Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Artificial Intelligence, Robots, Mental Health and Well Being, and the Limits of Efficiency

July 6, 2018 Comments off

As a Buddhist practitioner, a retired educator who witnessed the expansion of technology in public education, and a blogger who has “efficiency is the enemy” as a tag, I was drawn to a Medium interview by Brian Walsh titled “The Chinese Buddhist Billionaire Who Wants to Fix Your Brain“. This billionaire in question is Chen Tianqiao who founded the online gaming company Shanda in 1999 and cashed in a decade later in large measure because he had a cancer scare, multiple panic attacks, and a sense that his life had no meaning.

The article opens with a response to a question that offers a brief biographical sketch of Mr. Tianqiao, which also includes an overview of his perspective of Buddhism.

Mr. Walsh follows with a series of questions that yield some thought-provoking insights. His response to one of the questions posed by Mr. Walsh was particularly compelling:

Right now we teach machines only one value statement: efficiency. The machine optimizes the efficient. The machine always knows how to quickly find the best way. But if the machine ruled the world, it must say, “Kill all the old men and sick people because of their weight on resources,” right? So we have to teach the machines fairness and compassion. But how do we do that when we don’t know how to define them?

Later Mr. Walsh explores Mr. Tianqiao’s ideas on the relationship between technology and our general well being… and Mr. Tianqiao’s perspective is that technology is outpacing humanity’s adaptability and that, in turn, is leading to an increase in mental health problems.. including suicides.

You have a phone in your hand that can connect you to anyone. You can get a thing done in one minute that 10 or 20 years ago would have taken you a month. This is the pace we live at now. But I believe people have a limitation on their capacity for connection. You don’t know how to handle these relationships. The speed of information. There’s so much information flooding into your brain, and your brain has to judge yes or no, because more and more people, with the help of a blast from technology, they also have a voice. There are so many different views flooding in your brain, and you have to judge what you like, what you want.

I say you run too fast. I cannot chase you. I just want you to stop. I want to stop you, right? This is technology. But we cannot just stop.

The article concludes with this question about the future of technology and Mr. Tianqiao’s somewhat pessimistic response response:

Ultimately, do you feel optimistic about the direction we’re going with technology and the brain? Do you think we’ll be able to make ourselves fitter and happier?

I cannot find an answer to this. That’s why I’m a little pessimistic. I think there are so many problems that are generated by technology. What I can do is try to use scientific ways to mitigate the possible consequence of that technology. But if we don’t do that, it could lead to very bad consequences.

When I gave money to an American university [CalTech], the Chinese media criticized me. But I think the current debate or current conflict is not between the people of one country and the people of another. This is our humanity.

In an era of tariff wars, the dissolution of longstanding alliances that stabilized relationships among relatively free countries, and the opportunities for technology moguls to make billions it is east to share Mr. Tianqiao’s pessimism… here’s hoping we can all see the our humanity is at stake as we continue expaning our use of technology.


Technology and Surveillance: A Chilling Combination That COULD Be Undone

June 27, 2018 Comments off

Will Richardson who writes the Modern Learners blog, had a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too“. In the post, Mr. Richardson described the ways that education technology could be used to transform the way instruction is delivered to schools, but lamented the ways that education technology is actually being used in schools. He is especially concerned with the use of technology as a surveillance tool:

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

This example of what technology can do leads to the inevitable question about technology in general: is there a limit to what we want technology to do? Just because technology makes it possible to track a student 24/7 doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to be free from adult supervision? Just because technology makes it possible to track a students attentiveness in completing work doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to daydream? Mr. Richardson posits that education technology devoted to surveillance of all kinds is currently make things worse for students, and when that technology is combined with the narrowed test-driven curriculum it makes public schools toxic. Quoting John Warner again, Mr. Richardson writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

Mr. Richardson suggests that instead of developing more apps that track how poorly students are doing relative to our definition of “success” based on test scores, we might provide students with an app to tell us how we’re doing in addressing their needs:

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Too bad Mr. Richardson isn’t interested in making a lot of money. I think his idea for such an app would be very helpful in transforming our schools into Summerhill-like institutions instead of the imprisoning institutions they are devolving into thanks to technology.

Virtual Learning: Godsend or Scam?

May 19, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday’s Valley News featured an op ed article written by Washington Post contributor David von Drehle praising the virtues of virtual learning. The article profiled recent graduation ceremony of an alternative school in Kansas where:

The bleachers were filled with proud family and friends. But this wasn’t a group that grew up together through ballgames and choir concerts. Alienated from traditional high schools, seeking an alternative, they found the Humboldt Virtual Education Program, one of the largest and best-regarded online high schools in the Sunflower State.After months, even years, of solitary study in internet classrooms, they gathered as a physical community for the first, and probably the last, time.

Mr. von Drehle went on to describe the growth taking place in virtual learning.

Across the United States, online education is booming. Sixth- through 12th-graders enrolled in Florida’s largest full-time virtual high school completed more than 44,000 semesters of classwork last year. In Kansas, virtual school enrollment grew 100-fold between 1999 and 2014, from about 60 students to more than 6,000.

