“I got a stat that will blow you away. At CUNY which is the City University of New York and their CS program, the majority of CS undergrads at CUNY don’t have their own computer.”
Saber Khan is a Bengali-American educator based in New York City. He is a veteran K12 educator with over 15 years of experience teaching math, science, and computer science in public and private middle and high schools. Currently, he teaches multiple introductory and advanced computer science classes in creative coding and web development. And he organizes events and spaces for educators to engage with code, ethics, and equity. He loves email.
- ethicalCS.org – the home of #ethicalCS. The chat happen monthly on the last wednesday of every month at 8 pm ET. Join us on April 29 for a conversation on tech, Covid-19, and ethics.
- ccfest.rocks – a set of free and inclusive creative coding events I organize in LA, SF, and NYC
- processingfoundation.org – Processing Foundation is a non-profit dedicates to free and open source software for creative coding and access to computing
Kim Crayton: Hello, everyone and welcome to today’s episode of the #CauseAScene podcast. My guest today is Saber Khan, pronouns he/him/they. Saber, would you please introduce yourself to the audience?
Saber Khan: Yes. Hi, everyone. I’m excited to be here. I’m Saber Khan. I’m a teacher in New York City. I teach middle and high school computer science. I also work for Processing Foundation, which is a great organization that works on open source art and coding tools and they also run this thing called Ethical CS, which we’ll talk more about.
Kim: Yes, we definitely will be talking more about that. So, I start the show always asking two questions; why is it important to cause a scene? And how are you, Saber, causing a scene?
Saber: Yeah, I totally agree it is important to cause a scene. For me, that means—I’m part of this large movement that’s been happening of bringing computer science to K-12. People use the term “CS For All”, there’s a hashtag, #CSforALL if you wanna go on Twitter and see the movement, and it started about five years ago with President Obama and then Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York and other elected officials pushing for more computer science education. That movement has grown, and many states and cities have programs to bring computer science—that’s a very important project plan for the future to help our students gain new skills and insights—and I’m part of that movement.
That’s where I wanna cause a scene, within that movement and the people that surround it, which is, we really need to think deeply and carefully about how we teach computer science and how we bring up issues around ethics, around diversity, about inclusion and combine them all to a holistic education that cares about these issues and also cares about how students engage with these issues and how students and teachers come to their own perspectives. So that’s the sort of provocation that I’m trying to provide within the field of Computer Science For All.
Kim: So is that “for” spelled out or the number four?
Saber: Usually F O R with the letters, and then usually each area will have their own, so if you want to look at the New York City scene it would be #CSforALLNYC and you’ll kind of see what the New York City group is doing. And then some places do something different. For San Francisco, you have to do #CSforSF, I believe is their one. So it’s sort of in that area but if you just look up #CSforALL you’ll see that’s the main general one and then for our one it’s #EthicalCS is how we do it.
So, to backtrack a little bit, teachers have been using Twitter and Twitter chats for a while now to build community around topics that can’t live in their own school or own district. There’s a number of great Twitter chats around math education—basically around any topic in education teachers have been using Twitter for that. So we took those ideas for our project and wanted to build on it.
Kim: So I have not had—I don’t think, I don’t recall, and you know how bad my memory is—but I don’t recall having a fellow K-12’er on here.
Saber: Oh, cool.
Kim: Yeah, so this is gonna be [an] interesting conversation because you are staying in to fight the fight and I chose to exit stage left. [Both laugh]
Yeah, because I realized that fundamentally, the system is broken and too many people are profiting off it being broken, so there’s no incentive to fix it. I love finding those little pockets of people like yourself who are in it doing impactful work. And I love how, from the start, you’re talking about ethics; how from the start, you’re talking about the things that make a technician more than just a person who can code, or [a] person who can think about algorithms. And at the beginning, you think about the implications, the ethical and moral implications of those things. And that is sorely missing in the generation of programmatic individuals that dominate the space now.
So I’m very encouraged and happy to hear that there’s a systemic movement—not these offshoots, not these one-offs, these silos—but a systemic movement to not only bring education, which is technical literacy, but also bringing in the human part of it that many people in tech like to frickin’ forget! They just love to just [be] like, “Ohhh, humans, we don’t need those.” [Kim laughs]
Kim: And even though we can program out as many humans as we want to, but the people who gonna be using our products or services are humans. So, tell me more about what it’s like teaching CS in—oh my, see, when I first got into education, I’m certified special needs, so my first class was Pre-K autism.
Kim: Yeah. Mhm. That was interesting. I literally had a little boy—he had so much personality—and it was one of those things, as soon as he would take off his shoes, you knew that the rest of this clothes were coming off—
Kim: —and so as soon as you saw his shoe, you had to be like: “No, no, no, put that shoe back on.” [Both laugh] But he had the best little personality, and I had only two students at the time. I was just coming into education and had two 3 and 4 year olds—autistic students—and I was new, their parents were new to this, so we were all learning together, and using whatever tools we could to help facilitate learning. And then I was like, yeah, no, I can’t do the babies. My personality just does not work with babies, So I went to high school. Oh, I loved high school.
Kim: Oh, no, no, I love high school, and I actually love—I don’t like freshmen and sophomores—I like juniors and seniors, because I need to be—
Saber: Oh, everyone does because they’re almost like little adults.
Kim: Yeah, well, and—exactly. And you can have those conversations like, “Hey, this is a artificial environment, folx. We need to get you ready for the real world.” Middle school I stayed the hell away from. I knew what my threshold was [both chuckle] and middle school of those little humans, who in one moment think they’re grown and the next moment they’re crying. I’m like, “Yeah, I can’t do with that.”
So tell me, I’m just interested in how are you—’cause you say middle and high—how is teaching CS in New York. Is it public schools?
Saber: I started in public schools, but I’m in a private school now, and I’m happy to go through it. By the way, where were you teaching? What district?
