Rutgers–Camden Poised to Make Mark on South by Southwest Conferences

By Tom McLaughlin

For the past 30 years, the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festivals have steadily gained a reputation for their celebration of innovative thinkers and artists in music, film, interactive media, and education.

Fittingly, with its own reputation for faculty and administrators turning new knowledge into creative solutions, Rutgers University–Camden is poised to make its mark on this year’s conferences.

Nyeema Watson / Photo by Bob Laramie

Nyeema Watson, associate chancellor for civic engagement for Rutgers–Camden, will participate in a panel session, titled “Can Higher Education Lift the K-12 System to New Heights?,” on March 7 during the SXSWedu conference.

James Brown, an assistant professor of English and director of the Digital Studies Center at Rutgers–Camden, has been named a finalist for the SXSW Interactive conference’s 2017 David Carr Prize – an annual essay contest exploring the convergence of new media, technology, and culture – for his essay, “Learning in a Community of Black Boxes.”

Watson, who leads community and service initiatives at Rutgers–Camden, will be among the panelists exploring how higher-education institutions can use the resources at their disposal to reach out to the communities in which they reside and help their neighbors rise to the challenge.

The Rutgers administrator believes that participating in SXSWedu will be an excellent opportunity to share the best practices of Rutgers–Camden’s civic engagement efforts – especially college access work – as it relates to K-12 partnerships.

“I also hope to hear from others how they are bridging the K-12 higher education divide in order to increase student success on both sides of the education spectrum,” says Watson.

She plans to discuss her position that, while graduation rates are slowly improving for low income students of color in Camden, along with the number of students transitioning to college, there is still much more work that needs to be done.

“Partnerships between K-12 and higher education are becoming increasingly more important to ensure that students succeed in K-12 schooling and make a successful transition to and through college,” says Watson.

Furthermore, she posits, universities must commit to being engaged in these community efforts over the long haul.

Jim Brown / Photo by Bob Laramie

“It takes deeply embedded long-term engagement in order to make a significant impact on educational inequities in challenged communities,” she says, “and universities must commit time and resources to create pathways to higher education.”

Brown’s essay, in response to this year’s theme considering what it means to be human in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence, explores the unpredictability of computational machines and notes how the “opacity” of machine system learning is quite similar to the mystery of human learning processes.

The Rutgers researcher notes that, just as it was observed by famed mathematician Alan Turing,  computers have the ability to surprise, requiring that we adopt an uncertain approach to computing by granting that we are not in control.

“Humans do not merely use machines. They are also used by them,” he writes.

In a similar manner, Brown continues, students in his classes take him by surprise in a “black boxed” kind of way. These moments of surprise – when his students process information or a lesson in a way that he hadn’t expected – leads him to ponder just what is happening behind the scenes that we may never know. When he paused to consider how machines do this as well, he says, he became fascinated with the implications.

“Machines are doing things we’d never expect, and that’s a strange thing for most people to hear, especially those who don’t program computers,” he writes.

Brown worries that the response to contemporary problems in today’s world will either be too reliant on the human perspective or too reliant on the technological perspective.

“Machines won’t save us from these challenges, but we also can’t waste time dreaming of a world in which there are no more machines,” he says, adding that he hopes that people can think of computational machines as collaborators rather than tools.

“When we think of computers as collaborators, we treat them differently, and we respect their abilities and limitations,” says Brown.

Posted in: Community Outreach

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