In the first session of Unpacking Impact, we asked students to draw or describe what impact meant to them on sticky notes. One student drew an explosion to symbolize the disruption of impact. Another student thought the picture was a tree to symbolize how impact can grow and evolve.

Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make

How can we help students learn to ask hard questions about technology’s impact while retaining a passion for creating that impact?

The Media Lab, similar to other programs that support makers and designers, teaches students how to make almost anything (we even have a course with that name). Many Media Lab classes also inspire students in what to make and how to turn those ideas into successful ventures (spring 2016 class offerings).

Designers and makers need more opportunities to reflect on why we make and what it means for society.

Every day, we wake up to articles about technology companies with utopian promises or designers making questionable decisions about the platforms and systems that shape our lives. We couldn’t help asking: how are colleges and universities preparing their students to tackle the ethical and societal implications of their work?

Over the Fall 2015 semester, the three of us designed and taught a graduate course that we named Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make. It was an ethics course for designers by designers, where students could ground these societal and ethical conversations in their own process of design with current projects. Drawing from disciplines like Science, Technology, and Society (STS), we offered a space for technology designers and makers to encounter new questions, stumble through ideas, and collaboratively develop a robust approach to ethics.

In our course, we worked to create an environment where students examined the contexts of their work — understanding where these technologies take shape, the audiences these technologies seek to address, and the design approaches, research methods, and ethics surrounding these technologies. Our larger goal was to take a reflective and critical look into the wider implications of the technologies that students were working on. We wanted them to construct intentional awareness on the societal implications of their designs, making, and research. Throughout the course, we asked students to develop and continually refine their own ideas of what impact meant to them and for their projects.

Images from students’ final project documentation.
In the first half of the semester, we focused on unpacking students’ views and assumptions of impact. In other words, we wanted to “pull the rug from under them.”

For example, this moment was especially apparent in our third session, “Inequality and Empowerment.” Students read an excerpt from Virginia Eubanks’ book Digital Dead End and Estzer Hargittai’s article on “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality.” Together, these readings disrupted the idea that providing access to technological solutions might be enough to bridge gaps in inequality. These scholars also argued that new technologies might even accelerate inequality, since only some people can take advantage of the benefits of emerging technologies. For some students, this class offered their first real confrontation with ways that their work may relate to, address, or even contribute to inequality.

In the second half of the semester, we focused on helping students to “re-pack” their ideas of impact. After supporting students to think hard about the real challenges surrounding their work, we helped students imagine the kinds of impact they can genuinely have. Students learned to integrate critiques into their work by developing a project and reflecting on its impact through the lens of the different ideas from the course. Students met throughout the course to discuss projects with their peers and also in one-on-one sessions with the course instructors.

Each session of our weekly class was organized around a major issue–such as inequality and surveillance–or process connected with the idea of impact, showcasing approaches to design and research that incorporate an ethical standpoint (more detail in the Unpacking Impact syllabus). Each week, students read articles and papers, wrote their own responses, and spent an hour in class discussing their reactions to those papers. Students also led in-class workshops on everything from experiment design, to methods of supply-chain transparency, to the design of online forums.

In this student-led workshop, we used a whiteboard with design personas to role-play different online discussion platform designs.

Each class also featured a guest who shared how they made sense of the week’s issue. Among the guests, Neri Oxman and Hiromi Ozaki talked about the impact created by compelling design. Ethan Zuckerman described how he sustains his vision and passion for impact across the long term. Leah Buechley and Amon Millner described their approaches to designing maker toolkits with diversity in mind. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye outlined the impact that privacy research can have on entire industries. Meryl Alper talked about accessibility in education technology. We also invited speakers like Peng Shi, who shared stories on the role of public input in the design of school allocation algorithms.

Throughout the course, we prioritized creating a safe space for discussion. Our class expected students to question the assumptions behind their deepest motivations in order to reflect and think critically about their work; that’s not easy for anyone under any circumstances. At the outset, we made it explicit to students that we were going to co-create a space of respect and openness. We are so grateful to our class for building that environment together in every class session. As a result, students were able to share their honest reactions as they encountered new ideas. When students presented final project updates, they felt comfortable enough to discuss ideas they struggled with and to hold a supportive, critical discussion about their work with peers and instructors.

Images from students’ final project documentation.
“We can’t hide behind ignorance and neutrality, and we need to be able to stand behind the decisions we make every day.”

Writing at the end of the semester, students explained how their understanding of impact and their role in that impact had evolved. One student remarked that “I had never noticed…the way in which design choices affect society [and] the politics of artifacts.” Another student reported becoming aware “that I am consciously making decisions that can influence a lot more people than I may be able to see.” For one student, “the concept of unknown consequences” was no longer an excuse when working for impact; she wrote about “the designer/creator’s responsibility to consider these before or as they reveal themselves.” Another student agreed: “we can’t hide behind ignorance and neutrality, and we need to be able to stand behind the decisions we make every day.” Overall, students reported feeling empowered by the class to consider the “human element to impact,” and to pursue their passions with humility, “using…strong skills for the betterment of the community…[in ways that are] actionable and thoughtful.”

Now that the course has ended, we’re looking ahead to two things:

  1. What other efforts or ideas have people implemented that relate to the goals of this course? When we started the course we were inspired by previous courses like Leah Buechley’s Design for Empowerment and Sasha Costanza Schock’s Introduction to Civic Media. It’s exciting to see other courses like Ethics and the Electronic Frontier at MIT, and courses at other schools like Issues in Leadership and Ethics at Olin College and Data and Ethics at UC Berkeley. We’ll be interested to learn about more courses and how existing courses integrate these conversations across their core curricula.
  2. How can we continue the kinds of reflective and critical conversations we had in the course, and include the wider Media Lab community and beyond? Taking a course is a major commitment, and only some students can make the time. What are other ways to have these conversations? Conversations about research and design ethics should be a continued commitment, not just an elective.

To conclude this reflection piece, we would like to thank the many people who helped us put this course together. Mitchel Resnick supported our efforts as the course’s faculty advisor. Our amazing set of speakers shared their stories and challenges honestly and provoked our class discussions. Amos Blanton, Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Brian Keegan, and Alec Resnick gave us feedback on early versions of the syllabus. Thanks to Known for allowing us use their blogging platform for our class reflections. And finally, many thanks to our students who also taught us the value of teaching as a form of impact.

Ricarose Roque is a PhD student in the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She designs and researches technology- and community-based learning experiences to enable people, especially youth, to build their own creations that contribute to their lives and enrich their communities.

Sayamindu Dasgupta is a PhD student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, where he designs, builds, and studies the use of computational toolkits for creative learning. Before coming to MIT, Sayamindu was involved in a number of technology-in-education initiatives, such as the One Laptop Per Child project, and he was also an active member of the Free/Open Source Software community in India.

J. Nathan Matias is a PhD student in the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media and a Berkman Fellow who researches collective action, online harassment, and governance online, through qualitative research with communities, quantitative methods, software design, and field experiments. He has experience in tech startups, nonprofits, journalism, and the humanities.