Kim: For a while I was in Chicago and then, er—yeah…
Saber: Yeah, OK. Maybe that will be helpful to talk about my career and it will help underline some of the points you made.
Kim: Yeah. Before you start because I want it to be clear—my goal maybe is different—I never wanted to be a teacher. I was in Chicago and I was doing youth work. That’s what I love to do. And that’s working with students, and I was training adults who worked with students and working with students in what they call “out of school times” so after school, summer programs.
When I came back to Georgia, they don’t have a structured system like they would have in New York and Chicago and Philly about after-school, so that was what I was qualified for. So I want to make sure I put that in there because it was not like some calling [Saber laughs] but I’m happy that I did it because it helped me understand so much about the tech space.
Saber: Yeah, I ditto that too. Even though I have been there my entire adult life and my career, I sort of fell into education, and I share—I think it helps, like you’re saying, to have that perspective of, “What’s working? What’s not working?” And seeing the big picture. So I graduated college in 2003 and didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t really take advantage of college in the way that more kids who knew what they were gonna do right after did. So I did what a lot of other people who had no idea do, which is just go like, “I’m just gonna go to New York and see what happens.”
Kim: Oh, so you weren’t even in New York? [Kim laughs]
Saber: I wasn’t in New York. I worked at a summer camp, and then I just showed up, and was sleeping on my friends’ couches for a few weeks. I had done a little bit in college—I started pre-med and didn’t really get much out of it—and I really started enjoying doing volunteering and helping out at this middle school, and my father is a college professor—we have a lot of educators in the family and it feels very comfortable for me—so I really started enjoying that, and I sort of knew that New York City hired a lot of teachers. I joined the Teaching Fellows program, which is an alternative certification program.
Kim: So did I. Yeah, it’s called the TAPS program. Yeah. Oh, no, I don’t have a degree in education. I went through a certification from… Yep.
Saber: Yeah, yeah.
Kim: My undergrad is interior design.
Saber: [Laughs] Well, we should talk about that at some point. [Kim laughs] Yeah, so high needs areas, so they take in—the program still exists, Future of America is a similar thing—they take in college grads or career switchers and give them a very rushed prepping program and throw him into high needs classrooms. You can imagine all kinds of problems with a setup like that, but there I was.
I joined a classroom the first day after Thanksgiving break in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, at MS 57, Ron Brown Academy. Maybe a little bit of context—this is Bloomberg era, Mike Bloomberg is Mayor, Joe Klein is chancellor, and they’re in the midst of this reform movement; No Child Left behind has happened, which mandates that struggling schools will get more support, but eventually, if they don’t do better, they’ll be shut down. So that’s sort of what I came into and—my gosh—I had read stuff about school segregation and the disparities in educational outcomes and resources, but those two years were some of the most intense—
Kim: To live it is a totally different thing, isn’t it?
Saber: Yeah, I don’t think I will ever let it go. I think that’s the thing that, no matter what I do in education, it is always in the back of my mind—how did Jonathan Kozol put it in his book about St. Louis Schools? I forget the term that he used, but basically like we live in two different cities even though we’re in a place like New York—block by block we live in different cities. That has motivated, in a lot of ways my career, and then I went into charter and then eventually needed a little bit of stability and comfort and I work in private school that is sort of the other end of the spectrum.
And computer science—one reason I’m very passionate about it—is one way to not just work on computer science, but to work on that other problem of, “how do we bring educators and students who are often so divided based on circumstances and where they work and where they go to school and bring them together?” And CS For All is this nice area where a lot of people really don’t know what to do, so they’re coming together and working together in a way that in small ways, tries to mitigate school segregation. And that’s something that I think motivates me.
I care both about CS but also really care about—that we really talk about this issue constantly—that we live in a world where it’s completely comfortable to send Black and brown kids to broken schools, and that’s unacceptable. That’s my other provocation is to remind ourselves of that and think about what are we gonna do about that, how are we going to work on that? And in a place like New York it’s a staggering level of inequality, yet there’s lots of people working on. If your listeners are interested, I think Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work prior to the 1619 project was about school segregation in the New York Times Magazine. I would encourage anyone to read her work about choosing to send her—she’s African American—to send her daughter to a predominantly African American public school, and what goes into a decision like that, and the history of how we got to a place where urban schools in the country are more segregated than they’ve ever been since Brown versus Board of Education.
Kim: Mhm, mhm.
Saber: And as an immigrant who loves this country, that to me is a moral failing up there with any other ones that we have right now. So that’s sort of what motivates me and it’s also how I think about ethics.
Ethics is not a purely logic problem, it’s not just the trolley problem. Ethics is about things like, “How do systems interact with other systems to create inequality?” and you can’t do that abstractly. You have to put people in there—it has to be about people. Computer Science thrives because it’s able to abstract away the reality of the situation and give you sort of a mathematical, logical solution to things. And often what we’re trying to do is be like, “Actually before you abstracted, this was about people, and let’s think about how we go back to thinking about people, thinking about identity, thinking about history.”
You know, you can get a great education in America and be very successful and have no IQ around race or gender or these very powerful identifiers that have huge impact on how we experience the world. So I think what I’m advocating for is a liberal arts, multidisciplinary approach to thinking about ethics and computer science, and hoping that helps us think about lots of situations—school segregation, whatever topic you’re really worried about, upset about, wanting to see change—you can take a multidisciplinary approach to understanding it. I think we talk too much about solutions—not just solutions—but even just having a proper appreciation of what we’re looking at is really, really important and something that I’m trying to encourage.
