Amazon helps and teaches bomb makers

Amazon’s recommender algorithm works pretty well: if people start to gather together ingredients needed for making a thermite bomb, Amazon helpfully suggests other items that may be needed to make it, including hardware like ball bearings, switches, and battery cables. What a great teacher!

It is disturbing that this seems to imply that there are enough people ordering such things for the algorithm to recognize a pattern. However, it would seem remarkably dumb for a determined terrorist to leave such a (figuratively and literally) blazing trail behind them, so it is just as likely to be the result of a very slightly milder form of idiot, perhaps a few Trump voters playing in their backyards. It’s a bit worrying, though, that the ‘wisdom’ of the crowd might suggest uses of and improvements to some stupid kids’ already dangerous backyard experiments that could make them way more risky, and potentially deadly.

Building intelligent systems is not too hard, as long as the activity demanding intelligence can be isolated and kept within a limited context or problem domain. Computers can beat any human at Go, Chess, or Checkers. They can drive cars more safely and more efficiently than people (as long as there are not too many surprises or ethical dilemmas to overcome, and as long as no one tries deliberately to fool them). In conversation, as long as the human conversant keeps within a pre-specified realm of expertise, they can pass the Turing Test. They are even remarkably much better than humans at identifying, from a picture, whether someone is gay or not. But it is really hard to make them wise. This latest fracas is essentially a species of the same problem as that reported last week of Facebook offering adverts targeted at haters of Jews. It’s crowd-based intelligence, without the wisdom to discern the meaning and value of what the crowd (along with the algorithm) chooses. Crowds (more accurately, collectives) are never wise: they can be smart, they can be intelligent, they can be ignorant, they can be foolish, they can even (with a really smart algorithm to assist) be (or at least do) good; but they cannot be wise. Nor can AIs that use them.

Human wisdom is a result of growing up as a human being, with human needs, desires, and interests, in a human society, with all the complexity, purpose, meaning, and value that it entails. An AI that can even come close to that is at best decades away, and may never be possible, at least not at scale, because computers are not people: they will always be treated differently, and have different needs (there’s an interesting question to explore as to whether they can evolve a different kind of machine-oriented wisdom, but let’s not go there – SkyNet beckons!). We do need to be working on artificial wisdom, to complement artificial intelligence, but we are not even close yet. Right now, we need to be involving people in such things to a much greater extent: we need to build systems that informate, that enhance our capabilities as human beings, rather than that automate and diminish them. It might not be a bad idea, for instance, for Amazon’s algorithms to learn to report things like this to real human beings (though there are big risks of error, reinforcement of bias, and some fuzzy boundaries of acceptability that it is way too easy to cross) but it would definitely be a terrible idea for Amazon to preemptively automate prevention of such recommendations.

There are lessons here for those working in the field of learning analytics, especially those that are trying to take the results in order to automate the learning process, like Knewton and its kin. Learning, and that subset of learning that is addressed in the field of education in particular, is about living in a human society, integrating complex ideas, skills, values, and practices in a world full of other people, all of them unique and important. It’s not about learning to do, it’s about learning to be. Some parts of teaching can be automated, for sure, just as shopping for bomb parts can be automated. But those are not the parts that do the most good, and they should be part of a rich, social education, not of a closed, value-free system.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/politics/1007077/amazon-reviewing-algorithms-that-promoted-bomb-materials

Categories Uncategorised Leave a comment

Analytic thinking undermines religious belief while intelligence undermines social conservatism, study suggests

‘Suggests’ is the operative word in the title here. The title is a sensationalist interpretation of an inconclusive and careful study, and I don’t think this is what the authors of the study mean to say at all. Indeed, they express caution in numerous ways, noting small effect sizes, lack of proof of causality, large overlaps between groups, and many other reasons for extremely critical interpretation of the evidence:

“We would like to warn readers to resist the temptation to draw conclusions that suit their ideological worldviews,” Saribay told PsyPost. “One must not think in terms of profiles or categories of people and also not draw simple causal conclusions as our data do not speak to causality. Instead, it’s better to focus on how certain ideological tendencies may serve psychological needs, such as the need to simplify the world and conserve cognitive energy.”

