Category Archives: Nerdy

Workshop Paper: Implementing Diversity in HCI education

This is the paper I submitted to a workshop at C&T conference 2019. As I will be attending the whole conference as a student volunteer, this will be the first CS conference I attend. Pretty exciting!

This is the PDF, for which I used the ACM SIG CHI extended abstracts format. I titled this paper “Implementing Diversity in HCI Education: Things I’ve Seen”. As you will see, “Implementing Diversity in HCI Education: I have Questions.” would be a very fitting title, too.

Introduction

Our professors and the dean(s) at the faculty of informatics like to say that the main difference between a University of Applied Science (FH) and a “real” University is that at FHs people learn the “Know-How”, and we at TU Wien learn the “Know Why”. In my experience, the little “why” we are taught usually refers to the more technical aspects, but rarely to the social context and impact of technologies1.

I draw from my own experience as a student in the Medical Informatics bachelor’s program at TU Wien. As I began my studies, I did not value the promotion of women as much (which is the prime concern of many diversity issues), but with my work as a student representative, this changed radically. Additionally, I spent some semesters working as a teaching assistant (TA) in an introductory course on society and informatics. Thus, I can see and discuss diversity from my own experience in HCI education, and include various students’ points of view, including those who do not understand why diversity is even a part of their courses and who sometimes openly oppose attempts of promoting diversity aspects in STEM fields2.

Course Contents

As stated above, the promotion of diversity should be part of the essentials in HCI. It is, after all, one of the main issues in HCI to make technological artifacts more usable for “everyone”. However, diversity is not at all covered with some by-lines about how “all women” and “all men” use computers differently.

In the following, I discuss some ways of implementing diversity in topics and contents, exercises, and literature of HCI courses. Reflecting on the course itself together with your students is an important point as well.

Topics and Concepts

Thinking about what topics and concepts you cover in your class is a great place to start. This probably will be a point of implementation where you receive little backlash from your students.

For example, in a class on the history of HCI: Talk about how the field developed from looking at how work places should be designed to accommodate, to looking at how smartphone apps exclude users. Who are we thinking about when we are talking about users? What are the (social) norms we learn growing up in “western” societies?3

Exercises

For an exercise on designing artifacts, explicitly ask your students to interview people who are not like them. Do not ask them to work with their mother(s), or grandparents – this shortcut shows sexist and ageist stereotypes. Rather, ask the students to find people who do not work in IT/design.

Some students will learn that it is hard to find people who are “different”, especially in a setting so homogeneous as TU4. This might spark some dissent, as finding a person to interview might be more difficult than the task itself, and they might not understand why they should do it this way. Thus, do not forget to explain why you ask them to do this!

Data Sets, Literature, …

Ask yourself: Whose voices are heard in the course? Who wrote the articles, books, reports that students get to read? Who can be seen in videos, heard on recordings? Who is in the pictures used to illustrate contents? Do we only use “real academic” literature, or do we talk about other sources, too? Do we just read, and repeat, or is there discussion, an attempt at connecting the dots over diverse fields? How much scrutiny do we apply to different sources?5

Reflection

Ask students, discuss with them: How have the exercises been completed? How did the course staff expect them to be handled? Which biases could be present in our work? How could an exercise be revised in order to talk about a different topic? How could exercises be improved upon?

Course Organization

Apart from the “What” of a class, attempting to implement diversity also has an impact on the “How” and “Where”.

Teaching Concepts

Does your course consist of classroom lectures, discussions, group exercises? Can any of these be accessed remotely, or do people have to attend each and every session?6

Group exercises and discussions can grant your students insights they could not draw from lectures alone. However, there are a lot of reasons for not wanting/being able to participate in such exercises.

My point is not to make a decision to exclusively use either lectures or group assignments – rather, course organizers should plan ahead, and let their students know that the course is planned a certain way, but that there are options to deal with contingencies. Be specific about the accommodation you have already organized, and let students know you are open to work on those. This will make the course better accessible e.g. for students with care responsibilities (parents, care takers, …) or working students.

Speakers / Teachers

Again, ask yourself: Who gets to speak their truth in your course? Which area(s) of expertise do they come from? What is their background?

Inviting people from different areas of research, or from another University (Applied or not), can break the stereotypes people might hold about them. Of course, this implies that you yourself have successfully invited them.

Technologies

Ask yourself, and your students: Which technologies and platforms do we use? Why? Where do the technologies we use come from? How can we expand and improve them? Which alternatives are there?7

Reflection

Again, ask yourself and discuss with your students: How have things been done before, and why this way? Based on which criteria did we chose the lecturers for this course? How did they come to where they are now? Which biases could be present here?

