The role of technology in driving forward diversity and inclusion

University of North Carolina


In the ninth of our interviews with key speakers who are presenting at SEC 11th -12th October 2018, Professor Fatma Mili explains the role technology plays in driving forward diversity and inclusion.

Professor Fatma Mili is Dean of the College of Computing and Informatics at the University of North Carolina, US. She began her career at Oakland University in Michigan in the US following a traditional path of teaching and research. In the process, she led large multidisciplinary research teams; giving her an understanding of the responsibility and joy of working with others to formulate a common vision and then enabling them to realise that vision as a team and grow individually as a result. She subsequently served as department Chair and Associate Dean at Oakland and at Purdue University. At Purdue, she initiated and led an educational initiative that transformed the College of Technology into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute. 


Could you explain the background behind TransSTEM (Center for Trans-institutional Capacity Building and Educational Equity in STEM)?

Our success in taking Purdue Polytechnic from concept to implementation relied heavily on collaborations with other innovators who consulted with us, gave us ideas, debugged our designs and supported us intellectually and morally. This experience helped us recognise the need for a trans-institutional community for faculty engaged in educational innovation and institutional change. The three questions that drove our work at Purdue were: 1. How to prepare students for the future? 2. How to integrate research about human motivation and learning in the classroom? And 3. How to create a system that is driven by inclusion and not exclusion? We cannot address these questions in an authentic way without re-examining core implicit assumptions about what we do and how we define our success, our profession and ourselves. This is hard to do alone. We needed a community.

What are your thoughts on how technology is currently taught?

Technology is having a transformational impact on the way we live, the way we work and the way we communicate. The full social implications of these changes have yet to be fully understood. We somehow continue to perpetuate the myth that all science is neutral and all technology is good. This cannot be further from the truth, yet we have not changed our curricula and our methodologies to address this.

Engineering and computing curricula require a course on ethics, but it feels like an afterthought. Engineering Design methodologies and innovation curricula are even more striking in how they overlook ethical issues. Most of them are built around three axes: desirability – is a human need met by the designed artefact; feasibility – do we have the technological know-how to realise the artefact; and viability – is this a commercially viable product. In other words, social and ethical implications are not part of the equation.

At UNC Charlotte we are looking at changing our computing curricula so graduates are equipped with the intellectual tools, but also and especially the habits of mind to always reflect on the questions: Should we do this? Who benefits? Who pays? These and similar questions will be embedded in every design exercise. This means we will not rely on a separate walled off course on ethics to make “ethical computer scientists.” No course project or research project will be complete without a section or a chapter that illustrates that the student and the researcher incorporated social and ethical implications into their design.


You have previously commented that lack of diversity and inequity is exacerbated by technology. Could you expand on the issues you feel we are currently failing to address?

The issue of diversity and inclusion is complex. Its persistence cannot be attributed to a single factor. Its solution, similarly, has to be multifaceted. As with most contemporary issues, technology is sometimes part of the problem; and can always be part of the solution.

Inequity can be exacerbated and magnified by technology. This is why deliberate attention to the broad implications of any design is very important. Unless we pay special attention, our algorithms reproduce, magnify and legitimise our biases; our computing systems systemise and multiply our biased processes. Let’s take one example, inequity in education. Online education (and MOOCS) were seen to have the potential to be the equaliser, by broadening access to classrooms and faculty, and by introducing an element of flexibility. Unfortunately, in most cases the data does not bear this. Students who sign up for online classes are indeed much more diverse than those in traditional classrooms; but students who complete and pass the online courses are as, or more, homogeneous than the students who pass and succeed in face-to-face classrooms. This is a design issue. Technology-based online education has not solved the equity problem; it has simply duplicated and magnified existing inequities. With this realisation, many educational and computing researchers are now making a deliberate effort to understand what includes and what excludes in order to create inclusive systems.

You can find out more about the STEMM Equality Congress here

You can find out more about Fatma Mili here