Get to Know Berkman Klein Fellow Velislava Hillman
a spotlight on one of our 2018-2019 BKC Fellows
This interview is part of a collaborative effort between the summer 2018 BKC interns and the Communications team to showcase the tremendous work and backgrounds of our 2018 -'19 BKC fellows
Read more stories from our Interns and Fellows!
How did you first hear about the Berkman Klein Center and what made you want to come here?
My research on youth and media led me to keep abreast with the Center's work, which is global in its approach. The Center's environment is interdisciplinary. You never truly understand the potential of working with people from different disciplines until you experience it first-hand.
Your current work is at the intersection of technology and education. Can you tell me how came to be interested in this space? Why are you inspired to do this work?
My current research evolved from my earlier work when I looked at young people’s perspectives of having and using digital technologies as tools for creating things, for connecting with others, for learning. Much has been said about what children and young people do with digital technologies and the complex relationships that develop as a result, the risks and the opportunities from interacting with digital technologies and so on. While adults’ and experts’ interpretations of the impact and meanings of these relationships are so important, it is equally necessary to know young people’s own interpretations and perspectives. To some, playing video games may seem like a waste of time; to a ten-year-old it is a very complex experience where you learn a specific language, strategy and social skills.
To some, playing video games may seem like a waste of time; to a ten-year-old it is a very complex experience where you learn a specific language, strategy and social skills.
At BKC my focus remains the same: the perspective of the young person. I look at young people’s relationships with digital technologies in formal environments such as school. There, the number and type of technologies used in a classroom is growing. You can find management systems that monitor students’ online activities; adaptive learning technologies, algorithm-based programs that detect students’ proficiency and behavior and adapt instruction accordingly; biosensors that measure students’ attentiveness and moods; biometric systems that track students’ whereabouts. Along with the data that all these technologies generate, there are also the experts — policymakers, educators and researchers — who profile students as individuals and as learners. It’s important to know what students have to say about their learning experiences, what and why they care to learn — their interpretation of things.
By the end of K-12, a student would have submitted incredible amount of data that can predetermine so much about their future. So I ask, what young people have to say in juxtaposition to this data? Can a systematic approach be developed to gain young people’s feedback to what matters to them and what they care to learn in contrast, or in addition, to what digital data says about them as learners and as individuals?
What are you hoping to do during your Fellowship year?
I am working on developing a platform that elicits students’ reflection and socio-emotional response to anything school-related, all of which can be taken into account when assessing learning and evaluating school success.
What is one thing that excites you about how technology is being used in education?
Technologies, if used well, like any tool, can alleviate a lot of the problems experienced in education in the poorer members of societies not only in the global north but also in the global south. That excites me greatly because there are already some positive results in using education technologies in some of the poorest corners of the world.
My work and interests, beyond my current project at BKC, span across digital technologies and young people in the developing world. My European upbringing and having lived for long in a South Mediterranean country has always made me look more globally when discussing digital technologies and young people. In the current discussions surrounding education technologies in the global north, I ask how these can support or enhance education in the less developed parts of the world?
Technologies will not really substitute a good teacher, but can, where used properly, help alleviate some of the problems such as lack of teachers, which is a big issue in many parts of the global south. There are education technologies that can adapt instruction according to individual learners’ levels of proficiency. This allows the student to learn at their own pace. In some poor regions of the world the ratio of teacher to students can be 1 to 80, sometimes even more than a hundred students to one teacher. Technologies can fix this overload that teachers have to deal with by allowing them to manage smaller groups of students split to working with shared computer tablets and software.
What scares you, or concerns you?
Of course with the use of digital technologies come many more questions and problems to worry about. The growing concerns regarding student data privacy are far from solved in countries with relatively stronger laws and regulations. But I also worry about how are young people in the global south, who should also be able to benefit from interacting with digital technologies, protected?
In schools specifically, AI-embedded learning tools can steer children to courses and careers they may not have in mind or at heart. It is crucial to know how much decision-makers rely on and follow the available data.
I worry that there is incredible amount of data children and young people submit, often unwittingly, when they learn and interact with technologies at home, at school, anywhere and all the time. In schools specifically, AI-embedded learning tools can steer children to courses and careers they may not have in mind or at heart. It is crucial to know how much decision-makers rely on and follow the available data.
Then, data can also easily go into the hands of future employers, university admission committees, and even recruiters, not to mention data breaches or selling and using young people’s data for commercial purposes.
What do you hope education looks like in the future?
I’d answer this by focusing on what I hope education doesn’t look like. I hope that we don’t define education solely by what is measured because individuals have great many qualities that remain unmeasured. I hope that AI doesn’t become the main decision-maker about how well, why and what young people learn and thus decide upon their futures.
Okay, a kind of personal, get-to-know-you question: what is your favorite thing to do when you are NOT in the middle of research and work? How do you like to distract yourself?
I have three young children all under ten. We play music, we invent our own languages and games, we run in the park, we cook read together, we goof and laugh a lot. They are my best distractor and my focal point at the same time.
Read more about our Open 2019 - '20 Fellows Call for applications!
Velislava's interview was originally conducted by Gabriella Ssewankambo, and updated by Daniel Dennis Jones.