What even is an algorithm?

I’m everywhere you look, but you can’t see me. I make decisions for you, but you’re smarter than me. I think it’s time I introduced myself!

Kids deserve to know how algorithms work.

The Algorithm Literacy Project is an effort by Kids Code Jeunesse (KCJ) and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO (CCUNESCO) to raise awareness about algorithms, how they influence our digital experiences, and how they impact kids and teens, who spend lots of time online.

Algorithms exist and work invisibly behind the screen, learning from us and personalizing what we see online - but many of us don’t know what they are or how they work. Without algorithm literacy, we can end up in “preference bubbles” that restrict the way we see the world.

The good news? We are smarter than algorithms and we can shape our own online experiences. We're all digital citizens, and the power is in our hands.

Let’s burst the bubble. The first step is getting to know algorithms.

#GetAlgoLit

Bubbles with icons.

Let's get down to it... what do these words mean?

What are algorithms?

Noun: a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end (Merriam-Webster)

We use algorithms in our day-to-day lives, especially in our online activities. Algorithms take information in, can provide predictions, and are becoming increasingly important as they power artificial intelligence (AI).

What is a preference bubble?

Noun: “a unique universe of information for each of us … which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information.” (internet activist, Eli Pariser).

Algorithms collect data based on what you seem to like and try to predict similar content you’ll want to see next. This preference bubble creates a narrow view of things it thinks you will like - potentially hiding difficult information and different opinions from you.

What is a digital citizen?

Noun: Someone “who uses the Internet regularly and effectively” to participate in society online. (Karen Mossberger et al., MIT Press)

Good digital citizenship is fundamental for responsible participation in the 21st Century world. This can range from how we connect with others online, to political and civic engagement with real-world impact.

Why does it matter?

You would want to know when you’re not seeing the whole truth, right? Every day we're shown search results, video recommendations, and targeted ads based on the data we give algorithms. This content forms a ‘preference bubble’ around us that can be surprisingly different from the bubbles our closest friends find themselves in.

Algorithms are shaping how we perceive the world, and this in turn shapes the world. The decisions algorithms make for us impact our lives, but we also influence their behaviour with our every click. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we understand how they work.

Are kids too young to learn about this stuff? We don’t think so.

Most kids learn how to use the internet from a young age, which means they’re growing up surrounded by algorithms. In this reality, it's crucial to be algorithm literate: to understand what algorithms are and how they can present a narrow view of the world. Kids should be given the tools to know when they're not getting the whole truth.

Conversation Starters

Educational Guide
(15 pages)

Learn more about algorithms and how to drive algorithm literacy through activities.

Discussion Guide
(2 pages)

Get talking! Lead conversations about the video with kids.

Founding Partners

KCJ Logo

Kids Code Jeunesse (KCJ) is a bilingual Canadian charity determined to give every Canadian child access to digital skills education, with a focus on girls and underserved communities. KCJ teaches kids and their educators about artificial intelligence, code, digital citizenship and how these integrate with the Global Goals so that our kids have the confidence and creative tools they need to build a better future.

CCUNESCO Logo

Media and Information Literacy is a priority for CCUNESCO due to its close connection to freedom of expression, freedom of information, and fighting disinformation. The Canadian Commission for UNESCO serves as a bridge between Canadians and the vital work of UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. By promoting UNESCO values, priorities and programs in Canada and by bringing the voices of Canadian experts to the international stage, the Commission contributes to a peaceful, equitable and sustainable future that leaves no one behind.

Partners

Following the launch of the first instalment of the “What even is an algorithm?” video, an educational campaign will launch across Canada, with the support of CCA, Microsoft, and RBC Foundation, to bring algorithm literacy directly into classrooms, colleges, and universities.

Get involved in the project

Looking to the future — #kids2030

Algorithm literacy goes beyond taking control of our own online experiences. We can use this knowledge to help us on a very important mission: meeting the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development by 2030.

#kids2030 is an initiative by KCJ to bring algorithms, artificial intelligence, ethics, and the Global Goals to the forefront of kids’ education. By 2030, KCJ will educate over 1,000,000 kids and 50,000 educators through classroom workshops, teacher trainings and community events and projects