Explore the phenomenon: Algorithms

Learning material that examines algorithms and their effects on our operations in online environments. With the help of the text, video and tasks, find out what the teacher and the student need to know about this phenomenon.

An algorithm is a step-by-step description of a solution to a problem. These very words are included in the curriculum as early as in the first and second grade when programming is taught in mathematics. Algorithms lay a foundation for the programs we create and services and systems we use. Although the connection between Beebot and Scratch as well as Google’s search engines, a Facebook feed or the advanced control system of an aeroplane can be difficult to perceive, they are all based on the same basic principles: an algorithm uses information (such as a search term or sensor data of an aeroplane) to makes calculation and decisions, which then give a specific result.

Algorithms that show Google’s search results, social media feeds or recommendations on Spotify and Netflix yield results based on various data. The aim is to offer the user the thing they are probably looking for, in other words a result that corresponds to the user’s current needs and interests as well as possible. It may seem sensible that users only see the kind of content they are interested in. The internet is full of information and it is impossible to adopt it all. However, this can lead to the adverse outcome of algorithms making covert decisions on our behalf. The risks include a narrower world view and increased social antagonism due to varying types of results and feeds.

As algorithms rely more and more on a variety of data types to make decisions, concerns arise regarding the quality and appropriateness of the data used. If the data is biased or wrong, the results will also be prejudiced or incorrect. While this may at times go completely unnoticed, but it may have significant adverse effects. In some cases, it may not be particularly dangerous, but in others, it may have considerable negative consequences. For example, it may lead to the user not getting the support they need or the unjust exclusion of certain people during a recruitment process.

Algorithms play a pivotal role in today’s increasingly digital society, not only in the development of programs but also in comprehending the functioning of the services and systems we utilise. At the same time, it is important to remember that we people are the crucial component when it comes to creating systems that promote the common good and equality. As we are the ones who create algorithms, we get to decide what type of information they process and how the results are used.

Useful links:

Journalist Johanna Vehkoo’s story on algorithms on the Kone Foundation website.

Information on algorithms on the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare’s Nuortennetti website (in Finnish)

Text: Linda Mannila

Image: Siru Tirronen

The media landscape of children and young people keeps changing, with new phenomena following each other back-to-back. Providing pupils with tools for understanding and processing these phenomena is important. This learning package is part of Pathways to New Media Phenomena – Information and Exercise Materials Series. The series includes information and exercises for the teacher and the pupils. You can explore new phenomena in a meaningful way with the help of the “How to discuss new media literacy phenomena through pedagogical means?” method. 

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Material for the teacher

  • Algorithms form a foundation for all the programs we create and all the services and systems we use. Linda Mannila explains what algorithms are and how they affect our everyday lives. The video has English subtitles.

    Consider the following questions:

    • If an algorithm is “a step-by-step description of a solution to a problem”, many everyday situations in school can be seen as algorithms. Think about familiar examples you could use to demonstrate the functioning of algorithms to your pupils.
    • How have online algorithms affected your day today?
    • Why is it important for pupils to understand how algorithms work in everyday life?

    Video: Linda Mannila

  • Teachers do not need to be experts and skilled at everything. Having a good control over one’s own speciality and pedagogics and being curious and enthusiastic about learning new things provide a great starting point for tackling new media phenomena. Approach to processing new media literacy phenomena encourages you to use your own expertise and competence when working with various phenomena.

    Examine the model and consider the following questions:

    • Based on your experience, what challenges does discussing new media literacy phenomena entail?
    • What things support the discussing of new phenomena in your own work?
    • How would you utilise the model to discuss the phenomenon at hand?
  • Media literacy is a transversal competence, whose promotion is required by the core curriculum of basic education (2014).

    The objectives based on the core curriculum have been expressed separately for each school grade in the national descriptions of media literacy (the New Literacies development programme 2021). Basic education concerns the descriptions of good and advanced competences. The descriptions clarify the meaning of media literacy and the related objectives expressed in the core curriculum texts. The descriptions have been divided into three main areas: media interpretation and evaluation, media production and acting in media environments. You can learn more about the descriptions here.

    Consider the following questions:

    • How is the phenomenon under discussion structured in the media literacy competence descriptions?
    • What kind of media literacy skills do the pupils learn in connection with discussing the topic?
  • You can refer to the materials of KAVI and the New Literacies development programme for support in the promotion of media literacy.

    Media Literacy School (mediataitokoulu.fi) The Media Literacy School website brings together various learning resources and materials for the media education purposes of different age groups also in English.

    The Media Literacy School – New Literacies brings together a range of materials that were created within the development programme to support the media education of basic education. The materials produced in the programme can be found on the open learning materials website at AOE.fi.

Material for the pupil

    • Algorithms are step-by-step descriptions of a solution to a problem. They are often described as a type of recipe.
    • When you are programming a Beebot or with Scratch, you are creating algorithms. You press arrows or add blocks one by one to make your Beebot or Scratch characters to do what you want them to do.
    • When you use Google, social media, Spotify or Netflix, the algorithms in the background decide the search results you will get, what you will see in the feed and what recommendations you will get. The algorithms try to offer you the kinds of results you are likely to be interested in.
    • It may seem sensible that users only see the kind of content they are interested in. After all, the internet is full of information, and it is impossible to internalise it all. However, such a situation could lead to the adverse outcome of algorithms making invisible decisions on our behalf. The risks can include that your world view does not expand, and getting different results may lead to different groups not being able to understand each other’s viewpoints.

    Text: Linda Mannila

  • Reflect either alone or with a partner / in a small group and then discuss the following topics:

    Reflection exercise 1:

    How can you get the best results when using Google? What tips do you have for use?

    Reflection exercise 2:

    Before internet was used by almost everyone, the main source of news and information were local television channels and newspapers. Today, the situation is different and most of us primarily get their news from Google, YouTube and various social media networks. We do not consume the same kind of content, because different people may be given entirely different information. How could the formation of these types of bubbles be prevented?

    Text: Linda Mannila

  • Alone or with a partner, complete either one of the following tasks. Afterwards, discuss your observations.

    Option A:

    Use Google to search for information on a phenomenon or a topical piece of news your teacher has selected.

    1. Look at the links on the first page of the search results:
    • Where do the links lead (the web pages of newspapers or companies, blogs, Wikipedia…)?
    • What kinds of results does the search give you? (text, images, videos)
    • If you had to choose one result to read, which one would you choose? Why?
    • Do any of the search results seem weird or unreliable? Why?
    1. Now, go to the final page of the search results. Do the results differ from those on the first page? Do the results you see seems less reliable or topical?

    Discuss your observations in class. What kinds of results did you find? Did everyone see the same results on the first page? Why? Why not?

    Option B: (for 13-year-olds and up)

    1. Go to TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube or some similar service you use. Scroll down the feed and consider the following:
    • How varied is the feed content? How can the content affect you?
    1. Select various bits of content that seem particularly interesting to you and consider the following:
    • Why are you seeing this type of content? How have the algorithms determined that you are interested in it?
    1. Discuss your observations in class. Does the image provided by algorithms correspond to reality?

    Text: Linda Mannila

  • Examine the picture, where three young people are following topics related to nature conservation. The types of content they follow seem to feature completely different points of view on the topic.

    • How would you describe these points of view?
    • What feelings does the media content rouse in the young people in the picture?
    • How are algorithms influencing the young people’s understanding about nature conservation?

    Text: KAVI

    Image: Siru Tirronen