June 1, 2021

Alumni Spotlight: Vanessa Monterosa '14

By Jason Ng

Advancements in technology have created many new tools for us to use in our everyday lives. But what if we focused our efforts in examining how technology can be applied to education? From the Media Arts + Practices division, Vanessa Monterosa ‘14 is a champion of incorporating tech and digital spaces within education so that school leaders and students alike can learn to become tech literate as the world becomes increasingly dominated by technology. She utilizes her expertise in Education Technology to advocate for tech education and to generate awareness and outreach to students and communities where such education is not readily available. Vanessa joins us to talk about her experience working in education, her thoughts on using technology and social media to educate our youths, and her mission at Hack the Hood to support communities of color by spreading access of tech and data literacy programs to enable economic mobility. 

Why is education for youths and the community so important to you? 

I am a daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college student. As the first in my family to go to and through higher education, I realized how much it meant to my family and community to have achieved a bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degree. Through my studies, I learned about the many barriers that exist preventing future leaders from my community to be exposed to opportunities that could propel them. In observing these challenges, I began exploring how technology might bridge the gap of access for communities like mine. 

How did being an Education Pioneers Fellow affect your career?

As an Education Pioneers Fellow, I co-authored the Los Angeles Unified's first Social Media Policy for Students, co-led the Social Media and Internet Safety Task Force initiated by former Board Member Galatzan, and contributed to district-wide policy revisions to ensure digital practices were embedded. This led me to design and implement system-level programs across the nation's second largest school district that cultivate digital citizenship practices among our school leaders and senior leaders. Before Education Pioneers, I was convinced that my career was going to be in higher education. Without Education Pioneers, I would not have considered a career in K12 or could have imagined my contributions in this field. The EP Fellowship broadened my career horizons indefinitely. So much so, that I went on to design a nationally recognized digital citizenship program that continues to run to this day.  

What is Education Technology, and why is it such a crucial field of study in this day and age? 

Education technology can speak to many different things. On the one hand, it can be about the devices and digital resources currently available that support data-informed teaching and learning, such as talking about the digital divide. On the other hand, it can also speak to the skills and dispositions necessary to thrive in our increasingly digital world, which focuses on the participatory divide. However, approaching this conversation with a focus on the device takes us away from talking about how we can effectively use technology to support rigorous teaching and learning practices. Thus, this is a crucial field to study now because we know the design and use of technology will continue to evolve, and we must prepare ourselves as professionals and others to leverage it in creative and equitable ways.  

How can social media be incorporated into the curriculum to educate youths? 

Through my work at Los Angeles Unified, I primarily supported district administrators in building their knowledge and capacity about how we can use social media for college and career success. Through my research, I found there was a plethora of resources and supports for teachers to discuss social media as a learning tool, but there was a gap in how district leaders could create system-level support to ensure teachers could implement this in the classroom. This is the gap I aimed to fill through my doctoral research work -- highlighting the need to prepare our leaders to support our students who are already in these digital spaces. Social media creates an authentic, real-world space for students to proactively create a digital footprint that can demonstrate their interest, passions, and expertise. However, it is critical that students receive guidance from knowledgeable educators who can speak to the power and opportunities afforded by social media. 

As the Director of Communications for Hack the Hood, can you tell us about the non-profit group’s goals and how your ambitions align with them? 

Hack the Hood aims to support the economic mobility of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities through justice-centered tech and data literacy programs. For example, face-recognition apps have a difficult time recognizing the faces of Black men and women. We are increasingly becoming aware of how bias can manifest through artificial intelligence and machine learning. This is because the tech sector remains comprised of predominantly white men who test, design, and iterate tech from their lived experiences. To ensure equitable and inclusive design of technology requires equitable and inclusive tech sector workspaces and representation. This is where Hack the Hood aims to make an impact in preparing the next generation of tech designers.  As the Director of Communications, my work aligns with Hack the Hood because it is my life's work to advance research, policy, and practices that support the effective and empowering use of media and technology, especially for communities of color. 

Hack the Hood extends outside educating youths, as it also strives to educate small businesses in tech. How does the community benefit through the spread of tech literacy? 

Since Hack the Hood was founded in 2013, our mission has always been to empower talent of color to make an impact in their communities through tech and data literacy programs. Over 1,200 in the San Francisco / Oakland Bay area students have been served by our programs since its inception. The earlier iterations of our programs focused on teaching young people how to design websites and partnering them with existing local, small business owners who could benefit from having a digital presence. Therefore, young people developed hands-on web design skills while supporting local entrepreneurs. In our most recent iteration, we are seeking to expand our supports nationally, deepening our commitment, and going beyond web design to teaching young people about data science and carving out pathways for identify-affirming tech-based careers.  

A major concern in computer science learning is the diversity gap which can be attributed to the lack of opportunities for marginalized racial and ethnic groups to pursue it. What are some of the steps that can be taken to alleviate this problem? 

There are a number of ongoing efforts aimed at addressing this challenge from state-wide policy advocacy to local school district curriculum programs to nonprofit efforts like Hack the Hood. Addressing the diversity gap in computer science definitely requires a multi-pronged approach. To start, we must all recognize that technology is not neutral and that it inherently reflects the design perspectives and bias of those who design it. Upon recognizing and accepting this fact, we can begin to create efforts that disrupt the tech sector pipeline. School districts must actively provide courses to students and training to teachers in order to provide computer science learning opportunities. More importantly, recognizing that computer science is about algorithmic and computational thinking and that any educator can implement these skills and dispositions across their content areas. While these are a few initial steps to take, they require a great deal of time, effort, and coalition-building alongside capacity-building efforts to make a difference. 

You wrote about integrating storytelling elements into teaching computer science in elementary school. Can you explain the intersections between narrative and coding?  

When it comes to narratives, there are essential sequences of a story that must happen in order for the reader to follow along. Much like a story, coding is a series of sequences that, when put together, results in an action. Combining storytelling and coding through block programming resources like Scratch help students not only learn the sequence of telling a story, but also help them think visually and dynamically about storytelling because they can code it and bring it to life. 

When many of us turned to online classes last year, it felt like such a jarring shock. How might students and teachers learn from that experience so that they can be better prepared to use technology in and out of the classroom? 

My biggest hope is that educators no longer cast technology as an optional tool to use for teaching and learning. Early on in the pandemic, we were tasked with training over 14,000 educators on using technology for teaching and learning, but many had never incorporated it into their practice. Therefore, in addition to exploring the pedagogical practices afforded by technology, we were also teaching many educators how to navigate certain platforms and digital resources. It was most certainly a heavy and necessary lift, but I believe it shifted the mindset of many educators to understand that leveraging technology is not an option. It is a necessity, especially if we are to prepare our students to thrive in increasingly digital workplaces and higher education environments. 

How have you applied the tools that you’ve gained while as a student in the Media Arts + Practice division into the work that you do? 

During my time in MA+P, I explored the shifting nature of scholarly expression, pedagogical practice and research in the 21st century through hands-on projects in order to facilitate sophisticated critical thinking and practice in and through multimedia. For example, this drives a great deal of my approach and philosophy around social media engagement. When I teach educators about the opportunities of social media, I focus on the aspects of community, connection, and collaboration, which were integral to the practices I learned during my MA+P courses. In the MA+P program is how I learned to design a website, but it was paired with a pedagogical purpose where I learned about the implications of a digital presence and how to creatively exist in digital spaces. The opportunity to learn from creative and imaginative leaders like Virginia Kuhn, Vicki Callahan, and Michael Bodie kept me inspired to dynamically apply and iterate on what I learned, so I could best carry out my life's work around media and technology for communities of color.