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Do Algorithms Influence Our Lives and Our Democracy?

Use these free lesson plans to help students think critically about how algorithms influence our lives.

Erikk Henderson-Hood | June 24, 2022

Grades: 8-12

Subjects: Digital Citizenship, Media Literacy, Civics, Social Studies, Computer Science

Algorithms are a foundational building block of our digital world -- they often shape our experiences online in more ways than we realize. On a given day, we might encounter an algorithm that recommends what video we should watch on YouTube, one that filters our search results on Google, and another that determines whether our comment on TikTok gets seen by other people.

In a world filled with more content than we could ever possibly consume, algorithms are a necessary part of the internet. But algorithms can also have unintended consequences, like creating filter bubbles, perpetuating bias, and undermining our creativity, choices, and opportunities.

Use these lesson activities to help your students think critically about algorithms and how they impact our lives, our communities, and even our democracy.

Learning objectives:

  1. Reflect on how algorithmic content can shape our online experiences and what we value.
  2. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of various algorithms, including recommendation algorithms, content moderation, and facial recognition.
  3. Consider how a platform can use an algorithm to create a more positive online space for its users.

This lesson deep dive has three independent parts. You can string them together, or pull them apart to complement other parts of your curriculum.

Quick Activity: How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You? (25 minutes)

 

Dilemma Discussion: Understanding Algorithms (45 minutes)

 

Media Creation: Engineering Algorithms (time varies)

Note: All of these lessons are free, but you'll need to sign in (or create an account) to access the printable handouts.

How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You?

Prep for teachers:

Activity steps:

1. Before showing the video, ask: Have you heard of internet or social media algorithms? What do you think an algorithm is?

If your students are already familiar with social media algorithms and what they do, you can follow up by asking them: Do you ever feel like algorithms control the information you see online?

2. Show the video How Much Do Social Media Algorithms Control You? and have students complete the graphic organizer on the "Algorithms and Me" student handout as they watch. Refer to the teacher version of the handout as you guide the class discussion.

Pressing play on the YouTube video will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.

3. After discussing the video, have students complete the reflection questions in Part 2 of the "Algorithms and Me" student handout and share out as time permits.

Understanding Algorithms

Prep for teachers:

  • Estimated activity time: 45 minutes
  • This lesson involves students choosing from a list of online resources, which they will use to explore and analyze the lesson topic. Use the teacher version of the "Understanding Algorithms" handout to review the resources beforehand. You may want to suggest that some students use a particular resource over others, and it might also be helpful to view a resource together as a class.
  • Make copies of the "Understanding Algorithms" student handout (or access the Google Docs version from the handout).

Activity steps:

1. Ask: Have you heard of the term "shadowbanned?" What is it? Has it ever happened to you or someone you know?

Invite students to share out. Explain that shadowbanning is when a platform removes or reduces the visibility of content without telling the user. It's an example of a content moderation algorithm in effect.

2. Distribute the "Understanding Algorithms" student handout and explain to students that they'll be exploring some resources in groups to learn more about the benefits and drawbacks of different types of algorithms. Assign each group two of the four resources to explore.

Note: If you haven't already taught the Quick Activity, we recommend first showing the Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular? video so students have a better understanding of what an algorithm is. 

3. Invite groups to share out, making sure students understand the key points of all four resources. Use the teacher version of the "Understanding Algorithms" handout to help guide the discussion.

4. Direct students to Part 2 of the "Understanding Algorithms" handout. After reading the dilemma as a class, have students work in pairs to respond to the reflection questions before facilitating a class discussion.

For detailed facilitation guidance and suggestions to enrich your class discussion, use the teacher version of the handout.

Engineering Algorithms

Prep for teachers:

  • Preview and make copies of the project handout: "Engineering Algorithms"
  • Determine the mix of in- and out-of-class time students will need to spend on the assignment, and how students will share their work with the class and/or within their community.

Activity steps:

1. Distribute the "Engineering Algorithms" project handout and read through the directions as a class.

2. Have students use the project planner on page 2 of the handout to brainstorm ideas for written or visual work before creating. 

3. Have students share their work with the class or in any forum you find appropriate.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action