Q&A with Dean Mili

Dean Mili
Friday, September 28, 2018
Dean Speaking at 2018 STEMM Equality Congress

Dr. Fatma Mili, Dean of UNC Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics (CCI), will participate in the 2018 STEMM Equality Congress (SEC), in Amsterdam, Oct. 11-12. The SEC will feature thought leaders from around the globe discussing equality, diversity, strategy, policy and best practices. Mili, an advocate for increased inclusion in STEMM education, is a confirmed speaker at the congress, which features interaction through Q&A sessions, workshops and satellite events. In advance of the event, Mili spoke with the organizers to answer a few questions about technology in education. 

Could you explain the background behind TransSTEM (Center for Trans-Institutional Capacity Building and Educational Equity in STEM)?
 
Our success in taking Purdue Polytechnic from concept to implementation relied heavily on collaborations with other innovators who consulted with us, gave us ideas, debugged our designs and supported us intellectually and morally. This experience helped us recognize the need for a trans-institutional community for faculty engaged in educational innovation and institutional change. The three questions that drove our work at Purdue were: 1. How to prepare students for the future? 2. How to integrate research about human motivation and learning in the classroom? And 3. How to create a system that is driven by inclusion and not exclusion? We cannot address these questions in an authentic way without re-examining core implicit assumptions about what we do and how we define our success, our profession and ourselves. This is hard to do alone. We needed a community.
 
What are your thoughts on how technology is currently taught?
 
Technology is having a transformational impact on the way we live, the way we work and the way we communicate. The full social implications of these changes have yet to be fully understood. We somehow continue to perpetuate the myth that all science is neutral and all technology is good. This cannot be further from the truth, yet we have not changed our curricula and our methodologies to address this.
 
Engineering and computing curricula require a course on ethics, but it feels like an afterthought. Engineering Design methodologies and innovation curricula are even more striking in how they overlook ethical issues. Most of them are built around three axes: desirability – is a human need met by the designed artefact; feasibility – do we have the technological know-how to realize the artefact; and viability – is this a commercially viable product. In other words, social and ethical implications are not part of the equation.
 
At UNC Charlotte we are looking at changing our computing curricula so graduates are equipped with the intellectual tools, but also and especially the habits of mind to always reflect on the questions: Should we do this? Who benefits? Who pays? These and similar questions will be embedded in every design exercise. This means we will not rely on a separate walled off course on ethics to make “ethical computer scientists.” No course project or research project will be complete without a section or a chapter that illustrates that the student and the researcher incorporated social and ethical implications into their design.
 
You have previously commented that lack of diversity and inequity is exacerbated by technology. Could you expand on the issues you feel we are currently failing to address?
 
The issue of diversity and inclusion is complex. Its persistence cannot be attributed to a single factor. Its solution, similarly, has to be multifaceted. As with most contemporary issues, technology is sometimes part of the problem; and can always be part of the solution.
Inequity can be exacerbated and magnified by technology. This is why deliberate attention to the broad implications of any design is very important. Unless we pay special attention, our algorithms reproduce, magnify and legitimize our biases; our computing systems systemize and multiply our biased processes. Let’s take one example, inequity in education. Online education (and MOOCS) were seen to have the potential to be the equalizer, by broadening access to classrooms and faculty, and by introducing an element of flexibility. Unfortunately, in most cases the data does not bear this. Students who sign up for online classes are indeed much more diverse than those in traditional classrooms; but students who complete and pass the online courses are as, or more, homogeneous than the students who pass and succeed in face-to-face classrooms. This is a design issue. Technology-based online education has not solved the equity problem; it has simply duplicated and magnified existing inequities. With this realization, many educational and computing researchers are now making a deliberate effort to understand what includes and what excludes in order to create inclusive systems.

 

The 2018 congress will provide leading researchers, policy makers, government representatives and others the opportunity to network and collaborate in an interactive environment. With an expected attendance of over 350 delegates, SEC 2018 is among the most influential gatherings of passionate experts for whom greater equality, diversity and inclusion in STEMM programs is a priority. 

- Lea Thompson ('20)

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