If We Wanted to Hack into the University System
September 28, 2020
#5 If We Wanted to Hack into University System
Sept. 28, 2020
0:00 Interview with Jess Calberry and Mitchell Higgins, Off-Campus 1st-Year Initiatives
13:38 Interview with Umair Rehman, Assistant Professor, User Experience Design
22:23 Interview with Mikayla Ferraro, Student, User Experience Design
33:00 Pop Culture Campus: The Social Network
Thank you to Serena Austin, One Market Research Assistant, Melissa Weaver for graphics, and Nicole Morgan for campus promotion. Music by Scott Holmes.
Bruce Gillespie 0:02
Welcome to One Market, keeping the Laurier Brantford community connected. I’m Bruce Gillespie. This week we talked to the people organizing virtual programming for the 4,300 first-year students living off campus, meet the new user experience design professor, and then talk to a student about her job at a tech startup. Plus the latest installment of Pop Culture Campus in which we dissect the movie The Social Network with a User Experience Design student. All that and more coming up on this episode of One Market.
Our first guests are Jess Calberry and Mitchell Higgins, who run programming for first-year students who live off campus through the LOCUS program. I started our conversation by asking them to explain exactly what LOCUS is.
Jess Calberry 0:51
LOCUS is an acronym that stands for Laurier Off-Campus University Students. And essentially we’re kind of like a virtual residence. So all of the first-year students who choose not to live in a Laurier residence for whatever reason, can join the LOCUS program, and they’re assigned to a community of other off-campus students based on their academic faculty. So Human and Social Sciences students are placed together, Liberal Arts are placed together, Social Work are placed in the same community. And same with Business Technology Management, and they have a LOCUS don, who is responsible for overseeing the community, and kind of being that point person for the students to reach out to and ask, you know, when is the drop date for classes, I’m really struggling with my academics or on the flip side, I’m really nailing my academics and I want to tell you about it, and kind of just be their their go to person during their first year at Laurier. And then also the dons run a ton of programming to kind of help build that sense of community for the off-campus students so they don’t feel like they’re missing out on the student life at Laurier, even though they could be commuting from just down the road. Or sometimes we have students who have traveled in from Brampton. So it’s really just bringing the sense of Laurier community for the first-year off-campus students.
Bruce Gillespie 2:06
I love that idea. Because again, I think a lot of this happens organically when you live in a residence building with other folks. But for folks who are commuting in from other places who don’t live in residence, this is a great way to, especially in first-year, right, to meet new people, make new friends, get that sense of community, have some some people to touch base with regularly.
Jess Calberry 2:22
Yeah, for sure. The students who have joined are, you know, at the end of the year, they’re so thankful. And they thank their dons and Mitch and I and the rest of the staff team for you know, running this type of program, because it’s not too popular across other institutions in Canada. So it’s something that’s really unique and special to Laurier.
Bruce Gillespie 2:40
Oh, fun I didn’t know that. So, clearly, most of the programming you guys probably do is probably in person most years. So obviously, since March, you’ve moved all of that online. And certainly as I was watching and paying attention through March in the summer, I was amazed. But not totally surprised, because I know you folks, I know how good you are. But you were doing so much programming right off the bat. It was just it was amazing to me how quickly you sort of got off the mark, which was just so encouraging. Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of programming you’ve been doing? Sort of since March and over the summer and sort of that some of the challenges you sort of ran into having to do it like this for the first time?
Mitchell Higgins 3:19
Yeah, for sure. I can touch on that. I think, in a sense, maybe we got lucky. I remember Jess and I talking in January, February, and we had talked about experimenting with some virtual stuff anyway, before the work from home happened, and COVID kind of overtook Canada, we want to run things like Jackbox because programming is always tricky. And I think everyone’s schedules are different. And the student timezone isn’t like a nine to five or an eight to four or something like that. So we wanted to try out virtual programming anyway to try and meet the schedule needs of a bunch of students. And then March came and work from home happened. And we thought, well, this is the perfect time like we have to do this now. So we picked everything up and moved virtually. And I think it went easier than we expected. It was great.
We started running a LOCUS summer community for all students just to give students that sense of community in case they were missing their Laurier folks or missing resources on campus, just to let students know that we’re still here for them during this time. And it was great. We had a LOCUS summer don, Mackenzie, who did a wonderful job in hosting a bunch of programming for students and programming like Netflix parties and Jackbox nights, Master Chef competitions, trying to balance active programming for students, being on Zoom interacting with people, and also past the things that they can do on their own time, kind of like social media challenges, trying out different things, ways that we can still engage students virtually. And I think it paid off, and it’s really great because that was kind of like a test drive for what we’re doing now from September through April. And the response has been great so far. And like I said, it was a test drive. And so now we’re just going full steam ahead.
Bruce Gillespie 5:10
I wanted to ask you about the response. What were you hearing from students? What was the what was the uptake like?