This is suitably cautious and very much at odds with the title of the PsyPost article.

The study itself finds some confirmatory evidence that, in the US (and only in the US):

  •     Religion may be embedded more in Type 1 intuitions relative to politics.
  •     Processing liberal political arguments may require cognitive ability.
  •     Religious belief should be predicted uniquely by analytic cognitive style.
  •     Conservatism should be uniquely predicted by cognitive ability.

It is important to note, however, that ‘prediction’ in this instance has a very precise meaning of implying slightly increased odds of correlation between these factors, not that there is a causal connection one way or the other. The study simply adds a little more evidence to an already fairly substantial body of proof that cognitively challenged people, especially those more inclined to intuition than to reason (the two are statistically correlated), are somewhat more likely to be drawn both to religion and to right wing politics. Much as I would like it to imply the inverse – that intelligence and rationality are a cure for religion and right wing beliefs – there is absolutely nothing in this research to suggest that.

Part of the motivation for the study is the researchers’ observation of the growing antagonism to intelligence, expertise, evidence, and truth that is revealed in Trump’s victory, Brexit, ISIL, man-made climate change denial, and so on. While such evils are no doubt fuelled and sustained by (not to put too fine a point on it) stupid people in search of simple solutions to complex problems, it would be foolish (stupid, even) and highly inaccurate to suggest that all (or even a majority) of those exhibiting such attitudes and beliefs are stupid, or driven by intuition rather than reason, or both. As the study’s authors rightly observe, the value of this study is its contribution to understanding some of the complexity of the problem and should not be used to extrapolate exactly the same kind of simplified caricatures that cause it in the first place:

“…a more balanced understanding can only be reached via continued empirical research. Human beings may sometimes benefit from cognitive simplification of a complex and at times scary world of constant change and uncertainty. It does seem that certain aspects of religion and conservative ideology serve to deal with this, in slightly different ways. This is the direction that evidence points to thus far. However, researchers of course must resist this very need to simplify the world beyond a certain level.”

The original study can be found at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S019188691730226X

Address of the bookmark: http://www.psypost.org/2017/09/analytic-thinking-undermines-religious-belief-intelligence-undermines-social-conservatism-study-suggests-49655

Original page

Highly praised children are more inclined to cheat

The title of this Alphr article is a little misleading because the point the article rightly makes is that it all depends on the type of praise given. It reports on research from the University of Toronto that confirms (yet again) what should be obvious: praising learners for who they are (‘you’re so smart’) is a really bad idea, while praising what they do (‘you did that well’) is not normally a bad idea. The issue, though, is essentially one of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. By praising the person for being a particular way you are positioning that as the purpose, rather than a side-effect, of the activity, and positioning yourself as the arbiter, so disempowering the learner. By praising the behaviour, you are offering useful feedback on performance that empowers the recipient to choose whether and how to do such things again, as well as supporting needs for relatedness (it shows you care) and competence (it helps them improve). Both forms of praise contribute to feelings of self-esteem, but only one supports intrinsic motivation. 

The nice twist in these particular studies (here and here) is that the researchers were looking at effects on morality. They found that ability praise (teling them they are smart) is very strongly correlated with a propensity to cheat. Exactly as theory would predict, kids who have been told that they are smart are significantly more likely to respond to the extrinsic motivation (the need to live up to expectations when given ability praise) by cheating, when given the opportunity. Interestingly, praising the behaviour (performance praise) has little or no effect on likelihood of cheating when compared with those given no praise at all: it is only when an expectation is set that the children are perceived as smart that cheating behaviour increases. It is also interesting, if tangential, that boys appeared to be way more likely to cheat than girls under all the conditions though, once primed by ability praise, girls were more likely to cheat than boys that had received no praise or performance praise.