So with these chats, I recruit experts who know something about the field, we prepare questions and then last Wednesday of every month—in fact, we have one coming up March 25th—we will have the experts talk through their questions, out loud during a Twitter chat, and then hoping participants join along. What we’re trying to do is model ethical thinking out loud—people thinking through, “Oh, this is how when I’m asked this question, here is how I’m thinking about how to come up with an answer for it.” So, more about—we don’t always get there—but showing the thinking and then showing how people who know a lot think about the field and then helping people who are watching, people who are listening, people who are participating, a chance to do that same type of open-ended ethical thinking, which I don’t think is super easy to do.
So I think modeling it multiple times around different issues—I think we met during the Black History Month chat where there were a lot of great conversation around, “How should we think about Black History Month and tech and computer science?” A couple of takeaways; one is, there is a Black history in tech that’s been made invisible, and there’s also a representation problem too.
So how do you do both? How do you both tell the story of people that have been marginalized, but weren’t there, and also acknowledge that a lot of people have not been included. That’s a much more sophisticated, complicated thing to do. It takes real care and thoughtfulness to get that across. And that is something that we can do on the chat, and if we can gather people together and create a space where people can do this, then hopefully it will raise the IQ of our community and then hopefully go back into the classroom.
But I am very soft on, like, come as you are, take what you can from it, and if you need help, we can help you get back in the classroom. We’re not a place where we’re writing lesson plans and saying, “Here’s a lesson plan for making ethics happen in your classroom.” A lot of people are doing that, I’m thinking more along the lines of, “How do we even think about this topic in a way that helps people come to their own perspective?”
Saber: “How do we even think about this topic in a way that helps more people come to their own perspective?” Especially teachers, who don’t get a chance to think like this. They’re often very much performers; “What’s my line? When do I say it? What’s the next line?” So that’s how we have been approaching this project.
Kim: Alright, so you mentioned several things that I find interesting and one of ’em is what you just said about, “What’s my line?” because teaching—and I hope you don’t take offense to this but it is what it is—used to be a profession, right now it’s a job. And educators, when I was in school, they did their own lesson plans. They decided.
So helping educators develop that skill—thinking out loud—and it being framed around ethical decisions also helps fuel or helps guide other decisions that they need to be making. I love the forest view of this because education has become the tree of this; “What task do I need to get done today to make sure that I have a job tomorrow?” kinda thing. Particularly with the start of No Child Left Behind and then you have the core competencies. And all of that has become these things that everybody is like, check off the box.
And even in that, you’re leaving out the human because as a special ed teacher, there were many services that my students should have been able to get, by law, but weren’t able to get because they didn’t fit into these little nice checkboxes. But it would have been advantageous for them to have an equitable—I don’t even talk about equality—but have an equitable educational experience.
And also, I love the fact that you talked about liberal arts. I remember going to a talk at Selenium Conf in Berlin in 2017. One of the organizers did a talk about why we need humanities in computer science, and there was pushback, mainly from dudes, who are all analytical, because it’s the all-quantitative, no qualitative perspective. And that works when, as you say, when you extrapolate all the humanness out of things. That does not work when you have to consider, compare to, impact the lives of humans. And so I love when I can have a conversation with someone who can talk about beyond a technology.
A technology is a tool. We need to start having conversations about how we design these tools, how we imagine they will facilitate whatever we’re trying to facilitate, how they will impact people, what’s the potential for harm? We never want to talk about potential for harm. It’s always, “We’re saving the world, we’re technologists, we’re out saving the world,” but ethical conversations cannot be had if we don’t discuss our potential for harm.
Saber: And the best place to look for potential harm is history.
Kim: Yes! I love history for this very reason. When you talk about the disparity between schools, I clearly talk about that because it’s not a mistake that there’s an inequity in our school systems even within the same school districts. How we fundamentally fund schools is problematic.
Even in funding schools, with taxpayer dollars, for some reason, they don’t get equally shared throughout the whole community. There’s some communities that still get a vast amount more per student than others. And then you have students who can opt out and go to, like you’re teaching at private schools. And they leave the disparity in equity between your Black and brown public schools environment, and the resources and supplies, compared to private schools, even if it’s in a Black and brown community, it’s different.
Saber: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
Kim: And so it’s always an ethical issue, and that’s what people don’t understand. This is why I push back on this current theme in tech about, “Oh, we need empathy and compassionate coding.” I’m like, “No, no, don’t you know those are skills that it takes time for people to develop? I need to sit back and be harmed until this asshole decides he wants to develop empathy and compassion? No! I don’t need to understand your situation.”
Why do I have to traumatize myself by explaining my drama to you, revisiting that for you to “understand” (and that’s in quotes)? All I should need is to understand that there’s a potential for harm for me to change or rethink my behavior. That’s all I need. Somebody says, “Kim, you know what, there’s a potential for harm here.” I don’t need you to dredge up your trauma; “Oh you told me there’s a potential for harm. Can you tell me in which ways there might be potential for harm? Because I don’t know them.” That’s all I need!
Saber: Yep. Yeah, absolutely. You know, this frustrates me a lot. I think there’s a lot of people in tech who caused the problem who are now re-selling themselves as the people who are gonna fix the problems in tech, and they’re going for these very shallow solutions, like “empathy” is the new code word for like—[Kim snickers] But the refusal to do the hard work of—I hear this a lot—
Kim: Well, let’s—Imma stop you there. Imma stop you there, because they don’t even know what the hard work is.
Saber: Yep, yep.
Kim: So for us, it’s, “Dude, this is some shallow shit.” For them, it’s earth-shattering, its groundbreaking, it is innovative, it is, “Oh, my god, we are so—” And it’s like, your level—and this is why they get pissed at me when I call ’em mediocre, because I’m like, “Dudes. This is some mediocre shit right here [laughs]. Because what, who, who, who is this impacting?”
