Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Disabling video may be better for online teaching and collaboration

It is often assumed that online collaboration, teamwork and communications is inferior to face-to-face equivalents as we miss the visual cues, facial expressions, body language and so on. This would suggest that collaborative teamwork or meetings may be better with VIDEO ON, as opposed to JUST AUDIO.

Yet, this fascinating paper from Tomprou et al. (2021) at Carnegie Mellon, who looked at group ability to solve a range of different problems, found something quite counterintuitive. Visual cues have no effect on collaborative work. In fact, teams without visual presence were more successful, not only in synchronising their vocal cues but also speaking in turns and solving problems. The authors rightly claim that this calls into doubt the conventional wisdom that you need video support.

So it may be worth disabling video during Zoom, Teams or Google meetings and teaching, as audio cues seem to be better than visual cues for synchronising and turn taking. Taking 198 people, in 99 pairs, doing 30 minute sessions and six tasks, they found that video dampened or impaired then ability to speak in turns and get the problems solved. One could argue that pairs are not groups but my suspicion is that the effect would be worse in groups, where the exchanges are more complex.

I have long argued that the talking head is often superfluous in recorded lectures, apart from very specific instances, such as introducing oneself or for specific social purposes. When teaching mathematics, indeed any subject, the idea that the teacher's head needs to be on the screen is, I think, simply a carryover from the classroom. Khan Academy has taken this approach for 15 years, across a range of subjects and it remains their model. Yet most online teaching during Covid rushed to the talking head approach, such as Oak Academy in the UK. You also save a ton of bandwidth, making comms more reliable - less screen freezing.

The astounding rise and popularity of podcasts adds to the case. In discussions on abstract topics, we seem to enjoy the absence of the visual, talking head. It allows us to take an almost intimate role in the conversation, as if we were there in the group. It leaves the mind to focus on the arguments and frees our imaginations to reflect and understand. It also reduces cognitive load for novices, a major inhibitor in learning.

The paper suggests that in online learning, we’d be better off leaving our videos muted. I think there may be an arguments for leaving the chair, tutor or teachers image on, but this is, nevertheless fascinating.

Maha Bali claims that her students and students of other teachers from K12 and Higher Education, repeatedly claim they prefer cameras off. She reports they felt self-conscious, anxious about their surroundings and uncomfortable. Others reported the cost and induced unreliability of their Internet connection when video was on. Some felt it was simply an expression of authority, surveillance and even punitive. She reports long 3 hours lectures where the lecturer demanded the camera was on, threats to reduce grades even recorded as being absent. An alternative can be a photo of the student and their name.  

Engineering students, where there was no discussion, as it was largely maths, felt that cameras were completely unnecessary. The assumption that there even is a social component to the learning is, of course, open to question. She also reports students being comfortable with audio and text chat only, as they were affair with those modes of technology. What is interesting here, is the mismatch between faculty and students in terms of expectation of technology.

Teachers having video on is very different. Even there it is not a golden rule. 

Other evidence for changing the way we see video used in learning here.

Note that this and many other design issues will be included in my forthcoming book. Learning eXperience Design, published later in the year.

Tomprou M, Kim YJ, Chikersal P, Woolley AW, Dabbish LA (2021) Speaking out of turn: How video conferencing reduces vocal synchrony and collective intelligence. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0247655. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0247655

Friday, March 26, 2021

Education not a universal ‘good’

In the British Library yesterday, I spent a few hours in their superb Taking Liberties exhibition which had a section on the clash between religious belief and freedom of speech. Iwent upstairs to see their collection of early Bibles, Korans and Torahs, one of the best collections of early books in the world. It set me thinking. Books such as Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Mill’s On Liberty and Paine’s The Rights of Man have led to a largely secular view of rights and liberties. I can’t say the same for the Bible, Torah and Koran. 

