What AI Is and Isn’t

Marvin the Paranoid AndroidI think there is a lot of paranoia about Artificial Intelligence. Some of it is warranted but not for the reasons many would suspect. On Twitter, for instance, Elon Musk speculated that an AI system could choose to start a war “if it decides that a prepemptive [sic] strike is most probable path to victory.” In fact, he has said elsewhere that there needs to be regulations curbing AI. Here is where a degree in the humanities would be useful to folks like Musk. There are such laws – they are called Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Of course, the whole point of Asimov’s “I, Robot” is to illustrate the ethical knots and unintended consequences of such “laws.” Currently, we are so specialized of a society, that there is no one individual who can manage this mischief. We need people like Asimov right now more than ever – people who can think about ethics and consequences.

AI will not destroy us. Our ignorance will do that for us. If we are stupid enough to put algorithms in charge of The Bomb, then we will get exactly what we deserve. Darwin will have done his work. We need to make decisions about politics, business and international relations, but we are woefully under-equipped right now to make those decisions. Trump is in office because of the failures of our education system – the specialists understand the data and analytics – but they don’t understand the bigger picture. The Russians and other actors will take advantage of our political and sociological ignorance, as well as our critical technological illiteracy. We have plenty of programmers out there – we need to think about the humanities and the digital world in new ways. I think that future professionals (teachers, programmers, doctors, administrators, etc.) should not only have a grounding in the humanities but also in technology (Harvard’s open course CS50 for instance). We also need philosophy courses for programmers and poets.

There is a theme in the humanities that you can pick up if you stick with it long enough: humans will go to inordinately absurd lengths to abdicate their responsibility for their choices or actions (or their refusal to act). Blaming AI for any of our ills is just ridiculous – it is like blaming a car for our bad driving. AI is just a tool, and we need to do everything we can to understand the tool and the choices innovation affords.

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Making Connections with Afghanistan in Kent

An old bazaar scene in Kabul City, Afghanistan.

An old bazaar in Kabul City, Afghanistan. (Wikipedia)

We had Emily Campbell’s ESOL class join my class today to discuss Afghanistan. I had a serendipitous meeting that took all of four minutes in the copy room – I mentioned that my students were working on a paper about Afghanistan and she told me that she had students from Afghanistan. We emailed back and forth for a bit and then agreed that they should all get together and talk about who they are, how long have they been in the U.S., and what should Americans know about Afghanistan. It was a very successful meeting. My students got a chance to meet students from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, and put a human face on to the headlines we have been reading about.

Each quarter my students in Language Arts/Social Studies write about critical areas in the world that are in the headlines. This serves a couple of purposes: first, it keeps the curriculum current and relevant. Second, it gets rid of all of the gun control and abortion papers that many of the students have already written in high school and are often available for download. Lastly, it helps them to figure out that social studies is a living subject and that history is made everyday by real people.

For the Afghanistan assignment, we read a profile of Afghanistan, watch the film “Children of the Taliban,” we read four positions on Afghanistan, and we bring in news articles for discussion. The students pick a possible solution to the war, write a short paper on it, and then present it in class.

I learned from the students that my curriculum for this assignment needs to be updated. I take that very seriously and am currently working on that. I was worried at first that students might not be willing to talk about something so personal. Some of them had lost family in the wars in Afghanistan. But that was not the case: it was a good conversation, and my students asked good questions.

This is why I got into education in the first place: learning is about making connections between information, ideas, and people. It is about building relationships and connecting with one another.

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Translating the Voynich Manuscript and Other AI Puzzles

There are a number of silly stories out there right now about Artificial Intelligence. None more silly than AI translating the unintelligible Voynich Manuscript (such as the one in News Week). The Voynich Manuscript is from 15th cent. and is basically written in its own language (or possibly a coded version of an existing language). Its meaning has eluded linguists, lexicographers, and cryptographers for over a hundred years. The rabbit hole of an article in Wikipedia on the Voynich Manuscript is a sufficient introduction. The “translation” of the the manuscript sounds a lot like the bad, early mistranslations of Summerian tablets, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or even Ezra Pound’s erstaz Chinese. Here again we have an example of the problem with AI – we provide questionable or incomplete input into a computer and believe that we have an accurate result based on our faith in the algorithms.

I have an Amazon Echo Dot at home that I got from my brother-in-law for Christmas. A simple translation search via Alexa cleared the Voynich translation up very neatly. When I asked her to translate the first sentence she claims it means “I am sorry. I do not have enough information on that.” This is a strange way to begin a book, but there could be some missing pages. It also seems that they used a “404” numbering system. Which either means it is a five-based numbering system or one that is 404 based.