This is why I force—I try to force kicking and screaming—folks in my community at least to start thinking below the surface because you’re absolutely right. You don’t have the perspective. So the things you come up with are the most—well, they make you comfortable, that’s all that is. It’s “solutions”, quote unquote, that are in service to getting you back to a state—a stasis—of comfort. That’s what that is. So it’s like: “I recognize I cause harm. I don’t want to be complicit. What are the things I could do so that I don’t feel bad anymore?” instead of, “What are the things that I could do that fundamentally change this shit because if I’m feeling complicity there are millions of other people who are complicit. How can we stop that part of it?”
Saber: Yeah, absolutely. I think the lack of willingness to do hard work also makes you susceptible to bad actors. I’m thinking of Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook has become convinced that letting Trump tell lies on Facebook is fair and balanced because he has no concept of bad actors—or if he does or whatever it is—the unwillingness to do the hard work in tech and pick up a book—
Kim: Well, the bad actors don’t impact his life as they would impact yours and mine.
Saber: Exactly, exactly.
Kim: So they don’t have the same—the bad actors to him are just irritants, but, “You know what? All speech is equal, and we’re gonna talk about it equally. And—” No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Because their speech is not attacking you. It’s not aimed at you. So you can sit by and evaluate; that’s a lot that happens in my community, is people wanna sit back and discuss the value of someone’s humanity. It’s like, we’re not havin’ that—that’s a conversation we’re not fuckin’ having. We’re not having a conversation about the value of someone else’s humanity.
Saber: They’ll do something similar—as a Muslim immigrant, I think a lot about being newer to this conversation than other marginalized groups, but I think about the Islamophobia trend that the Right and Trump has pioneered. They’ll tell you things like, “Well, you know, when people meet Muslims, it turns out they’re not so Islamophobic,” but, gosh, there’s not enough Muslims for 300 million Americans to meet one by one so they can see the human decency in every single immigrant, in every single Muslim.
That should not be on me or any Muslim to do that for you—to be that Clint Eastwood movie where you go over and you have food and suddenly you’re able to be friends. That is a liberal fantasy around personal narratives that is very dangerous.
Kim: I was gonna say there’s a lot of harm in that.
Saber: Like what you were alluding to, “Why do I have to display my pain for you to see my humanity?” So where did this fail? I think you’re right. One is this technocratic perspective that is more obsessed with solutions than about being humble and taking time to learn about something and slowly, carefully—
I think the best model, the one that I come to often for doing this work—not to get too highfalutin—I think Bryan Stevenson in “Just Mercy” talks about, I forget the parts, but he talks about there’s four or five things you have to do and one of them is being proximal to a problem.
If you’re an outsider, you need to just be there and be there enough so that you can actually come to some sophisticated understanding of what’s happening. And that is, one really, really hard and takes real dedication and real work. And those people that want to work on even good tech, civic tech, want to solve problems. No, stop trying to solve the problem. Are you even proximal to the problem? Are you there? Are you experiencing, are you learning about it? Are you with the people that are experiencing it?
Saber: Are you taking the time? And if you go back to education, so many good actors come through the public school system, either teacher or they’re teaching fellows or whatever. And they spend, like me, one or two years, and then they move on to something else. And you know—
Kim: Yeah, Exactly.
Saber: —I worry about this myself. I’m not trying to tell you what the solution to school segregation is, but what I wanna do is I wanna keep proximal to the problem so that when there is something that works, I can be helpful in that way, but—yeah, I really do think a lot of humility and patience would be good for so many people in tech who want to solve things.
And I get the impulse. They look at this field and it looks so broken. You see Mark Zuckerberg acting like a fool. You see Twitter giving Trump a platform to spread lies and you want to solve it, and you wanna build your own thing. Instead, I would say just take some time to understand an issue, read the books, get to know people, be there long enough so that you actually can understand something.
And you’ll also learn a lot of nuance that I think is missing when you paint people—from either side, from the right or from left—with either as victims or the people that deserve their marginalization. I think the one thing that I’ve learned, focusing on my little corner of the world, is the communities are—all very easy to say this—are much more diverse than they look from the outside. Having worked in public schools and charter schools in New York, there are a lot of people, like you were saying, who like the system being broken, are totally happy with it, even amongst the communities that are suffering from it. Those are things that—
Kim: Oh yeah. Mhm.
Saber: —realizations like that only come from time and patience and being there, and that’s really hard work. And I really want people in tech, people on the outside, people who are working in colleges and teaching this, to take time with these issues so that we can really have a perspective.
Aside from Bryan Stevenson, I think people in tech that are doing that, I think Cathy O’Neil, her book, “Weapons of Math Destruction” really takes the time to understand an issue before pres—in fact, I don’t think she presents the solutions at all, which I appreciate.
I think there is a time for solutions, but I really can’t, I don’t wanna judge—it’s too soon in a lot of places to know what the right solution is if we don’t understand what we’re talking about. And ideally, the solutions come from the community themselves and not from the techie. Tech is service. You are really serving something else. The solution shouldn’t be coming from you as in, “Here’s this thing that I made.” It should be more like, “The community wanted this thing. And here’s maybe how we build that.” Anyway, I’m a little bit off my—
Kim: No, you’re not, the reason I didn’t stop you is because everything you just said in that whole segment is totally—the reason it’s not happening is because it’s totally against the ethos of this community. The ethos of this community is first, move fast, break things; and it’s VC. Everybody is VC-focus. None of that is about taking your time. None of that is about getting closer to a problem and sitting with the people with the lived experience and learning from them and being guided from them and letting them dictate the solutions to the problems that they see, that they experience every day. Nothing about this space is about that.
Everything about this space is white dudes with a lot of privilege, with a lot of access to networks, who can go from idea to IPO and never be profitable and can cause a lot of harm, because it’s that grow—everybody wants to be a growth mindset. Everybody wants to be a hacker or whatever. And we can say people are like, “Well, Facebook changed that. You know, they’re move fast, break things,”—that was baked into the culture. That is the culture that we have.
