rape the girl. But after a while, two of the boys began sending remorseful messages. “For two solid days, every time we logged on, we had another apology from them,” Ash said. . . . Katherine thought the boys hadn’t understood what impact their tweets would have on the girl receiving them—they hadn’t thought of her as a real person. “They were actually shocked,” she said. . . . we started talking to them about anti-bullying initiatives they could bring to their schools.”

“When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible,” one of the boys e-mailed Bazelon. Perhaps a few seconds of reflection would have helped.

Anti-bullying laws can conflict with free-speech rights, argues Eugene Volokh, a law professor. A proposed Minnesota law bans “interfering” with an individual’s ability “to participate in a safe and supportive learning environment.”

Say that students are talking over lunch about how a classmate committed a crime, cheated, said racist things, treated his girlfriend cruelly, or whatever else, which causes people to feel hostile towards the classmate. That interferes with his ability “to participate in a … supportive learning environment.”

Bullying may include speech or conduct that “relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age” of the individual or his/her associates.

Unplugged — and unheated

Superstorm Sandy forced digital kids to unplug, notes a lifestyle piece in the New York Times.

BLANK screens. Cellphones on the fritz. Wii games sitting dormant in darkened rec rooms. For a swath of teenagers and preteens on the East Coast, the power failures that followed Hurricane Sandy last month represented the first time in their young lives that they were totally off the grid, without the ability to text, play Minecraft, video-chat, check Facebook, or send updates to Twitter.

And so on. Some poor teens were forced to talk to their parents.

Unmentioned are thousands of kids and their parents who’ve been freezing in the dark for nearly two weeks. They don’t have running water or toilets that flush. No wonder they think they’ve been forgotten.

Town turns tables on school prank

The cool kids thought it would be funny to elect an unpopular girl to the homecoming court at Ogemaw Heights High, then taunt her for being an outsider, writes Francis X. Donnelly in the Detroit News. But the people of West Branch, Michigan, a small farm town, rallied around sophomore Whitney Kropp.

Kids pointed at her in the hallways and laughed. The boy who was picked with her withdrew.

Students told her that, in case she was wondering why the boy had dropped out, he was uncomfortable being linked with her.

“I thought I wasn’t worthy,” said Kropp, 16. “I was this big old joke.”

But her family persuaded Kropp to go to the game and have a great time.

“Going to homecoming to show them that I’m not a joke,” she wrote on Facebook. “Im a beautiful person and you shouldn’t mess with me!”

Then word spread, thanks to a Facebook support page, and backing the “free spirit” against the mean girls went viral. Local businesses offered to “buy her dinner, take her photo, fix her hair and nails, and dress her in a gown, shoes and a tiara,” writes Donnelly.
Josh Awrey, the football player who’d dropped out, decided he’d join her after all when the homecoming court is presented at halftime.
“Im sick of everyone blaming me. I had nothing to do with this,” he wrote (on his Facebook page). “I think what they (students) did is rlly rude and immature.”

“Team Whitney” — including graduates who hadn’t been to a football game in decades — vowed to pack the stands at the homecoming game to cheer for her. Normally dressed in black, she got a red dress for the occasion.

Can gaming close the high-tech gender gap?

To close the high-tech gender gap, “encourage your daughters to play video games,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told Dana Goldstein.

. . .  childhood gaming and hacking experience has motivated many computer programmers to enter the field, including Sandberg’s boss, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The leap toward more advanced computing comes not only from playing games—today, 94 percent of girls are gaming, compared with 99 percent of boys—but in becoming curious about how they work and then beginning to tinker with code in order to modify game results. Boys are still much more likely than girls to explore this type of simple computer programming, and not every young girl who is curious about how computers work has an encouraging parent at home or the hardware she needs.

So it’s not just the gaming. It’s the tinkering. My nephew just got hired (first paying job out of college!!!) by a company that makes “pink market” fashion design games.  Girls might learn about fashion design, but I don’t think they’ll learn programming. That’s Alan’s job. (He may know less about fashion than anyone on the planet.)

K-12 educators are trying to hook girls on the “computational thinking” that makes programming possible, writes Goldstein.

The Academy for Software Engineering, a public school whose curriculum will be built around computer programming and Web development, will open in New York City this September. Just one-quarter of the incoming freshman class is female, but the school’s founders, who are closely tied to the New York tech community, have ambitious plans for pairing female students with women mentors working in the field, in order to tamp down on attrition, direct girls into meaningful careers, and recruit more female students to the school in future classes.

In Pajaro Valley, Calif., south of Santa Cruz, researcher Jill Denner launched a program that teaches low-income Latina girls and boys, in gender-segregated classrooms, to create their own computer games.

I’m skeptical that mentors or “pink” games will turn girls into programmers, but I guess it’s worth a try.