Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Brexit & Higher ED – an opportunity - don’t panic life goes on

Despite the excellent Chair's instruction, at Online Educa in Berlin, NOT to replay the debate an express personal opinions, we had a caricature and patronising view of 17.4 million Brexit voters from the first two speakers who ignored his appeal. They both reran the rhetoric.
The former Head of HE for the British Council laid into Brexiters “All the correct people said it was dangerous… obvious lies" Then a French woman, who works for a French Minsitry, and had a thin grasp of why Brexit has happened, literally showed us images of the Brexit bus and a cartoon accusing Brexiters of being stupid "They all voted on what they saw on the side of a bus" followed by a patronizing cartoon again accusing Brexit voters of being idiots. On and on the patronising slides went - basically 'Woe is me - I'm smart, 17.4 million are stupid', not realizing that the stupidity lay on their own naïve views. Thankfully, Professor Paul Bacsich, who knows a thing or two about  such things, came to the rescue, as the last speaker, with some acute observations on Brexit and Higher Education. 
Unlike other sectors, HE has already had several Brexit-related concessions from the British Government. One is on Higher Education research, where the Government has agreed to underwrite Horizon funding. In early August the Chancellor Philip Hammond promised that universities participating in Horizon 2020, that the Treasury will underwrite the payments, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. This was, in my view, quite generous, as in my view the overvaluation of forced collaboration was often a recipe for 2nd and 3rd rate research. In practice I feel that research comes from all sorts of sources and direct funding by the UK Government may result in more focused, high quality research than the EU structures offer.
Student support
There was a second promise in October, that European Union students, applying for university places in the 2017 to 2018 academic year, will still have access to student funding support. The UK government has also just announced that the country’s research councils will continue to fund postgraduate students from the European Union whose courses start in the next academic year. There is a utopian view that there is some sort of equitable arrangement across Europe for students moving from one country to another. In practice, it is an unholy mess. With Brexit, it will simply be slightly less messy. The Scots, as Paul said, are likely to go it alone, with some supermarket offer to EU students, which is all about market share.
English fees are the highest in Europe, and Universities basically charge what they want, within a cap. This has nothing to do with the EU, as education is a devolved issue in both the UK and EU. The fundamental problem is raising fees & costs which Universities are doing, EU or no EU. As Paul says, the real issue here is the rising costs, which needs to be addressed. The justification of very high fees for international students is not at all clear, in terms of pedagogy and services that they get.
Brexit may be the jolt to the system we need to address this problem.
There is also the serious issue of EU students having racked up record loan debts of £1.3 billion, a 36 per cent increase from a year earlier. About 11 per cent, or 8,600 former students from the EU have failed to repay their loans after graduation. There is no effective policy forcing them to pay when they move abroad effectively has meant the taxpayer is footing the bill.
Student numbers
Visas already existed and as Universities had to live with this anyway, he didn’t see this as catastrophic. There will be drops from the EU but this means switching marketing to other countries. Students will have to pay higher fees in the long run but no higher than many other foreign students and we do not have to fund their loans. Paul speculated that there might be a new "moderae fees" agreement covering the whole European Higher Education Area, a region which few know about but much bigger than the EU and nothing specifically to do with it, and in which the UK remains a member.   
Erasmus projects, according to Paul, are not value for money. I agree. I feel there is little to be gained in terms of social inequality by flying rich students around Europe. These systems are always gamed as the sharp elbows of the middle class, eat into the funds. The fact that offices were set up in each and every country has made it cumbersome and expensive to administer. No great loss and if there are any merits in the system couldn't the UK buy into a simplified version?  Does anyone know that Turkey is a full Erasmus plus country? In fact there are five non-EU countries in Erasmus+. In any case Boris has already just hinted that paying for this is small beer.