And fundamentally, as a business strategist, I don’t have a problem with move fast, break things. What I have a problem with is move fast, break things, move fast, break things, move fast, break things. Can we put something in there that says, move fast, break things, stop and figure out what the hell you broke and why it broke, and how it’s impacting? Now, let’s move fast, let’s break some more. Now let’s stop and see what we’ve broken, how does it impact?
That’s the pieces we nev—we seldom, don’t want to use absolutes—seldom in mass do we have organizational leaders in this space that sit back and evaluate how their products and services are impacting the lives of other people until it becomes a risk management issue.
Saber: To go along with that thinking, they’ve also been very good at, not only are they not doing it, but they’re not letting anyone else do it either. So there’s no government oversight, there’s no policy oversight. So just switch back to what the student perspective is; a lot of these students are being sold that sort of hogwash on Silicon Valley and that they can have it too, and in most cases they can’t. [Kim laughs] I really don’t know how many of these kids are gonna get jobs at these companies—it’s really hard to know that—or will have the opportunities that any of these coder bro’s do.
But they will, as citizens and as members of the community, have an opportunity to define what kind of tech we wanna see. And one thing we try to teach our students is the Internet or tech doesn’t have to be this way. These are policy decisions, these are governmental decisions. These are community decisions.
We don’t have to have an Internet that steals the identity of young people and shames them if they make a mistake online. It doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t have to have tech companies who get to do this fool’s bargain with bad actors, where they give ’em a platform to say whatever lies they want. These could be regulated. All these tech companies could be regulated, and more so than anything else, that’s the lesson I want the students and teachers to have, which is, “What does your ideal community look like? What does a healthy tech community look like? How do you get there?”
Kim: Mhm. Mmhm.
Saber: And if they can’t do it, we can. The government can step in in any situations and they do this thing where they said, “Well, we don’t know, But also hey, don’t regulate us.” OK.
Kim: Or the new one with Zuckerberg; “We need regulation, but I’m going to be a part of how we define that regulation.”
Saber: Yep. Yep, yep. Well, “Regulate us to protect us from lawsuits.”
Kim: Yes, exactly. Exactly. Mhm.
Saber: Put in regulation that will basically—what they do with other industries like airlines and others—use regulations to protect them from consumer complaints.
Kim: And that’s what I’ve been talking about recently a lot, is because the lack of inclusion is a risk management issue. So anything that Mark Zuckerberg or Jack Dorsey, or whomever is talking about “help,” it is all coming from a place of, “Oh shit. We fucked up. And now we need to figure out how to mitigate our harm, our risk in all of this.”
Because if they thought about us in these equations, they wouldn’t be reaching out to other privileged, clueless individuals. They would be fundamentally reaching out to the people who they’ve harmed and asking, “How do we mitigate your harm? How do we compensate you for your harm?” I mean, yes, they need to be talking about compensating people for their harm.
Saber: That’s it.
Kim: But no one wants to talk about that.
Saber: No one wants to talk about that. I mean, I think we have seen with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there is a movement now to get there and figure out how to get there. And we have seen the congressional Black Caucus and groups go to Silicon Valley and start asking better questions than they were. I think there was this blind spot before the election of Trump.
Kim: Oh, it’s a huge blind spot. Tech fundamentally has been built on the narrative that, “We have your best interests at heart, and just let us do it and we will take care of everybody.” And so the questions hadn’t been asked from the dawn till now. And now it’s like, “Woah-ho-ho, wait a minute, wait a minute. We just let these… Who are these people?” I mean, Mark Zuckerberg, he was a coder. What gives him the authority and the expertise to know how to manage what he’s created? You know, that’s the—
Saber: The narrative I remember was like, “We helped get President Obama elected. Look how great we are. And we’ll offer this expertise to the liberals, but hold on, we built all these tools.” Anyone can use them and guess what, they are primed for basically bad actors. But, in their—they thought that liberal arts will get you there. I went to a liberal arts college with a bunch of clueless old white guys [Kim laughs] who are teaching the same book they taught 50 years ago.
Kim: And that’s the problem right there. There’s no diversity in that. [Laughs]
Saber: Yeah, so, you know, I don’t think any one thing just solves it immediately. But I think, the one that I keep coming back to is, so many people recognize that tech is a problem. Well, how would you want to regulate it? Starting there would be a good way to really help a lot of people switch from this helpless consumer perspective to a knowledgeable consumer activist citizen’s perspective that I think is so important.
And one positive I do want to mention is in New York City—CS education has this other problem, which is that it’s very tech dominated. It’s tech funded. Most of the nonprofits working in tech—sorry in computer science education—get their money directly from Silicon Valley. So because of that, they’re very wary of saying and doing things that really put a critical lens on it. And that’s sadly true in most of the country.
In New York, which is a very large, resourced district, we have multiple organizations participating and the money is from the district, and there’s private money but the district can pay for things too. Because of that, they have built a really nice blueprint and what they offer is—they’re not going to make everyone a coder—I think that’s one of those fallacies about computer science education that will get you in trouble.
Saber: They have a citizen’s perspective. So, what do you think of tech as a citizen? How do you use tech as a citizen?
Saber: And I think that’s the type of civic lesson that is really the real great way to do this, and I would encourage your listeners—they call it the CS Blueprint, the New York City Department of Education CS Blueprint—and I think they have a really great, smart, sophisticated way of taking a majority Black and brown district of a million kids and 90,000 teachers and giving them something that is one, sophisticated, works for multiple groups of people and helps anyone engage with tech in whatever level they want. Everything from, “I wanna build apps because I’m thinkin’ I’m gonna be a billionaire”, to, “Hey, I use Instagram a lot, and I just wanna understand how it’s using my data. And what are the sort of pitfalls of that,” and—
Kim: Mhm. I think a lot of those questions are gonna start coming up with coronavirus and pushing all these kids online so quickly. You and I are using Zoom right now, and Zoom was not designed for a minor’s privacy or safety. And I can’t believe how many people moved to platforms like Zoom and Zencastr and whatever, without, and leaped—I dunno, I wonder how many moved to Moodle and Blackboard. Those places are actually designed fundamentally with student safety and privacy in mind, and it’s gonna be interesting, just like you just talked about.