Course Surroundings

Nothing can really be discussed without looking at its surroundings. For example, a course on Critical Theory might sound great – but it has to be available and accessible to the students in every aspect. How else are they going to complete the course?

So, ask yourself, when looking at your HCI course: How does this fit into the bigger picture? Is it the only HCI course in the whole curriculum? Does it represent current research?

Backlash

In “Denkweisen der Informatik”, the course I worked with as a TA, reflection is part of every exercise. To complete any challenge, a student has to answer some questions about the previous tasks and their work. What did they learn? What did they like? What did they not like, and why? What was easy, what was hard? How does the topic connect with their other work?

There is always a small number of students who react negatively to these questions and the content concerning diversity. Basically, they only want to learn how to code, and give the impression not to be interested in how things evolved or could be improved upon, on the non-technical side8. Many answer the questions only halfheartedly, but some go rather deep and even enjoy taking the time to sit back and reflect.

I think that is the main point: some people will get annoyed with all the “leftist politics” in the course. Others will enjoy having time to reflect and discuss. There will be valuable feedback. Some will be happy that they finally saw people like themselves in your course, succeeding at what they are interested in. And many will be grateful for your consideration and accommodation of their needs.

You will have made your course (more) usable for many.


  1. For example, even if there is a part of a class on logic about the “founding fathers” of logic, there is no discussion at all about “founding mothers”.
  2. This is why the paper’s title references the Spooks’ song “Things I’ve seen”.
  3. Ableism, various kinds of sexism, racism, imbue our life from day 0, and we are so used to these -isms that they seem to be normal. However, shouldn’t it be normal to acknowledge people and their experiences, instead of ignore and hurt them?
  4. According to publicly available statistics of TU Wien, 83% of roughly 5700 students enrolled in informatics in the current semester are male, no matter their country of origin. 66% are Austrian and male. (https://tiss.tuwien.ac.at/statistik/lehre/studien)
  5. The answers to these questions paint a picture of who the people we trust are, and how they are similar (and different) to us. This is a great point to reflect upon your own biases, and act accordingly.
  6. Even though university buildings in Austria have to comply with certain accessibility standards, not all lecture rooms at TU Wien can be self-determinedly used if one is a wheelchair user. To reach some rooms, there are no elevators, in others the doors can be difficult to open, or there is no accessible toilet in the vicinity.
  7. In a course I completed in my 2nd semester, one exercise was to create an article in the German Wikipedia. This sounds like an easy task. However, the German Wikipedia community is rather famous for its discussions whether topics are “relevant” enough to warrant their own page. An exercise in the course where I worked as a TA asked the students to create videos and upload them to YouTube. This, as well as the Wikipedia exercise, raises the question if students want their university-related content connected to the other data already connected with their account. And if they do not want this, can they even create another account?
  8. This is probably due to the fact that at TU Wien, informatics students are a rather homogeneous group, and there are massive stereotypes influencing the students’ decisions for this field of studies.

Podcast Episode Logbuch: Netzpolitik

Ich arbeite gerade an einer Liste von Radiosendungen, an denen ich mitgewirkt habe – aber das hier verdient definitv einen eigenen Post!

Nach meinen Vortrag über Bias in Algorithmen (“Wenn Algorithmen irren lernen”, [PDF]), wurde ich zum Thema AMS-Algorithmus auch noch in die Live-Aufnahme von Logbuch: Netzpolitik eingeladen.

Die Episode ist jetzt online; ich hoffe, ihr habt Spaß damit: [LNP273 Die Verfassungskatze].

New Page: Talks

During the last year, I have been accepted as a speaker at a couple of events. Fortunately, many of them made video-recordings, so even if you were not able to attend the events, you can still see the presentations and hear me speak – at the moment, many are only available in German, but I hope to get some captions done soon(TM).

Here is the list: https://pascoda.fairydust.space/talks/

I will update it whenever something new comes up.

Write-Up: Bias in Algorithmic Systems

So, here comes the final write-up I handed in this summer for the Critical Algorithm Studies course. The course is really cool, and if you have the chance to do so, I absolutely encourage you to enroll. Last semester, we looked at algorithmic systems, and how they (re)produce bias, from various viewpoints (it’s possible that the approach changes for next year).

