Reading response

Principle 2.5. Design with technology, to transcend technology.

While reading Chapter 2 of Artful Design, I found myself reflecting a lot on my motivations for studying computer science / building tools and how they intersect with the causes I care about. More and more, however, I think I’m realizing that I’m not as “passionate” about computer science itself as I am about what it might enable.

Before studying computer science or doing anything in tech, my background was actually originally in education and education equity. My first jobs involved tutoring early-readers at local elementary schools, teaching English to low-income students in Brazil, and conducting education research in NYC; it was through these experiences that I recognized challenges within education and became interested in technology and what opportunities it might afford in the classroom (or for learners more broadly). Now, I don’t think that any application or software could ever replace a teacher or even that technology will be the end-all, be-all solution to a lot of these questions of equity, but I’m particularly interested in this idea of building tools to help support or complement educators, especially in less-resourced or low-income contexts.

For instance, in Educ 101: Introduction to Teaching and Learning, we recently reviewed a survey of primary and secondary school teachers in California about their views of the profession. Through this survey, I learned that teachers often cite feeling overworked and overcrowded classrooms as key reasons for burnout and consequently, wanting to leave teaching for good. However, what if we could build a tool that could help take off some of the burden of less human tasks like grading, sorting, and planning and help free up teachers to engage and personally connect with students? Would teachers feel more valued and less demoralized in the classroom? Additionally, what if we could build a tool that could help students pursue personalized learning tracks catered to their individual interests and learning levels, regardless of the class size? Would students feel more personally invested in their own intellectual exploration? These are goals that may seem far away, but that technology may one day enable, helping teachers feel more empowered in helping their students, or students feel more excited about learning.

This can sometimes lead to questions of depth vs. breadth, and whether my creations need to be influencing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users worldwide in order it to be valuable or worth pursuing. It’s not uncommon that I hear people saying they want to work at bigger tech companies because a project they make or a line of code they push to refine search results or add a button would be impacting millions of people who use their screens and visit their sites every day. But what about the project or the line of code that helps a teacher feel valued or helps transform the way a patient heals or a storyteller creates? Even if it is an astoundingly miniscule fraction of the scale of, say, Google or Facebook? This isn’t to say that that things like refining search results or optimizing user traffic aren’t important or are inherently hollow pursuits, but I think that artful design and the sublime strive for something beyond.

Ultimately, I think Principle 2.5 speaks to this feeling I’ve been grappling with: that I’m not particularly interested in building technology for technology’s sake, but rather as a means to some other non-tech ends. This often feels like the “wrong” conclusion or a bit out-of-place as a student within a school of engineering amidst peers who aspire to build the “next big app.” I feel as this principle articulates this aim — to create things that help people feel moved, feel seen, or feel empowered.

Example: AltSchool

AltSchool was an ed-tech software to help teachers create personalized learning curricula for K-12 students. This was one of the earliest examples of a learning technology that made me reflect on potential opportunities for technology's role in the classroom, and I even wrote about this software in particular for my PWR1 class, the Rhetoric of Race, Class, and Education. It's worth noting. however, that I'm quite critical of a lot of the frameworks and methods of AltSchool's approach in particular — specifically in regard to its financial inaccessibility and hyperfocus on already "well-funded private schools." I wanted to include it here as a sort of imaginative glimpse at this higher goal.

The paper itself is somewhat lengthy, but you can find my final PWR paper here with more reflections on AltSchool's approach.

Watch 3:42-5:00ish.