A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript,...

A page from the mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is undeciphered to this day. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t think those doing textual analysis on the Voynich manuscript believe that they have translated it. If you read the stories, they believe that they have made an advance. But that would not generate traffic would it?

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Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Artificial Intelligence

There is currently no consensus on how closely...

I can’t believe it’s not intelligence!

I am not a fan of the term “artificial intelligence.” I know that is my peculiar problem – usage of a term will define its meaning long before or after logical precision gets to take a stab at it, and I have not yet come up with a satisfactory alternative. What is my problem with the term? To begin with, we do not really know what intelligence is, so how can we make an artificial version of it? AI is basically a set of algorithms that, for the most part, behave as they are expected to behave – there is nothing “artificial” about that. And if you believe that the mind is essentially a set of pre-programmed algorithms, then yes, computers are intelligent. But there is nothing in the fields of psychology, neurology, or philosophy, not to mention computer science, that would suggest that this is the case. A lot of this hinges on how you define “intelligence.” For instance,Wikipedia defines intelligence as “one’s capacity for logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, planning, creativity, and problem solving.” Computers or software have no “capacity” for any of that. We can’t really use the term “Machine Intelligence” any more because that evokes images of clacking and sparking relay switches – the vision of the mind as a glorified pinball machine.

Defining intelligence is critical as we move forward with our reliance on algorithms and analytics since many companies and institutions are letting machines do their “thinking” for them. Some of the hugest catastrophes of the recent decades stem in some cases from the misapplication of data: examples abound from military intelligence to meteorological data that was just wrong. How do we define intelligence? Here is where the lack of a Humanities education on the part of our leaders, scientists and technocrats is becoming a real problem. There are more questions on the nature of intelligence than there are answers. What is the relationship between intelligence and consciousness? What about intentionality? (The power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs). And how do we assess or measure intelligence or consciousness? The Turing Test is not really proof – it just shows that over the years we have become bad at carrying on a conversation. Go ahead, ask any computer if it prefers the Beatles or the Stones – it will not detect the false dichotomy inherent in the question (the real answer is “…Floyd” with a knowing nod). From the Buddhist perspective, all consciousness is emergent: life and consciousness essentially are synergistic – that is, they function at a capacity greater than the sum of their parts. What meaning you attach to that phenomenon is basically your problem. In Buddhism, there is no special qualifier that separates any form of intelligence from another. How can you create artificial consciousness or intelligence from something that is basically an illusion? And more importantly, what would that really prove? The only people who thought that Oleo was like butter in any way were marketers. No one else thought that – it was what was available to get down the equally tasteless thing that commercial producers call “bread.”

The field of neuroscience has revealed many of the mechanisms of the brain but has not really gotten around to defining intelligence or consciousness. I have run into neuroscientists on YouTube who are out to refute things like learning styles theory using smug phrases like “but this is not how the brain works.” Neuroscience seems to be the least humble of the sciences – can you imagine any other field where they would announce that they have finally figured it all out?

The history of computing runs parallel to a history of dystopian literature on artificial intelligence. It is not that I don’t believe in artificial intelligence, its that I do not believe that it is “artificial” or “intelligent.” Most of the models of intelligence that AI is based on are mechanistic visions of the human brain: they have to be because any other model of the human brain would preclude the ability of a computer to mimic it. Our fear and doubt  of computers and AI stretch way back to Descartes to 2001: a Space Odyssey.

There is a lot of paranoia around AI because folks seem to think that computers or software have become “intelligent” and that somehow they can work to our harm or detriment. This is simply not the case: AI is not going to hurt us – incompetent technology and business leadership, and incompetent applications of technology are what is going to hurt us. Our over-reliance on algorithms that were supposedly meant to help us, allowed human agents to seed fake news on Facebook and send inappropriate videos out to children on YouTube. How could such things have happened if we were all looked over by machines of loving grace?

The algorithms and data have a lot to teach us: they are useful tools – but they are not thinking. A definition of intelligence should also include the ability to make ethical choices. We are the ones that think and it is dangerous to project that capacity onto un-reasoning software and machines. This is not an abstract philosophical discussion – machine intelligence is driving everything from markets to cars. With innovation, it is never a question of should we do it (someone always will): it is more of a question of the how. The devil hides in the details of implementation. We always seem to be too excited to find some new way to abdicate the responsibility of our choices.