Education is usually seen as a universal ‘good’. But recent world events suggest that education is not necessarily a ‘good’ in itself, and may in fact, be a horrifically destructive force. An educational battle of titanic proportions is taking place in many parts of the world. It is rarely discussed but continues to have a profound effect on world history. I’m talking about the impact of fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian teaching and methods on the minds young people in theist schools, using religious texts as the ultimate authority. Education, as practiced in fundamentalist Islamic, Jewish and Christian places of learning are, in my view, damaging, leading to intolerance and political conflict. Interestingly, in all three there is a similar focus on the powerful recitation and repeated readings of a basic book. This, the three Abrahamic religions have in common. We needn’t be surprised at this, since the three religions are entwined with each other through their books. The Torah, five books of Moses, are included in the expanded Old Testament of the Christians and The Koran draws from the Torah, regarding it as the word of Allah given to Moses. The Koran refers to Mohammed as the prophet mentioned in the Torah.
What I’m saying here is that the educational power of recitation, repetition and memorisation is massively effective and therefore massively limiting and destructive in terms of critical thinking and tolerance. Education without critical thinking has immense destructive power.

Islamic education – conviction and recitation 
Koran means ‘recitation’. In Islamic teaching, everything stems from the pages of this one book. It was meant to be read aloud to promote recitation and memorising of the book, through repeated spoken readings, has always been highly prized in the Islamic world. But this comes at a price. This repeated repetition is massively effective in learning and results in the deep processing and retention of the text, and the unshiftable, dogmatic convictions that come with deeply held knowledge and belief. In short, it is an educational recipe for dogmatic fanaticism.

It is impressive and common to witness the devotional prayers in Muslim countries, from mass attendances in Mosques to single musilms praying on any available spot. It’s a five times a day ritual, but worrying to think that this lifelong example of spaced practice, may squeeze out learning that is incompatible with the precepts of the Koran. It is an example of successful learning that, in itself can prevent further learning. Wherever I go in the Islamic world I see the rise of religious and regressive educational systems. Education is gradually becoming politicised by active religious believers, and inept and ineffective governments. The educated elite continue to educate their children abroad, while populations turn to religious schools that encourage conformity, not critical analysis.

The teaching in fundamentalist Islamic schools teaches that God passed his thoughts through the archangel Gabriel directly to the illiterate Mohammed over a period of years, as the final prophet to mankind, the final expression of God’s will. It is a text ridden with the primitive beliefs of its age and, at times, downright primitive in its prescriptions against women and non-believers.

Philip Hitti’s classic the History of the Arabs has an excellent chapter on the history of Islamic education. Schools were, and are going back to becoming adjuncts of the Mosque with the entire curriculum being base on the Koran. Memory work is particularly emphasised. Even today there are high rewards for children who manage to memorise the Koran. Interestingly, the teacher was not highly regarded in Islamic history, often a low status figure, even figure of fun. More recently we have seen the massive increase in the number of schools that are primarily religious. Organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas are often the only organisations to provide adequate education for the poor, as the governments are often too corrupt and uncaring to do it properly.

Jewish education – chosen conviction 
Torah means ‘teaching’, ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’. Its 613 commandments, split into 365 negative and 248 positive moral imperatives. Again, like the Koran, it is believed to have been written by divine revelation, this time by Moses. Reading the Torah aloud is central to Jewish ritual. As with Islam and the Koran, the repeated and cyclical recitation leads to deeply processed knowledge and beliefs. Orthodox believers take every word literally, something they have in common with Islamic fundamentalist believers. There is a deep split in Israel between orthodox and other schools and a battle currently raging to defend religious Torah-based schools. Half of all students in Jerusalem attend ultra-Orthodox ‘heredi’ schools. 70% of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work as it interferes with their religious studies. This is a group that, like their Islamic and fundamentalist Christian believers abhor homosexuality and have been known to attack women who they deem to be improperly dressed. Unlike most secular countries, this religious power reaches right up into government, especially in the settler communities. The majority of the illegal settler communities are ultra-Orthodox or Religious Zionists, all driven by the belief that their land rights are given by God, as if he were some sort of racially motivated real estate agent. Land ownership is not a covenant from God.

The problems in the Middle East focus on Israel and peace agreements are almost impossible to complete because of the extremists on both sides. If you’ve ever travelled in Israel you will have experienced the aloofness ultra-orthodox Jews. That’s fine. I have no problem with people doing their own thing, but when it comes to illegal settlements, stealing other people’s land, bulldozing their properties and bombing them into submission with tanks and artillery, on the grounds that ‘God gave them the right’, it is downright obscene. Religious learning results in convictions about land occupation that has resulted in millions spending their entire lives in refugee camps.

