PROJECT UPDATE #5

by | 1st January 2021 | Project Update

It’s 5am and all is quiet as I write this month’s project update. A combination of 2020 having drawn to a close and the stillness of the world outside is perhaps what is prompting me to reflect a little more keenly on where I’ve been this past year and where I’m going in work, in life, with my lockdown baking skills… I suppose quite a few people think about these kinds of things, particularly at this time of year when we – as a collective – are finishing one chapter of life and embarking on the next. Many people like to enter the new year with resolutions and good intentions. Why not? If I were to name a resolution or two, what I’d like to do in 2021 is be more mindful of balancing work and home life. I’d like to make more time for my hobbies. Many of my hobbies have been left by the wayside more often than not as I try to meet work deadlines, but this year has had me pensive about life. The pandemic has made more pertinent to me that life is fragile, fleeting, and never guaranteed. When I’m old and grey and about to fade away, I’m not going to be thinking about the journal article I didn’t write, or the article review I did not complete (gratis) within a two week deadline, am I?

A book about Graffiti in Africa I received as a Christmas present has had me wanting to explore art and technology more. I’ve been interested in street art (graffiti) for many years, and I’ve been wondering how to combine street art and [educational] technology as a form of data collection and/or presentation. I’d like to share with you a few of my favourite murals by the artist Moh Awudu from Ghana, as well as a couple of other street art works I’ve found from South Africa as I start learning more about the various dimensions of these cultures.

Figure 1: Image source: @mohawudu (Ghana)

Forward momentum

While my holiday break has been restful for the most part, I sometimes struggle to grasp the reality of nearing nine months of on-again-off-again lockdown. We’ve hit Tier 4 restrictions with “stay at home” rules similar to the first lockdown in March: non-essential shops and leisure/entertainment venues must close, social distancing rules remain in place, and travel out of the UK is not realistic. The light at the end of the tunnel is the development of a vaccine. However, as we wait for distribution of the vaccination, instead of things getting better the situation seems to be getting worse. And of course there’s Brexit…

COVID-19 has mutated and is now manifesting as a more transmissible version of the virus. We’ve moved into winter and the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate. Hospitals are under increasing pressure with ambulances more often than not queued up for hours waiting to take in patients for treatment. Social and care workers are being asked to cancel their leave to help keep afloat the health care system. Front line workers are experiencing delays getting the vaccine as are poorer countries, while those entities with influence and money are skipping ahead of the line. As I write this update, cases of infections in the UK sit at 2.38M and 73,512 deaths (John Hopkins, 2020[1]) with some saying the worst is yet to come.

Figure 2: Image source: @mohawudu (Ghana)

Given the government is not ruling out an extension of lockdown to April if spread of the virus cannot be controlled, my hopes of traveling to either Ghana or South Africa sooner rather than later have been dashed. I was optimistic about being in the field to begin the ethnographic piece and to meet my colleagues in these countries face-to-face, but because of the constraints attached to the pandemic response I may not be able to fly over to either Ghana or South Africa for some time yet.

To keep project momentum going as I wait, I’ve continued to work on theoretical frameworks for exploring AI in education. As mentioned previously, I have been reading Foucault (biopolitics), Mbembe (postcolonialism), Latour (ANT), and now Paul Ricœur (hermeneutics). As I read I am also thinking about how I might use these new ideas to build on my theoretical work in Biosurveillance in New Media Marketing—specific to ecosystem-wide analyses of world as a social and phenomenal space, and as a cultural media environment where public perception is mediated by new technologies. The premise of the book is that through technology human being and dispositions are managed through nudges which use behavioural cues, a process that can be understood through the critical framework of biopolitics.

Figure 3: Image source: @mohawudu (Ghana)

Moving beyond the realm of formal education to the process of public pedagogy, this manufacture of reality to change behaviour is quite evident in the case of marketing products and politics. An example of the power of technology (AI+ social media) is illustrated by the events unfolding in re the 2020 US presidential election. Post-election, Donald Trump has harnessed mass media outlets (e.g. Fox News, OANN) to disseminate alternative facts underpinning an alternative reality (or world – similar to Eli Pariser’s concept of a filter bubble) where he won re-election. A working paper by the Berkman Klein Centre (Benkler et al, 2020) examines the use of social media in US politics and suggests that wielding social media offers one power to shape and create reality through spread of information whether or not it is mis/disinformation. I feel as though I am being a pessimist here, but I can’t help but wonder if and how AI is being used, or has the potential to be used, in a similar manner in the context of education.