Continue reading Write-Up: Bias in Algorithmic Systems

Seminararbeit: Repräsentation von Gender in Science Fiction

The following text is a term paper I wrote in the spring term of 2015. The class I wrote it for is called “Rätsel, Erkenntnis, Wissen: Kulturelle Macht der Wissenschaften” (roughly translated: “Puzzle, Insight, Knowledge: Cultural Power of Sciences”). It is taught by Amelie Cserer every spring term at TU Wien as a soft skills/transferrable skills course. The description sounded very interesting to me, and the first session just made me more intrigued. You may notice that the teacher used the plural form of Wissenschaft (science) – she told us in the first session that this was kind of a statement to show that there is no such thing as “die Wissenschaft” (“the (one and only) science”), although people tend to use the word that way.
Continue reading Seminararbeit: Repräsentation von Gender in Science Fiction

Role Model Sunday: Elena Cornaro Piscopia

Portrait of Elena Piscopia. Source: Wikipedia Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, (5 June 1646 – 26 July 1684) was an Italian philosopher of noble descent, who was the first woman to receive an academic degree from a university. I discovered this excellent woman’s story while researching Laura Bassi.

Elena was considered to be an expert musician. In addition to mastering the sciblis of her time-which means she mastered almost the entire body of knowledge-Elena mastered the harpsichord, the clavichord, the harp, and the violin. Her skills were shown by the music that she composed in her lifetime.

She was a member of various academies and was esteemed throughout Europe for her attainments and virtues. According to Margaret Alic, she became a mathematics lecturer at the University of Padua in 1678. The last years of her life were devoted to study and charity. She died at Padua in 1684 of tuberculosis, was buried in the church of Santa Giustina at Padua, and her statue was placed in the university.

By the advice of a friend of the family’s, she began the study of Latin and Greek and became proficient in these languages at the age of seven. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French and Arabic, earning the title of “Oraculum Septilingue”. Her later studies included mathematics, philosophy, and theology. She was invited to be a part of many scholarly societies when her fame spread and in 1670 became president of the Venetian society Accademia dei Pacifici.

When the bishop of Padua learned that she was pursing a degree in theology, he refused on the grounds that she was a woman. However, he did allow for her to get a degree in philosophy. The degree was conferred on 25 June 1678, in Padua Cathedral in the presence of the University authorities, the professors of all the faculties, the students, and most of the Venetian Senators, together with many invited guests from the Universities of Bologna, Perugia, Rome, and Naples. The Lady Elena spoke for an hour in classical Latin, explaining difficult passages selected at random from the works of Aristotle. She was listened to with great attention, and when she had finished, she received plaudits as Professor Rinaldini proceeded to award her the insignia of the laurea, the book of philosophy, placing the wreath of laurel on her head, the ring on her finger, and over her shoulders the ermine mozetta. This scene is illustrated in the Cornaro Window in the West Wing of the Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College.

Her death was marked by memorial services in Venice, Padua, Siena, and Rome. Her writings, published at Parma in 1688, include academic discourses, translations, and devotional treatises. In 1685 the University of Padua caused a medal to be struck in her honour. In 1895 Abbess Mathilda Pynsent of the English Benedictine Nuns in Rome had Elena’s tomb opened, the remains placed in a new casket, and a suitable tablet inscribed to her memory.

Role Model Sunday: Margaret Hamilton

Portrait of Margaret Hamilton, 1995This woman’s story could be found in my (and probably your) facebook stream for a couple of months, on and off. The picture I’m posting here is way more recent than the famous one used in all the postings telling us about her greatest achievement, so you probably didn’t recognize here. The famous picture is that of a young woman, wearing big glasses and a striped dress, proudly smiling into the camera, standing next to a huge pile of documents.

Meet Margaret Hamilton, the woman who sent the Apollo mission to the moon (and back again).

Margaret Hamilton had a B.A. in mathematics from Earlham College, and after teaching highschool mathematics for some time, she and her husband moved to Boston. The plan was for him to finish his graduate studies, while Margaret would be working to sustain them both, in order to finish a graduate programme in mathematics when he was done with his.

Hamilton popularized the term “software engineering” (coinedby Anthony Oettinger), and was one of those who developed important software concepts. Some of these are priority scheduling, end-to-end testing, and human-in-the-loop decision capability, such as priority displays.

As a working mother in the 1960s, Hamilton was unusual. She would bring her daughter Lauren to the lab on weekends and evenings. While the 4-year-old slept on the floor of the office, her mother programmed away. She loved the novelty of her job (“like the Wild West” is a term she used in an interview), and also liked the camaraderie. There were after-work drinks at the MIT faculty club, geek jokes and the like. At the lab, she said, she was “one of the guys.”