Finally, if you are still overly-impressed with algorithms and data, please read Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” because there is always a last time for everything.

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Tips for New Teachers?

A spiral clock.I would not have made it in my first year as a teacher without the generosity and collegiality of the more experienced instructors I had the privilege of working with. I uses to begin each year with a posting on Time Saving Tips for Teachers which used to be about how to save time teaching online, but I found that most of the tips were being used in face to face classes as well.

What resources do you send to new teachers?

Some websites & resources that I have found invaluable for online teachers include:

I found that searching for the assigned textbook title in quotes and then adding the word “syllabus” gave me a good idea about how teachers were using a particular textbook.

What about you? What teaching tips do you have for new teachers? How do you streamline your online teaching process? Leave a comment below if you have any time saving tips. Let us know in the comments below!

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Open Education for a Better World

logo of University of Nova GoricaI am excited about this and have volunteered to be a course mentor. Whenever someone hears me talking about OER coming from the community rather than a publisher, this is what I mean: the University of Nova Gorica and UNESCO Chair on Open Technologies for OER and Open Learning are launching a new, free and exciting international online “Open Education for a Better World” mentoring program.

The first round will take place from January to July 2018. Candidates with concrete ideas for open e-learning courses aligned with SDG goals were invited to apply by Oct. 20th of this year. Fifteen instructors will be chosen to be guided online towards the development and implementation of their course.

Together with a course mentor, they will design and implement an open e-learning course that will benefit many at no cost to participants. Applications from all over the world for courses in different languages were expected.

What I like about this project is that it short-circuits all the “sustainability” hand-wringing by relying on good old-fashioned collegiality. This is my chance to give back to the academic community. I was blessed back in the early 90s by meeting teachers early in my career who freely and openly provided me with their expertise, materials, and support. I want to pay it forward and this looks like a great opportunity.

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MOOCs, Student Success, and Instructional Design

Picture of a compass.One of the common problems with online learning and MOOCs is student success and retention. Traditionally, there is a large gap between the success and retention rates of face-to-face and online courses. Just as some students need help in understanding how online education works (motivation, time management, study skills, etc.), students new to online learning will also need help in understanding how to successfully take a MOOC.

According to my research, the most common cause of this gap is lack of student preparation: students have spent 12 years learning to be face-to-face students and very little time learning how to be effective online learners. To address this in our online courses at various colleges I have worked for, I created a free, fully online, two-week courses, one for instance at College of the Redwoods, called DE 101 (Distance Education 101). This course addressed the technical and learning skills needed to be effective online learners. All of the technical and metacognitive skills needed to be successful were built into the assignments. The design for this course was based on a Health Information Management course that I designed and co-taught with Char Gore at Tacoma Community College. That course was designed to introduce students to new technology, learn how to leverage online technology for their education and professional development, create intelligent networks, and, even more significantly, how to manage technological change. My experiences with MOOCs has reinforced my conclusions:

  • Students need help in learning how to be independent, self-motivated learners.
  • The skills of successfully taking online courses can be taught.
  • Online courses can facilitate peer networks that not only help the students through a course but help them learn long after the course is over.

I would like to further develop these course materials into a MOOC for students (open to any college student or anyone interested in online teaching and learning), a handbook on peer learning and networks for students, and an instructional design guide and rubric for teachers interested in MOOCs. All of this would be under a CC-by license.

The MOOC will be facilitated and curated by instructors and student mentors, but the students will be guided towards taking a lead in research and discussions. The handbook on peer learning will be an on-going project in the MOOC and will be licensed with an open Creative Commons license, as will the instructional design guide and rubric. It has been my experience with the “traditional” online versions of these courses that even other instructors often wish to participate to help them learn more about how students learn online. It is not enough to build a course that demonstrates the features of a learning management system.

This project will not only help students learn to navigate the new world of online learning and MOOCs, but help instructors understand new roles for teachers as facilitators, curators, and guides to online learning. The links below map the growth of these ideas from the HIM course to DE 101 to what will become the eLearning 101 MOOC. I will be building this out in WordPress and will link the site from here.

If you are interested in participating or contributing to this project, let me know in the comments below or shoot me an email.

Other relevant posts:

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Pacific Northwest OER Directory

This looks like another new and worthy effort coming out of Oregon. If you are interested in Open Education, Open Education Resources (OER), or Open Textbooks, I would encourage you to take a look at the Pacific Northwest OER Directory. What is awesome about this is that it came out of an OER pre-conference and it includes links to people, not just stuff:

The Pacific Northwest OER Directory is a curated list of resources and toolkits, people, and distribution lists for academic librarians interested in textbook affordability. We define textbook affordability efforts broadly to include use of open educational resources (OER), library resources, open pedagogy and OER-enabled pedagogy, and other related practices.

