Software Engineering Book Clubs and Panel Discussion

One of the units during the fall semester in my Software Engineering class focuses on technology, society, and ethics. The big idea is that “Students will research, analyze, discuss, and present contemporary issues at the intersection of technology, society, and ethics”. The guiding question is “How does technology affect change from the critical context of privacy, social justice, economics, education, politics, culture, security, or warfare?”. The rationale for this unit is that technology is having a dramatic impact on every aspect of today’s society. The scope of the impact ranges from the personal to international relations. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s digital citizens who will be designing, applying, and using technological products that will affect change. We achieve these standards through book clubs in which small groups of students (3-5) read, analyze, and discuss a text. Students participate in a panel discussion as the summative assessment for this unit.

The past couple of years, students read one of the following books:

  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian
  • Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion by Hal Abelson, Ken Ledeen, Harry Lewis
  • The Hacked World Order: How Nations Fight, Trade, Maneuver, and Manipulate in the Digital Age by Adam Segal
  • The Monsters of Education Technology by Audrey Watters
  • The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
  • Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

I present each of the books to the class and then have them force rank their choices. I then form the groups to reflect student preferences while balancing the size of groups. This year, I’ll use my genetic algorithm.

The book groups meet weekly for six weeks in the middle of our data structures unit. This serves as a refreshing change of pace as the data structures unit is fairly intense. In the past, we’ve met in the Learning Commons for book groups which is a great space for this activity.

Inspired by a Cult of Pedagogy article featuring Marisa Thompson, the weekly discussion is structured around Thoughts, lingering Questions, and Epiphanies (TQEs). Each week the book club group collaboratively completes a document (week #1 template) to capture their discussion. This provides some accountability and serves as a great resource for the panel discussion.

The sample prompts change from week to week:

  • Week 1
    • author’s claims
    • personal or group response to the author’s claims
    • evidence (examples) that support the author’s claims
    • aha! (striking) moments while reading or discussing
  • Week 2
    • Has anyone’s personal response or beliefs changed while reading the first third of the book? If no, why not?
    • How does your personal response or beliefs align with those of the author? If yes, how have they changed? Why did they change?
  • Week 3
    • Notes on research on the author. What is their background? What is their education and profession? For whom do they work? Do they have a personal connection to the topic? For which, if any, publications do they write?
    • What are the potential biases of the author?
    • How does awareness of these potential biases affect your perspective of the author’s claims?
  • Week 4
    • Through which of the following critical contexts does the technology highlighted in your text most affect change? (privacy, social justice, economics, education, politics, culture, security, of warfare)
    • how does the technology highlighted in your text affect change from the critical context selected above?
  • Week 5
    • What question is most important to be asked in relationship to your book that has not been asked? That is, what is the question for the answer that you are most excited to share? Why this question is so important?
  • Week 6
    • students are on their own at this point…

After these six weeks of reading, analyzing, and discussing their books, students demonstrate their understanding through their participation in a panel discussion. Originally, I planned on having students write individual essays. One of our Learning Support Coaches recommended alternative assessments and suggested a panel discussion. While I was nervous about managing a panel discussion, it worked incredibly well as a summative assessment and is so much more engaging than a bunch of essays.

The structure of the panel discussion varies somewhat based on the number of students in the class. Overall, there are four panel discussions over two days of class. I set up tables for the panel and the observers in the Learning Commons and invite teachers and administrators to watch the panel discussion. Each panel is comprised of a student from each of the book groups. At times, there may need to be two students from the same book group. This ensures a variety of perspectives as each will address the prompt through from the perspective of their book. Students are expected to address the prompt from the perspective of their book and its author and not their personal opinion. This is important in that I want them to demonstrate that they can take one of their author’s claims, support it with evidence, and connect it to a novel prompt with their reasoning. In addition, students are expected to respond to their peers on the panel as this should be a discussion and not just a round robin of responses to a question. Students are allowed to have notes but are cautioned that use of these notes shouldn’t distract from the panel discussion. I collect their notes at the end of the panel, which serves as supplemental evidence of their understanding. Each student is assessed based on this rubric.

I prepare several prompts for the panel discussion, but one is almost always sufficient for a 15-20 minute panel discussion. Here are the prompts that I’ve used in the past:

  • According the author’s claims presented in your text, through the lens of education [could also be any of the other critical contexts], how do the topics presented in your texts affect change?
  • According the author’s claims presented in your text, how do the concepts presented in your text affect our perception of self identity, control of one’s destiny, and self value?
  • The topics presented in your texts are technologically advanced. According the author’s claims presented in your text, how do they affect everyday people?
  • Many of the topics raised in your text are fairly depressing. According the author’s claims presented in your text, what did you find in your text that was hopeful for the future?
  • According the author’s claims presented in your text, to what extent would your author agree that technology is headed in a positive direction?

Here are a couple of my extra prompts in case a panel gets stalled:

  • The authors of your texts raised several concerns. How did they advise individuals to respond to these issues? What is their call to action?
  • According the author’s claims presented in your text, to what extent would your author agree that the ethical questions raised in this text are subjective?

I’ve been really impressed with students on the panels the past three years. As I mentioned previously, a single prompt almost always lasts 15-20 minutes and is all that is needed for a panel. Students exceeded my expectations. They really took care of each other; if someone was struggling to make a connection, they would prompt them with a bridge to help them make a connection and give them an opportunity to speak. Clearly our Communication Arts teachers have helped these students develop these impressive skills.

For the upcoming school year and the fourth year of my Software Engineering class, I will leave most of this unit unchanged. The one change that I will make is to have students read one of two books and narrow the focus to the critical context of social justice. The district Learning Services department has generously agreed to purchase additional copies such that every student will read either Weapons of Math Destruction or Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code by Ruha Benjamin. While I worry a bit that the more focused lens will limit the panel discussions, both of these books are so rich that I expect the panel discussions will be just as good, if not better, than in the past.

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