He is particularly impressed with the students who succeeded in the Kansas program, seeing its asynchronous model as helpful for both ends of the spectrum: the student who could not keep up and the student who wanted to complete schooling faster and felt held back. Indeed, Mr. von Drehle’s paeans to virtual learning could be used as selling points by the for-profit fly-by-night operations like ECOT who raked in over a billion of Ohio taxpayers money and graduated a microscopic percentage of the students it enrolled. He writes:

Thankfully, we’ve begun to appreciate that students aren’t stamped from a single mold.

Some do their best learning at their own pace and rhythm. This awakening is surely one reason more Americans are finishing high school: The dropout rate fell from 11 percent to 6 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Well-run virtual education programs are part of that success. Educators with up-close experience of at-risk students understand this — which is why Humboldt’s virtual school includes the daughter of a traditional school principal. And the daughter of a newspaper columnist.

When the nontraditional learner in my family gripped her diploma proudly and gave Siebenmorgen a tearful hug, she became one of more than 400 alumni of a little Kansas town’s very big idea, with hundreds more in the pipeline.

These aren’t students normally celebrated with trophies and scholarships. But I would not bet against them.

In an age of constant change, they’ve seized tools offered by technology and put them to good use.

Instead of dropping out, they stepped up, toward a future that will favor those who see and grab new possibilities. An hour after they marched in, they sailed forth on the stream of lifelong learning, which promises to take them far.

There is one key point about the Humboldt Virtual Education Program that Mr. von Drehe neglected to mention: it is overseen by the local school district in his community, which means that it is a non-profit entity operated by an elected school board whose mission is to provide education for all the children in the region and not a for-profit entity whose mission is to get a high return on investment for its shareholders.

Mr. von Drehe’s oversight on this key governance issue muddles the issue of virtual learning. When virtual learning opportunities are provided by local public schools, as they are in Vermont, New Hampshire, and at least one place in Kansas, they work to educate students who would otherwise drop out of school. When profit is the goal, the ECOTs of this world predominate.


Gates and Zuckerberg ALMOST Have it Right This Time… Bottom Up is Better Than Top Down… BUT… $$$ Still Matters

May 18, 2018 Comments off

A recent Fast Company article by Jim Shelton, president for education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Bob Hughes, director of K–12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shows that both tech entrepreneurs are on the right track… but they are still missing one key point. In the article, Mr. Shelton and Mr. Hughes are reaching out to educators and parents seeking specific examples of programs that are working to help students learn three key skills for success: mathematics; non-fiction writing; and executive function, the skill set concerning memory, self-control, attention, and flexible thinking. They hope that by identifying practices that work in these areas they will be able to establish an R and D element to education that is lacking. And… if their concluding paragraphs are any indication, they realize that hands-on grassroots approaches identified by actual teachers are better than top-down technological approaches devised by code writers:

The purpose of the initiative is not to mandate anything. It’s to learn from the work that’s currently happening in classrooms, universities, entrepreneurial efforts, and research centers throughout the country. We hope to see a wide range of approaches and ideas; technology is not a primary focus, but we recognize the role it can play in affordable access to high-quality education for all. No personally identifiable student data will be collected in this RFI.

In the months ahead, we’ll share what we learn about the crucial work being done in the three named areas, along with ideas for how to accelerate progress, breakthroughs, and scale. We believe these findings can guide potential grant making as well as bolster the entire field through a better understanding of breakthroughs now taking place in and out of traditional education. We’re excited to find ways to increase collaboration and lift those breakthroughs out of isolation so that everyone can benefit.

I wish that politics and money didn’t matter in public education… but both will undoubtedly play a role when the time comes to apply research and collaborate. As long as politics is in the picture, though, students flexible thinking skills might be students if they want to question the history being presented to them, the science behind climate change and (ahem) even evolution, and the notion that all students learn at the same rate of speed in all content areas. And as long as money is part of the equation, the affluent districts will be able to accelerate progress, introduce breakthroughs, and move to scale much quicker than their poorer colleagues in districts that are strapped for money.

My Modest Proposal: Test for Student Understanding Instead of School and Teacher Accountability

May 2, 2018 Comments off

Yesterday Diane Ravitch posted a “Modest Proposal” on testing and asked for feedback. She began by posing this question: “Why do our policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing, despite the non-existent benefits?” Her proposal to counter this testing mania was this:

Why not give the tests in the first week of school and use only a test whose results may be returned within a month? Let machines score the standardized questions, and let teachers score the constructed responses. The testing vendor would know that they would be chosen only if they could report the results in a month, in a format that informs teachers what students do and do not know. That way, the teacher can find out where students are as they begin the year and tailor instruction to address the needs of the students.

That way, tests would no longer be high-stakes. They would be expressly designed for diagnostic purposes, to help teachers help students. The results would come too early to misuse the tests to stigmatize students, punish teachers, and close schools. There would be no punishments attached to the tests, but plenty of valuable information to help teachers.