The lesson is nothing like as simple as remembering to just praise the action, not the person. Praising behaviours can, when used badly, be just as disempowering as praising the person. For instance, while in some senses it might be possible to view grades as a kind of abbreviated praise (or punishment, which amounts to much the same thing) for a behaviour, there’s a critical difference: the fact that it will be graded is known in advance by the learner. This is compounded by the fact that the grade matters to them, often more than the performance of the activity itself. Thus, achieving the grade becomes the goal, not the consequence of the behaviour, and it reinforces the power of the grader to determine the behaviour of the learner, with a consequent loss of learner autonomy. That shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation is the big issue here, not the praise itself. There are lots of ways to give both performance praise and ability praise that are not coercive. They are only harmful when used to manipulate behaviour.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.alphr.com/science/1007043/highly-praised-children-are-more-inclined-to-cheat

Categories Uncategorised Leave a comment

E-Learn 2017, Vancouver, 17-20 October – last day of cheaper registration rates

Today is the final day to get the discount rate if you are planning on coming to E-Learn in Vancouver this year (US$455 today vs US$495 from tomorrow onwards).

It promises to be quite a big event this year, with an estimated 900+ concurrent sessions, 100+ posters, and three lunchtime SIGs (including a new one on sustainable learning technologies), not to mention some fine keynotes and networking events.  Annoyingly, it clashes with ICDE in Toronto this year but, IMHO, E-Learn is a better conference for those working and researching in online education, and it’s a much better location. I may be a little biased, being both a resident of Vancouver and local co-chair of the conference, but there are some very good reasons I chose to be both those things!

I have attended almost all E-Learn (and its predecessor, WebNet) conferences for nearly 20 years now because it tends to attract some great people, provides an excellently diverse and blended mix of technical and pedagogical perspectives, gives plentiful chances to engage with both early-career researchers and those at the top of the field, usually picks great locations, is well-organized, and focuses solely on adult online learning (mainly higher education but also some from industry, healthcare, government, etc). The acceptance rate (1-in-3 to 1-in-4) is high enough to attract diverse papers that can be off the wall and interesting (especially from younger researchers who don’t know what’s impossible yet so sometimes achieve it), but low enough to exclude utter rubbish. If that kind of thing interests you, this is the conference for you!

I hope to see you there.

Address of the bookmark: https://www.aace.org/conf/elearn/registration/

Categories Uncategorised Leave a comment

Not true: coding bootcamps you can take online are an "oxymoron" no one has yet solved

A Quartz article that claims (accurately) that p-learning bootcamps dominate for those learning programming and other technical skills and (inaccurately) that the reason for that is that e-learning is much less engaging. In fact, there’s a sneaky and almost unnoticeable sleight of hand here, because what is actually claimed is that online learning can be less engaging and, based on that indubitable fact, extrapolates from the particular to the general, asserting that all online learning suffers the same way.

Nonsense.

Yes, there is a lot of rubbish online learning and, in fairness, even a well-evolved establishment like Athabasca University has some of it, at least for some people some of the time. But that’s not at all surprising because every university (online or not) presents the same problem and, if you are trying to make a single learning design work for everyone, you are sure to make it too complex for some and too boring for others (personalization technologies and intelligent personal learning designs notwithstanding). Athabasca has a lot less of it thanks to its extremely rigorous quality assurance processes, but it would be crazy to imagine that everything it does is perfect for every learner at every time, as much as it would be crazy to imagine that everyone at a bricks and mortar institution gets a wonderful learning experience every time. Crazier, in fact.

The thing is, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. It’s not that online learning is less effective (countless studies prove otherwise), it’s simply that it tends to be done in a way that gives control and flexibility to learners. The immersion of physical bootcamps does have one major and very distinctive benefit: that it pulls people out of everything else and forces them to engage for a lot of hours in the day. The ‘bootcamp’ part of it ensures that they are well and truly immersed, with no way to back out apart from backing out completely  It’s not that the learning experience is any better – very far from it in most cases. Most bootcamps I have seen use inane pedagogies that would not pass muster even in a conventional university, let alone somewhere like Athabasca University that actually pays attention to such things. It’s just that people are there and they have to do stuff (a lot of social pressure is involved, as well as loss-aversion) so they wind up learning a lot simply because they put in the hours, and that happens simply because they are enrolled on a bootcamp and cannot get away.Not dissimilar to the ways traditional universities work, as it happens, just a lot more intense.

