Before events in 2020 challenged historical thinking about race and cultural integration around the world and nation, Rice University alumna Katherine Fletcher (BSEE ’87, MSEE ’94) had already grown passionate about fairness, accountability, transparency, and equity. She calls this combination of values FATE.
Fletcher is well-placed to embed FATE in products that impact vulnerable populations where it may matter most: education. Currently the technical director for OpenStax at Rice University, she has never lost sight of the user experience (UX).
“Rice played a role in all the steps that led to my focus on product development and UX,” said Fletcher. “At various times, the university helped me develop empathy, a broader view of the world, discovering the user’s perspective and experience, and mastering software design.
“Right now, there is real potential to help students and educators be more effective and learn better if we can be more equitable in our use of algorithms. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can be used to enhance human abilities. They can help faculty see who is struggling, and help students determine if and where they got off track as they solved a problem.
“But AI and ML have to be part of the original product design and built into the entire engineering process in order to work for human benefit. Consider how algorithms succeed and falter in justice and court systems, or the ongoing news about racial bias issues in facial recognition software.”
As a product developer with a UX focus, she ponders the circumstances driving a lack of fairness in facial recognition applications. Most of the photos used to initially train the software belonged to people involved in writing the applications. If the original photos were all of software engineers – overwhelmingly white males for the past 30 years – then women and people with black or brown faces, including Native Americans, were unlikely to be a significant part of the training sample.
“These kinds of software development issues can be avoided or caught early when FATE is embedded in the process, beginning with the initial brainstorming stage,” said Fletcher. “Building in accountability and transparency helps software engineers and customers understand why an application made a specific decision. If you can’t see into the black box and identify why misdiagnosis and incorrect outcomes occur, then the engineering is not transparent.
“In education, transparency and accountability are paramount. If a student misses a problem, they need to know WHY they got it wrong so they know what to do to get it right the next time. Getting fairness, equity, and transparency right is a beautiful problem. Not only is it better serving underrepresented students, it is improving the experience for all students. The ability to understand why something happens helps you advance your learning.”
Training educational software to deliver the best possible problem for each student’s learning and personal background will open more opportunities for all learners, according to Fletcher. She believes the more OpenStax can improve its products by incorporating FATE in the engineering design process, the more useful the tools will be for existing and future users.
Fletcher said she first joined OpenStax, then called Connexions, when the small company she worked for was developing software for elementary students to use in their science lessons. Connexions was creating an ecosystem for educators to collaborate and share learning content, and they needed someone to lead their team. She saw an opportunity to expand the impact of her work in education. “My goal was to bring customer focus into all the internal processes. They had hired a UX person, but she was having a hard time connecting with the engineers. Then I came in with an engineering background AND enthusiasm for the UX aspects of product development and things began to turn around.”
She credited learning the engineering process as an undergraduate at Rice for laying the foundation for her success in balancing the technical restrictions of software developers with the user focus of designers. Both sides of the table can find common ground in testing during the build process.
“In engineering, we are always measuring,” said Fletcher. “If you don’t measure it, it isn’t working. To me, the product design cycle is really an engineering design process. You can put smart engineers and creative minds in the same room and they will get the job done, but it is the iterative cycle of understand the need, design, build, test, and improve that makes the product work for its users.”
Although she was trained as an electrical engineer and worked in medical engineering for several years, Fletcher discovered she was better with software than hardware. “So I headed back to Rice for a master’s in Computer Science and that’s when I figured out what I really loved to do. Combining logic and creativity to build what’s in your mind in this moment and see it come to life – that is so incredible,” she said.
After spending a few years writing middleware software (creating software connections between platforms and applications), helping run a small business, shifting to educational software and taking UX courses on the side, she joined Connexions. In addition to using her newly combined skills as a project manager over software development for Connexions, Fletcher taught computer engineering and computer architecture courses as an adjunct professor in Rice’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.
When Fletcher won a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship, her focus broadened to helping create an international ecosystem of tools around open education. Coincidentally, Connexions began shifting its own focus, transitioning into OpenStax to provide free textbooks like College Physics for college and high school students. Then they launched OpenStax Tutor to help their textbook consumers better utilize their materials, and Fletcher headed back to the organization based at Rice.
“I returned as an OpenStax product manager for Tutor, the adaptive courseware incorporating our content, ML, and cognitive science principles,” she said. “Tutor was intended to examine how students tackled their problems and then offer suggestions or steps to help maximize the learning return for the time they spent on those problems.
“Unfortunately, the user experience perspective had been lost in the transition from Connexions to OpenStax so I re-introduced UX into the design process. Along the way, I was hiring engineers and helping make a product that we could take out into the world.”
As OpenStax expanded, Fletcher began growing leaders throughout the organization with training that focused on areas critical to product development –and she paired a product manager with an engineering manager for each team.
Fletcher said, “The chief job of a product manager is to understand the market, the customers, and their teams. What are their teams capable of, and what can they build? Now that UX is embedded throughout the organization, when a team meets or has a question, they automatically expect their UX person to be part of the solution.
“The mixed expertise, working together for a common goal, and our matrix reporting model is working very well for us. My unique background spans UX, the technology side, product management, and research and development. Regardless of their area of expertise, everyone wants to use their own creativity to help achieve the organization’s goals. But that is only possible when the ‘why’ is super clear and well-articulated.”
Adhering to the FATE principles of fairness, accountability, transparency, and equity helps Fletcher and her teams better define and articulate their goals. Better goals lead to better products and outcomes. And better outcomes mean happier teams.
“Our people are really excited to work on these projects because they can see learners benefiting with each new feature, improvement, or release.”