Critically evaluate online tools


Photo by Shane Aldendorff on Unsplash

Technologies are always inspired by values and principles that, whether consciously or not, may result in design choices and operational models that privilege certain worldviews, attitudes and even some groups of people over others. An obvious example relating to analogue technologies would be the design of a pair of scissors easier to use to right-handed people, or the other way around.

In the case of online technologies, the algorithms that underpin web search engines make a relevant example due to the crucial role that those platforms play in shaping the way we experience the Web – especially Google, given it has the highest market share by far. Below you will find a couple of readings focusing on how human biases are hidden within digital technologies.

  • Review of the book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Noble, who decided to move into academia and research after many years working in the field of digital marketing (reading time: 5 minutes)
  • Can computers be racist? Big data, inequality, and discrimination – An excellent post published on the Ford Foundation’s Equals Change Blog, which includes a short video of a lecture given by Dr. Latanya Sweeney, on how big data can perpetuate and exacerbate existing systems of racism, discrimination, and inequality (reading time: 10 minutes).

Moreover, the creation of digital infrastructures – as well as content – is driven by the vested interests of a broad constellation of social actors. In this regard, it is essential to understand the aims and intentions of those who are behind the technologies we use in our teaching and, most importantly, we expect our students to use as part of their learning..


The era of blind faith in big data must end – TED talk by Cathy O’Neil. (duration: 13:15)

Algorithms of Oppression: Safiya Umoja Noble talks about how search engines reinforce racism. (duration: 3:43). If you found this interesting you might want to check out this TEDx Talk by Safija U. Noble too: How biased are our algorithms? (16:48)


(estimated time to complete the task: 1 hour)

The quotes and questions below, suggested by Jesse Stommel, may help you critically evaluate digital tools:

Critically Evaluating Digital Tools

“Learning to be a critical consumer of the Web info is not rocket science. It’s not even algebra. Becoming acquainted with the fundamentals of Web credibility testing is easier than learning the multiplication tables. The hard part, as always, is the exercise of flabby think-for-yourself muscles.”
Howard Rheingold

“Students have little agency when it comes to education technology – much like they have little agency in education itself!”
Audrey Watters

  1. Who owns the tool? Who is the toolmaker or CEO? What are their politics? Does that matter? What is the tool’s history? How does it market itself? What does it say it does? What does it actually?
  2. What are the “Terms of Service”? Are they easy to find and read? What data must we provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birth date, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous, or to protect our data? Where is the data housed? Who owns the data? Will others be able to use/copy/own our work there?
  3. How does the design of the tool influence what we might do with it in an educational setting? Does the tool attempt to control or dictate how we use it? What are the implications of educational use?

Use some of the questions above (and feel free to ask new ones) to critically assess and compare various web search engines (including the one you use on a regular basis):.

Alternatively, you may use this activity as an opportunity to critically assess other tools that are particularly relevant in education: such us Virtual Learning Environments (e.g. Moodle vs BlackBoard vs Canvas), Plagiarism Detectors or content-sharing systems.

After finding the answers to some of those questions, write a post, on your own blog or the EduHack Wall, reflecting on your experience, what  you found and any potential implications for your own practice.

Additional Resources

The notion of “Critical Digital Pedagogy” stresses the importance of making sure that ethical decision-making informs the creation of technology-enabled learning experiences.

Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris (University of Mary Washington, US) talking about the notion of Digital Instructional Design. (duration 4:51)

If you are interested in learning more about Critical Digital Pedagogy, you can also watch the recording of a talk by Jesse (duration 52:29) where he makes the case for thinking critically about the tools we use in our teaching and learning.