Susan Perry and Claudia Roda on Data Science in Higher Education

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On Thursday, March 24, 2022, the Office of AUP’s President Celeste M. Schenck hosted the eighth event in its Presidential Lecture Series: a lecture by AUP professors and co-founders of the MSc in Human Rights and Data Science (HRDS) Susan Perry and Claudia Roda. The Presidential Lecture Series, titled “Technology and the Human Future,” invites speakers to participate in live online events, so they might engage with both theory and practice in responding to the question of how technology will continue affecting our lives beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. Perry and Roda presented on the topic of “Data Science and Higher Education: New Opportunities for the Liberal Arts.”

Professor Perry, a specialist in human rights law, teaches in the Department of History and Politics and is also director of AUP’s multiple international affairs master’s programs. Professor Roda, from the Department of Computer Science, Mathematics and Environmental Science, focuses on the impact of digital technologies on human behavior and social structure and is director of the HRDS program. The pair’s long-running partnership, which has seen them work together as advisors to European Union projects on data science and artificial intelligence and has led to the publication of a joint book, Human Rights and Digital Technology: Digital Tightrope (Palgrave 2017), underpinned the development of the HRDS program at AUP.

Perry and Roda began the lecture with an overview of their research history and the historic links between artificial intelligence and the liberal arts. They explained that human rights theory and digital technologies have grown and developed in tandem: “We wanted to find out how a human rights framework could ensure technology was used in an ethical way,” explained Roda. They then defined liberal arts education through certain core objectives, such as opening student perspectives, promoting critical analysis and encouraging participation in civic life, before noting that data science can both help advance these adjectives and present ethical issues.

Much of Perry and Roda’s research solicits feedback directly from students. Perry noted that students had numerous concerns about the impacts of AI on the liberal arts classroom, including whether digital technologies would endanger the liberal arts focus on teaching, on the small classroom and on human-to-human interaction. “It’s not access to technology that concerns our students,” explained Perry. “It’s access to humans.” Other major student concerns related to bias and discrimination, as well as privacy and censorship.

Perry and Roda also raised two of their own concerns: attention fragmentation and self-censorship. The instantaneous nature of digital communication causes additional distractions to the learning process. The personalization of content and the curated nature of social media postings may lead to students self-censoring or consuming distorted information. Perry and Roda argue that dealing with these issues in the classroom requires a dual approach: adapting the curriculum to fragmented attention while training students to counteract it through analytical flow thinking and privileging comparative reasoning to help students recognize manipulated content. “Depending on who you ask, different things may be considered manipulated,” said Roda. “No matter what your first feeling is, you need to be able to compare.”

Next, Perry and Roda discussed their concept of “mastering the toggle,” which describes the need for students to move seamlessly between modes of learning in the modern world, not only engaging in the oral and written traditions of the past, but also with an ever-evolving digital tradition. “We want to make sure we take a holistic approach to this,” says Perry. Both professors discovered the importance of this transition firsthand during the Covid-19 pandemic, which necessitated a rapid switch to remote learning at AUP and around the world in response to confinement measures.

Finally, Perry and Roda ended their lecture by summarizing five key principles for the use of AI in liberal arts classrooms, arguing that: 1) AI should only be used when it can assist humans in performing better and never when humans would be better suited to the task; 2) AI use should be minimal to keep the focus on human-to-human interaction; 3) students should be involved in the decision-making process when implementing new AI; 4) universities should commit to human oversight by design, ensuring algorithms remain transparent; and 5) algorithms should be registered in an accessible database, accompanied with understandable explanations of their workings.

Following the lecture, Perry and Roda responded to questions from the online audience. The full talk and Q&A are available to view below.