Online learning gives people more choice and greater control so, if they are not innately fascinated or they have not very single-mindedly put aside enough time then, of course, they wind up learning less quickly because they put in less time over a longer period. Duh. It’s not rocket science. This is not about teaching effectiveness or smart learning designs, it is simply about stopping people from being distracted and doing other things. The solution, if a solution is needed, is for online learners to block out the time and drop the distractions. I can imagine plenty of learning designs for online learning that would make that happen – simply making it real-time and using smart tools for desktop sharing, real-time interaction, and monitoring of progress would achieve much the same results, as long as the ground rules are fully understood by all concerned. I was at a conference the other day that did pretty much that. Such an approach doesn’t happen much, of course, for all the reasons people go for online learning in the first place, inasmuch as such methods take away the control and flexibility that make it so appealing. On the other hand, perhaps there is a place for such techniques. It seems there is a market and, as long as expectations are carefully managed (you don’t distract yourself with reading emails and engaging in social media, you pledge to be available, you block out your calendar) it might work pretty well. But why bother? Seems to me that online learning is better precisely because of the control it gives people. If they need extrinsic motivation to force them to learn then that’s the problem that should be solved before enrolling on any courses, and it will do them a world of good in many other situations too.

 

Address of the bookmark: https://qz.com/1064814/the-awkward-irony-of-not-being-able-to-take-a-good-coding-bootcamp-online/

Categories Uncategorised Leave a comment

Making the community the curriculum | Dave Cormier

The always wonderful Dave Cormier is writing a book (open, of course) about rhizomatic learning and, as you might expect given Dave’s eclectic and rich range of skills (from uber-tech-guru to uber-learning-guru) not to mention his cutting edge knowledge (this is someone so far ahead of trends that he actually invented the term ‘MOOC’) it’s brilliant stuff. Though it is a work in progress and still a bit raw in places, there are clues that this is not your common or garden e-book right from the opening chapter, Why we work together – cheating as learning which introduces the radical idea that people are pretty good at helping other people to learn while, in the process, learning themselves. Other chapters are equally charmingly named: Learning in a Time of Abundance, Five tips for slackers for keeping track of digital stuff and One person’s guide to evaluating educational technologies. What comes through most strongly in this is a vision of where we are going – where we must be going – in a world of increasing connection and increasingly connective technologies. In all, it provides an extremely practical, achievable, and pragmatic way of going about that without breaking everything in sight, very well grounded in theory, and very entertainingly (and very clearly) presented.

I’d not noticed this work in progress till now and am very glad that I found it. Highly recommended reading for anyone in education, edtech, or who is simply interested in learning or how technology changes us, and how to manage that change. I really look forward to seeing the finished or, at least, the published product. My sense is that this will always be an evolving book because that’s pretty much the nature of the beast, and so it will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.

Address of the bookmark: https://davecormier.pressbooks.com/

Original page

SpyStudent: hidden wireless video live transmission camera

Who does not know the problems with the driving test or studies testing? You have not time to learn and have more important things to do! And suddenly, the date for the exam or test in a few days.If your exam is important to you and you do not know what you should do otherwise, then you are right with us! Do not despair, we have something for you that can help you!  “

This fabulous offer from dron.si (who knew that my surname was a thing in Slovenia?)  allows you, for a mere €374.17, to be the proud owner of the SpyStudent kit, a camera, mic, earpiece, and wireless transmission system made for “those who do not like to learn for the test”.

You can easily and undetectably shove the various bits of transmitter down your underpants, assuming you weigh more than 300 kilos, you wear exceptionally baggy clothing, and you have no fear of numerous forms of radiation in your nether regions. You might be a little challenged to find a way to shove the ‘wireless spy earpiece’ that, from the picture, seems to be made for elephants, down into your ear canal, let alone ever hope to get it out again (I hope it holds its charge!) but that’s part of the fun.  Anyway, I am sure you can put up with a little inconvenience for a device that enables you (with the aid of your BMW-owning accomplice outside the building who you really hope knows the answers) to cheat on any exam or test with impunity.

