Thanks to a new grant, Fordham GSS Associate Professor Lauri Goldkind, Ph.D., is bridging the gap between academia and industry—fostering a generation of tech-savvy professionals with a commitment to ethics, equity, and social responsibility.
Goldkind is the Principal Investigator and visionary force behind the “Building Inclusive Public Interest Technology Learning Competencies” project, which secured a prestigious 16-month grant of $178,000 from the 2023 PIT-UN Network Challenge. Representing Fordham University, Goldkind will collaborate with community partner All Tech Is Human to bring the project to life.
“Together, we’ll develop learning competencies, outcome indicators, and suggested competency assessments to be used freely across the PIT University Network and beyond,” Goldkind wrote in the project’s proposal. “A common language of PIT competencies will help to accelerate the evolution of PIT as a discipline, operationalizing foundational values of technology as a public good, with social justice, equity, and access as core attributes, and uncovers the resulting competencies that bring these into being.”
PIT-UN Challenge: A Beacon of Change
Since its inception in 2018, the PIT-UN Network Challenge has awarded over $15 million in grants to 145 Public Interest Technology (PIT) projects. Its awards uniquely focus on progressing tech for good and its mission to minimize harm. This extraordinary commitment to ethical tech aligns seamlessly with Fordham’s—and social work’s—core mission and values.
“At a time when technology is shaping every facet of our lives, these projects demonstrate how PIT-UN is preparing a new generation of technologists who understand technology’s societal impacts,” the PIT-UN website reads, “and have the skills to build rights, justice, social welfare, and the public good into its design, deployment, and governance across business, government, and wider social contexts.”
Building a Bridge: Academia Meets Industry
For Goldkind, the technological chasm between higher education and industry has long been a concern. Academia aspires to produce tech that makes the world better, she said, while industry’s interests more often lean toward profit generation and shareholder value. The key divide centers around social justice, equity, and ethics—attributes Goldkind’s project aims to make core components of every tech professional’s arsenal.
“People out in the real world think differently about learning than people in academia,” Goldkind said. “If you put all these people at the table, could we come up with a set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors that somebody leaving a university with a public interest technology degree can do?”
The competencies emerging from the project are more than just learning goals; they are aspirational statements of a future graduate’s abilities. These competencies bridge the worlds of academia and industry, equipping students with skills that are not only academically sound but also eminently practical.
“We’re bringing together folks from a range of disciplines plus the private sector to make this work for real students so that they have a job when they leave [school],” Goldkind said.
Transcending Disciplinary Boundaries and Opening Doors to Innovation
Goldkind widely recruited collaborators for this project. Public interest technology isn’t confined to a single discipline, she said; it’s an amalgamation of technology, law, policy, ethics, and the protection of individuals in a rapidly evolving digital age.
The wide net of interdisciplinary collaborators raises a question: where, then, within the university, does public interest technology call home? At one university, it may live within a computer science department, while at another, it resides in a law school. This can leave prospective students and their families wondering about the concreteness of the concept.
“Different schools have it situated in different places, which makes it a little hard to translate for a more general audience,” Goldkind said.
As the project evolves, she continued, it is working not only to define the competencies but also to make them freely accessible, adaptable, and easy to use. The project envisions a future where public interest technology is not just a lofty goal but a practical concentration or degree program schools all over the world can use. Goldkind said giving educators an adaptable, open-source resource for teaching PIT will help keep the information current.
“It’s not good enough to just have those endpoint goals. You have to give instructors ways to assess them,” Goldkind said. “If you put these materials on Wiki University, people can download it, make it their own, and then re-upload it as a 2.0 [version]. That accessibility is really important…because there’s a whole set of educators outside of the United States who don’t have access to textbooks and other curricular resources.”
But much like creating content for students—or anyone—it has to be digestible.
“You could have the most beautiful material in the world, but if nobody’s using it, it doesn’t matter,” Goldkind said.
Goldkind’s project collaborators will meet twice in person—once in January and again next summer—alongside their remote and asynchronous work. At these meetings, they will discuss the dissemination and marketing of their finished product so its impact spans widely.
“How do we make it accessible to people? How do we make sure that folks know it exists? Does it represent a range of perspectives both from a disciplinary standpoint and also from a range of stakeholders? And how does it account for the role of power and privilege?” Goldkind said.
The Importance of Public Interest Technology
Public interest technology is not merely an academic pursuit; it’s a commitment to using technology as a force for good. This involves understanding the moral and ethical implications of these powerful tools and how people use them unethically today.
One such way comes through social media misinformation, Goldkind said. As the prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI) deepfake videos increases, it will be more difficult to tell if what you see on the screen is real or artificially generated. But that’s just one of many challenges that come alongside our online lives, she added; others include marketing data farms that collect and sell our information to advertisers — acts of which many are unaware.
Bias can even be built into the technology itself, Goldkind said, and most of those biases are based on two things: who’s represented in the underlying data, and the people who are building those systems — most of whom are overwhelmingly white males.
This is where social workers are particularly impacted and can find their pathway into PIT.
“Social work could have a place at the table, both by having a deeper understanding of how those systems work and by being a conduit,” she said. “Social workers offer a completely different perspective on unintended consequences because, by and large, our clients are the recipients of those unintended consequences.”
Moving Forward – Fordham and PIT
As we navigate a technologically driven world, the need for individuals with technical expertise and ethical consciousness is more significant than ever.
Goldkind and Fordham University, with the “Building Inclusive Public Interest Technology Learning Competencies” project, are pivotal in shaping this future. This initiative isn’t just about education; it’s a transformation that will have a massive impact on the tech industry and on the students’ lives who pave the path for PIT at the university level.
“If we want public interest technology to be successful, we have to connect what students are learning in the classroom with what’s happening outside in industry, and make a pathway for folks to leave from the undergraduate and graduate levels and into the working world with this new knowledge,” Goldkind said.