Mitchell Higgins 5:15
It was great engagement has been good in attendance. I mean, it always fluctuates. But we’re happy with it. And we always tell our dons when, you know, they host programming, whether it’s in person or virtual, it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality, right. So even if we make an impact on five students instead of 50, it’s still positive impact, but it’s been great. Like, we’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from students, you know, thanking us for hosting events and engagement and students just continuing week after week wanting to participate in whether it’s a trivia night or Bingo Night, or a Master Chef competition, you know, the turnout is still there. So we’re gonna keep supplying it.
Bruce Gillespie 5:55
I love the range of programming you guys are doing. I was sort of following along by Instagram when I was like, everyday is like, Oh, this is so much fun. For the Master Chef stuff to the communal game playing through Jackbox. And you were, Mitch, I might get this wrong, you were hosting bingo, or trivia or something, right?
Mitchell Higgins 6:10
Yeah, I was hosting bingo throughout the summer, yes.
Bruce Gillespie 6:14
All right. All right. Well, how was that?
Mitchell Higgins 6:17
It was fun. It was. It was definitely a challenge, especially when you had to work through some tech issues week after week. But it was fun. It was something that I did in person you know, when the year was normal, and then just picked up and moved it virtually. And it was great. The response was pretty incredible. We had students, we had regulars week after week coming out, and I would usually host it over Instagram Live, sometimes over Zoom, and just got a virtual bingo caller and sometimes switched it up to music bingo and themed bingo and stuff like that. But yeah, it was definitely a fun challenge. That’s for sure.
Bruce Gillespie 6:52
That’s nice. I didn’t realize I didn’t realize you used do it in person, too. So you’re an experienced bingo caller.
Mitchell Higgins 6:58
Well, some would say…
Bruce Gillespie 6:59
He’s The Suit and Tie Bingo Guy. So during all of his Instagram bingo hosts, he would, like, wear a full on suit and tie. And I think that’s hilarious given that most people are probably working in their sweatpants, but he turned it out every week.
Well, and why shouldn’t bingo be a formal occasion? Right?
Jess Calberry 7:17
Bruce Gillespie 7:19
Nice. So presumably, you learned a lot from all this experimental summer programming, as you said is sort of — it has, it’s given you a lot of ideas about what to do this fall and winter as we look at a whole academic year of being remote. What are your plans for the next couple semesters?
Jess Calberry 7:37
Yeah, so it’s gonna be a busy couple of semesters. I’m gonna say it’s, it’s looking very different than years past for sure. Earlier this summer, with the support of the Dean of Students Office, we decided to waive the traditional registration fee for LOCUS and automatically enroll all first-year, off-campus students to LOCUS. So across the two campuses, we’re at about 4,300 students right now.
Bruce Gillespie 8:04
Wow, a lot of students.
Jess Calberry 8:05
Yeah. So it’s significant growth in a very, very short period of time. So we spent the summer hiring some more LOCUS dons, We actually have two House Councils on the Waterloo campus instead of one. And really kind of looked at, you know, since the campus lines are very blurred, and all online, do we have to keep it just Brantford campus and Waterloo are there opportunities to merge the two? So that’s been a really fun aspect to our day-to-day lives now.
And then yeah, Orientation Week was a couple weeks ago, and we kind of hit the ground running and did some LOCUS-focused events and had the students meet their LOCUS don. And moving forward, all of our programming is online and virtual. We’ve got an open mic night coming up. One of the dons is doing like a room study space tour, which I think is really cool. So all of the students can kind of show off their workspace and kind of get ideas on how to stay organized in this virtual environment. We’re going to continue on with the Jackbox and the Master Chef. And one of the programming that was run this past summer was kind of like a group run, walk, jog challenge. So Mackenzie, our summer don, set a goal of 100 kilometres, and everyone in the community would kind of work towards reaching that goal of running, walking, jogging, so it was a way to get students outside as well. So we’ve just basically taken all of the values that we have of LOCUS and just shifted it into an online virtual setting with just a ton of different programming.
Bruce Gillespie 9:46
I think that’s, again, I’m so impressed by the range of stuff you guys have been able to do, and it really shows your commitment to supporting students off campus, especially when there’s so many of them this year because looking that’s the vast majority students are not living in residence because there’s not really much going on on campus, right? So this will be a, I think, a different year for for all of us. So it’s nice to know that all these kinds of supports and programs are in place to help them feel connected.
Jess Calberry 10:10
Yeah, that was one of the most important goals for Mitch and I was that, you know, this is a unprecedented year. And I’m sure we’re all sick of hearing the word “unprecedented,” but it is. So how can we kind of make things as normal as possible for you know, our upper-year volunteers, but the first-year students as well? So they don’t feel like their first year is different from other years. I mean, it is, but we’re trying to kind of minimize that gap as much as we can.
Bruce Gillespie 10:38
Mm hmm. So looking back on all this programming and changes that you’ve had to make since March, what is what’s your takeaway from it? Like? What have you learned from doing your programming this way?
Mitchell Higgins 10:51
A lot, so far, I think. I think honestly, for me, personally, I think it shows like, nothing’s a bad idea if you want to take a risk, and just go for it and see what happens. And like Jess said, again, the word “unprecedented.” We had no idea what we were really getting into, we just had some rough drafts, and we thought we need to go with it, you know? The train’s coming, you had to, like, get out of the way or get on board. And so we got on board and went full steam ahead. And it shows that students, they want to get connected to the community, right? They want to get involved in their university, and they want to make connections. And value having a student mentor in place that can help guide them through this. So, yeah, I think we just hold our values close, and keep them in mind and tackle whatever changes come our way. And, you know, hopefully that leads to success for us down the road, too.