There is a problem, But have you thought close enough to the student to say, “Yes,”; you had to make a quick decision—I get it—my hope is that they will be transitioning because this is gonna be longer than most people thought.
Kim: We need to be figuring out strategies to transition these students off these platforms that are designed for business as quickly as possible, because if not this is gonna be a real problem. There’s gonna be some blowback on this for some years to come with—yeah, these companies. Zoom is not designed for—it already has its own security issues. It’s not designed for protecting minors. It’s not.
Saber: You know, this gets to a really great point which is, the downgrading of teaching as a profession, the rise of ed tech as a side category, and the way tech dominates ed tech. And I was one of those people. I found this email from 2009 that I sent my students being like, “Hey, everyone, we’re all gonna start using Google Docs now because it’s the best.” And I was like, “Oh, man, such a naïve young person back then.”
Kim: Yes, somebody actually, I was talking about this yesterday. Now, obviously, this is gonna air in April but I was talking about this yesterday on Twitter and ’cause I was talking about this very thing and someone says, “Well, my school, they’re using Google classrooms and Google’s…” I was like, “Yeah, it’s Google. I’m really not believing [Laughs] that there’s some—yeah, I just, no.” [Both laugh]
There’s too much of a precedent of Google just taking whatever they want that I just don’t believe that there is nothing in that software that is vulnerable; and also when I said that her next tweet to me was, “Yeah, they’re sending us links and stuff for how to, as parents to, change the settings.” No, that should be by default. What? This is the stuff I’m talking about. So you just made the point that I was just trying to make. If you’re talking about minors, everything should be shut off by default. I should not, as a parent, have to use a link to go in and set up my system so that it’s safer for my student. No!
Saber: Mhm. Mhm.
Kim: So these are the things, that goes with you said. We’re looking for solutions. We’re looking for solutions, and I get it. We had to move millions of students quickly. I’m just hoping that when we have time to step back and breathe, if this is gonna be longer than folks talking about, particularly if we’re talking about we have to go into next school year like this, we have better solutions for this.
Saber: Absolutely. You have a Special Ed degree. I also did my degree in Special Ed and we know—and this will get back to the covid question—that generations of kids with special needs were basically segregated and put into these classrooms in the basement. This is why knowing history is so important. It took a massive movement to make Special Ed a civil rights category that took these kids and gave them the least restrictive environment.
Saber: It took generations of politicians, educators, people to do that. What we risk with Covid for that quick solution is re-segregating these populations.
Saber: Are these platforms accessible if you have a disability? And if they’re not, what does a district do?
Saber: And if they’re not, what does a district do?
Kim: Especially because you have an IEP by law. You can have your lesson plan for these Gen Ed kids, Gen Pop, but when it comes to the Special Ed babies, you better make sure that IEP is being implemented. And how do you do that?
Saber: And I know that no one—I don’t know that, but I really doubt that anyone working on Google Classroom thinks about those issues, works on them. All their features get rolled out in such a haphazard way. It doesn’t seem like they even know what the school calendar is. [Kim laughs] Like sometimes they’ll roll something out in October, you’re like, “You know, that’s not when the school year starts, so like, why are you doing it then?”
But I think this is a larger point about the profession is the way I’ve seen it has been so downgraded from a career and a middle class profession to a job that we are so happy for any attention, any money, any free product that we have really lost our own inner perspective and inner ethic around, “Hey, we are the guardians of young people, their data, their privacy, their wishes, their perspective, their voice” and become very happy to let bad actors, unknowledgeable actors, people who don’t know what they’re doing, come into our classrooms and wreck havoc.
And these include politicians. And these include other people too where I really worry about teaching as a profession in this country. And, I know all these tweets about, “I love my teacher, how do they do their job during Covid time?” I really hope that those parents, especially those privileged, working from home parents, keep that perspective going after Covid is over and think about the teachers but also think about vulnerable populations like Special Ed students, like students who—you know, we still do a little bit of active school desegregation in this country where we take kids from one neighborhood and put them in another neighborhood—things like those issues. I hope people still think about them once Covid is over and how we’re going to continue to create a more equitable environment for teachers and students.
Because, oh my gosh, what’s coming for the rest of the school year? And I know that the challenge is so great, we can’t physically meet right now, and that presents such a challenge. But if we’re gonna be doing online learning for the long term, I think there needs to be real hard work and conversation around what equity looks like there and how we’re going to enforce that and not create exemptions.
I mean, it’s so worrying to see that they’re trying to put in exemptions to the main legislation and clause during this emergency time for Special Ed regulations so that district’s could say, “Well, we don’t have to meet these guidelines.”
Saber: That kind of stuff is so dangerous because you slide back to an era—potentially—of where kids, special ed kids, other kids are not in their least restrictive environment. That term means that, just for your listeners, this country guarantees an education for everyone, including Special Ed students, that is the least restrictive. So that means that if you’re a Special Ed kid and you could be in General Ed for five classes versus all classes, you should get that and the district should live up to that. We as a country worked very hard to get to that point. If we go back and give them restrictive environments, we start doing this re-segregation thing where Special Ed kids get something else, that’s not what Gen Ed gets, and that’s really dangerous.
Kim: And we brought this—and I’m sure we’re probably already experiencing it just at the beginning of this, because there was no plan. No time for planning. It’s already happened when you take out Special Ed and you look at the poor. Bandwidth.
