The Data & Society Class: Process and Collaboration

Course Objectives and Structure

This book was created as part of a Data & Society course taught by Dr. J.J. Sylvia IV at Fitchburg State University in Spring 2023. The course was developed as part of a new interdisciplinary major in Digital Media Innovation. Although the major is hosted in the Communications Media department, its classes span nine different disciplines across campus. The course also has general education designations for Civic Learning and Ethical Reasoning. Because the course is open to majors from across campus, it was also tailored to allow students to explore how data is impacting careers and fields related to their own majors and future plans. The course description is as follows:

This class explores the uses of data in Communications Media, including tailoring professional communication advertising campaigns, green-lighting film productions, creating profitable micro-transaction mechanisms in video games, and more. How is data leveraged to form arguments about society, make decisions, and generate profits? Through hands-on projects, students will analyze ethical challenges related to data visualization, algorithms, privacy, citizen and employee surveillance, and more.

The Data & Society class aims to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the role and impact of data in various industries and sectors, while emphasizing the ethical, social, and cultural implications of data-driven technologies. The course is structured to encourage collaboration, active engagement, and critical thinking, combining lectures, readings, discussions, and hands-on activities to facilitate a dynamic learning experience.

Perhaps most importantly for the current project, the first iteration of this course was designed around the implementation of a Remixing Open Textbooks through an Equity Lens (ROTEL) grant, which supports faculty in their creation of new open education textbooks for academic courses. My approach to this grant was to bring students into the writing process as part of the course requirements. To do this, I assigned core readings addressing pressing issues in the field of data that were front-loaded toward the beginning of the semester. I then invited students to select topics related to their major, planned career, and/or interests. Students worked on this topic throughout the semester by selecting readings for their classmates on the topic, leading a class presentation session on the topic, and drafting and revising their chapter for this text multiple times.

The ROTEL grant also facilitated easy access to a wealth of support across campus, including staff members who were able to visit class and offer support to students throughout the process. I’d like to take this opportunity to offer special thanks to Reneé Fratantonio (Head of Instruction and Information Literacy at Fitchburg State Library), Marilyn Billings (Faculty Advisor & Consultant for a Dept. of Education grant with the MA Dept of Higher Education and Framingham State University), Rachel Graddy (Director of Disability Services at Fitchburg State University), and Meagan Martin (Instructional Designer at Fitchburg State University).

The overall goal for this project is to create a first draft of a text that can continue to be revised and extended by the larger academic community. This will be especially important for a field such as this one, where changes to data practices happen quickly. For example, students in future classes may elect to write new chapters, or update and extend existing chapters based on their interests.

One major limitation of this approach which should be noted is that, especially in a small class such as this one, student interests may align closely. Nearly half of the students who contributed chapters to this first collection were involved in the Game Design major in the Communications Media department. For that reason, we all worked together closely to make sure they addressed different ways that data practices are used broadly within the gaming industry. Ultimately, this means the first iteration of this book is a bit more limited in scope. Nonetheless, I ultimately believe that having students work on a project that they care deeply about is pedagogically more valuable than creating a more topically diverse first draft of this volume.

Adult Learning Connection

One additional element of this grant was to extend opportunities for participation in the project to our local community of adult learners. I did this by teaching a similar course for our Adult Learners of the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program and offering those students multiple avenues of participation. These courses differ significantly from traditional undergraduate courses in that they do not include grades or traditional assignments, though reading lists are a common element. For this reason, ALFA students were invited to participate in the project in a few different, entirely optional ways, which included submitting a chapter of their own, helping with editing, or mentoring undergraduate students and providing feedback on their work. Ultimately, two of these ALFA students, Kevin and Carol Smith, chose to mentor students in my undergraduate class and visited several times to provide feedback on work-in-progress.

Student Contributions  and Chapter Development

Here, I’d like to take a moment to fully outline the process that was used for the development of the chapters included in the text by students, especially in case other courses may like to adopt or amend this process.

Week 3: Students were asked to select a general topic early in the semester, by the end of week three. Their choice here was not yet binding, but meant to provide a guiding framework for their next step, as they developed a larger proposal for their writing. This week featured multiple guests visiting the course. Marilyn Billings gave a presentation that covered the overall goals of the ROTEL grant and why we are creating OER textbooks. She also helped students develop an understanding of the creative commons licenses available and we had a discussion about the type of license we wanted to assign to our project. Reneé Fratantonio also gave a demonstration on how to use library resources to complete research on their topic. Students were given time in class to begin researching their chosen topic and ask for help or guidance from myself and Fratantonio. ALFA mentors Kevin and Carol Smith were also in class on this day and had conversations with all the students in the course. In addition to any feedback the ALFA mentors gave, the challenge of putting their idea into words and talking through it with someone not directly involved in the class was itself valuable to students in the process of selecting their topic.

Week 6: Students were next tasked with writing an approximately 150-300 word proposal for their topic, requiring them to complete additional research on their proposed topic to make sure it was viable. ALFA mentors attended class again on this day to hear the revised and extended proposals and offer feedback. In this class session, students rotated through meetings with both the ALFA mentors and me to workshop these proposals and prepare for the next steps of writing a full chapter. Students also signed up for the day in the semester where they would lead a class session on their chosen topic.

