“Have you looked at the Museum of Social Movements yet?” Sophia asked. She didn’t wait for an answer, which often happens when she gets excited to tell me about a resource I may not have found yet. “They have great primary sources from the student protests that began in 2015.” She called up the Preview Experience, still talking as the tiles populated in front of me. Images of groups of students flooded forward: they were carrying signs, sitting in large office buildings, crying. Posts from Twitter 1.0, when they used hashtags instead of embedded grouping, streamed alongside.
“The students were fighting to have equal access to safe and authentic learning experiences, much like what you’re looking into now,” Sophia said. “Only difference was they were looking to the college to provide those experiences. They didn’t have the algorithms yet.”
The statement momentarily distracted me from the problem at hand. I remembered my parents talking about “going to” college, and the concept never ceased to amaze me. When they first told me, I thought they meant they had to Interface at a specific time and place, but they didn’t even have The Interface yet! So they had to physically move someplace to learn. Incredible.
I noted “college = provide experiences.” I would need to be sure to see if any of what the 2015 students faced was similar to the struggles we’re seeing today.
“What’s the museum’s Bias Score?”
“Only 3.1,” Sophia said. Even she sounded impressed; that was very low these days.
“Is it worth getting a slot for the Personalized Experience?”
“Joelle, I’m your mentor, not your brain,” Sophia responded seriously. “You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”
“You’re right,” I said, honestly grateful for her help. “I’m adding it to the playlist now.”
Our team was participating in a global competition on Algorithmic Ethics meant to help define a code of ethics for the algorithms behind cars, matchmakers, dispatch services and anything else that makes decisions that could affect what happens to us. It scored a 32 on the Wicked Problem Scale, and I was responsible for looking into the ethics in learning experience matching: were some people getting matched with more prestigious experiences than others? Were some people’s needs being ignored? It seemed nearly impossible to answer the question fully, and I was stuck.
Sophia’s recommendation gave me hope, though. Checking out a new museum is so much better than just sifting through the Zottabytes of data on our own. Like last year, when I was working on a project about the invention of history, I struggled for two weeks until I found the Museum of Museums, which helped focus me on why humans began studying what has happened in the past. From there, I also learned that museums—like school—were only places to “go” with no way to experience them unless you were in a physical space. At one point, only 55,000 existed! Thankfully The Interface gave us near full access to the millions of museums—collections of reliable information and artifacts with a Bias Score under 10—that now existed. I’d be lost without them.
I plugged the code for the Museum of Social Movements into The Interface. I saw my name and relevant ID and ED data flash in front of me as the system verified my identity. JOELLE MARKHAM/AGE 17/37 BADGES/12 MICRO-CREDENTIALS/MUSEUM COMPLETION SCORE: 46. Thankfully, I’d finally crossed the 45 mark; now I could access an Experience at a museum without them checking in with me all the time to make sure I was on track to complete it.
“Welcome!” a cheery voice said. “Thank you for your interest in the Museum of Social Movements. If you are a learner, you will proceed through the Orientation Experience. If you are a learning pathway designer or learning ecosystem steward, you will be re-directed to our Partnerships page to learn more about what MSM can offer. Please note demand for our services is at an all-time high and we have a waitlist for Personalized Experiences unless your learners are part of our existing network.”
What else was new? My learning ecosystem steward was one of the first to break from the old model where all the knowledge and learning was accessed in one building, and she secured Partnerships with dozens of museums – both physical and Interface – before most educators knew what was going on. Now museums were trying to keep up with demand. Apparently the Smithsonian, one of the few museums for whom it still made sense to maintain a physical location with no Interface access, had a 2-year waiting list.
After the short Orientation Experience familiarized me with the organization and controls, I was directed to the First Experience. The really great museums know this part is crucial. If I like the First Experience, I’ll want to go on to the Personalized Experience, which is where they make money and build their reputations. From the first moment, I knew this museum had it down.
Suddenly, I was Interfacing in the middle of a protest at a university. A narrator explained that the students faced threats and unsafe situations because of their racial, sexual and gender identities. They wanted the president of the university to resign because he had ignored the problems they raised with him.
A news story from the time of the protest showed a journalist saying that the students had no idea what things used to be like in the days of segregated schools. He said they were weak and asking for too much, considering how far the university had come in diversifying and offering opportunities to all students.
It sounded eerily familiar to the arguments of the engineers and executives at the companies that own the algorithms that most learning hubs use. Their patents allow them to keep the algorithms secret, so they don’t have to reveal how it matches learners to experiences. On top of that, they say anyone who questions them is ignoring all of the progress we’ve made on personalized learning.
In my research, I’d found one interview with a CEO who was asked , “When you built the algorithm, did you design it with students who have traditionally had lower-quality learning experience in mind?” the CEO responded: “We had all students in mind.” Sounded like something of a cop-out to me.
I turned my focus back to the Experience, which was now showing an interview with a woman defending the students for their bravery to stand up to a powerful institution. Alongside, the museum had added notations about her sources, the points she was making and her Retrospective Reputation score. I clipped all of it for later.
After an hour going further and further down the rabbit hole of the student protests, I felt a little overwhelmed. Had anything changed at all since 2015? Were we still fighting the same old fights, just with new weapons?
A voice startled me out of my philosophical trance.
“How’s the First Experience going for you?” she asked cheerily. “I’m Laura from the Learner Experience Team here at the Museum of Social Movements.”
“Helpful,” I said. “A little depressing, but helpful.”
“Social change feels depressing a lot of the time, unfortunately,” she said. “But just think how much more depressing it would be if we didn’t have it.” I smiled. She was right. And now I was more determined than ever to figure out how we could make sure the algorithms were treating all learners fairly and ethically.
“Do you think you’ll want to book a time at the Personalized Experience?” she asked, not wanting to push too hard. She didn’t need to sell me on this one, though.
“You accept Vista Fast Pass, right?” I asked. Whatever the cost of the Personalized Experience would be worth it; I had enough EdDollars left, and I had to know how things turned out in 2015.
“Of course!” she said. A few seconds later, a slot at the Personalized Experience showed up on my playlist. I would be paired with a retired university professor to talk through the exhibit with; his credentials seemed like a perfect match for my project.
“Thanks, Laura,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” she said warmly. “And remember, just because something’s hard doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it.”
“Actually,” I said, “It probably means that we should.”