Bruce Gillespie 11:42
I think that’s good advice. Jess, what are you taking away from this.
So far, I have honestly been surprised about how many things that we traditionally do on campus can be moved into an online setting. I know Zoom is very popular platform, but even just to take the, you know, studying in One Market, with friends and just moving it into Zoom and you know, still doing, you know, your academics and preparing for a project or whatever. But still having that sense of camaraderie with other people on Zoom, I think has been really, really kind of neat to see. Students kind of come together that way. And honestly, my biggest piece of advice for anyone who’s kind of wondering how to start virtual programming is just practise everything. For, I think, the first three weeks of March and even leading up to September, Mitch and I would just hop on Zoom or Teams and be like, “Hey, OK, so what can you see here? Is this working? Like, what’s the lag like?” Yeah, it was a lot of trial and error, and just kind of figuring out and tweaking to kind of make it successful before we introduced it to all of the students. So the importance of testing things out, especially in a virtual world is something that I have taken away and I am maybe a little bit over, aware of that.
Well, I think these days, it’s probably better to prepare for whatever might happen, as opposed to underprepared. So I think that’s, I think that’s wise advice.
Thank you. Thank you for indulging in some of my neurotic tendencies.
Jess, Mitchell, thank you so much for joining us today. Again, thank you for all the programming you’ve been providing since March and all the great stuff you have had for our students, who I know will really take advantage of your programming and really get a lot out of it. So thank you for all you and your staff for doing.
Mitchell Higgins 13:25
Yeah, thank you, Bruce. Appreciate the opportunity.
Jess Calberry 13:27
Yeah, thank you so much. I’m so pumped to be a part of this, and I love listening to the podcast each week.
Bruce Gillespie 13:33
Oh, that’s great. Thank you.
Our next guest is Umair Rehman. Umair is a new assistant professor in User Experience Design who started the job July 1st, so we thought this would be a good chance to introduce him to the Laurier Brantford community. I started by asking him to tell us a little bit about his academic background.
Umair Rehman 13:52
So, I actually come from an engineering background, I finished my PhD in Systems Design Engineering. But a lot of the work that I’ve done actually pertains to human factors, cognitive ergonomics, user experience design. And I was a lecturer here on contract basis, and then ended up getting selected for the tenure track position. And then I joined Laurier. So that’s my brief story.
Bruce Gillespie 14:17
That actually works out really well. So, it’s nice that you’ve had some in-person, face-to-face exposure to the campus and students before starting your full-time gig here in July when you won’t have a chance to see anybody face to face for what probably will be a long time.
Umair Rehman 14:31
Yes, there’s actually it’s like, you know, very, you know, pandemic is like, very troubled times for us. I hope like the pandemic dies down soon. But yeah, at least I’m happy to join Laurier.
Bruce Gillespie 14:45
That’s great. What were your impressions of our students in our campus when you were able to see them in person?
Umair Rehman 14:50
It was great, actually. Since I was involved with teaching two courses prior to joining, I had a lot of good memories with them. And then when I was giving my job talks, I actually got to go to different other campuses as well. But it was something striking about Brantford. It’s just a sense of ownership and you walk in and just the, you know, the, the Liberal Arts environment. And I actually fell in love and decided to join Laurier Brantford.
Bruce Gillespie 15:16
That’s great. So can you tell us a little bit about your research interests? I’m, I’m surprised to hear that you have an engineering background, I wouldn’t have expected that. So, I’m curious to see how the, like, what the overlap is between User Experience Design and Engineering is?
Umair Rehman 15:29
Yes, so User Experience Design is very interdisciplinary. There’s a joke that goes around, not just interdisciplinary, we’re anti-disciplinary, just because we belong to different kinds of factions. User Experience Design actually pertains to designing technology that’s usable, that has a good user experience. You need expertise from the technology side, but also from many other disciplines, such as psychology, and user experience designers in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, where the User Experience Design research is conducted in many other universities, in Engineering, in Psychology, even in business schools. So it’s a it’s a mix of, you know, different kinds of disciplines. And one of the things is that we try to not associate ourselves with one particular, you know, faculty or area of research, just because we feel like that kind of limits our research methods that we apply in the field. So it’s really interdisciplinary. And actually, it’s good that we’re in the Faculty of Liberal Arts, just because we get that unique ideas from Liberal Arts, because Liberal Arts is all about embracing different kinds of, you know, challenges. And so that’s something good about Faculty of Liberal Arts.
Bruce Gillespie 16:39
Absolutely. And I think it’s exciting for students to be exposed to, in these kinds of interdisciplinary faculties and programs to, for them to be exposed to a range of professors with different disciplinary backgrounds, different sort of ways of doing research, different sort of context for thinking, I think that that must make for more exciting classes, too.