Lockdown ethnography

I’ve also been wondering about doing school ethnographies remotely and how this would affect the kind of insights gained if I were physically in the field being with people. The school ethnography is scheduled to start in Month 6. Because of uncertainty around travel and whether or not it is safe to travel at all, I’ve had to think more seriously about different ways of conducting a sustained school ethnography using digital tools. I’ve found a few useful resources that explore how to do social research during a pandemic:

  • Professor Deborah Lupton (UNSW) crowdsourced a document that offers suggestions for doing fieldwork and hosts a YouTube series on innovative methods;
  • The London School of Economics Digital Ethnography Collective has compiled a reading list for planning fieldwork;
  • Goldsmiths Methods Lab has curated a page of links to online resources that offer alternatives to face-to-face research.

These resources have been helpful in allowing me to think of ways of doing research in schools remotely. Still, I can’t help but wonder about how all of this affects the authenticity of building research relationships face-to-face. For instance, are there aspects of the ‘everydayness’ of being human lost as a result of human-research interactions going online? Will interpreting phenomenal experiences within the constraints of the remote offer a different sense-perception to those experiences interpreted during and through face-to-face research? That question is clumsy but you know what I mean, don’t you? Last, and as important as the others, how do I build trust with research participants, especially students, when I am not physically present with them?

Figure 4: Image source: @mohawudu (Ghana)

Work Package 1

As I review my work plan, which looks fine on paper, I am hopeful that I have been realistic about project milestones when redesigning the front end of my project to account for COVID-19 impacts. Time will tell. As it stands, the following items from Work Package 1 (WP1) are coming due soon and I am pleased to say we are on track:

PLANNING AND DEVELOPMENT (MONTHS 1 – 6)

WP1

The following inform subsequent socio-technical tasks:

  • Identify key concepts to be examined;
  • Review of education and development initiatives specific to P3s and AI;
  • Design of large-scale survey.

Tasks

  • Development of Fair-AIEd project web site;
  • Systematic review and synthesis of scholarly and non-scholarly texts on AI in education;
  • Horizon scan of P3-driven AI in education and development initiatives in Ghana and South Africa to identify schools for ethnographic research;
  • Development of a large-scale survey instrument focusing on current uses of and local needs around new technologies in school—informed by instruments developed in a previous technology in schools project (Selwyn et al, 2017).

Outcomes of WP1

  • The review and horizon scan will provide preliminary information about conceptual understandings and use of new technologies in schools;
  • Development of large-scale survey.

 

Figure 5: Image source: GroundUp (South Africa)

More good news is that before the holidays officially kicked in, I was able to conduct interviews for the postdoctoral position (Ghana). It was the first time I had participated in an interview panel at UCL and I found the process a good learning opportunity. With regard to things I would do differently when it is time to recruit the postdoc for South Africa (soon), I think I might have been a little naïve when I first wrote the job specification for Ghana. I went too broad. Because of this I was presented with excellent applications that came from an array of research focuses. While I considered this to be a boon, in hindsight I think that my fellow interview panel members had a little more difficulty shortlisting given they were not as familiar with the details of my project. As such, a more focused set of criteria is what I ought to be aiming at for the SA job specification.

What could have been a very difficult process was one that came together so well it ended my 2020 work year on a positive note. So I must thank from the bottom of my heart Professor Elaine Unterhalter (UCL) for her infinite wisdom and my new colleague Dr David Teye Doku (University of Cape Coast) whose insights into the Ghanaian context have already proven to be invaluable. While I would like to formally welcome the postdoctoral researcher to the Fair-AIEd project, I will have to wait until the next update to welcome by name as the recruitment process is still at its final stages.

Although I’d like to write about education in Ghana, it’s best I keep this new year project update short and sweet—mostly because relegating the topic of education to a few hundred words at the close of this update would do a disservice. I’d prefer to dedicate the next project update to what I’ve learned about education in Ghana. Another more inescapable reason is that my dog, Venn, is now wide awake and jumping on the sofa, diving into the Christmas tree, and chasing his tail round and round and round. Dizzying for me if not for him. It’s hard to keep focusing with a whirlwind at my feet. So I’ll end my new year project update here with the very best wishes to you and yours.

Figure 6: Image source: @falkostarr (South Africa)

 

Have a happy and healthy 2021!

– Selena

 

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[1] John Hopkins University. Coronavirus Resource Center. Retrieved January 1 2021 from https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

Selena Nemorin

Selena Nemorin

Author

Dr Selena Nemorin is a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and lecturer in sociology of digital technology at the University College London, Department of Culture, Communication and Media. Selena’s research focuses on critical theories of technology, surveillance studies, tech ethics, and youth and future media/technologies. Her past work includes research projects that have examined AI, IoT and ethics, the uses of new technologies in digital schools, educational equity and inclusion, as well as human rights policies and procedures in post-secondary institutions.

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