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Jean Ryoo Delivers Jan Hawkins Lecture at AERA

By Joanie Harmon

Winner of the 2021 Jan Hawkins Early Career Award and director of research at UCLA Center X’s Computer Science Equity Project speaks on her new book, a graphic novel on inclusive computer science education.

Jean Ryoo, research director of the UCLA Computer Science Equity Project, delivered the Jan Hawkins Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) on April 23 at the San Diego Convention Center. Ryoo is the 2021 winner of the Jan Hawkins Award for Early Career Contributions to Humanistic Research and Scholarship in Learning Technologies, named for the the late professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and developmental psychologist who was considered one of the world's leading experts on education and technology. 

Ryoo expressed her thanks to her nominators for the Hawkins Award and her colleagues across UCLA and nationwide, as well as the students she has interviewed and surveyed in her research. She also recognized Hawkins’ legacy as an educator who was known as an advocate for humanistic uses of technology for educational change and for her assertion that technology needed to be viewed as a powerful aid to address complex educational challenges.

“I’m am so sad I never got a chance to meet Jan Hawkins, because I feel very connected to her research, exploring how technology needs to be used as a tool towards these greater ends that we have, to challenge inequality in our world,” said Ryoo. 

Ryoo’s presentation, “’Power On!’: Challenging the Culture of Inequitable Computing Education Contexts in Collaboration with Youth and Teachers,” focused on the research that led to her new – and first – book, a graphic novel titled, “Power On!,” published by MIT Press. The book was co-authored with Jane Margolis, senior researcher at UCLA Center X, and illustrated by Charis JB. 

Ryoo said that she and Margolis centered the experiences and perspectives of youth, including first-generation college students, in order to create a relatable conversation starter for students, teachers, schools, and families. 

“We wanted to translate research into a format that could elevate new perspectives and agency,” said Ryoo in her lecture, “… to make research something that people were actually engaging with, to push forward new ideas and new ways of thinking. We’re hoping the book can inspire these conversations and stronger connections to be made between computing and diversity of interests in educational spaces.”

Ryoo shared research by Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab and Algorithmic Justice League, that revealed gender and racial bias in AI systems sold by IBM, Microsoft and Amazon. The systems had error rates of no more than one percent for lighter-skinned men, while the errors soared to 35% for darker-skinned women. In addition, prominent Black women such as Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams were not correctly classified by AI systems from leading companies. Ryoo underscored the danger in these tools being sold to clients like police departments.

"Computer science classrooms are one of many important starting places for examining how these systems are built and who they serve," she said. "No longer can computer science and computer science education hide behind this wall of false neutrality.

“Computer scientists and educators often say … that their decisions are not responsible for the ethical implications of other human beings,” Ryoo said. “The focus is on making the next new thing… but with limited consideration about whether they should be making that thing.”

Ryoo discussed how “Power On!” explores technologies and their impacts on issues such as policing and health care for people of color, and how technology which is purported to be neutral, ultimately makes judgements and fosters public perception based on racially and gender biased algorithms. 

“Whose ideas are being valued? Whose experiences are being considered? What are the potential benefits and harms?” noted Ryoo. “These are questions that should be central to computer science problem-solving processes, and there are groups that are thinking about it, but not always with the right experiences that are at the decision-making table. This is also true in computing educational spaces.”

Ryoo shared the findings of a nationwide teacher survey by the Computer Science Teachers Association showing that 39 percent of teachers did not see the importance of covering the role of computer science as it perpetuates biases on racism, sexism, and other inequities in learning. She also spoke about issues of access to computer science education and to the shortfalls of it, citing, “… systemic inequalities impacting who has historically had access to computer science education, and specifically, an education that aligns to who they are and what they care about.” 

“In higher education, computer science course rarely center issues of ethics, power, inequity or disability,” said Ryoo. “These are considered elective things to learn and a lot of times, computer science majors are told that it’s more important that they take these programming classes that obviously are not incorporating these ideas in them.”

Ryoo says that the inspiration for “Power On!” came from the realization that the students in her research expressed a need for a way to learn more about the issues of inequity in computing. 

"Computing has to speak directly to … issues of ethics, of power and representation and inequity,” she said. “We need to be supporting youth and making sense of this current tech-saturated world - not only maybe to become computer scientists … but because all of us are using tech and we need to become critical users... and understand how it's impacting all of us."