Umair Rehman 16:56
Yes, actually, the conversations in the classes, you know, the students bring in their own kind of knowledge, which is really enriching for some of the professors too. And it has been a bit of a, you know, good, I would say, a learning curve for me as well, teaching Liberal Arts classes, but it has been a very enjoyable one, I’ve really, you know, had a good time. So, so that’s about it.
Bruce Gillespie 17:18
So what are you teaching class wise this year?
Umair Rehman 17:20
So, right now, I am teaching interaction design, which is a second-year course. But I’m also developing a research methods course, that’s going to be offered next year. My interests pertain to immersive computing devices, immersion, augmented reality, virtual reality, and how we can kind of improve experiences for these next generation wearable devices. So that’s what my areas of research are. And I applied research methods from many different disciplines. This includes some of the stuff that comes out from psychology, but also from a human factors, which is partially Engineering and partially engineering Psychology,
Bruce Gillespie 18:00
Engineering and Psychology, that’s fascinating to me. As a journalism professor, I never thought those two things go together. But, but it makes sense, I guess, especially if you’re thinking about immersive kinds of technologies that you’d both want to have an understanding of, like a mechanical understanding of how the technology works, but also the understanding of how people respond to it and use it.
Umair Rehman 18:18
Yes, I think one of the biggest dilemmas with technology currently is that while we have kind of made a lot of progress in terms of like the technical aspects, in terms of the human aspects, we really need to have an understanding of how humans, you know, kind of perceive information, how the brain physiology works, and some of the inner nuances, which are very hard for some of the folks in technology to grasp. So, I think this is where all the interdisciplinary background comes into play. And it’s just really exciting to see that while we’re making a lot of progresses in terms of designing technology, we’re also looking at things from the human factor standpoint, making sure that it’s usable, it’s friendly, it’s engaging, it’s not frustrating to use.
Bruce Gillespie 19:00
You mentioned, you’re working on a new research methods course for UX, given that it is such an interdisciplinary field, how do you how do you put a research methods course together? When when you could be drawing from so many different places? Does it just become one giant course?
Umair Rehman 19:14
Yes, it does become one giant course. One of the things that we try to do is that we try to make sure that the students have the practitioner’s knowledge that they need. And, for instance, like, I know, some students who don’t really have a background in deep statistics, so we’re not going to go into those statistics methods, right? But we’re just gonna give them that overview that they need to kind of succeed in terms of getting a job and then succeeding in the workforce. Other than that, there’s a lot of stuff that we borrow from, from Psychology and from other disciplines, even like Communications. One of the things that we teach students is interviews and observations. Now, this is not very common in Engineering or very technical backgrounds, but it’s this kind of comes in from Liberal Arts and science backgrounds. So, while students might find some aspects of the research methods course challenging, there are other aspects which they would kind of be already introduced to in many other classes that they have taken. So, it’s not that big of a deal.
One of the things that I realized with our students in user experience design is that they do, you know, learn a lot of different methods in other courses. And by the time that they’ve ended up taking research methods, they already have, like, a good, solid foundation. And then they can you know, kind of advance those research methods and go and apply them in the field.
Bruce Gillespie 20:32
Oh, that makes sense. I love that you’re teaching them interviewing. As a journalism professor, interviewing is one of the main things I teach. And I think it’s part of one of the things I really liked about teaching in this Faculty of Liberal Arts is that we have journalism students and Digital Media students, but Criminology students and UX students, and lots of people could take these courses. So, it’s fun to be able to teach those those kinds of skills to a broad range of people. But I think interviewing is something that everybody should learn at the undergraduate level and gets a really good life skill to be able to ask questions, follow up to what someone’s telling you, and try to understand and sort of get them to expand on their experiences. So, I’m glad to hear we’re not the only ones teaching that kind of stuff.
Umair Rehman 21:11
No, absolutely. You’ll be surprised that in a lot of the graduate courses that I’ve taken at Waterloo, University of Waterloo, that’s where I did my PhD from, interviewing was, we had, like, full courses on just interviews. So it’s a very important and very critical research method.
Bruce Gillespie 21:25
Absolutely. So how are you finding the remote learning environments so far? This is new for most of us, I think. How are your classes going so far?
Umair Rehman 21:35
They’re going great. So far, the students have adapted well. The only thing is that, you know, when you’re in the class, you can actually see your students, you know, see what they’re up to. You get more responses, because you can just, you know, cold call, put them on the spot. With remote learning this can, you know, kind of become a little bit of a challenge. Having said that, I think the students, they’re doing well, in terms of you know, still contributing to classes, despite being you know, remote. Yeah, so it’s going good overall.
Bruce Gillespie 22:10
Well, Umair. Welcome again to Laurier and I hope you have a successful first year, and we look forward to talking to you again at some point.
Umair Rehman 22:16
Thank you very much, Bruce. Thanks for having me.
Bruce Gillespie 22:19
Our final guest is Mikayla Ferraro, a User Experience Design student in her final year of the program. She has a really interesting job working at a tech startup in Kitchener-Waterloo called Monogram. So we asked her to tell us about it.
