Posts Tagged ‘technology’

“Hey Alexa! Give Me Some Two-Digit Multiplication Problems to Work On!”

February 24, 2021 Comments off

I have been fascinated by the concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) for decades. I can recall reading a book in the 1980s about efforts at Carnegie Mellon to develop a robot that could walk across a part of the campus that was heavily travelled by students and had several obstacles like water fountains, trees, etc. The book underscored how much of learned human behavior like avoiding on oncoming pedestrian or landscape feature requires an incredible succession of mathematical calculations.

But AI has come a LONG way since the 1980s… and GPS technology and the miniaturization of computers that has transpired since then make AI ubiquitous, as this NYTimes article by Craig Smith illustrates. The pervasiveness of AI has several legal, ethical, and practical consequences. Whether the benefits of AI outweigh the potential for harm is imponderable… but a debate on this issue NOW would be helpful— especially given the downside of AI should it be used for ill.

The Times article does a good job of explaining what AI is and how it has come to permeate our lives. “Smart” appliances, the identification of books and movies (and articles) we might like by a media outlet, pop-up ads on social media, and videos YouTube recommends for us are all the result of AI. My iPhone now opens by recognizing my face and my computer screen comes to life when I touch it just so. All of these features feed our need for instant gratification and convenience, but they also provide a trove of personal data that Apple can sell to third party vendors. They also lead to the possibility of a world where everything I write, every reaction I offer on social media, every comment I make on line, every email I send could be accessed.

The darkest dystopian world would be one where a totalitarian government is in place and they have access to and complete control over the web. In such a non-liberal government, those whose views do not conform with the party in power could be denied access to the web or (ahem) “persuaded” to cease from putting “seditious” information online. A country like China controls news sources in such a fashion and totalitarian leaders around the globe are identifying insurgents and resistors by monitoring online communication. In such a non-liberal country schools would use AI to identify the children who are “gifted and talented” and segregate them at an early age from their peers, who will receive schooling to limit their ability to think independently. Orwell’s imagined world where three totalitarian governments rule the globe, define history, and decide what information the masses need is plausible if AI is used for the purpose of a small group controlling everyone.

But here’s a Utopian spin on that “dark” scenario. What if nations around the world agreed that global warming was an urgent problem that defied marketplace controls and used AI to monitor everyone’s use of carbon? What if nations around the world decided that the AI social media algorithms that promote discord were wrong and banned them entirely? What if schools around the world decided that their children should be given the chance to learn at a rate that makes sense to them and have the opportunity to deeply pursue those topics that interest them the most?

We are at an important crossroads in terms of managing information. The debates on “what to do with social media” and the displacement of workers by technology are debates about AI as are the debates on the extent to which we want to embrace “personalization” in schools. Those debates should begin with the end in mind. Here are some questions that underlie the debates on AI:

  • Do we believe that ALL information should be made available to ALL citizens or is some information so toxic it should be banned altogether? If we DO want to ban some information, who decides what is banned? The government? A “council” appointed by the media? The marketplace?
  • Do we believe that clearly false information should be banned from circulation online or do we trust the end-users to sort out fact from fiction? If we DO want to ban false information, who decides what is banned?
  • Do we want divergent free-thinking independent life-long learners in the future or do we want citizens who unquestioningly believe what “authorities” tell them? If we want the former, are our schools preparing students for that future… or are they preparing them for the dystopian future?
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Efficiency is the Hallmark of Virtual Academies… But COVID is Showing America the Difference Between Efficiency and Effectiveness

February 21, 2021 Comments off

Efficiency is defined as by Wikipedia as follows:

Efficiency is the (often measurable) ability to avoid wasting materials, energy, efforts, money, and time in doing something or in producing a desired result. In a more general sense, it is the ability to do things well, successfully, and without waste.

The same source defines EFFECTIVENESS as:

Effectiveness is the capability of producing a desired result or the ability to produce desired output. When something is deemed effective, it means it has an intended or expected outcome, or produces a deep, vivid impression.

