Avoiding Techno-Bias in Instruction: Striving Toward Technology for All | Information Technology | University of Pittsburgh

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Avoiding Techno-Bias in Instruction: Striving Toward Technology for All

In an era dominated by technological advancements, universities play a crucial role in shaping future leaders. By incorporating technology into the curriculum, making resources available to students, and providing opportunities to hone their skills, students can graduate with the IT skills required in the professional landscape.

While technical skills are a gateway to employment, technology is not immune to the challenges posed by bias and inequality. Awareness of techno-bias is critical for ensuring that our efforts to provide students with a strong technical foundation doesn’t place an undue burden on marginalized groups.

What Is Techno-Bias?

Techno-bias refers to inherent biases in technological systems. It occurs when the racism and discrimination experienced by disadvantaged communities is unwittingly encoded into the technology environment of our everyday lives. This bias can take numerous forms, such as services that are inaccessible for users with disabilities or unequal access to tech resources among students. Techno-bias also includes data collected from exclusionary practices, like predictive algorithms in mortgage lending that use data influenced by redlining or facial recognition software tested primarily on white men that misidentifies POC. The integration of technology in educational curriculum and institutional practices has the potential to perpetuate such biases if they are not explicitly addressed.

Identifying Techno-Bias Challenges

Pitt frequently uses technological tools for assignments, assessments, grading, collaboration, and other educational purposes. However, these tools may inadvertently favor certain groups over others, leading to disparities in educational experiences and academic outcomes. To pursue the University’s commitment to academic excellence, we should be aware of the following forms of techno-bias.

Assuming Students Are “Tech-Savvy”

It’s easy to assume younger people all grew up with tech and can pick up new apps quickly. But technology is not common knowledge for everyone. Students in poorer neighborhoods or rural areas may have lacked access to broadband Wi-Fi or newer computing devices. As a result, being asked to use LabArchives or navigate a Canvas course can be more challenging to some students than others. In addition to learning the content of their courses, they will have the additional burden of learning new tech tools, which could result in them feeling that they don’t really belong at college.

How to Address:

Careful instruction enables students to navigate technology resources with ease. It is helpful to discuss the content of your Canvas courses and how to access course assignments, grades, and discussion boards during the first class. The Teaching Center recommends that instructors include links to help resources (videos, PDFs, etc.) for the technologies they use in class, and encourage their students to read the directions and watch tutorials to enhance their comfort with new or unfamiliar technologies. "We remind instructors that we must not make assumptions about the level of familiarity or student comfort in the context of technology use. Offering foundational resources can support all students, enhancing their comfort and helping them to build skills," say Laura Trybus, Educational Software Support Specialist and Sera Mathew, Director, Equitable and Inclusive Teaching. 

This discussion is also a great topic for the first recitation session, so that students can request help in a smaller setting. Faculty can also request a Tech Ambassador to offer tutorial sessions covering the basics of software required for their course. If your department hires student workers, it is very helpful to provide explicit guidance about various tasks during onboarding, such as submitting timecards, using departmental systems, or accessing files.

Assuming Students Have Access to Wi-Fi and a Laptop

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, 13.24% of PA households don't have internet access, compared to the national average of 12.22%. Many students don’t have a new laptop, relying instead on an older PC, a tablet or phone, or no device at all. This can make doing homework, participating and asking questions in virtual classrooms, or accessing class resources extremely difficult.

How to Address:

Instructors can ensure that all students are aware of the free computing resources available to them.

  • The Virtual Student Computing Lab enables students to remotely access lab software from any device with Internet access. The computing power comes from the virtual machine, rather than their device, so an old or minimally configured device will have the same RAM and processing speed as a lab machine.
  • Students without a laptop have several options. The Student Loaner Program provides Chromebooks to students in need. Students can also use the Student Computer Lab computers and printers; several are open 24 hours a day.
  • Students can get dozens of free apps, such as Microsoft 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud. If their devices can’t handle it, the software is available in the virtual/campus labs.

Creating Inaccessible Digital Content

Digital content can be a lifesaver for students with visual, hearing, learning, or another disability, as well as students for whom English is not their primary language. Being able to rewatch lectures with captions or using e-readers are important for full access to the course materials. Of course, this assumes that learning materials, such as e-books and online documents, are accessible to students with disabilities.

How to Address:

Ensure that all digital content adheres to accessibility standards. Be sure that PDFs are saved as a document (not an image), so that it can be read with a screen reader. If you have a student with a disability, be sure to get an ADA-approved transcript for any videos. Be sure than online quizzes or activities are accessible. (Activities requiring fine or quick motor skills aren’t accessible for those with hand mobility limitations.) The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the University Center for Teaching and Learning both offer resources and recommendations about assistive technology. "The Teaching Center is always open to offering workshops and webinars for faculty and staff, as well as students regarding accessible content and assistive technology," Trybus and Mathew note.

Using Automated Grading

An automated grading system, like Gradescope, is intended to reduce grading bias by enabling blind-grading for all responses to a question. However, these systems, like any other, can have unintentional bias. For example, they may favor certain writing styles or penalize non-standard language on free-response assignments. This can particularly impact students for whom English is a second language or who have a regional or cultural dialect.

How to Address:

Regularly review and adjust grading algorithms to minimize bias. Provide clear and fair grading criteria for assignments that may involve cultural or linguistic nuances.

Techno-Bias is Serious

Part of closing the digital divide is recognizing the disparities created by techno-bias in education. By prioritizing inclusivity, providing alternatives, challenging assumptions, and regularly assessing technology tools, instructors play an important role in ensuring a more equitable learning environment for all students.

-- By Karen Beaudway and Haree Lim, Pitt IT Bloggers