Week 9: The first full draft of the chapter was due during the ninth week of the course, with the expectation that it may still be a bit rough around the edges as students were continuing to learn more about their chosen topic. For this draft, I provided big-picture feedback on the chapters-in-progress. This included suggesting parts of the topic that perhaps were not addressed or needed expansion. I also gave feedback on how students could more deeply address diversity and ethics within their topic. Rachel Graddy and Meagan Martin visited class on this day to discuss accessibility considerations for the writing process.

Week 14: The second draft of the was chapter due this week, and this was intended to be a complete and polished draft that students would consider ready for publication.

Week 15: Between weeks fourteen and fifteen, students all peer reviewed one another’s work using Google Drive commenting and suggesting tools. I also participated in this review process, leaving extensive feedback that included minor issues such as grammar as well as major suggestions for revisions.

Week 17: The final draft of these chapters was due during week seventeen, which was the scheduled final exam period for the class. No exam was given during this period, but students could attend with final questions about the project at this time.

Finally, I should note that some further editing was completed by me on these final drafts. However, in this round of editing I only focused on minor edits aimed at clarity and did not make any structural or thematic changes to the final product created by students. In short, students were provided with significant on-campus support, multiple rounds of iterative feedback, and opportunities to fine tune through three drafts of the chapters. Ultimately, this assignment was challenging for students, as the majority of them had not previously encountered any similar coursework about the implications of data on society, and were therefore exploring an entirely new subject area. The majority of students were also freshman or sophomores.

The Importance of Understanding the Implications of Data on Society

There were important tradeoffs in approaching the course in the manner described above and in letting students help develop the topics addressed in the class. Most significantly, this meant that I was selecting only about half of the overall content of the class in terms of the topics and readings assigned, while the rest was ultimately assigned through the decisions made by students.  Therefore, I tried to highlight the major societal issues related to data. Briefly, I explored the following topics during the class:

A Brief History of Information and Big Data: Understanding the historical context of data development and the emergence of big data helps students appreciate the evolution of data-driven technologies and their impact on society.

Artificial Intelligence: Exploring the development and applications of artificial intelligence (AI) provides insights into the ways AI has revolutionized various fields and the ethical considerations that arise from its use.

Data Bias and Algorithms: Examining issues of data bias and algorithmic fairness is essential for understanding how data-driven technologies can unintentionally perpetuate existing biases and discriminatory practices. Students explore a range of readings on this topic, such as works by Jill Walker Rettberg, Kate Crawford, Catherine D’Ignazio, Lauren F. Klein, and Safiya Noble.

Data Ethics: Delving into the ethical considerations surrounding data collection, use, and dissemination helps students develop a responsible and conscientious approach to data-driven practices. Resources such as “An Introduction to Data Ethics” by Shannon Vallor and William J. Rewak provide valuable guidance.

Quantified Self and Data Visualization: Investigating the quantified self movement and data visualization techniques enables students to explore how data shapes our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Students engage with readings from Jill Walker Rettberg, Claudo Minca, Maartje Roelofsen, and the Tableau Public Blog.

Analyzing Social Media: Studying social network analysis methods allows students to examine the ways in which data informs our understanding of online interactions and social networks. Resources such as the works of Gruzd, Paulin, and Haythornthwaite, along with Netlytic Video Tutorials, provide a foundation for this exploration.

The Emergence of AI and ChatGPT in the Course

Finally, I believe it would be remiss not to address the historical significance of the rise of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and other AI-based tools during the semester this course occurred. ChatGPT had officially been released in November of 2022, shortly before the course began, therefore I was, to some degree, able to anticipate this change and include related readings on the syllabus. However, the rate at which the tool was updated and the speed with which it was adopted felt overwhelming at times and required hours of attention on a weekly basis to keep up with the ongoing developments.

Every few weeks in class we would check-in on these on-going developments, discussing especially the ethical issues connected with the technology. As part of our assigned lesson, students also spent time in class working with ChatGPT to better understand its affordances and limitations. One theme that emerged from our in-class discussions was that, at least in its current iteration, ChatGPT was very helpful as a brainstorming tool and to edit or explain existing text but was less helpful in generating specialized writing and essays, especially if they required the use of citations. Going further, one assignment in the class that students could choose from among a list was to test how ChatGPT performed on an assignment they had in another course. All students who completed that assignment reported that ChatGPT was not able to do a satisfactory job completing the assignment they chose.

Because this technology was emerging so quickly, the policy I put in place for the use of AI this semester was simply one that required transparency. I asked that students note any time they used generative AI tools along with how they were used. This is a policy I plan to revisit after reflection on how it went this semester.

In an effort to promote transparency and ethical use of AI, students who incorporated insights or assistance from ChatGPT in their chapters were required to acknowledge its use. This practice ensures that readers are aware of the role of AI in the development of the content and fosters open dialogue about the implications of AI in research and writing. I used ChatGPT for brainstorming and editing purposes in my writing for this text, as a way to further experiment with the tool. However, I did not use it to entirely generate any portions of text.