Mikayla Ferraro 22:33
I got this job back in January of last year. And we’re a tech startup based out of Kitchener-Waterloo. And we create modular controllers, for your kind of post-production editing needs. So, we work, we create the hardware and the software right in office. And then of course, our factories as well in China. But basically, we have these controllers that allow you to have fine motor controls over certain elements of Photoshop, or InDesign, or applications like that. So, with APIs, we actually do have direct integrations with majority of Adobe software. And we have dials and sliders and buttons that allow you to, we map our controllers to the software, and then you’re able to actually turn the dial and that would adjust something like your brush size if you were using Photoshop.
Bruce Gillespie 23:25
So, for folks who don’t use this kind of software, this sort of design software, on a regular basis, this is something you would use instead of just the mouse that came with your computer.
Mikayla Ferraro 23:33
Exactly, yeah. So it allows for better precision than a mouse. And it kind of helps with your, you know, the dexterity of your hands. And the comfort of your hands, if you’re working on big projects. It makes a little bit easier than having to navigate the mouse.
Bruce Gillespie 23:47
Which totally makes sense to me. I don’t use this kind of software a lot. But I use it regularly enough to know that the mouse drives me crazy, between the mouse and trying to switch to different kinds of uses. It’s really irritating. So having something that would actually make that easier and quicker and more efficient makes complete sense to me.
Mikayla Ferraro 24:04
Yeah, absolutely. And that was the goal of the product that the CEO created. And, yeah, we have, like, profiles that you can use. So basically, the way that works is you would map it for different elements of what you’re doing within whatever application you’re using. So, like you said, if you’re doing different use cases, and one day you’re editing or one day, you’re doing something different within Photoshop, you can actually switch right with your controller through the different profiles through the different functions as well. So, that way, a lot of times you don’t have to go back in and completely restart every time you want to work on a new project.
Bruce Gillespie 24:41
It’s a great idea. So what’s your role of the company?
Mikayla Ferraro 24:44
So, I’m a customer success lead. So, even though it might not necessarily seem super related to User Experience Design, the customer experience is definitely one of the front end elements of being a user experience designer. So, while I’m there, you know, of course, I handle some of the IT support concerns. And then basically my job is to take that information to help the user to work through their problem. And then to take any of that feedback and bring that to our software or hardware teams, and then be able to kind of close the circle and close the gap and be able to provide future experience updates, based on whatever the issue may have been in that instance.
Bruce Gillespie 25:25
That must be an interesting role to sort of be that liaison between customers using their product and the folks who are designing it, who obviously have a very different understanding of what that product is, or how it should be used, right? Because there’s always this disconnect between someone who makes the product and has envisioned it from scratch versus the end user who’s just trying to make it work for their specific unique purposes.
Mikayla Ferraro 25:45
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what’s really nice about is we have such specific use cases, sometimes depending, because even if you’re not using it in something like an integrated app, like Adobe, we actually allow you to use like a joystick, a MIDI, and a keyboard mode within our application. So you can actually use it for, you know, anything you’re doing. So it’s really unique that through perspectives of you know, our customers and what they might use it for, we’ve been able to better develop the product for them as well. So, it’s been it’s rewarding that way. And then to be able to see, because we’re a smaller team, we keep a really good connections with our users. So, I know that they really appreciate having their insights be brought into our new developments of the product as well. So, it’s a really cool opportunity to be able to learn on my end, the more technical side of things, while also being an advocate for the users.
Bruce Gillespie 26:34
Sure, and I would presume on top of everything that you’re learning about User Experience Design in school into practice.
Mikayla Ferraro 26:40
Exactly. Yeah, it’s been really unique. Because sometimes people think that, you know, UX designer simply focus on website design. And that’s not, that’s normally not the case, there’s quite a bit of variety and what we can work on. And this is definitely one part. So, even though the title itself might not be super related, it’s really unique to be able to take those skills of design thinking and empathy and be able to put that into customer support and bettering a product to the front end.
Bruce Gillespie 27:07
I mean, as a customer, I would assume that makes a big difference. I mean, I know, when I, you know, talk to tech support people or talk to people who are building things that I use. I mean, that empathy piece is a big piece — like, I really want to I want to feel like the person on the other end of that phone or the video chat is sort of hearing the frustrations, in most cases, that I’m having with a product as opposed to just I’m writing this down, I’ll send it to some coders, and maybe it’ll get fixed. Like, who knows? Like, having someone actually wants to understand how I’m using something, and why it’s not working for me, I think is really important.
Mikayla Ferraro 27:37
Oh, yeah, absolutely. It really, you know, enhances brand loyalty, it enhances the overall customer experience. And you know, if there does happen to be an issue with the product that you’re not necessarily happy with, if you have good support and good communication, it definitely makes that experience a little bit better than having unfortunately something go wrong, and then not having the proper support or personalization to get that resolved.
Bruce Gillespie 27:58
Right. How’s your work changed since the pandemic?