Christian education – Christ and conviction 
It may now be possible to become President of the USA if you’re black, brown, yellow or a woman. But if you don’t believe in God, or more particularly, you’re not a Christian – forget it. It will be interesting to observe whether Obama dares to avoid using explicitly Christian language in his inauguration speech.
Fundamentalist Christian education is on the rise and it’s squeezing into our schools through anti-evolution, homophobic, anti stem-cell research, pro-life stances that take us backwards not forwards. We’ve had a Bush presidency that has been arguably the worst in US history, sure of their religious supremacy to the level of waging war on those who don’t. Its disdain for international law, the legitimisation of torture and hostility towards the United Nations, was, in part, driven by fundamentalist religious believers.

American has recently been, in many ways, a theocracy. American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips warned in 2006 of Bush’s preacher-ridden, debt-bloated regime, if left unchecked, would become untenable. Boy did he get than one right! At the core of the Bush regime is militant religion, a growing fundamentalist and evangelical movement that has waged a ‘thinly disguised US crusade against radical Islam’. Its megachurches, televangelism and the fact that 1 in 4 Americans is affiliated with a conservative Protestant church.

Things are a little different in the more secular Europe, but in the UK, and in Northern Ireland and Scotland, the existence of segregated schools continues to generate antagonistic values that have led to decades of murders and bombings. Then there was the horrors of the Balkans.

NOT Islamophobia, Anti-semitism or Anti-Christian 
This is not an exercise in Islamophobia, anti-semitism or anti-Christian. In fact the most extreme forms of these phenomena come from each of the sets of three fundamentalists attacking each other, not secular groups. I have spend more time travelling in Islamic countries and love the art, architecture, cultures and people. What I don’t admire is the crippling effect of fundamentalist education. At its worst they kill school teachers and deny girls and women the basic right to education, but even at the moderate level it seems to deaden real inquiry and critical thinking. The fundamentalists may win because they understand that education is the key to long-term success. This is the clear strategy of the smarter political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah and Hamas. They, in turn, are reacting to the hideous beliefs of Jewish settlers who stole their land and confine them to fenced in camps. I have also been to Israel and witnessed the brutality of an occupying force towards people in Gaza and the West bank, people who did little more than resist when the land they had occupied for centuries was stolen. Fundamentalist Judaism is frighteningly racist. My experience in the US is perhaps greater than that of the other two. I studied at a US Ivy League university, worked there and have travelled there more times than I can remember, over a period of thirty years. The televangelism, megachurches and obsessions with homophobia, abortion and creationism, still shock me. US fundamentalists funded and supported Bush in his maniacal support of Israel and firestorms in the Middle East. Let’s hope that Obama keeps his ambiguous religious beliefs out of politics. 

To conclude..... 
Any school or teacher who professes belief in the literal truth ofreligious texts, revealed through divine revelation, is in my view, a danger. I believe in secular education and don’t like religious schools in any guise. I was brought up in a highly divided society in Scotland, where segregated schools are still the norm, much to Scotland’s shame. Watching today's events in Gaza is even more depressing and the US abstaining on the UN resolution, perhaps the last evil last gasp from Bush's cronies a matter of deep shame. Keep education secular.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why is ‘AI and Ethics’ work mostly a waste of time? It’s rife with amateurism in ‘ethics’, confirmation bias, anthropomorphism and activism.

I run an AI company, have invested in AI companies, taught the application of AI in my field, give talks and podcasts on the subject and have written a book on the subject. Yet, most of the questions I get on AI and data are what people see as ‘ethical’ issues. The problem is that they’re mostly not.

Actual ethics

There is little in the way of actual ethics among those in this field. Questions about what moral philosophy is being brought to the table is met with blank stares. Ethics has been a serious philosophical subject since the Greeks. From Plato’s Socractic dialogues on the nature of ‘good’ and Aristotle’s Ethics through to Hume and Kant’s brakes on the application of reason in the ethical sphere, the subject has a long pedigree. Yet how may could state the difference between the Golden Rule and the Categorical Imperative? Then on into Utilitarianism. For all the talk about happiness and well-being, few realise that this debate was covered intensely by Bentham, Mill and many others. Ethics is a subject of depth and importance, yet many have little interest or background in the subject, the very subject in which they profess to be ‘experts’.

