Archive for October, 2014

AI and Technology in Schools

October 31, 2014 Comments off

This morning I read two articles on the effects of technology that lead me to believe that education writers and NYTimes essayists live in parallel universes and that neither seems to see the transformative potential of technology in schooling or the relationship between technology and schooling.

in his column today titled “Our Machine Masters” David Brooks describes the eerie accuracy the artificial intelligence that creates the ability for Pandora’s ability to divine his taste in music. He then describes and laments the relationship between advances in artificial intelligence’s and large networks:

Advances in artificial intelligence will accelerate this centralizing trend. That’s because A.I. companies will be able to reap the rewards of network effects. The bigger their network and the more data they collect, the more effective and attractive they become.

As (Wired technology writer Kevin) Kelly puts it, “Once a company enters this virtuous cycle, it tends to grow so big, so fast, that it overwhelms any upstart competitors. As a result, our A.I. future is likely to be ruled by an oligarchy of two or three large, general-purpose cloud-based commercial intelligences.”

To put it more menacingly, engineers at a few gigantic companies will have vast-though-hidden power to shape how data are collected and framed, to harvest huge amounts of information, to build the frameworks through which the rest of us make decisions and to steer our choices. If you think this power will be used for entirely benign ends, then you have not read enough history.

David Brooks sees that data collection and algorithms are beneficial to the end user who is looking for entertainment and information that matches their interests. He also sees its poet to transform the way we get and process information (e.g. learn). And…. he also see that if this transformative power is not harnessed properly, can lead to malevolent consequences. 

Larry Cuban, an education historian/blogger, wrote a post yesterday describing technology and school reform as “Kissing Cousins”. Cuban contends that today’s notion of using technology to improve education is no different than the earlier ideas to improve schooling:

(Reformers) saw (and, sadly enough, still see) innovative high-tech devices as singular, even exceptional, ways of transforming teaching and learning completely divorced from previous efforts at improving classroom practice through curricular (e.g., math, social studies, science), instructional (e.g., project-based learning, direct instruction) and organizational (e.g., site-based management, charters, mayoral control) reforms.

Cuban sees this as a conceptual error.

Why? Because, school and classroom reforms including technological ones, are part of the same genetic code.

Creating “blended learning” schools, introducing online learning, or deploying tablets to each and every student is an organizational and instructional reform. Teachers using Class Dojo, Chemix School and Lab, Algebrator, and other software programs are implementing classroom organizational and curricular reforms and shaping instruction.

Technological innovations, then, are kissing cousins to curricular, instructional, and organizational reforms.

I am one of those who Cuban refers to as a utopian dreamer who believes that “…new machine technologies (e.g., film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) (could) alter how teachers teach and students learn.” But unlike earlier utopian technology dreamers (or perhaps some of today’s utopian technology dreamers) I do not believe that the machines (e.g. film, radio, instructional television, desktop computer) are a means of reforming schools. The use of machines is based on and reinforces the paradigm of the factory school, as are technology-related concepts like “blended learning, online learning or the issuance of tablets.

I believe reform, or more accurately transformation of schooling, could occur because of the software and algorithms Brooks describes in his column. The software and algorithms available on today’s machines, if harnessed properly, introduce the possibility of moving away from the factory model of schooling by offering each student a Pandora-like learning experience. For example, an on-line learning sequence could be tailored to match the student’s cognitive readiness to learn and could offer the instruction in a way the student “likes”. This might have seemed far fetched even a decade ago. But given the explosion of YouTube lessons and what Kevin Kelly describes as “cheap parallel computation technologies, big data collection and better algorithms” it is possible today… and if schools could replace age-based cohorts with this kind of tailored learning, the mission and purpose of schooling would change. Returning to Brooks’ essay, I could foresee that software and algorithms, if harnessed properly, could enable each student to gain a self-awareness of their thinking and behavior that would result in the positive results David Brooks foresees in his “deeply humanistic” and optimistic future.

In the deeply humanistic (vision), machines liberate us from mental drudgery so we can focus on higher and happier things. In this future, differences in innate I.Q. are less important. Everybody has Google on their phones so having a great memory or the ability to calculate with big numbers doesn’t help as much.

In this future, there is increasing emphasis on personal and moral faculties: being likable, industrious, trustworthy and affectionate. People are evaluated more on these traits, which supplement machine thinking, and not the rote ones that duplicate it.

If Brooks’ utopian vision of the future of technology is realized, schooling would focus more on personal and moral development and less on content that is available on Google or YouTube— or via stand-and-deliver instruction. And  if  his dystopian vision occurs?

In the cold, utilitarian future, on the other hand, people become less idiosyncratic. If the choice architecture behind many decisions is based on big data from vast crowds, everybody follows the prompts and chooses to be like each other. The machine prompts us to consume what is popular, the things that are easy and mentally undemanding.

Some closing questions:

  • Which future is standardized testing leading us toward?
  • What kind of consumers do our corporations want, “humanistic” or “utilitarian”?
  • Which direction are we headed if we think of technology as machines?

And last but not least: Who will determine how these algorithms and software products will be managed?

And the Digital Divide Isn’t Going Away

October 31, 2014 Comments off

I read with dismay an article by Claire Cain Miller in today’s NYTimes Upshot titled “Why the US Has Fallen Behind in Internet Speed and Affordability”. The article opens by describing the places in the world that have far superior internet services to the United States:

Downloading a high-definition movie takes about seven seconds in Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris, and people pay as little as $30 a month for that connection. In Los Angeles, New York and Washington, downloading the same movie takes 1.4 minutes for people with the fastest Internet available, and they pay $300 a month for the privilege, according to The Cost of Connectivity, a report published Thursday by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute.

Her answer to the question of why our country has fallen behind echoed that of Columbia law professor Tim Wu: we lack competition.

The reason the United States lags many countries in both speed and affordability, according to people who study the issue, has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it is an economic policy problem — the lack of competition in the broadband industry.

“It’s just very simple economics,” said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies antitrust and communications and was an adviser to the Federal Trade Commission. “The average market has one or two serious Internet providers, and they set their prices at monopoly or duopoly pricing.”

There’s one problem with that response. What do Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Bucharest and Paris have in common? They are located in countries where the internet was provided by the government as a utility. Competition had nothing to do with the provision of their services. Their governments saw an emerging trend and made a substantial infrastructure investment. So students in Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Hungary and France will have access to high speed internet learning opportunities at home and in school while 25% of our nation has none at all… and we want to expand the use of technology so that we can become competitive with other nations?

Sorry, folks, we might need to raise our taxes and invest in infrastructure to fix this problem that “competition” created because the “winners” in the competition so far are not going to forgo their advantage and the politicians who provide them with money are not going to go without a fight.

Digital Divide is Real

October 31, 2014 Comments off

The Financial Times featured a blog post that included maps illustrating the impact of the digital divide in the US and… surprise… the most affluent communities have the best connectivity while the communities while low income communities and neighborhoods are left behind. The solution is obvious in a nation where 6% of the workforce has given up on looking for a job: allocate federal dollars to build out the infrastructure needed to provide every household with access to broadband. Here’s one of the maps: The brown sections have less access than the blue sections.



For more appalling data on this, see the article.