Meet the Team Bringing Ethics to Technology

1 Feb 2019
ByAnna Green '07

When Felipe Cocco first joined the technology team at ECFS two years ago, he expected to install the latest iPad apps, help students use Google Docs, and acquire the latest and greatest new technology for the school. Cocco does all of those things, but he also has a much more ambitious mission: to make sure the school’s use of technology aligns with its ethical values. Cocco is the ethics and technology coordinator for Fieldston Lower, a position created by Director of Technology Jeannie Crowley to address the impact new technologies are having, not only on students and teachers, but also on society and even the planet at large.

“It’s about more than making sure the Wi-Fi and printers work,” Cocco explains. “It’s about really recognizing the special moment we’re living in, recognizing the impact it’s having on our kids, and asking much deeper questions about technology.”   

Each of the divisions at ECFS now has its own ethics and technology coordinator, tasked with asking tough questions about technology and helping students and teachers grapple with the ethical questions raised by new technologies.

Felipe Cocco teaches Fieldston Lower students about the technology behind how we communicate

Cocco’s counterpart at the Ethical Culture campus is Kim Deveaux ’05, who has worked at the school for seven years and is herself an alum. Deveaux finds creative ways to bring ethical issues into the classroom, asking students questions like, “Just because you can invent something, should you?” Encouraging elementary school students to think more critically about the implications of new technologies may seem like a tall order, but Deveaux tries to make these lofty issues fun and comprehensible.

In a past lesson, she taught students about a program called Lyrebird, which can mimic human voices with uncanny accuracy. “We talk about possible positive applications, like helping someone who’s paraplegic and hasn’t been able to speak with their own voice for a long time,” she explains. “On the other hand, we explore the implications of being able to literally put words into people’s mouths and make them say something they may not have wanted to say.”

Kim Deveaux leads Kindergarteners through a lesson using iPads

Above all, Deveaux and Cocco say they want to encourage their students’ curiosity about technology from a young age. Their hope is that by the time students reach Middle and Upper School, they’ll be ready to tackle abstract ethical questions about everything from artificial intelligence to algorithmic biases.

Up at the Middle School, Ingrid Sabogal designs curricula to help students think about these increasingly complex issues.

In one class, Sabogal helped students design projects on the water crisis in Africa using Sutori, a presentation program. But before students could dive into their projects, Sabogal pointed them towards Sutori’s terms of service and asked them to figure out how their data was being used (Sutori is, in fact, careful about protecting its users’ privacy and doesn’t store student data). “The Sutori project not only gave us the opportunity to utilize a great tool in the classroom, but it also gave us an opportunity to talk to students about the importance of what you’re allowing when you give access to an app,” she explains. “It led to a deeper conversation about the tools they were utilizing.”

Ingrid Sabogal in the Middle School Restart Center

Sabogal is also very careful when deciding which technologies Fieldston Middle ultimately acquires. Before purchasing any device, she researches the company’s labor practices and data collection policies and considers its environmental impact. She’s critical of how difficult Apple makes it for users to repair their products and worries about the electronic waste their products generate. “What we’re finding is, as great a product as Apple could be, it’s not giving us the ability to repair and keep our device going,” she explains. “Instead, they’re forcing us to buy a new device when you have a perfectly good device that could be fixed on your own — this, of course, brings up the topic of sustainability.”

This approach to technology integration is relatively new to ECFS, according to Upper School Ethics and Technology Coordinator Dr. Kenny Graves. Graves has been at the school for five years and says that when he was hired, his job looked very different. “When I first started, my mandate was to help push technology into the classroom and help teachers use technology more,” he says. “That was the industry standard. We talked about computer science and preparing students for jobs in a digital world.”

But Graves was always concerned about the ethical implications of technology. Even before becoming ethics and technology coordinator, he taught a course on ethics and technology at the Upper School. In that class, which Graves now co-teaches with Felipe Cocco, Graves tries to show students how technology reflects societal values — sometimes in problematic ways. Graves says Crowley’s decision to expand the school’s technology department to include an ethics and sustainability mandate was inspired, in part, by that class. The department realized that they wanted the school to take a more holistic, meaningful approach to technology integration and education.

“I realized that when I got home at night, I didn’t want to talk about how I helped a kid use an iPad,” Graves says. “I wanted to talk about how I made them realize, for example, how the iPad isn’t necessarily sustainable and fixable, which has implications for our environment.”

Dr. Kenny Graves repairs a laptop in the Upper School technology office

That realization led to huge shifts in how the department approaches technology. Graves, for example, now sponsors the school’s Restart Center, which teaches kids to repair their own devices and encourages them to discuss technological policy issues. Graves, Sabogal, Deveaux, and Cocco all say they want to do more than create tech-savvy students. They want students to engage critically with technology, to become engaged citizens in a digital world, and, ultimately, to seek out ways to use technology for the greater good.

“We don’t want to create the next Mark Zuckerberg,” says Graves. “We’d rather create those who are sitting at the table asking Mark Zuckerberg the tough questions he doesn’t want to answer.”