Obviously, exam invigilators have never seen microphones before so you’re fine on that count, and they never bother to look for people muttering into their shirts, holding up exam papers to their chests, or tilting their heads as though listening to large black objects shoved into their ears. And exams are normally taken in open fields, so the range won’t be a problem

The man in the illustration is taking a break from his more usual activities of molesting small children/terrorism/voting for Trump, to enjoy cheating on his driving test. Sadly, he also cheated on the ‘holding your pen’ test, so it’s not going to end well:

child molester/exam cheat/international terrorist

 

Don’t forget this crucial advice, though…

You go into the examination room and you try to keep quiet as if nothing had.

I hope nothing had.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.dron.si/en/brezzicne-ip-kamere/i_424_hidden-wireless-video-live-transmission-camera-spystudent-button-camera-power-pack

Categories Uncategorised Leave a comment

Strategies for successful learning at AU

Earlier today I responded to a prospective student who was, amongst other things, seeking advice on strategies for success on a couple of our self-paced programming courses. My response was just a stream of consciousness off the top of my head but I think it might be useful to others. Here, then, with some very light editing to remove references to specific courses, are a few fairly random thoughts on how to succeed on a self-paced online programming course (and, for the most part, other courses) at Athabasca University. In no particular order:

  • Try to make sure that people close to you know what you are doing and, ideally, are supportive. Other people can really help, not just for the mechanical stuff but for the emotional support. Online learning, especially the self-paced form we use, can feel a bit isolating at times, but there are lots of ways to close the gap and they aren’t all found in the course materials and processes. Find support wherever you can.
  • Make a schedule and try to keep to it, but don’t blame yourself if your deadlines slip a bit here and there – just adjust the plan. The really important thing is that you should feel in control of the process. Having such control is one of the huge benefits of our way of teaching, but you need to take ownership of the process yourself in order to experience the benefits.
  • If the course provides forums or other social engagement try to proactively engage in them. Again, other people really help.
  • You will have way more freedom than those in traditional classrooms, who have to follow a teacher simply because of the nature of physics. However, that freedom is a two-edged sword as you can sometimes be swamped with choices and not know which way to go. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask for help. But do take advantage of the freedom. Set your own goals. Look for the things that excite you and explore further. Take breaks if you are getting tired. Play. Take control of the learning process and enjoy the ride.
  • Enjoy the challenges. Sometimes it will be hard, and you should expect that, especially in programming courses like these. Programming can be very frustrating at times – after 35 years of programming I can still spend days on a problem that turns out to involve a misplaced semi-colon! Accept that, and accept that even the most intractable problems will eventually be solved (and it is a wonderful feeling when you do finally get it to work). Make time to sleep on it. If you’re stuck, ask for help.
  • Get your work/life/learning balance right. Be realistic in your aspirations and expect to spend many hours a week on this, but make sure you make time to get away from it.
  • Keep a learning journal, a reflective diary of what you have done and how you have addressed the struggles, even if the course itself doesn’t ask for one. There are few more effective ways to consolidate and connect your learning than to reflect on it, and it can help to mark your progress: good to read when your motivation is flagging.
  • Get used to waiting for responses and find other things to learn in the meantime. Don’t stop learning because you are waiting – move on to something else, practice something you have already done, or reflect on what you have been doing so far.
  • Programming is a performance skill that demands constant and repeated practice. You just need to do it, get it wrong, do it again, and again, and again, until it feels like second nature. In many ways it is like learning a musical instrument or maybe even driving. It’s not something you can learn simply by reading or by being told, you really have to immerse yourself in doing it. Make up your own challenges if you run out of things to do.
  • Don’t just limit yourself to what we provide. Find forums and communities with appropriate interests. I am a big fan of StackOverflow.com for help and inspiration from others, though relevant subreddits can be useful and there are many other sites and systems dedicated to programming. Find one or two that make sense to you. Again, other people can really help.

Online learning can be great fun as long as you are aware of the big differences, primarily relating to control and personal agency. Our role is to provide a bit of structure and a supportive environment to enable you to learn, rather than to tell you stuff and make you do things, which can be disconcerting at first if you are used to traditional classroom learning. This puts more pressure on you, and more onus on you to organize and manage your own learning, but don’t ever forget that you are not ever really alone – we are here to help.

