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Edtech and Ethics: A Conversation with Professor Maggie Little

August 17, 2021

By Viinko

Edtech and Ethics: A Conversation with Professor Maggie Little

Ethics plays an important role not only in edtech’s development, but also in its deployment. We had the opportunity to connect with Professor Maggie Little,  Director of Ethics Lab at Georgetown University, to discuss important edtech ethical considerations and the consequences of ignoring them.

Q. What are the most pressing ethical considerations when developing an edtech app?

Edtech has the potential to advance moral values or goods such as increasing access to educational help. On the other hand, like any tech, edtech has to be very careful that it does not intentionally or unintentionally compromise privacy. It also has to think very carefully about the ethics of surveillance.

With privacy, edtech needs to be responsible with the data it collects. Only thinking about protecting their data against a breach is not enough. Being a good steward of your collected data often means limiting how much you collect, how long you hold it, and who you share it with–openly or commercially.

With the ethics of surveillance, it is important to consider when it is ok to know things about others that they may not agree to you knowing even if you are doing it to help them. For instance, students report rightfully being distressed and outraged when they are surveilled during test-taking online through software that can check eye or body movements. Part of the problem is that there can be huge inaccuracies, resulting in people being punished inappropriately.

Why are these considerations so essential?

These questions are essential because tech is so powerful. Surveillance and privacy are always important considerations, but tech increases their importance because it has so much power to collect information about us and to use algorithms–which may be biased and unfair– to predict what we are going to do. The systems are able to do so much easily and relatively inexpensively, so it becomes easy to move quickly without thinking about the unintended consequences.

What are the potential negative implications of ignoring these factors?

If we are not careful, ignoring these factors can deeply change the relationship between teachers and students as well as the status of the classroom being a place of open inquiry. Consequently, the classroom can become a place of surveillance where students are wary to share information because it can potentially come back to haunt them. 

In edtech as opposed to other types of tech, this is one of the most interesting and important issues. Teachers need to know things about their students to be helpful, but there still needs to be limits so that students can feel a sense of openness and trust.

How can someone successfully create an edtech app while adhering to these ethical considerations?

If you google responsible computer science or trustworthy computer science, there are a lot of people, including private corporations such as Spotify, who are making really good progress. Pay attention, get training, and join the community of people who believe in responsible computer science. It is not about your intentions; it is about due diligence.

    What should consumers look for or be aware of when using edtech to ensure an app is adhering to ethical considerations?

    Make sure you understand the data that is being collected and be really proactive about privacy settings. Take a look to see if they are selling data and do not accept default privacy settings. The business model for a lot of tech companies is actually selling their data instead of getting subscriptions.

    If an edtech app says it is driven by machine learning algorithms, I would take it with a grain of salt because there is no independent verification for machine learning algorithms right now. People are allowed to make crazy claims about what they can know, predict. I would be very skeptical of claims unless they share much more about how they verify the machine learning algorithm.

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