Informatics courses revamped to emphasize diversity, equity, inclusion

Amy Ko
Amy Ko

The Information School’s undergraduate Informatics program is revamping its curriculum for fall 2021 to integrate diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) throughout all of its core courses. The changes reflect a collective effort from iSchool faculty and are one part of the school’s broader effort to emphasize DEI throughout its teaching and research. We talked to Professor Amy Ko, chair of the Informatics program, about what’s changing and why.

Q: What is changing in the Informatics curriculum?

A: When we have talked about information, technology and people, especially in Informatics, we’ve talked about information and technology as relatively neutral things. We’ve said, “Here are some tools. Here are some powerful ideas. Go forth and do some things with them. What you do with them is an open question.” We’re now teaching that they’re not neutral and that it’s very much every individual student’s responsibility. Students will no longer leave the school saying, “I just need to go make stuff. It doesn’t matter what I make or how it’s made.”

We’ve always had underlying principles in what we do. We say things should be meeting people’s needs and should be available to everybody. There’s a universalism in the history of library and information sciences around access, so those values have been there. We’ve never really talked about harm, oppression or any way that information can control people or change their opportunities.

Q: What are some examples of changes to the curriculum?

A: In our INFO 201 class, which is an introduction to data science, one of the learning objectives that we want to make really clear is that data is not an abstract, static thing. It’s not just a file that you get, that you download from the internet or that somebody gives you. It represents human beings, history, decisions from the past. When you make interpretations of it or you do analysis of it, if you do all of that without any understanding of any of that meaning or that context or history, you’ll end up perpetuating its biases. You have to be cognizant of that as you do all of the things in data science. It seems obvious to some extent, but it’s not at all part of teaching data science anywhere on campus. It will be in our classes. That will be a first.

We teach a class on design, about envisioning systems that use information. There is a perspective on design that empowers designers as the decision-makers, the ones to envision the future. They are the people that we say, “Go forth and decide what will be,” and that’s a lot of power. The change that we’re making there is to help students understand that that power comes with responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility isn’t just to hold that power and do responsible things with it, but to actually give it back or find ways of sharing it with communities and other stakeholders who can be affected by the design decisions you make. That’s one reason we emphasize participatory and community-based design in our courses.

Q: Why make changes to all these classes instead of adding one required class in DEI?

A: We have a class called Information Ethics & Policy, which you would imagine talks about many of these things. It’s about the perspectives on justice that came out of a tradition of philosophy that came from ancient Greece. We have a number of faculty who don’t believe that’s an appropriate framework for thinking about ethics and justice. That class should be the anchor for a lot of these subjects. We’re on our way there and it will be part of the change, but it didn’t happen in time for this big push. Our strategy is one anchor course that provides some of the deep thinking about these ideas and then lots of integrations throughout our entire curriculum that build on those.

Q: What do you hope this will accomplish? How will it change the experience students have?

A: I hope that there are two major outcomes: One, and this is the more obvious one, is that when students graduate from the program, I don’t want them to be able to separate the many skills they’ve learned from these questions of equity and justice. I want our graduates, wherever they end up working and whatever they end up doing, to hold that tension with them and use that to take action and figure out what needs to be done. That might mean making a different design choice or resisting some decision on the part of their superiors, or finding ways to steer their organization in a different direction and do more just things. In a way, we’re trying to prepare some of those leaders that will take action in industry.

The other outcome, which I think is really important, is broadening participation. There are so many reasons why students who are interested in technology go study in social work or education or anthropology or ethnic studies instead of the Information School — because that’s where they can have these conversations about equity and justice. It should be possible for them to have those conversations here, too, if they want careers in technology.

Q: Do you feel like these changes are something students have been clamoring for or is it something they didn’t know that they need?

A: I would say the majority of our students who are in and of dominant groups have not been asking for this. And the minority of students who are in minoritized groups that are often marginalized in all kinds of ways have been asking for it for a long time. Not always asking it of leaders, but they’ve been asking their peers where the classes are that teach this. They’ve been talking about it in our diversity summits that we’ve been holding every year.

Q: This feels like a big breakthrough then.

A: I hope so. I hope that it’s at least a statement that this is what we want to be teaching, and then it’s my job to make sure that we succeed in actually doing it. We need to hire faculty who can actually do it and then make sure they can succeed and have the resources they need.