How do we responsibly design a corona contact tracing app? Does a digital representation of a deceased person (a griefbot) help alleviate suffering? Is an app that listens to your baby and categorises its crying truly a solution for a problem?
We are able do more and more with technology, but how far do we want technology to go? What do we expect from technology? And from ourselves? Do technologies make the world a better place? What does “better” mean?
An Educator’s Responsibility?
In a world in which the role of technology in our lives intensifies, as our relation with it becomes more intimate, and as technological progress is continuous, we have an obligation to teach our students to think about the impact of technology. After all, digital technologies are changing people and societies. Designing or using a technology is actually “doing” ethics, but with different means.
Our team at the Fontys University of Applied Sciences has developed The Technology Impact Cycle Tool (TICT): a free, open online tool to help students think better and in a more structured (and fun!) way about the impact of technology.
The Technology Impact Cycle Tool provides users with crash courses on ten topics and smart scans with thought provoking questions. Is a specific digital technology the solution to a real problem? Or is the problem unconsciously defined in such a way, so that the technology is made to fit? Does the technology make us more human? Or not? Are privacy and mis-use considered? Was the team aware of the shortcomings of data? Or ingrained prejudices? Is the technology transparent? Inclusive? And sustainable?
The purpose of this technoethical tool is to help students think about these types of questions. TICT was launched in January 2021. It is continuously being updated and has already been used by thousands of students and others.
How to Use TICT
At Fontys University of Applied Sciences we use the tool in many different ways. Students who design “technology-for-good”, use the tool to really learn to think about the impact of their ideas and thus make better products. Economics students learn about their relation with technology as a manager – and as a human being. Marketing students take summative exams using the tool. Councillors of the municipality of Eindhoven have used it to structure discussions about the use of technology in general. And there are hundreds more of totally different examples.
We even had a group of journalism students who used TICT to thoroughly analyse the Dutch plans to launch a Corona contact tracing app. This analysis played a role in the public debate.
In addition, Fontys has used the tool to assess new educational technologies. We often do this together with teachers, students, policymakers and the solution provider.
The Technology Impact Cycle Tool is designed to be used in a plethora of ways. Its scans and courses can cover one topic in an hour, or assess an entire technology in depth over several months. Users can decide how they want to use the tool but, based on our extensive experience, best practices tips to improve thinking on the impact of technology are available.
The Creation of TICT
We started this project in 2019. The central question was: how do we encourage everyone to learn to think better and in a more structured way (and in a fun way) about the impact of technology? With everyone, we really meant everyone. Students, teachers, employees and the surrounding professional field.
We put together a team consisting of experts from different fields. A professor of technology and law, a professor of AI, a professor of journalism, a psychologist, a number of students, faculty, councillors and business people. We all were highly motivated.
We are convinced after all that one of the most important competences students need to learn is the ability to think about their relationship with technology. It is something they should be able to do as a professional, but also as a friend, partner or parent. As a human being.
Early on we realised that the best end result of our project would be a tool. A free, open, online tool that would help everyone think better about the impact of technology. From the onset we believed that the tool should be suitable not only for programmers, inventors, engineers and designers but also for nurses, journalists, economists, logistics planners, rock stars and city councillors. After all, everyone has a relation with technology. Technology plays an increasingly important role in every field.
During the project we were constantly improving versions of the tool, testing them with teachers, students and the professional field, and conducting research. Were the crash courses appealing enough? What were best practices? How helpful were the scans ? We always incorporated what we learned into a new and better version.
After two years, the preliminary end result was the current Technology Impact Cycle Tool.
Specifics of the Tool: an Overview
TICT offers crash courses in ten categories. These courses are designed to be fun and inspiring. They aim to motivate users to think about the impact of technology. The course topics are: problem definition, human values, data, privacy, bad actors, transparency, inclusivity, stakeholders, sustainability and futuring. If you have completed course, you receive a certificate (and if you do all courses, you can apply for a t-shirt).
Various scans lie at the heart of the tool: quick scans, improvement scans and full scans. The scans are best used in an educational or design process. That is why the tool offers best practices. The scans provoke thought. The tool is not normative. There are no good or bad answers. But if something is poorly thought out, TICT will help you reflect on important issues. The output of the scans are canvasses or full scan impact documents. Additionally, the tool offers a collection of other detailed frameworks for each topic.
Be Part of the Mission
Our students are the future. They will design, invent, program, use and decide on technology. They will use technology to change people and society. They will be doing ethics, but with different means. Technoethics. That is why we must teach our students to learn to think about the impact of technology.
We, at Fontys University of Applied Science, are contributing with our open, free Technology Impact Cycle Tool. How will you be contributing? We strongly encourage you – and your students – to start using this tool as well. Visit www.tict.io and let us know your feedback. Only together we can make the world a better place with technology.
You are invited to join Rens van der Vorst at OEB21 to discuss techno-ethics and explore the impact of TICT.