Kim: When you look at these companies saying that they’re gonna remove data caps. There are people whose only Internet is their phone. How do you do fundamental math problems and how do you do science experiments? [Chuckles]
Saber: Kim, I got a stat that will blow you away. At CUNY, which is the City University of New York, in their CS program, the majority of CS undergrads at CUNY don’t have their own computer.
Kim: Yeah, it doesn’t blow me away. It does not.
Saber: Yeah but that’s the reality of most people in this country.
Kim: Exactly. And so when people say, “Oh, everybody gets, you know, talking about free college for all. Everybody needs to get—community college should be free.” That would be great if community college was valued the same way as Harvard, and they got the same resources, then I would say, “Yeah, community college would be great.” But community colleges aren’t treated equally, or even equitably. And the fact that, as you said, these are college students who are paying for education.
Saber: In CS! In CS.
Kim: Yes. Yes.
Saber: So I was talking with this teacher who was telling me about it. He’s been grappling with this for years of, “How do I teach CS when they can’t basically do coding outside of the classroom?” Which CS platform is thinking about that? I don’t know a single one that is thinking, I mean, maybe a few of them are thinking about unplugged activities, but deeply thinking about the majority of the world where they’re not gonna have a nice MacBook Pro at home to do their coding online.
Saber: That’s just not a possibility. Are you thinking about that? And if you’re not, are you really doing any—where’s the innovation?
Kim: [Mockingly] “Oh, we’re so innovative and disruptive.” [Saber laughs] But let’s bring out the lens a little more and let’s not talk about just programming. When you’re talking about thinking about ethics and technology, I am a student who cannot access the same technology that the person sitting next to me can? That’s fundamentally—I’m looking at that, like, we have a problem right here, ethics-wise. [Laughs] Can we talk about that?
Saber: Mhm. Mhm.
Kim: You know, people don’t want to talk about that, ’cause that’s too personal. Because, “I worked hard for—” No, you didn’t. No, you didn’t. There’s a whole bunch of things in play in this system that gave you the illusion that you worked hard for this. But you really didn’t.
Saber: Mhm. Mhm. That’s true in my life. That’s true in everyone’s life. Absolutely.
Saber: Yeah, this idea which is very dangerous and it comes up often in education, and you see it amongst different communities and especially among Black and brown communities that get to come to private school or get recruited in, or me when I got a scholarship to college is, it can be very easy to believe that you have earned and deserve something, and that’s good—maybe it helps your ego—but the corollary to that is you maybe somehow believe that someone doesn’t deserve it…
Saber: Didn’t earn it and that they deserve what they get.
Kim: And that’s rooted in white supremacy right there.
Saber: Yeah, and then you’re falling into this logic that “Oh, there’s good Black and brown people.”
Kim: Yes! And then there’s those lazy ones. Yes. This is why I talk often about internalized white supremacy and anti Blackness, and how we have to deal with our own internalized white supremacy, anti Blackness and you being a person of—what nationality are you?
Saber: I’m from Bangladesh, but Bengali. Yeah.
Kim: And then the model minority. And so, where you come to the United States with the belief that you’re better than Black citizens who are descendants of slaves.
Kim: And then you work in service of white supremacy to assimilate and—but also distance yourself and put down people like myself. And then it is a vicious [cycle]. No one escapes white supremacy unharmed. And if model minorities, Black and brown people actually got together and saw that our plight aligned, and poor white folks, we would be the majority. And it goes back to what you just said about that community. We will be the ones informing the legislation and everything.
Saber: Yeah. But here’s the thing though, I work a lot in Asian affinity groups and, one, a couple of things that I think that Asians do know. One is that for centuries, Asians were not allowed to come to this country and when they were, they were discriminated against.
And there are so many Asians in tech it might be good to say this. The civil rights movement ended that racist model, but it was done in negotiation with Congress, and the new idea was, we’re gonna get people that it’s gonna help us. So we’re gonna get the best and brightest of the world.
Kim: Oh yeah.
Saber: So what you have is you have this filtering of who gets to come to this country. There’s a lot of people back home in Bangladesh that will never get to come to this country. One, ’cause they’re too poor, it’s too expensive to come here. Or you’re too rich—why leave? Or, let’s say you’re a artist—this country sees no value in it. You’re an activist—this country doesn’t see any value in it.
So what you get is this thing where you take a very large, diverse country. You filter it down to engineers, doctors, technocrats, and then we come to this country and we act like that’s what our home life was like. I know Bangladesh is not like that. All these model minority nonsense stuff? Bangladesh is much bigger and much more diverse than any model minority nonsense. Not everyone—
Kim: I’m so happy you’re saying this.
Saber: But we know this. Asians know this because we’ve gone back—
Kim: But I’m happy you’re saying that because you don’t talk to me about it. You’re the first person to say that to me, and it makes sense to me. It absolutely makes sense to me. And yet—
Saber: Does every Asian value education? No, of course they don’t. No.
Kim: No. Exactly!
Saber: Because that’s an absurd idea. That’s an absurd idea. We know that. And if we don’t say that to the Americans, to the wider community, we are doing this very dangerous, dangerous thing of, one, erasing people back home.
That’s really dangerous because we have a responsibility to people back home that I think is very important, very deep, and we also are helping propagate this, as you were saying, this white supremacist lie.
Kim: And it’s putting pressure on you because everybody is not this straight math student, and when you can’t achieve it, your rates of depression and everything go down because you don’t meet this standard that doesn’t even exist.
It’s the same thing with Black folx. We’re trying to meet a standard of whiteness that we will never—there’s no way in hell I could be white—there’s no way. So the fact that that’s the standard and I’m supposed as a good—I don’t say this often—I don’t even say that I’m an American. I’m not, because the US being the default is a problem. That to me, is the first little hint of where we have a problem. There’s a North America, South America and Central America.
