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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Algorithms: Are They Giving Students a One-Sided View?

By Peter DeWitt — February 01, 2016 4 min read
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Are you noticing that the friends you don’t agree with on Facebook are beginning to disappear from your feed? Are you ok with that?

Do you notice that you see the same posts by the same friends?

Are you at all worried that your view of the world through social media may be condensing and not expanding?

What about the friends you do agree with but don’t see as much anymore? Have they disappeared as well?

The other day a friend from my college x-country days made a comment on something I posted on my Facebook page. I realized it had been a long time since I had seen her page pop into my feed on Facebook. It’s not that she hadn’t posted in a long time, it’s just that she doesn’t post as much as others, so therefore I liked other pages more...and her page disappeared from my view.

I became increasingly aware of what popped up on the right...you know...where they want to sell us things.

As I looked to the right of my page, I saw an advertisement for a pair of shoes I had viewed on a website and then a book I had viewed on Amazon. On my Facebook page, all of these things that I had viewed or “liked” kept coming up.

Everything right in front of me just as I “like” it.

There was a time when we didn’t have to worry about that as much. We would constantly be subjected to advertisements we didn’t care about when the internet first started...yes, some of us remember when the internet started. At that time we probably said things like, “I don’t want to look at that,” or “Why do I have to see that?” I guess our wish came true because we are coming to a point where we no longer see what displeases us...and we are constantly shown what the internet thinks we want more of.

But is there a downside to all of this?

For some of you this may not be new news. I wrote about it in 2012, which you can read here, and it was inspired by an informative Ted Talk by Eli Pariser. However, is it problematic that in all of our choices in life, it seems as though we have less...choices because we only see what the internet thinks we want to see? Are we missing out on important information because our personal algorithms (of filter bubbles) don’t think we want to see it?

Limiting Our View?
With all of this streamlining to meet our needs we are at risk of missing out on important information that will give us a more well-rounded view of the world. It’s why media literacy is so important. For full disclosure I am a bit of a creature of habit and used to watch the same news at the same time. I like things in order, and don’t like to veer away from the same path that I always run on.

However, over the last few years since I saw the Pariser Ted Talk, I realized I was seeing a one-sided, almost ethnocentric, view of the world. So, I began watching more BBC and Aljazeera because I wanted to see something more global. I wanted to be exposed to more than I allowed myself to be exposed to before.

Student View of the World
I worry that our students...our children...are growing up with a one-sided view of the world where they are only seeing what they like. It’s like they are at risk of tracking themselves because they only maintain one path, and their internet choices are only contributing to that. We need to make sure that they are getting a more well-balanced view of the world.

And that is where our teaching comes in.

Media literacy is important, because if your Facebook page is anything like mine, you have friends who are posting memes, most likely around politics, that are misguided and not factual. We need to make sure that students don’t follow the same path. They need to understand and research whether their facts are real or not.

It also makes me wonder about how we teach our students. Are we listening to their aspirations, or streamlining what they learn to fit into the aspirations we are setting for them? I often wonder whether we are listening to the aspirations of our students or pushing our own aspirations on them based on what we know about their past and present in order to get them prepared for the future that we think they should have. When we should be providing them well-balanced information to give them the inspiration to find their own aspirations that they can share with us, so we can help contribute to that as well.

In the End
There is nothing wrong with seeing what you like on Facebook or Google, but we should also be exposed to those things that we didn’t even realize exist, and our students could benefit from that too. When we talk about learning, too many students want to give us the answer they think we want to hear, instead of the answer they may want to say. And that is like an on-line filter bubble or algorithm that only gives us the information it thinks we want. Student voice is about so much more than that. It’s about breaking out of the streamline and having better dialogue to build understanding.

The following spoken word video from Suli Breaks may help explain why....

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.