We’ve learned over the years that our current model of education is both inefficient and ineffective, assuming the “expected outcome” of funded education is a universal cohort students who are ready for work, ready for college, or ready for both. Many observers of our current model see it as a failure because it is not subject to “market forces”, believing that such forces will yield both efficiency and effectiveness. While there is no evidence whatsoever that this happens in the REAL marketplace, there is a massive amount of evidence that the marketplace CAN drive down costs by substituting lower wage employees for higher wage ones by outsourcing labor or diminishing the power of employee groups OR introducing technology. Those who value the marketplace model place a premium on EFFICIENCY over EFFECTIVENESS…. and far and away the most EFFICIENT means of educating children is replace sentient teachers with algorithmic models.

As readers of this blog know, I’ve often used the phrase “efficiency is the enemy” in blog posts to decry the practice of REPLACING live teaching with some form of computer instruction. At the same time, I am a big fan of flipped instruction, Khan Academy mini-lectures that explain complicated issues in clear language, and even entire units in Khan Academy where subjects like math lend themselves to algorithmic learning— learning that can replace the rote drills that teachers often oversee in large groups. When technology AUGMENTS learning in the form, it is, I believe, unarguably GOOD.

But when technology is the primary (if not exclusive) form of instruction, it is unarguably BAD.

All of this is a lead up to this Diane Ravitch post from last weekend that describes the boots-on-the-ground experience of a newly minted K12 teacher in California, an experience that included this observation:

Though it seems nauseatingly naive in retrospect, I had hoped and at one time believed that “free and fair education for all” could and logically should include our nation’s public schools having efficient access to the technologies and mass deployment systems for online education which our tax dollars have paid for.

Instead, I now realize that an otherwise logical process of voting tax payers receiving the public education they deserve has been perhaps irrevocably hijacked and perverted by the “double-speak” of “school choice” proponents and the contemporary scourge of insatiably greedy corporations.

The private for-profit enterprise K12 is notoriously efficient: they deliver a McDonald’s education at the price of a sit down restaurant. They do so by employing newly minted teachers instead of those with experience and assigning the teachers large numbers of students. It’s VERY inexpensive to deliver this instruction… and when K12 provides this at the same rate states pay for traditional schooling the taxes don’t need to go up to get the same results as before and the K12 shareholders are VERY happy.

After living through the past year, it should be abundantly clear to voters and taxpayers that online schooling is insufficient and ineffective even if it IS efficient in terms of cost. If that lesson hasn’t been learned, maybe it’s time for the voters to get some remedial education.

Did School Closures Result in a Suicide Surge… or is this ANOTHER Example of COVID Uncovering a Pre-Existing Condition?

January 25, 2021 Comments off

Yesterday’s NYTimes featured an op ed by Erica Green describing a surge in suicides in Clark County NV that many are attributing to the closure of schools due to the pandemic… and yet, a close reading of the article could lead one to conclude that it is yet another underlying problem of public education that COVID uncovered.

As noted in earlier posts and countless articles, the pandemic has compelled policy makers to at long last face underlying problems that impact public schools. The “digital divide” and the inequities in resources and funding for schools have been in place for decades… but they are now laid bare when schools are closed. Schools have long served as the core provider of balanced meals, social and health services, and child care— yet until the pandemic came along these benefits of universal schooling were largely overlooked or, at best, take for granted.

Ms. Greene’s article described some of the other benefits of schooling. First, public schools provide an opportunity for caring adults to monitor the well-being of students— something that is impossible if a child doesn’t log, doesn’t share their picture on Zoom, or is only visible from the neck up. Second, public schools provide healthy social and  emotional outlets for students. Athletics, music, clubs, or just hanging out on playgrounds are all ways children and teens engage socially and emotionally. Many of the case studies cited in Ms. Green’s article missed those opportunities as much– or more– than they missed classes. Finally, schools offer counseling and health to those who require it— services that are far more effective when they are delivered in person than online.

Finally, the surge in unemployment that resulted from the pandemic in and of itself likely had SOME effect on the well-being of children. As Ms. Green notes, the skyrocketing unemployment in Las Vegas, which is dependent on visitors from afar, led to all kinds of family stress. The impact of unemployment is bad in normal circumstances… but when combined with the closure of schools it is even worse.

The bottom line is this: when schools DO reopen and we no longer have to be quarantined, will we remember the need for funding equity? For digital access for all? For counseling, health, and social services in schools? Will the “return to normal” that results from an end to quarantines result in a “return to normal” everywhere else or will we remember the lessons the pandemic has presumably taught us?