SPOT ON

Leave no-one behind: a case for democratising access to technology education

Spot on. By opening up technology education to more students, we would make society fairer but also foster creative solutions to global challenges, argues Roberta Sgarliglia.

16.03.2021

Technology is simultaneously a buzzword and a promise. It has permeated an increasingly large portion of our lives, including our most intimate and individual experiences, ranging from tracking our heart rates, daily moods, anxiety levels to recording our social interactions and political preferences.

The advent of artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things, cryptocurrencies and quantum computing, among other developments, have made tackling some of the world’s most pressing and complex challenges, such as climate change or even fighting a global pandemic, plausible at the very least.

It is therefore clear that technological tools entrust great power to the very few who have the knowledge to implement, design or modify them. Some of these technologies like machine learning algorithms are unintentionally biased or discriminatory against minorities and vulnerable groups, because they reflect the status quo, and hence injustices that already exist. Algorithms used for prediction are built relying on past data, amplifying any inequalities by projecting them into the future.

A great example of this is the data gap, which exists around women’s bodies, and how they are affected by car accidents. Standard data used in car crash simulations fails to properly account for female body shape and measurements, resulting in incorrect assessments of mortality rates for women (see this Forbes article). This is shockingly unfair and unsafe. We need a more diverse expert base to rectify these fallacies, breaking the vicious cycle of exclusion once and for all.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that combining efforts and pooling resources is generally the only way to develop comprehensive solutions to complex problems.

In the coming years, diversifying access to technology education will be pivotal from an ethical standpoint, but there are also more practical reasons to argue in favour of bringing more people onboard. Judging from my experience in the field of data science, there is a significant knowledge gap in the labour market (and therefore, as markets go, a strong demand for individuals with the right skills).

ONLINE ADULT EDUCATION OFFERINGS such as MOOCs (i.e. Massive Open Online Courses) and dedicated academies have come into existence to bridge this gap, and upskill eligible workers. In the process of doing so, they have also reshaped what technical adult education could look like: questioning long-lived practices in academia such as the conventional static knowledge transfer method; catering to learner needs in a more tailored fashion; allowing for self-paced, asynchronous learning and greater flexibility, which suits the needs of an increasingly varied set of learners, such as those with disabilities or caring responsibilities.

All of this is being done along with efforts to find innovative ways to foster collaboration and teamwork (e.g. code wars and friendly hackathons). These changes are here to stay.

By opening up technology education to new students who lack conventional technical backgrounds, have learning difficulties or limited time and resources, we would not just be bridging a skills gap and making society fairer. We would also be fostering innovation and creative solutions to global challenges.

The global Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that combining efforts and pooling resources is generally the only way to develop comprehensive solutions to complex problems. The world is so interconnected and problems so interwoven that it would be impossible for one group, one industry, one country, or one continent to devise a solution alone.

Technology is what drives us forward, and it is unthinkable for access to knowledge to be limited to a small, highly homogeneous group when we are increasingly faced with challenges that affect the livelihoods of each and every one of us. Fundamental change is often a painstakingly slow, non-linear process, but it is the only way forward if we want to consciously shape the world we live in.

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