In summary, I think it really comes down to three big things, all of which are really about motivation, and all of which are quite different when learning online compared to face-to-face:

  1. Autonomy – you are in control, but you must take responsibility for your own learning. You can always delegate control to us (or others) when the going gets hard or choices are hard to make, but you are always free to take it back again, and there will be no one standing over you making you do stuff apart from yourself.
  2. Competence – there are few things more satisfying than being able to do more today than you could do yesterday. We provide some challenges and we try to keep them difficult-but-achievable at every stage along the way, but it is a great idea for you to also seek your own challenges, to play, to explore, to discover, especially if the challenges we offer are too difficult or too boring. Reflection can help a lot with this, as a means to recognize what, how, and why you have learned.
  3. Relatedness – never forget the importance of other people. You don’t have to interact with them if you don’t want to do so (that’s another freedom we offer), but it is at the very least helpful to think about how you belong in our community, your own community, and the broader community of learners and programmers, and how what and how you are learning can affect others (directly or indirectly).

This advice is by no means comprehensive! If you have other ideas or advice, or things that have worked for you, or things that you disagree with, do feel free to share them in the comments.

Professor Jon Dron | Beyond Busy

An interview with me by Graham Allcott, author of the bestselling How to be a productivity ninja and other books, for his podcast series Beyond Busy, and as part of the research for his next book. In it I ramble a lot about issues like social media, collective intelligence, motivation, technology, education, leadership, and learning, and Graham makes some incisive comments and asks some probing questions. The interview was conducted on the landing of the Grand Hotel, Brighton, last year.

Address of the bookmark: http://getbeyondbusy.com/e/35495d7ba89876L/?platform=hootsuite

Original page

SCIS makes a great showing at HCI 2017, Vancouver

 

Ali Dewan presenting at HCI 2017

I had the pleasure to gatecrash the HCI 2017 conference in Vancouver today, which gave me the chance to see Dr Ali Dewan present three excellent papers in a row (two with his name on them) on a variety of themes, as well as a great paper written and presented by one of our students, Miao-Han Chang. Miao-Han Chang presenting

Both did superb jobs of presenting to a receptive crowd. Ali got particular acclaim from the audience for the first work he presented  (Combinatorial Auction based Mechanism Design for Course Offering Determination
by Anton Vassiliev, Fuhua Lin & M. Ali Akber Dewan) for its broad applicability in many areas beyond scheduling courses. 

Athabasca, and especially the School of Computing and Information Systems, has made a great showing at this prestigious conference, with contributions not just from Ali and Miao-Han, but also from Oscar (Fuhua) Lin, Dunwei Wen, Maiga Chang and Vive Kumar. Kurt Reifferscheid and Xiaokun Zhang also had a paper in the proceedings but were sadly not able to attend to present it.

 

Jon Dron and Ali Dewan at HCI 2017

Jon and Ali at the Vancouver Conference Centre after Ali’s marathon presentation stint. I detect a look of relief on Ali’s face!

 

Ali Dewan presenting

Papers

  • Combinatorial Auction based Mechanism Design for Course Offering Determination
    Anton Vassiliev, Fuhua Lin, M. Ali Akber Dewan, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Enhance the Use of Medical Wearables through Meaningful Data Analytics
    Kurt Reifferscheid, Xiaokun Zhang, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Classification of Artery and Vein in Retinal Fundus Images Based on the Context-Dependent Features
    Yang Yan, Changchun Normal University, P.R. China; Dunwei Wen, M. Ali Akber Dewan, Athabasca University, Canada; Wen-Bo Huang, Changchun Normal University, P.R. China
  • ECG Identification Based on PCA-RPROP
    Jinrun Yu, Yujuan Si, Xin Liu, Jilin University, P.R. China; Dunwei Wen, Athabasca University, Canada; Tengfei Luo, Jilin University, P.R. China; Liuqi Lang, Zhuhai College of Jilin University, P.R. China
  • Usability Evaluation Plan for Online Annotation and Student Clustering System – A Tunisian University Case
    Miao-Han Chang, Athabasca University, Canada; Rita Kuo, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, United States; Fathi Essalmi, University of Kairouan, Tunisia; Maiga Chang, Vive Kumar, Athabasca University, Canada; Hsu-Yang Kung, National Pingtung University of Science and Technology, Taiwan