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.

Posted in AI | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in education | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in education | Leave a comment

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:

Posted in education | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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!

Posted in OER | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in education | Leave a comment

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:

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.

Posted in OER | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Connectivism and Open Education

Ramon Llull's Tree of Science from L'arbre de ciènciaVahid Masrour sent out a link to our Open Education MOOC this morning to Mark Weller’s “Openness and Education: a beginner’s guide” and it got me to thinking a lot about Connectivism. Connectivism is the learning theory founded and championed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. There are a number of components of that theory that I think are important to the discussion of open education. I list some of Siemens’ principles of Connectivism below (my comments in italics):

  • Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinions.
    This should be the very spirit of openness – seeking the diversity of opinion – Alexander von Humboldt once wrote that “truth rests in a diversity of opinions.”
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
    This is something that we must do – learning is an activity – not a passive reception of information – or the mere existence of information. Possession of a textbook, OER or not does not mean I will learn from it. 
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
    This is particularly important as we face unprecedented information over-load, a crisis in information management, and a deficit of critical thinking. 
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
    Notice that again, this is something that the student does. It might be modeled by the instructor, but the principle demonstrates great faith in student agency. 
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
    I see connections here to the benefits of OER – with OER we are able to crowd-source the creation and updating of knowledge without having to wait for the two-year publication cycle for corrections to textbooks. 

I am one of those who come to open education through the humanities. I still see it through that lens. I don’t see it through the technology lens even though George Siemens once called it “a learning theory for the digital age.” I think it is that, but I think what makes it a viable theory and a useful tool is that it answers questions and solves problems that go far beyond the “digital age.” I think that the conversations we are having around Open Education are important. For myself, Connectivism is the pedagogy of Open Education – it has all the requirements for a theory that not only addresses how learning occurs, but it accurately describes what happens in an open learning environment (facilitation, student agency, creating teaching and learning community, etc.). I don’t agree (or maybe understand) every part of this theory. I never liked “learning may reside in non-human appliances” when the very definition of “learning” requires a person to do the learning, but never mind that for now.

One of the things that Education Theory is really bad at is accounting for how people learned, taught, or organized information in the past. When read books about how people are supposed to learn, I always think back to Chaucer’s time and wonder how he became so educated in a day when pedagogues literally beat information into students. Despite the educational theories of the day, Chaucer managed to learn.

I read some criticism somewhere of Connectivism once that made the ludicrous claim that unless Connectivism could account for every sphere of human life, it couldn’t account for any of it. This is a standard that no theory is subjected to – certainly not a scientific one. No scientific theory would be foolish enough to make that claim. Theories are informed by facts, hypotheses, and experiment – not by claims to have answered the secret to Life, the Universe, and Everything. As soon as you have a brilliant mind like Whitehead come out with the Principia Mathematica who proves once and for all that there is an ultimate system of math, you have an equally brilliant mind like Gödel come along in the next generation and prove that any “mathematical system” has to be either incomplete or inconsistent. And despite this, my High School still insisted that I learn the stuff.

While working in the K-12 schools and studying Education for my masters degree, Constructivism was the main theory du jour. In a nut shell, Constructivism says that learning is socially constructed and that folks learn by applying past experience to new knowledge. I still have a lot of respect for it as it addressed many issues in education I was encountering at the time. It also helped shape early online learning experiences. But like most theories, there are some limitations. There are forms of learning and experience that learning theories can account for, but they usually fall short with the mechanisms or tools of learning. The invention of writing, universal literacy, and cheap paper were huge technical innovations that spread information and learning. Unfortunately, Stanford had not been invented yet so there was no one around to finally codify, once and for all, how learning took place in the human mind back then. There has to be a huge connection between the technologies of information and how we communicate as a species, but I have not found a learning theory that accounts for that. But that understanding, making those connections, is one of the things that the Humanities does really well. Lets take one tool or mechanism for learning; something as simple as concept maps.

Concept maps were an important part of my work as a developmental education instructor and are important in my work as an adult basic education instructor today. My students use them as a way to start their drafts of papers, to make connections between ideas and situations we are studying (history of Afghanistan, for instance), and I also use them as a way for students to build presentations. The concept map was also extensively used in the course “Connectivism, and Connective Knowledge” taught by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. They were used there to demonstrate knowledge of connectivism as both a formative and summative assessment. So are concept maps new? Are they “the digital age”? Of course not, artistic representations of branching and connected information are a human archetype – it is hard-wired into how we think. I used to give a presentation on concept maps that would annoy the hell out of traditional education researchers because the only evidence I gave was artistic evidence and proximity data (if two things or words are close together in context, they must share a similar meaning). The presentation began with a series of images to give the workshop participants the sense of the breadth and scope of the use of the image of the visual branching of information.

The point of the presentation is that through all time and across all cultures, there has been some kind of external, connected expression of what we know. Manuel Lima in his “The Book of Trees” does a great job of expressing this.

My point with all of this is that Connectivism is a viable learning theory because it addresses not only the Digital Age but the past as well. I think it fits in with the spirit and goals of Open Education and should be looked at seriously by any one interested in Open Education.

Posted in connectivism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Open Pedagogy v. OER-Enabled Pedagogy

I think I understand David Wiley’s frustration with the semantics around “Open Education” – it is a very broad term. “Open” means many things to many people as does “education.” I am not sure if “OER-enabled Pedagogy” really addresses the issue. It sounds too much like content is what guides the teaching and learning. What is the opposite of OER-enabled Pedagogy? Copyright-enabled Pedagogy? Copyright-disabled Pedagogy? Commercially-enabled?

I understand what Open Pedagogy is – I know mostly because I suffered for 16 years under its opposite. Education is closed in the sense that it is expensive, classist, inaccessible, and strangled by corporations who define the curriculum with their “great” but expensive textbooks (or technologies). The closed classroom is hierarchical and led by an “expert” whose job is to transmit information to the empty vessels. There are social justice issues here, but that does not muddy the definition any more than the closure in traditional education muddies the definition of “traditional education.”

I am teaching a course right now that uses some materials from an open textbook but most of the materials are links to newspapers and journals. We are not interested, as a class, in textbooks per se because we are looking at social studies from what is happening in the world today at this moment. We are looking at the Trump policy in Afghanistan right now. The course is student-driven, networked, and dependent on student sharing (blogs and presentations). In my practice as a teacher, this is an open class, an open pedagogy – it is not particularly dependent on the 5 R’s to succeed as a class, but it is open. The students learn a way of using information, communicating, and building learning networks.

One of the things I do with the students is getting them away from the idea of debate: that only leaves us with right and wrong, winners and losers. It shuts down the discussion. We are working on deliberation: we survey ourselves on our values as individuals and as a group and try to evaluate the issues from a shared values/different values perspective. I think that “OER-enabled Pedagogy” is not “wrong” but it represents a different set of values than “Open Pedagogy.” Wittgenstein used to say that philosophy is not a theory but an activity, and like David, I am interested in what OER enables us to do but I am not sure it is time to stop the defining process.

Posted in Open education | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Questions about Creative Common’s licenses

This has certainly been an issue for some faculty. I think part of the issue is trust. Open education is more than just the content – once it all becomes just about the “OER” then we lose that sense of trust and the spirit of collegiality. We have reduced faculty work and possibly the teaching and learning itself into a transaction. This faculty member I am talking about is sharing her materials to help students and faculty and is not interested in enabling corporations to monetize, however indirectly, her work.

I don’t see an issue with non-commercial licenses, but I am interested in hearing why “CC-by” is such the gold standard 🙂

Posted in OER | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment