Why I’m Not Going to BCNET 2020

If you live in British Columbia, work in higher education, and specialize in technology, BCNET is an important organization. BCNET is government-funded and has the mandate of making technology more available to the province’s universities and colleges. If you want to network or collaborate across institutions, learning to navigate BCNET will benefit you.

Every year BCNET hosts a multi-day conference. Last year there were 800 attendees. Each day there are dozens of sessions and one keynote speech. The keynotes set the tone on many levels.

It’s hard to describe the BCNET conference. It’s mostly men. There are not many teaching faculty there. Many sessions are technical, without much connection to education but the context. I’ve been three times, and always walk away with something bothering me. One year it was a rowdy Q&A calling on other participants to demand FIPPA be abolished. Will Richardson’s 2019 keynote was last year’s something, and until recently I did not know it had been recorded. So now I can bother myself any time I want.

Will gave a talk called “From EdTech to LearnTech”. A significant part related to algorithmic bias, and he began by talking about biased Google results.

 

The video above shows what I mean. He told us to Google Image Search “doctors” and note that the only results were white men. He said he’d done this earlier that day.

I did as I was told and my results were not like that. There were many women and people of colour represented in the results. I showed this to the person next to me and wondered to myself: “What is going on? Is he repeating an old anecdote? Did he actually search for “doctors” this morning? Is the keynote speaker in a male-dominated filter bubble? Is Google showing him white men because it thinks those results are most relevant to him?”. It stuck in my head and distracted me a lot from the talk.

But then at the 30 minute mark, something got my attention. The speaker started to complain.

 

“Anyone ever heard of Seymour Sarason? Depressing.”

“Anyone ever hear of Seymour Papert? Oh, I am gonna drink after this.”

He then proceeded to quote a lot of other people we should have heard of, including:

  • Marshall Mclewan
  • John Holt
  • Jesse Stommel (though the quote displayed was by Sean Michael Morris)
  • Steven Downes
  • Gary Stager
  • Audrey Watters
  • Eric Hoffer

9 men and 1 woman.

The talk came to a close and he opened it up to questions. Before I could think better of it, I asked him:

“Thanks for the talk. I’ve been sitting here watching you, and you started your talk by pointing out that Google primarily shows men when you search for “doctors”. And then, for the next 55 minutes you showed us quote after quote from men, saying that it was disappointing and depressing that we hadn’t heard from them. I finally got to take a breath when you showed us Audrey Watters, who is an amazing writer and scholar. Are there any other women that you think we should check out?”

This is how he started his reply:

“Well, to be honest, in the world of ed tech, it’s hard to find a lot of women and a lot of people [of] colour that are talking about it in these contexts”…

You can watch his response in full on the keynote video page (or skip it back a few seconds to hear me).

Hard to find. I thought about algorithms and how this room full of men was furiously Googling the names of men, buying their books, sharing photos of quotes by men, following the speaker on Twitter, then retweeting the men he retweets. I thought about how this activity contributes to the very same algorithms Will mentioned at the start. The BCNET website barely mentions gender at all. This is being ignored.

I am of course not the first person to talk about BCNET’s gender representation problem. I want to highlight Dr. Tannis Morgan, who raised my awareness that there are no women keynote speakers at BCNET 2020.

Tannis’s quote from her Week in Review Feb 14 spoke to me:

Of course, I blogged about one or more of these things in 2012 and again in 2014 and again in 2014 and again in 2019 and again in 2019 and again in 2019. So there’s a big So What? that I have to confront. What do I hope to achieve by blogging about this? What are my motivations? Is this the best I can do or is it the path of least resistance?

 This isn’t the first time. And that’s why I’m not going to go.

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