Law in the Internet Society

A Digital Curriculum for the next generation

An Information Revolution

In 1993 a student teacher at my rural Waikato primary school told my class that we stood on the edge of an Information Revolution. Computers, she said, were going to change the way we all lived and would give us access to any information we could ever want or need. The idea this machine might become a gateway to the world was mostly shrugged off by most of the 9 year-olds, but her prescient statement always stuck with me. In the 25 years since the world has indeed been gripped by an information revolution. The internet has changed the way that people interact and learn, and one of the challenges is now is knowing what to listen to – how to discern the truth in all the online noise.

The “noise” throws a multitude of content at your average internet user aimed at keeping them online in a comfortable echo chamber of their own thoughts. While this is now acknowledged, we are still having problems discerning between what is fake and what is real online, and a nascent technology threatens to create additional confusion in this area. A recent Lawfare piece suggests that machine learning algorithms combined with face-mapping software enable the creation of content using an individual’s voice, face and body. The result is extremely sophisticated believable videos of people. Deep fakes have quickly made use of famous faces for sleazy ends, but potential damage of this technology goes beyond non-consensual porn: prominent people could be made to make statements or speeches or undertake acts or interactions with people, cyberstalkers can hijack their victim’s features control their online identity or torment their victim, and blackmailers could use a fake video to threaten reputations. This last example exposes a sad reality: corrections and technical rebuttals would not have the same reach as the damaging salacious video. This is especially so if the video confirmed a preconceived bias the target audience held. So how do we create a society that will cut through the noise, refuse to create echo chambers, and reject these deep fakes? I think one of the key ways is through education. Education needs to teach society how to manage the noise that the digital world throws up. I see four key aspects that need to be taught and reinforced in mainstream education: critical thinking, technical skills, curiosity and ethics in a digital world.

The Role of Education

In late 2017 the New Zealand Ministry of Education consulted the public on the digital technology curriculum it proposes to introduce in 2020 to the classrooms of 5 to 18 year olds. The stated aims of the curriculum are helping to develop digitally capable thinkers, producers and creators. The Technology Curriculum learning area has three strands: Technological Practice, Technological Knowledge and Nature of Technology. These three strands are embedded within each of five technological areas:
  • computational thinking for digital technologies
  • designing and developing digital outcomes
  • designing and developing materials outcomes
  • designing and developing processed outcomes
  • design and visual communication.

The Ministry received 33 written responses and over 500 survey responses to its consultation.

Teaching critical thinking, persistence, and skills

Ideally, the curriculum would give children the skills to see the truth in the noise the digital world presents to them. This requires the critical thinking to ask the right question and the curiosity to persist searching for an answer, and the skills to undertake the search. For example, Dr Herb Lin suggests that one possible solution to “deep fakes” may be adding a digital signature to authentic videos. This is little help unless one is willing to question the authenticity of the video, can think critically about what and why it has been presented in this way, and has the skills to look for the digital signature.

The “nature of technology” strand of the curriculum students develop an understanding of technology as a discipline and learn to critique the impact of technology on societies and environment. I hope this aspect of the curriculum includes a critical exploration about the manipulation of human behavior or thinking – how a product can be designed to present information to trigger a particular thought, or elicit a particular response.

Regarding skills, much of the digital technologies curriculum is aimed to give students technical skills and an understanding about the parts of systems and how they work together. One aim is to create digitally fluent members of society. This means the students should be able to decide when and why to use specific technologies to achieve a specific task or solve problems, and to be able to create their own digital solution if needed.

Finally, one would hope that education in general - both structured and in the home - encourages curiosity and persistence regardless of the subject matter.

Creating ethical digital citizens

The curriculum proposes to develop the students’ understandings of digital information technologies considering ethics and the needs and impacts on stakeholders. One of the feedback messages received by the Ministry of Education in the consultation process was that ethics and digital citizenship aspects of the curriculum needed to be more explicit – ethics is mentioned only once in the curriculum and being a digital “citizen” appeared to be synonymous with a citizen with digital skills and knowledge, rather than requiring a level of social and civil engagement. The Ministry acknowledges the role for parents in this “Help your children understand that digital technologies gives them the tools; but they still need to know how to work together, communicate, lead, make ethical decisions and plan in order to succeed."

A step in the right direction

New Zealand’s digital technologies curriculum is a step towards giving school aged children a formal education that goes beyond simply using a computer. While I would like to see a stronger emphasis on ethics and the social impacts of technology, it appears that some of the skills that are taught will enable them to cut through the noise – or at least understand how products are created and targeted to particular audiences. It is also heartening to hear that the ethics and digital citizenship was an area that the public felt strongly enough to comment on. I look forward to seeing how the curriculum is rolled out in 2020.

-- By RebeccaBonnevie - 21 Mar 2018

I think this is a very interesting account of events. As with any successful example in this genre of compressed reporting, the reader's likely response is to want to go deeper. Links to the responses received as well as the original consultation paper would be valuable. It might be helpful to edit hard the introductory material, including for example the sentences about the state of video faking, in order to make room for a more analytical discussion of the responses, not limited to one individual comment about signing video that raises more issues than it can in itself resolve.

I do think that the real question is not what will be "rolled out" as how the curriculum will grow and develop afterwards. Any teacher knows that the initial offering a newly-developed courses is the invaluable bad first draft, not the finished work. The more so in an area in which fundamental, not marginal new development has occurred, where a new subject altogether is being defined and taught.

I was a little surprised that there was less reference in the consultation to other nations' and states' efforts in the area than I might have expected. How many commentators or government sources have considered the relevant curricula in places such as Finland, or Kerala? As teachers gain experience with the New Zealand effort, they will be all the more likely to benefit from engaging with others, not just at the level of policy formation, but in gauging social outcomes.

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r2 - 31 Mar 2018 - 13:51:52 - EbenMoglen
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