The mistake is to simply defend the status quo and fight for things that will, in practice, change. Far better to grasp this opportunity to change tack. The UK has a world class Higher Education sector, not a European Class sector. This may loosen ties with Europe but force us to look outwards to the bigger pool that is the rest of the world. For example, research and student mobility could more easily link EU countries with US and Commonwealth countries. Indeed the EU used to have EU-Canada and EU-US schemes but dropped them. UK funding could bring them back.
Unfortunately, Paul didn’t see visible pblic signs of Universities doing much rational analysis and planning for Brexit. In fact (thankfully not all) institutions still seemed to be hoping that the whole ghastly thing will go away. Paul hoped that the various quiet chats he had had or overheard in the last few months (continental campuses, online partnerships) and small studies (EU-Commonwealth comparisons) he had been involved in would accelerate once Article 50 had been invoked.
My view echoes his: Don’t panic – the world will go on. Before there was an EU – we managed. It might not be easy in the next few years but we will manage.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Obama’s last act – recommendations on AI in learning

Two readable government reports have been published, one from the US, the other from the UK. In one of Obama’s last acts in October, the Whitehouse published an excellent overview of AI 'Preparting for the Future of Artificial Intelligence', pointing to the many ways AI can, will and should benefit the US economy. What really caught my eye was the case study and two recommendations around learning.
Expert to novice
The US Navy used an AI tutoring system to capture ‘expertise’ that traditionally took 7-10 years to complete, then trained AI software to be an intelligent tutor in a 16 week intensive course, as a one-to-one expert. The results were impressive as the AI-tutored students frequently outperform Navy experts with 7-10 years of experience in both written tests of knowledge and real-world problem solving…. by a wide margin”. This, and other findings led the report to make two recommendations around the use of AI in learning.
Recommendation 3
“The Federal Government should explore ways to improve the capacity of key agencies to apply AI to their missions… to support R&D to determine whether AI and other technologies could significantly improve student learning outcomes."
Recommendation 4
develop a community of practice for AI practitioners across government. Agencies should work together to develop and share standards and best practices around the use of AI in government operations. Agencies should ensure that Federal employee training programs include relevant AI opportunities."
UK Government report
In November, the UK Government published another excellent and readable report, with the title ‘Artificial intelligence: opportunities and implications for the future of decision making’. It is as good an introduction to the main concepts of machine learning (supervised and unsupervised) and deep learning, as I’ve read. Although it falls short on the concrete recommendations I found in the US report.
It’s good to see Governments wake up to what is actually happening in AI. This is not a future tense issue, it is past tense. AI is here in Google, social media, Netflix, online dating, finance, fraud detection, spam detection, sports, healthcare and now education. It is easily the most important new trend in IT as every major tech company in the world is investing in AI and making acquisitions. My own view is that it will also disrupt education and training with products such as WildFire that produces online learning on one click of a button, and CogBooks with its adaptive learning platform. Let's not be left behind, as we so often are when it comes to the use of smart technology to do smart things.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

What's best in online learning design - 1st or 3rd person?

Richard Mayer has over 500 publications to his name and does something extraordinary. He tells us how to design online learning. What makes his work so brilliant, and useful, is that some of his findings are counterintuitive. Take this brilliant example.
First or third person?
When showing a series of graphics, photographs, animations or on video, should you show procedures from the first (learner) or third (teacher’s) perspective?

You should show from the first person perspective to achieve higher retention and transfer. This is not surprising, when you think about what you are trying to achieve – cognitive change in the learner’s brain. First person is exactly how the actions will be performed in real life, so that viewpoint is more congruent with the eventual outcome.
Wrong practice
Yet most photographers, animators, graphic artists and video Directors’ are likely to create or shoot a third person perspective. There is the additional advantage in some tasks of a more open, less occluded view, as the hands and fingers are not covering the action. It may be trickier to shoot, as the instructor lies between the camera and the action, but it is right.
VR is first person
This finding also lends weight to the use of first-person VR and AR in learning, where the learner is the viewer/director. VR gives the added benefits of total immersion, full attention, emotional impact, context and actual doing, which all add up to increased retention and transfer.