Mikayla Ferraro 28:02
Ah, at first, it was a bit interesting to navigate over to, you know, working from home. Personally, I found it a bit difficult at the beginning to, to somehow divide my personal life and my work life and my school life, all being under the same roof. What are we, probably about five, six months now into the pandemic? And things definitely have been able, to I’ve been able to get onto a better routine. Thankfully, based on what we do, and based on my job, it was a pretty smooth transition otherwise, because a lot of what I’m doing is just email communication. So that part’s been quite nice to change over to home.
Bruce Gillespie 28:42
That’s great. The other thing we wanted to ask you about was that you were working on a research apprenticeship last semester, and you were working on a paper about ethics and the use of AI. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Mikayla Ferraro 28:55
Yeah, absolutely. So originally, when I went into the research apprenticeship, I was kind of just generally exploring, you know, how humans, like, how that relationship is going to be developed between humans and AI. And it’s less about, you know, the sentience AI that we experienced in some science fiction movies, taking over and more about, you know, our Google devices, or Amazon Alexas and items like that. And being able to understand how that relationship works, whether we trust them or not. And I know that depending on what goes out in the media, or how it’s being portrayed in pop culture, it definitely has an influence on the way that we react or want to include these items in our home. And even with that, even if we are able to trust them, is that trust based on something, you know, is it based on a complete understanding about the technical advantages and usage of the device itself and understanding that and through the research that a lot of it was, you know, it kind of goes back to what we were discussing with work where, you know, it’s different when you’re the user. And it’s different, when you’re on the back end, creating it, your understanding of the products are very different. And a lot of times with these products, people, the way that things are explained are not necessarily done in the most mainstream way.
Bruce Gillespie 30:15
Mikayla Ferraro 30:16
So the research I kind of took a look at was, how do we kind of close that gap? And how can we use, you know, heuristics and User Experience Design principles, to be able to design systems, AI systems that are more human friendly and more trustworthy, in order to have them be able to be safely introduced into our lives? So, everyone has kind of a general understanding of what they’re getting themselves into with certain products, because we use AI in different capacities every single day without even knowing it. And sometimes it can cause, you know, there are potential threats and risks and without knowing the scope of what it is, it’s hard to trust what you’re bringing in. But if the language itself is written for experts, that unfortunately, it’s not quite accessible to the rest of the world, who are the users of this product.
Bruce Gillespie 31:07
Right. I’m thinking here of all those sort of terms of service we, you know, are supposed to read, but probably don’t, every time you download a new piece of software, right? With AI, right, there’s a whole set of, you’re probably getting the same kind of terms of service. But it’s probably even more important to think through exactly what you’re doing and what it’s sharing and recording and all that kind of stuff.
Mikayla Ferraro 31:26
Exactly. And not only just being transparent about it, but also being, again, human and being relatable. Because that’s the other thing, too, if it’s written in a way that you don’t have, you don’t understand the context or the way that it could be used, then it loses its value and its meaning.
Bruce Gillespie 31:43
Hmm, that’s fascinating. Is there a lot of research about sort of ethics and AI out there already or is it sort of, like, a burgeoning new kind of field?
Mikayla Ferraro 31:53
There’s definitely a lot out there in terms of how do we go about regulating and enforcing ethics, because culturally, ethics looks very different. But something like AI is so widespread and so universal, almost universal at this point, that there has to be some sort of foundation and you know, how much regulation do you put in? Do you make it something that is government regulated? Do we keep it on the public market? So, a lot of questions like that are what’s being explored at the moment, in terms of research and how to go about being able to create laws that are universal to keep everyone safe?
Bruce Gillespie 32:31
Hmm. That’s so interesting. We are lucky to have User Experience designers like yourself working on behalf of humans. to make this stuff easier to understand and use.
Mikayla Ferraro 32:41
Yeah, definitely. As a human myself, I definitely appreciate when things are understandable and simple, especially when they have such an impactful consequence on the world. Sure.
Bruce Gillespie 32:54
That’s great. Mikayla, thank you so much for telling us about some of your work today.
Mikayla Ferraro 32:57
Of course, thank you for having me, Bruce.
Bruce Gillespie 33:00
And now it’s time for another segment of Pop Culture Campus. With more information, here’s our co producer and co creator, Tarah Brookfield.
Tarah Brookfield 33:08
So, this episode, we’re going to talk about The Social Network, which is a fairly popular film that came out in 2010. Looking at the origins of Facebook, told through the perspective of Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, although the film looks at the contention about was he for example, the sole creator. It’s set at Harvard University and I thought that would be an interesting pop culture portrayal of Harvard to compare to our own campus. And one of the reasons we invited Mikayla was as a student with sort of expertise in social media, as well as her UXD sort of background, I was really curious to see how a student would view this film to see both and just how it portrayed higher ed. At the time, as well as sort of the role social media plays in a student’s life, sort of in the post-Facebook world. Mickaela, had you seen the film prior to our podcast?
Mikayla Ferraro 34:10
I actually have not. Um, so this was my first time watching it. And I watched it a few times. And it definitely was interesting watching it now considering all the information that we do know about Facebook, and you know, even in 2010, that would have been about 10 years ago, and I was quite a bit younger. So I had a different perspective, of course. So, it was interesting with my background now looking at the movie
Tarah Brookfield 34:32
Mikayla, was there anything about it just in general that the portrayal of the school backdrop to the story, so it starts off with, with Mark Zuckerberg as a senior student at Harvard University, and then it sort of transitions to his more professional life, but for the scenes that did take place at the school, was there anything you felt that you could relate to about life at university?
