What does it mean to incorporate social justice principles into my teaching?



In my teaching, I have opportunities to incorporate many social justice principles into the content and structure of the modules, particularly for ‘Social Computing’ for the Psychology and Computing 2nd Year students. On reflection, the DISCs project has highlighted to me the areas in which I can improve the design and delivery of social justice issues in my teaching. For this blog, I’ll focus on examples of four principles of social justice: Equity, Access, Participation and Rights.

Access and accessibility is a topic that should be integral in design processes and is considerably easy to integrate into teaching social computing. For example, design in technology needs to consider accessibility for users who may be visually-impaired, hard of hearing, or have issues with mobility and dexterity. I try to draw students attention to this, and have found that they have become critical of design that doesn’t consider accessibility in their assignments and class discussions.

I encourage participation as a core activity in lectures, to encourage students to learn from eachother, and examine their viewpoints on social justice issues. I am fortunate that the class I teach is relatively small (25 students) and the classroom space allows for flexibility in set up. As one student pointed out to me, the field of technology and design has more contentious topics in comparison to psychology, where the ethical lines have at this point been more clearly defined. To allow the students to engage in topics such as technologies role in climate control and encouraging voter behaviour, I set up walking debates, in which students can take a (literal) stand in regard to their opinions on these topics, and listen to the opposing sides in order to refine their opinions. I find these activities work well as they are inclusive yet don’t require students to commit too much to their opinions if they haven’t considered the topic much before, by standing in the middle of the room, or ‘on the fence’. This allows them to listen to both sides of the argument and change their stance.

Equity in the classroom comes through drawing attention to the need for equity in education and design. For example, beginning with a conversation about the design of simple gender drop down menus that don’t include non-binary gender options, can extend to the conversations about discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age or sexual orientation if technology is not designed for equity. Encouraging students to consider how they are positioned in this and ensures that as designers they need to learn from a wide range of experiences in order to design for equity.

Encouraging students to engage critically in discussion of how they benefit from their rights can be a difficult topic to introduce, as students may feel the power dynamics of the education system don’t allow for them to fully exercise their rights. I found bringing up topics of privilege and power is gently introduced, so as to not alienate the experience of students. For example, introducing this topic through design tools such as ‘personas’ (fictional characters used as user profiles) can make it easier to discuss.

Incorporating social justice issues into teaching requires these issues to be woven through the topics of discussion and within the structure of the module itself. Creating environments in which students are supported to examine their role in challenging social justice issues and encouraging them to continue this into their graduate careers is an important goal to ensure these lessons are sustainable and spark civic action.