Online design needs to pay more attention to findings such as this. Mayer has been publishing this stuff for decades, yet many are unaware of his work, which shows time and time again, that 'less is more'. Yet online learning design seems to have drifted towards  ‘more is more’. For hundreds of other tips on online learning design from Mayer and other researched sources click here.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Weapons of 'Math' Destruction - sexed up dossier on AI?

Unfortunate title, as O’Neil’s supposed WMDs are as bad as Saddam Hussein’s mythical WMDs, the evidence similarly weak, sexed up and cherry picked. This is the go-to book for those who want to stick it to AI by reading a pot-boiler. But rather than taking an honest look at the subject, O’Neil takes the ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ line far too literally, and unwittingly re-uses a term that has come to mean exaggeration and untruths. The book has some good arguments and passages but the search for truth is lost as she tries too hard to be contrarian.
Bad examples
The first example borders on the bizarre. It concerns a teacher who is supposedly sacked because an algorithm said she should be sacked. Yet the true cause, as revealed by O’Neil, are other teachers who have cheated on behalf of their students in tests. Interestingly, they were caught through statistical checking, as too many erasures were found on the test sheets. That’s more man than machine.
The second is even worse. Nobody really thinks that US College Rankings are algorithmic in any serious sense. The ranking models are quite simply statistically wrong. The problem is not the existence of fictional WMDs but poor schoolboy errors in the basic maths. It’s a straw man, as they use subjective surveys and proxies and everybody knows they are gamed. Malcolm Gladwell did a much better job in exposing them as self-fulfilling exercises in marketing. In fact. most of the problems uncovered in the book, if one does a deeper analysis, are human. The main problem is that these case studies are very complex.
Take PredPol, the predictive policing software. Sure it has its glitches but the advantages vastly outweigh the disadvantages and the system and its use evolve over time to eliminate the problems. I could go on but the main problem with the book is this one-sidedness. Most technology has a downside. We drive cars, despite the fact that well over a million people die gruesome and painful deaths every year from in car accidents. Rather than tease out the complexity, ecven comparing uosides with downsides, we are given over-simplifications. The proposition that all algorithms are biased is as foolish as all algorithms are free from bias. This is a complex area that needs careful thought and the real truth lies, as usual, somewhere in-between. Technology often has this cost-benefit feature. To focus on just one side is quite simply a mathematical distortion, which is what O’Neil does in many of her cases.
The chapter headings are also a dead giveaway - Bomb Parts, Shell Shocked, Arms Race, Civilian Casualties, Ineligible to serve, Sweating Bullets, Collateral Damage, No Safe Zone, The Targeted Civilian and Propaganda Machine. This is not 9/11 and the language of WMDs is ridiculously hyperbolic- verging on propaganda itself.
At times O’Neil makes good points on ‘data' – small data sets, subjective survey data and proxies – but this is nothing new and features in any 101 stats course. The mistake is to pin the bad data problem on algorithms and AI – that’s a misattribution. Time and time again we get straw men in online advertising, personality tests, credit scoring, recruitment, insurance, social media. Sure problems exist but posing marginal errors as a global threat is a tactic that may sell books but is hardly objective. In this sense, O'Neil plays the very game she professes to despise - bias and exaggeration.
The final chapter is where it all goes a bit weird, with the laughable Hippocratic Oath. Here’s the first line in her imagined oath “I will remember that I didn’t make the world, and it doesn’t satisfy my equations” – a line worthy of Donald Rumsfeld, There is, however one interesting idea – that AI be used to police itself. A number of people are working on this and I think it is a good example of seeing technology realistically, as being a force for both good and bad, and that the good will triumph if we use it for human good.

This book relentlessly lays the blame at the door of AI for all kinds of injustices, but mostly it exaggerates or fails to identify the real root causes. The book is readable, as it is lightly autobiographical, and does pose the right questions about the dangers inherent in these technologies. Unfortunately it provides exaggerated analyses and rarely the right answers. Let us remember that Weapons of Mass Destruction turned out to be lies, used to promote a disastrous war. They were sexed up through dodgy dossiers. So it is with this populist paperback.

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