In 1965, Hamilton became responsible for the onboard flight software on the Apollo computers. Sometimes the pressure kept Hamilton up at night. Once, after a party, she rushed back to the lab to correct some code she’d suddenly realized was flawed. “I was always imagining headlines in the newspapers, and they would point back to how it happened, and it would point back to me.” (WIRED)

One day, when Hamilton’s daughter Lauren was playing with the MIT command module simulator’s display-and-keyboard unit. As she toyed with the keyboard, an error message popped up. Lauren had crashed the Apollo simulator by somehow launching a prelaunch program called P01 while the simulator was in midflight. There was no reason an astronaut would ever do this, but nonetheless, Hamilton wanted to add code to prevent the crash. That idea was overruled by NASA.  They told Hamilton and her team over and over that astronauts were trained to be perfect, so they would never make that mistake. She wanted to add error-checking code to the Apollo system that would prevent this from messing up the systems. But that seemed excessive to her higher-ups. “Everyone said, ‘That would never happen,’” Hamilton remembers.

But it did happen. Five days into the historic Apollo 8 flight which brought astronauts to the moon for the first-ever manned orbit, the astronaut Jim Lovell inadvertently selected P01 during flight. This wiped out all the navigation data Lovell had been collecting. Without that data, the computer wouldn’t be able to calculate and execute the route back. But Hamilton and her team developed a plan based on her program note regarding the problem, and thanks to that —and Lauren—the Apollo astronauts came home.

Sources for this article:

Role Model Sunday: Anita Borg

Anita Borg (picture from wikipedia article)
Anita Borg

This week’s role model was brought to my attention by Fachschaft Informatik, a group of students representing the Comuputer Sciences students at my university, helping with problems concerning curricula, courses, and so on. One of the rooms provided and used by FSInf is the Anita Borg room.

Anita Borg was a self-taught programmer, focusing on operating systems and memory systems. Upon realizing at a symposium in 1987 that there were incredibly few women in computing, she became an advocate for technical women. She founded a mailing list called Systers, which brought together women in technology. In 1994, together with Telle Whitney, Borg founded the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a conference by and for women in computer sciences. In 1997, Borg founded the Institute for Women in Technology, aiming to increase the representation of women in technical fields and to enable the creation of more technology by women. Anita Borg’s personal goal was to achieve a 50% representation for women in computing by 2020.

While reading up on her life, the second most interesting fact for me was that the mailing list she oversaw, while primarily focusing on communication of experts on technical things, tackled non-technical issues from time to time. For example, when in 1992 a Barbie doll hit the market that said “math class is tough”, the protest that started with the Systers list played a role in getting that phrase removed from Barbie’s microchip. This very much reminded me of a Simpsons episode, Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy. The most interesting fact was that Anita Borg obviously was a very active, motivated fighter for women in technology. This is a trait I very much like in people – talking about things might be interesting, but to actually change the state of something, things must get done.

After Anita Borg died of cancer in 2003, the Institute for Women in Technology was renamed to the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology by Telle Whitney, who took over as CEO and President in 2002. Lots of awards and scholarships are named in her honor, and while still alive, Anita Borg received Awards by the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) and the Association for Women in Computing as well as an Honorary Doctor of Science and Technology degree by Carnegie Mellon University.

For more information, go read up at wikipedia (where I also found her picture).

Role Model Sunday: Mary Lou Jepsen

Jepsen-Mary-Lou-headshot
Mary Lou Jepsen, picture (c) magazine.org

Mary Lou Jepsen is the co-founder of One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and an expert in the field of displays. Her work has had worldwide influence on head-mounted displays, HDTV and projector products. She created some of the largest ambient displays ever, and received a Master of Science degree in Holography at MIT Media Lab, where she was also part of the faculty for some years.

At OLPC, Jepsen developed the sunlight-readable display technology and co-invented the ultra-low power management system for the laptop. She also transformed these inventions into high volume mass production. The XO laptop is the lowest-power laptop ever made, and the most environmentally friendly laptop ever made and can sustain 5 foot drops.

In 2008, after working at OLPC for 3 years, Jepsen started a for-profit company, Pixel Qi, to commercialize some of the technologies she developed at OLPC. In 2013, she joined Google[x] as their “Head of the Display Division”.

You can find out more about Mary Lou Jepsen on wikipedia and her website.

Also I promise that the next article will be based on a personal interview. Stay tuned!