Design issues

Many so-called ethical issues are simply design issues. Stephen Pinker and others have identified the psychology behind this confusion of design with ethics. Many issues are quite simply glitches in the development of AI solutions. As AI uses data to learn, you have to literally ‘train’ models with data, selected or more general, it makes mistakes, a bit like a child saying sheeps for the plural of a sheep. An algorithm may well confuse x with Y but it has no comprehension that it has. More importantly, the elimination of mistakes or known problems, like overfitting, are well known and a huge amount of effort goes into trying to reduce the errors. This is why we see AI solutions improve, sometimes dramatically over time. My Alexa voice recognition struggled with my Scottish accent at first, it no longer does. We must not confuse ethics with design. On the grander scale, this is why many, such as Pinker, think that AI as an existential threat to our species is wrong-headed. We simply engineer it not to be. The chances of it doing it on its own and next to nil, as there are and will be ample opportunities to stop it happening. Let’s identify these design issues first before we get into a complete tiz over ethical concerns.


Anthropomorphism, the reading of human qualities into non-human entities is rife in this field. The commonest mistake being the false attribution of responsibilities, which we see in often silly discussions about robots. In truth all AI is competence without comprehension. It can perform wonderfully well and beat you at checkers, chess, GO, poker and many computer games, even outperform you on identifying tumours on scans and some levels of decision making. It automates much of what we used to do but that does not mean it is us or even like us. Reading ethical qualities into software is not the point. Nass and reeves researched this anthropomorphism decades ago. Computers, in particular, seem to draw it out of people.

Confirmation bias

Many of the accusations of bias in AI are driven by negativity and confirmation bias in the accusers. So keen are they to blame things, often because their research grant or organisation expects it, that they look for ethical problems in the wrong place, in the technology or identity group they don’t like, rather than looking for solutions to that problem, the first port of call is misallocated blame. Then there’s the negativity bias. AI is tech, it’s new, so it must be problematic. In general, there are potboilers such as Weapons of Math destruction and umpteen ‘best-sellers’ that are thin as prison gruel, yet grab the attention of the lazy reader. Negativity sells.


Rather than the application of ‘ethics’ which is the study of moral principles, what is good and bad, AI and Ethics seems to have quietly dropped the moral and good side. It is cyclopic in its focus on the bad. This is not ethics, it is activism. People have beefs, often centred in identity politics or political stances around ‘capitalism’ and go for the tech, like predators after prey. This is by far the worst form of imbalanced, subjective politicking. Yet it is common in the one place that should pride itself in objectivity – our universities.

Leave it to the experts

No one denies that there are ethical issues around AI and data. All tech is of ethical concern. Cars kill 1.5 million a year in horrible and mangled deaths, many more injured, the equivalent of a World War every year. Yet we don’t have much attention paid to it as a global moral concern. Yet of a hand sanitizer is poorly calibrated, we cry racism. In fact, there is plenty of attention and effort going into the ethical concerns around this technology, by the EU, IEE and others. We need quality not quantity, or as Russell says in his excellent Human Compatible, whereas what we have at the moment is every man, woman, uncle auntie and their dog on the case. The issues are highly technical, ethical, legal and practical. You need a multi-disciplinary approach, not thinly disguised activism.

We have a model here in healthcare. Pharmaceuticals are highly regulated. You must be able to prove efficacy and safety. Strict rules apply to what you can claim for your product. That is fair. Note that many drugs have proven efficacy and safety without knowing exactly how they work. The focus is on the outputs, not full transparency. One need only apply this to cases where AI could do harm. Many are quite benign and will need little of no regulation.


The problems here are plentiful. First, it may stop good things from happening. The atmosphere in some areas of academe are so extreme that it is putting a brake on good research and outcomes in health and many other areas of human endeavour. Second, it distracts from actually coming up with solutions. So much efforts is put into diagnosis of sometimes imaginary illnesses that little is done on finding cures. Third, much of it is a waste of money with huge amounts of duplication, shallow work and outcomes that fall still born from the press. Much is quite simply a waste of time. Forth, there is a tendency to what to throw babies out with the bathwater, even the baths themselves. Just bear in mind that AI is not as good as we think nor as bad as we fear.