It came out of a pre-conference session at the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) – Oregon conference called “Collaboration and Cross-Pollination: Creative Solutions to OER Challenges.” It has been my experience with education and OER that the real innovations are coming out of the libraries right now. This project is certainly evidence of that. The 2016 conference was a joint Oregon/Washington effort.

The directory of people is important because the next wave of innovation in the OER space is when educators throw off the commercial textbook mentality (one textbook/solution for every community) and learn how to adapt OER to the needs of their own learning communities. We need to talk to one another to do this!

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Online Learning Efficacy Research Database

Oregon State University LogoOne of the challenges with working with faculty new to online teaching and learning is helping them to understand that learning modality (online or off) is not a factor in student success. Oregon State University is meeting this challenge with its Online Learning Efficacy Research Database:

“This Ecampus Research Unit project is a searchable resource of academic studies of education efficacy across modalities. Filter by discipline or journal to find research in your subject area of interest.”

Researchers can search by modality, peer-reviewed, research sample size, education range, date range, and by journal.

I have relied for years on the No Significant Difference database but they have not been updated in four years and they seem to be pretty well tied to their hard copy book which was published in 2001. NSD includes studies from 1928 to 2013, but the OLERD only includes studies from 1998 through the present. I think this is more relevant to online learning and the current questions being asked about it.

I would recommend this database for instructional designers and elearning folks working with faculty and administrators who might be new to online learning or have to bring research-based answers to their departments:

Skepticism for online education remains a significant barrier to engaging faculty in online teaching and learning initiatives. We repeatedly receive questions from faculty about whether online environments are equivalent to the face-to-face environment in terms of learning outcomes. (from the OLERD FAQ)

This database is meant to provide faculty, administrators of distance education programs and other relevant stakeholder groups a way to quickly and easily search the literature on the topic of online learning efficacy.

I will definitely be following and promoting this project.

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Impacts of OER in Community College

I appreciate Stephen Downes take on OER – that there should be “no significant difference” between classes taught with OER or commercial text as far as outcomes go. I got into education to see that happen. The impact that I have measured in the past is grades, completion rates, and student satisfaction. I completely respect and value his definition of impact, and it would take a very deep longitudinal study to track that. In the community colleges I have worked at, we have had some more immediate problems to solve. There are five areas where OER and open textbooks are critical to the success of community college students:

Cost
Most of our students are working. Money is a huge issue. It should not be this way but it is. It is barbaric that the richest society on the planet can’t take care of health care or education, but that is where we are. The state of Washington has one of the highest homeless populations among its students. There are 40,000 homeless students in Washington. And a study came out that said that across the U.S., 14% of the college students are homeless. How are students supposed to learn, let alone have a transformative experience when they are worried about the next meal or where they are going to sleep? Eliminating the cost of textbooks is an essential step in solving this problem.

Financial Aide 
For various reasons, some that the students might be able to control and some they can’t, financial aide is often late. This means that students who are on financial aide are often two weeks behind in the reading. This just adds to the stress of being in college. Yes, we can put books on reserve in the library, but it is not the same experience as having access to a text when work schedules and transportation allows.

Relevance and Corrections
Students are often paying for books, resources, and at least chapters that are redundant with other classes that they will not use. Also, if there are errors in the books, we often have to wait two years, or what ever the publication cycle is, to get corrected texts. With OERs, faculty and students can customize the texts and make corrections instantly.

Student-Authored OER
Even better than making corrections, I have had the honor of working with a class where the students created the text. The assignments in the Communications class were designed to update the text and keep it relevant for the next class. The students had real ownership of the learning and often were available to help the next iteration of students work on the text (which was a wiki).

Student Satisfaction
Each semester, I would survey the students to have them talk about their experiences with the courses and learning materials. The open text book classes always had a greater student satisfaction because the students had immediate access to the materials (sometimes before they even enrolled in the course), the materials were always relevant, and they appreciated the lower cost.

Often the research around OERs is performed at colleges where the students do not have the financial concerns, are highly motivated, and are not under the stress that community college students find themselves. I would find it very easy to believe that for students at MIT or Stanford, there would be no significant difference, but for students in the community colleges, it is all the difference in the world.

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