And so when I say I’m American, that is a default that ignores, like you just said Bangladeshi, that ignores that there are other Americans, and that’s how they can get called shithole countries, and then there could be a border on the line that says that these people are thieves and rapists because they are the other.
And so when we don’t see the comparison of that and how we do that, play that out in our lives, and how we promote that in these small little ways that allow us to be elevated on the ladder of white supremacy while holding, forcefully holding, other people down, we are fundamentally causing harms to ourselves and our communities. And it’s funny that you say that because I had to go to another South Indian guy because one of the biggest groups of people I get attacked from—’cause white dudes are too afraid to actively just come at me—it’s South Asian men.
Saber: Yes. Yes, I’m sorry. Yes.
Kim: South Asian men are the biggest—so I had to go to someone, he was like, “Kim, I need you to think of them as mediocre white dudes. [Saber laughs] They’re in this space. Many of them don’t understand that it could be taken away from them at any moment. And they are here to fight on behalf of white supremacy. They don’t see it.”
And then he was telling me about some stuff about the government in India. And I was like, “Oh my god, that’s just—.” But it makes sense. And again it goes to the history. If I didn’t know about what’s going on and how these men are being treated in their home country by this government that’s oppressive, that’s going after Muslims, then I wouldn’t understand the pathology behind why these seemingly Black-ass men keep attacking me. [Laughs]
Saber: Yeah, that’s the other truth as well is, while while we’re people of color here and maybe we choose to identify that way and work with the struggle, there’s stuff that happens back home where we might be the oppressor.
Saber: A lot of people that come to this country, especially from Asia. You have to be of a particular class and have a certain level of access, and you may be doing the oppressive stuff back home, and I think that’s something that there’s been many moments to think about it, but this Covid moment, this Trump moment, is a real opportunity to think deeply about how we think about immigration, how we think about immigration as it works with tech. How we think about white supremacy in the works in education.
And then the other thing we talked about is how do we deliver equitable learning when it needs to happen online. These to me are very connected issues, but it really requires quite a bit of truth telling, [Kim affirms] and willing to, as you’re saying, cause a scene or provoke, but I don’t know how you can look at any of these things without seeing the sort of connections that bind them together.
Zuckerberg’s experiments in education was the first philanthropy he did, was his funding of Newark School district with Cory Booker, and what a disaster that was. To tie it all back together, the school I came to in 2003, MS 67 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn was a “small school”. The “small schools movement” was a Bill and Melinda Gates project…
Kim: I was about to say about Bill and Melinda Gates. When you say Zuckerberg, I thought “How about the Gates?” Uh huh.
Saber: Who have had a massive impact on education, because they had all this money and all these ideas that led to so little. There’s so little positive outcome or anything. So one of their ideas was, let’s take big schools and split ’em up into small schools.
Kim: Yep. Split ’em up. Mhm.
Saber: [Laughs] So there was one school and by the time I came in, it was like three schools, and I think when I left—
Kim: In the same damn building. [Laughs]
Saber: In the same damn building. None of it made any sense. But what you saw was, you saw kids who got very used to being treated very differently. So you had, a charter school in the corner—
Saber: —where everything was clean but it was like military style. You had the public school, and then you had sort of an in-between, like a public school with a mission. And it really takes what is a public, “we do this together,” and just gets you okay with splitting it up and separating it out. And before you know it, it’s just like the rest of American life. There’s a fast track, and then there’s the regular people’s round. And then there’s the middle round if you can—
Kim: Oh, well, you definitely saw that in Special Ed because people don’t understand that Gifted is a part of Special Ed, and so you definitely see the spectrum of that in Special Ed, how Gifted—
Saber: Yes, and the conversation is that Special Ed is one of the biggest roadblocks to school desegregation, because certain parents worked their way in there and then they keep their hold on Special Ed and they funnel into the best high schools, and if you want to end school segregation—it’s also everyone’s Gifted. These are these very dangerous ideas [Kim snorts] that are so baked into education and how we value people that is so, so dangerous and causes so much harm. How do we get parents to think about not just their kid, but all kids? They’re all our kids.
Kim: Exactly! Exactly. And it reminds me of a conversation I had on the show recently—again, Special Ed—the difference between white little boys being ADHD and Black little boys getting EBD. And it’s the same behavior, but those are totally two different tracks and two different approaches to their education, where one is about, let’s come up with differentiated instruction, the other one is about punitive. Ooh, man, we have talked a lot. [Saber laughs] This has been a great conversation. What would you like to say in your last moments on the show?
Saber: Yeah, I’ve probably said too much already.
Kim: No never, never. This has been great. [Both laugh]
Saber: I should plug the ethical CS check-in. That would be most pertinent. We come on the last Wednesday of every month, so if this episode’s going out in April, we’ll be back on April 29th—Wednesday night—around 8pm Eastern, 5pm Pacific. There’ll be a conversation on Twitter using the #EthicalCS. Please join in, it’s a really nice welcoming community of people who want to think out loud about ethics and engage in ethical thinking. And we take all comers, even though it’s mostly educator-focused, we’ve had a lot of interesting people join and come through, so I would encourage your community to get on there.
It’s probably not the best platform for everyone, but we also have a website, ethicalCS.org if anyone wants to get in touch via email, or look at other materials, we really wanna be a resource to anyone that wants to do this work in a meaningful, slow, thoughtful way. That’s the value we want to provide.
Kim: Whew! I love it when I talk to fellow educators because we have some war stories to tell. [Both laugh]
Saber: We’ve seen something become true about—
Kim: We’ve seen some things! Thank you so much for coming on the show. It has been a pleasure talking to you.
Saber: Yeah, thank you Kim, it’s been really great to have this opportunity and I look forward to seeing more from your podcast.
Kim: All right, have a wonderful day.