Sunday, November 26, 2023

Online Educa Berlin 2023 - Fun three days? Damn right it was!

OEB in Berlin was intense this year, with a three hour workshop, in a packed room, the Big Debate and a live podcast with my friend John Helmer. Disappointed that the Christmas markets were not yet open but there was plenty to one’s teeth into than a Bratwurst.

As is often the case, I found the keynotes a bit odd. An American jumped around like a firecracker, confusing shouting with substance, followed by a soporific speaker recommending a return to pencils. She was selling 'critical thinking' but seemed to have little of it. Truly mind numbing. Read every single word from a piece of paper. Then Luciano Floridi. I was looking forward to this having read his work but what a strange talk. He presented himself as a philosopher…. I’m not so sure. He’s actually more of psychologist, who has made a name for himself as a philosopher of the ‘digital’; can’t remember seeing a philosopher of the ‘pencil’. He claimed you could split the whole of philosophy, nay human affairs, into “just two things” - the Socratic and Hobbesian view – people are either stupid or evil. I have been reading philosophy all of my life and have never come across a more idiotic and simplistic summary of either philosophy or human nature. He then massacred Wittgenstein. It is clear he was playing to the crowd. 


Undeterred I had some great conversations with people who actually know what they are talking about. That’s what makes conferences so odd – the showbiz v substance. Substance is to be found in the casual encounters with new people, the smaller rooms, the bar, over a coffee. Lovely to see Gabor’s AI project progress from just an idea last year, our Norwegian friends seem to have cracked the HE assessment issue, Glean are progressing with AI and there were some real projects on AI that were lifting us out of the old paradigm.


So what did I learn?


People are still stuck in the LMS/ cartoon content/video world

The exhibition seemed stuck in that world, a bit dead and often empty

Conversations were full of new ideas and ambition

AI is here and here to stay and lots of real projects shown

Superficial AI moralising was noticeable absent

AI is at a technology way beyond what we’ve seen before

HE is in a panic over AI

L&D once again thinks it is about to be taken seriously at Board level – it is not

‘Critical thinking’ has become the predictable phrase people use when they don’t know what else to say – it’s now my litmus test for people who are walking away…


After three days of intense discussion people were ready to let rip in the Friday night and we did – a big meal, followed by a party. As usual, it was one of the best conferences of the year. It’s about the people, many who were there last year and the year before. It’s not in some hideous Casino in Las Vegas, or worse a Disney venue in Florida, or some god-awful, anonymous conference centre. Fun three days? Damn right it was.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

EU AI legislation is firming up and I fear the worst. Danger of overregulation...

There are some good structural aspects of the legislation in terms of classifying size of organisation to avoid penalising small innovative firms and research, as well as classifying risks but as the Irishman said when being asked for directions... "We'll sir... I wouldn't have started here".


BANNED        – social scoring, face recognition, dark patterns, manipulation

High risk         – recruitment, employment, justice, law, immigration

Limited risk     – chatbots, deep fakes, emotion recognition

Minimal risks  – spam filters, computer games


But, as usual, the danger is in over reach. That can take place in several ways:



Like an oversized fishing net, the ban on biometric data may have the unintended consequences of banning useful applications such as deepfake detection, age recognition in child protection, detecting children in child porn, accessibility features, safety applications, healthcare applications and so on. Innovation often produces benefits that were unforeseen at the start. We have already seen a Cambrian explosion of innovation from this technology, category bans are therefore unwise. I fear it is too late on this one.


Core tech not applications

Rather than focus on actual applications, they have an eye on general purpose AI and foundational models. This is playing with fire. By looking for deeper universal targets they may make the same mistake as they did over consent and lose millions of hours of lost productivity as we all have to deal with ‘manage cookies’ pop-ups and no one ever reads consent forms. An attack on, say foundational ‘open source’ systems, would be a disaster. Yet it is hard to see how open source could be allowed. It has an ill-defined concept of a 'frontier model' in the proposed legislation that could wipe out innovation in one blow. No one knows what it means.



It hauls in the Digital Services Act (DSA), Digital Markets Act (DMA), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as well as the new regulation on political advertising, as well as the Platform Work Directive (PWD) – are you breathless while reading that sentence? It could become an octopus with tentacles that reach out into all sorts areas making it impossible to interpret and police. 



Signs of the EU jumping the gun here and not in a good way. There is always the danger of some publishers (we know who you are) lobbying for restrictions on data for training models. This would put the EU at a huge disadvantage. To be honest, the EU is so far behind the curve now on foundational AI that it will make little difference but a move like this will condemn the EU to looking on at a two horse race, with China and the US racing round the track while the EU remains locked up in its own stalls.



One problem with EU law is its fixity. Once mixed and set, it is like concrete – hard and unchangeable. Unlike common law, such as exists in England, US, Canada and Australia, where things are less codified and easier to adapt to new circumstances, EU Roman Law is top down and requires new changes in the law through legislative acts. If mistakes are made, you can’t fix them.