Mikayla Ferraro 34:56
Yeah, definitely the kind of beginning part where he’s having some of the drama with his girlfriend, those kind of things definitely happen as a student and definitely happen on campus bars quite frequently. At least from my perspective, I’ve seen things like that. So, that kind of social element where you have some of the discourse between students, that part felt fairly relatable considering my university experience. Unfortunately, Ivy League, I mean, at least the portrayal in the film does, it doesn’t quite relate well, to what we have here on our campus. In Brantford, we have kind of a quite a bit of a smaller campus, it’s definitely more of a homey feel. So I definitely, you know, when Mark Zuckerberg is running across campus, we definitely don’t have those pressures quite as much to be running and chasing classes, as we’re quite a bit smaller. So, yeah, I felt like you could definitely feel the difference between the campus size and how that reflects on your overall experience, because there definitely was more opportunity, I guess, in the film, and in his experience, to have some of those moments again, where you’re chasing your classes and running late, and, you know, doing things like that.
Tarah Brookfield 36:09
I’ve visited the real Harvard University campus before. So, even though this is more looking at an interpretation of Harvard for the film, you’re right, it’s very sprawling, there are those literally ivy-covered walls and lots of green space, although it is also an urban campus. So, it is right in sort of a fairly urban center of Boston. So there’s, I guess, that small similarity to being sort of an urban campus as well. Bruce, was there anything that stood out to you as familiar?
Bruce Gillespie 36:39
I mean, to Mikayla’s point, certainly there wasn’t a whole lot about the setting that that struck me as familiar. But Harvard is obviously quite different than Laurier Brantford, and I didn’t actually realize it was an urban campus, so that’s interesting. I haven’t been there in person but the one thing that struck me as sort of familiar was, even though in the movie when he’s creating Facebook in the beginning as a way to rate women, which is obviously gross, the idea that I think popularizes Facebook is this idea that students wanted to connect with each other. And I think we can still see that on campus. I think students, at universities, big or small, are always wanting to find new ways to connect with each other and meet people right? I think that’s especially true, probably these days when so few of us are actually on campus. And we’re trying to figure out remote ways to to meet each other and sort of build a sense of community.
Mikayla Ferraro 37:25
Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve also noticed that most campus clubs, a lot of it runs through Facebook anyway. So it’s definitely a good way to keep everything kind of connected, and a centralized location. And Facebook definitely does that right.
Tarah Brookfield 37:41
Now, one of the questions we’ve asked when we did introduce this segment, for the first time, we weren’t comparing our experiences of university with a sitcom, Community, which had, you know, sort of really leaned into fantasy and, and unrealistic scenarios for comedic efforts. This is a much more straightforward drama, because our experiences are different from Harvard. Was there anything that you could pick up on as maybe being not realistic?
Mikayla Ferraro 38:08
I definitely would say that non-realistic element of this movie was the portrayal of the quote, unquote, nerds, I felt like unfortunately, painting him as this socially, almost inept possibly sociopathic, misogynistic, gentleman, maybe for the film and the dramatization of that that was necessary. But I feel like in the real life of university, that’s not necessarily the portrayal of again, quote, unquote, nerds. And that’s definitely something I’ve learned, I guess, being more in the, in a tech-focused program, that the pop culture portrayal of what you know, someone in science and technology looks like is not necessarily a portrayal of who they actually are in real life. And sometimes that can create a little bit of a blur when you’re trying to merge everybody into different groups in a university setting. And people have a little bit of a misrepresentation of what certain groups of kids look like.
Tarah Brookfield 39:05
That’s an excellent point. It certainly didn’t have a lot of empathy for his character. I think that was even one of the points they later made in the lawsuit — that you’re going to lose because no one likes you. But yes, in terms of its sort of was a cliche in some sense, and presenting that was connected to his interest and what might have been particularly in 2000, in the early 2000s, like as something less mainstream. Can you tell me about the scenes in which he’s hacking into the university system and coding very quickly? Is that something you could do with that speed? Or was that maybe unrealistic for Hollywood sort of portraying it so quickly?
Bruce Gillespie 39:49
Right, so if we wanted to hack into the university system could we do it at the same speed? Great question.
Mikayla Ferraro 39:56
I’ll be sure not to give direct tips. Unfortunately, myself, that’s not too much of my forte, I definitely have friends who have some of the capabilities. And I wouldn’t necessarily say what that that scene probably lasted, you know, three to five minutes. That’s definitely not going to occur. But it’s possible overnight, depending on your skill level that you might be able to do something like that, depending on the security protocols of the system.
Tarah Brookfield 40:23
OK, interesting. I’ll take a very careful notes.
Bruce Gillespie 40:28
But it’s fascinating, Tarah, as you said, to look back at this movie now 10 years on, like, technology has changed so much, right? I mean, it’s the way that technology has changed and sort of even the speed of which they were coding or the kind of the kind of coding they were doing, it seems. It seems like such a, it seems so different today, I guess, like things have changed so quickly.