My reaction to her question about why policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels continue to require and enforce annual testing and my own “modest proposal” follow:

Why do legislators and those who elect them want to use standardized tests to measure schools? Because they are relatively cheap, relatively easy to administer, and provide seemingly precise data that can be used to sort and select students and schools in a fashion that is easy to understand. And so schools are using tests designed for accountability of adults instead of tests designed to measure student’s understanding.

It strikes me that teachers could crowd-source formative assessments using social media, formative assessments that would enable them to accomplish what Duane Swacker suggests: “… teacher-made classroom testing and assessments designed to help the students learn where they are in their own learning.” Such tests would be untethered from “grade levels”. These crowd sourced formative assessments would not only promote self-actualization on the part of students but also provide classroom teachers with valuable feedback on how the approaches they are using are work for the specific children in their classroom. Assuming someone with technological expertise would be willing to provide the expertise needed to design this kind of “testing network” without making an unseemly profit, these crowd-sourced tests would be very inexpensive to design and relatively easy to administer. Indeed, these formative assessments might replace the “unit tests” teachers use to measure student performance. The only downside of these assessments— or any formative assessments— is that they could not be used to rate schools.

I believe we have the technological ability to design specially tailored FORMATIVE assessments that would enable students to progress at their own rate in subjects where there are clear hierarchical skills to be mastered. Instead of using SUMMATIVE assessments to hold SCHOOLS and TEACHERS accountable for students achieving specific outcomes based on the artificial construct we call “grade levels” we should use FORMATIVE assessments to “…help students learn where they are in their own learning.” We should let time be the variable and learning be constant instead of the other way around.

What T.H.E. Journal Analysis Says… and DOESN’T Say

February 21, 2018 Comments off

I was intrigued by the headline of an article in THE Journal that read “Cost to Connect Rural America: $19 Billion or Less“. Dian Shaffhauser’s article draws on the findings of a study completed by public sector consultancy CTC Technology & Energy found that

If appropriate funding were found and those construction efforts were coordinated among state and regional authorities, the proposal asserted, a savings of up to 50 percent would be possible.

The report stated that the deployment costs could be reduced by using an open application process that would allow both commercial and non-commercial providers to bid. It also suggested that broadband infrastructure be opened to “interconnection,” allowing existing infrastructure “to be used rather than building out additional, duplicative infrastructure.”

My hunch: this kind of coordinated effort could best be accomplished by the federal government, especially if broadband were viewed as a utility… that is if the FCC reversed itself and restored the rules of the game that existed two years ago. My further hunch: that isn’t going to happen any time soon… and as a result those who live in “rural backwaters”— like me— will remain unable to connect to broadband for the foreseeable future… and the digital divide will persist and widen…


Given the Choice, 2011 NYTimes Articles Indicates Tech Moguls Choose Waldorf Schools… I’ll Bet They STILL Do Today

January 27, 2018 Comments off

Diane Ravitch shared one of her favorite articles in yesterday’s stream of posts, a NYTimes article from 2011 titled “A Silicon Valley School that Does’t Compute“. The article describes the curriculum offered at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, described as

…one of around 160 Waldorf schools in the country that subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.

The irony is that this particular Waldorf School attracts the children of several tech magnates who reside in the area, technology experts who intentionally keep devices out of their children’s hands. Why?

“I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” said Alan Eagle, 50, whose daughter, Andie, is one of the 196 children at the Waldorf elementary school; his son William, 13, is at the nearby middle school. “The idea that an app on an iPad can better teach my kids to read or do arithmetic, that’s ridiculous.”

Mr. Eagle knows a bit about technology. He holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google, where he has written speeches for the chairman, Eric E. Schmidt. He uses an iPad and a smartphone. But he says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

The article describes the kinds of activities Waldorf students engage in at each grade level and how Waldorf schools ignore any metrics that involve standardized testing. Waldorf parents, though, are confident that their children will learn the skills needed to succeed given Waldorf’s 94% college placement figures. But how will Waldorf students cope in a Google-world where cell phones and technology are ubiquitous?

And where advocates for stocking classrooms with technology say children need computer time to compete in the modern world, Waldorf parents counter: what’s the rush, given how easy it is to pick up those skills?

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

Knowing several Waldorf teachers and several Waldorf students, I believe their mantra might be “WHAT’S THE RUSH? Waldorf Schools batch students by age but allow their skills to develop at whatever pace is comfortable for the child… and they allow the children a lot of freedom in selecting the content they pursue. The notion of slavishly following a curriculum based on test questions tied to an age is preposterous to them.

Could the Waldorf model work in public education? Matt Richtel who wrote the article for the Times seems to infer that it couldn’t be because their results are largely the result of the families who enroll in the schools. He notes that Waldorf students are “…from families that value education highly enough to seek out a selective private school, and usually have the means to pay for it“. In that observation, Mr. Richtel seems to echo the attitude of the “reformers”, who think that instruction driven by standardized tests is good for children raised in poverty but inappropriate for those with the means to attend selective schools. Poor children need to rush… affluent children, not so much…