At only 5.8% of the world’s population, there is the illusion that it speaks for the whole world. Having been round the world this year in several continents - I have news for them – it doesn’t. Certainly not for the US, and as for China, not a chance. It doesn’t even speak for Europe, as several countries are not in the EU. To be fair, one shouldn’t design laws that pander to other states but in this case Europe is so far behind that this may be the final n-AI-l in the coffin. Some think millions, of not trillions of dollars are a stake in lost innovation and productivity gains. I hope not.


We had a taste of all this when Italy banned ChatGPT. They relented when they saw the consequences. I hope the EU apply Occam’s razor, the minimum number of entities to reach their stated goals, unfortunately they have form here, of overregulating.

Sunday, November 05, 2023

Bakhtin (1895-1975) dialogics, learning and AI

Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher and literary critic, developed a theory of language which saw dialogue as primary. He took this idea and applied it to learning. By dialogue he mean social interaction between people, teachers and learners, learners and learners, learners and others but also dialogue with the past. He was persecuted during the Soviet era but his work was rediscovered in the 1980s, and he has since become an important theorists in the philosophy of language and even learning through AI.


Bakhtin criticises the 'monologic' tradition in Western thought, where individuals are defined by religion a concept of the finite, the soul, religious and establishment belief. Individuals for him, are open and must engage in dialogue with the world and others. Dialogism is his foundational idea that all language and thought are inherently dialogic. We lean language and come to understand language through the practice of dialogue. Learning means dialogue in many forms with different people, tools, perspectives in many different contexts. It was introduced in his Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics(1929). This dialogue is in stark contrast with the teacher norm, direct instruction or monologue. Learning emerges from dialogue, external and internal.

In his incomplete essay Toward a Philosophy of the Act (1986), written in the 1920s, he outlines a theory of human identity or mind based on dialogic development. There are three forms of identity:




The I-for-myself is untrustworthy. The ‘I-for-the-Other’ on the other hand, allows one to develop one’s identity as a se of perspectives others have about you. Th ‘Other-for-Me’ is the incorporation by others of their perception of you into their own identities. This is an expansive and interesting form of identity in an age of dialogue with others through social media and messaging technology, as well as dialogue with technology which now plays a similar role.

Dialogism manifests itself in ‘heteroglossia’, with exposure to a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in a language. These can be parents, teachers, friends and those on social media. A heterogeneous group of voices that one can learn from.

Authoritative vs. Internally Persuasive Discourse

Authoritative Discourse is discourse that is embedded in a culture, enshrined in tradition. It is unnegotiable and taught as truth. It may be religious beliefs, science, the canon, parental beliefs and other assumed forms of knowledge and practice. It is often enshrined in an official curriculum or syllabus, which learners must memorise and regurgitate in exams.

Internally Persuasive Discourse is more personal, related to the learner’s experiences and views. The learner has to engage in dialogue with the established views to relate it to their own prior knowledge, adapt to it, assimilate it and create their own sense of meaning.

Although we learn through both these forms of discourse, learning is to move from the authoritative to the internally persuasive to find our own deeper forms of meaning.


Bakhtin also wrote about the concept of the "carnivalesque" in literature, which subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. In education, this can be pedagogical strategies that disrupt traditional hierarchies and empower students to challenge and question. 

Dialogism and AI

AI technology has now produced dialogic systems that may also fulfil Bakhtin’s needs. We can now communicate, in dialogue form with a new form of ‘other’ that lifts us out of our I-for-Myself, allowing technology to play a role in I-for-the-Other and Other-for-Me.

Interestingly traditional educators demand of the technology that it be a truth machine, when language is no such thing. Language is multi-perspective, at times messy, even carnivalesque. It points not just towards learning as dialogue but learning emerging from dialogue, in many different forms. LLMs and chatbots seem to be delivering this new form of learning.

Bakhtin would have loves the carnivalesque uses, such as be a pirate, the odd poems. I rather like the fact that Musk's GROK chatbot is quite snarky! AI satisfied both authoritative and personal learning and language allows for both. This is why I think Generative AI will have a profound effect on learning through dialogue, which is how most good teaching is done, both direct instruction and looser learner-centric dialogue.


He recognised the multifarious, and messy nature of human communication and therefore learning. For this he should be applauded, where theory is so often formulated in rigid and simplistic models. Bakhtin’s work has influenced educational theorists who view learning as a social, dialogical process and who advocate for more participatory, student-centered approaches. Educators who draw on Bakhtin’s ideas might focus on the role of discussion, debate, and dialogue in learning, and they might seek to create learning environments in which students’ voices are heard and valued as part of the collective construction of knowledge. 


Bakhtin, M.M. (1984) Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1993) Toward a Philosophy of the Act. Ed. Vadim Liapunov and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vadim Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin and London: University of Texas Press.