Tarah Brookfield 40:48
And I think, so I read that the the film is directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin. And I read that Sorkin is considering writing a sequel that would sort of bring us to Facebook sort of near 2020 and sort of how both social media, but particularly that particular social media has encountered many different challenges in relation to privacy and selling information. But even so you could see some of the origins of that sort of invasion of privacy from from its origins in this film.
Bruce Gillespie 41:23
The other thing that struck me watching now, certainly, compared to what I think I see around me, at least, is that there are so few women portrayed in that sort of tech field. And I know, obviously, the tech field is still highly male dominated. But it seems to me that there are probably more women involved in tech than there were at the time, Mikayla, I don’t know if that if you have any sense of that or not.
Mikayla Ferraro 41:43
Um, it’s definitely, it’s definitely growing, I would say that there’s still there’s still some work to do to get women efficiently, kind of put into the tech industry, depending on what part of the tech industry you’re focusing in on. I know that there are a lot of times where there are drop rates and more tech predominant programs. So you’ll start off your first-year with a decent amount of women in you know, a STEM program, and then the drop off rate definitely does increase. I definitely, like, in my program, for example, I would say that we’re a pretty fair number of women to men, our ratio is quite nice there. But I find that sometimes more in the technical elements, like when you’re in computer science, there are definitely the portrayal of women and the amount of women and those that are involved. Definitely a little bit less than men.
Bruce Gillespie 42:35
Tarah Brookfield 42:37
It’s also interesting, because I read a little bit about the behind the scenes and making the film, many of the female characters are actually invented, or they’re composite characters of people, maybe Zuckerberg and his fellow students interacted with. And some of that was done, I think, to maybe respect the privacy, particularly of perhaps the girlfriend who got that quite misogynistic blog posts written about her. But I think it was also maybe an effort to create some female representation in the film that maybe didn’t exist in these particular corridors, that at least in Harvard, the students were interacting in.
One more thing I wanted to ask before we sort of ended this segment was the representation of clubs so that the film opens in which the, which Zuckerberg is desperate to get into one of Harvard’s final clubs. And he’s talking about, you know, which one could I get into, and the prestige and the networking that’s going to be opened up with it and in any sort of immediately jumps on anyone that has that opportunity, and he doesn’t get in. And I mean, that’s such a different club scene from Laurier Brantford. I’m wondering, Mikayla, are you in any clubs? And can you talk about what club life is like here at Laurier Brantford?
Mikayla Ferraro 43:53
Yeah, so this year, I’m not in any clubs just as I’m in my kind of my fifth year here and just have a little bit of outside responsibilities. But over the years, I have been part of different clubs. So I was part of our UXD Student Association. Definitely the more, the merrier is more of our kind of motto for clubs here in Laurier Branford. We’re definitely not as restrictive of who can come in and out. So it’s definitely more of an inclusive environment as opposed to being incredibly competitive, which is definitely something that, in my opinion, is a lot better. As a student, I’d rather have more people part of a club that makes the overall experience a lot nicer than having to create competition between students that may not be necessary.
Tarah Brookfield 44:35
One of the things I wanted to end with was a quote that some of the students who are interested in Facebook becoming an actual existence. There’s a quote in the movie where they say, “Well, it recreates the social experience of college, but now it’s online.” And watching that now in 2020. I felt it ironic since our entire college experience right now is online, and it’s almost like I imagine the opposite is desired that idea to have some face to face contact.
Bruce Gillespie 45:01
I would agree and I think that the further along we go in this year and you know through pandemic lockdowns and whatnot, I think more people will be sort of craving those face-to-face connections in all walks of life, not just in school just because we’re spending so much time behind screens and at home and trying to do our part to not socialize, like we probably would normally do.
Mikayla Ferraro 45:23
Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think I mean, within the past 10 years, we definitely that was something that was wanted. But I find, at least for my generation, we’re slowly trying to find alternatives to the online world. And like you mentioned, we kind of have no choice at this point, but to do most of our experiences online considering the pandemic. But this is definitely pushing people to spend more time outside to spend more time connecting and having some of those, quote unquote, real human interactions again, social media and balance to our lives is definitely an additive, but it’s definitely something that we’re starting to crave less of, and we’re craving more of that human connection.
Bruce Gillespie 46:04
Thanks, Tarah and Mikayla. On the next installment of Pop Culture Campus, we’ll be talking about the movie Legally Blonde with one of our Laurier Sussex students. Stay tuned.
And that’s a wrap. Thanks for joining us. We hope it’s helped you feel a little more connected to the Laurier Brantford community. If you liked what you heard. Tell your friends and colleagues. You can subscribe on Apple, Google, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. Worried about missing an episode? sign up for our newsletter. You can find the link on Twitter and Facebook @onemarketlb. We’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks. One Market was created and produced by Bruce Gillespie and Tarah Brookfield, music by Scott Holmes, graphics by Melissa Weaver, and a special welcome this week to our research associate and intern, Serena Austin. Thanks for listening. Keep in touch.