Go Ahead, I’m Listening…

During the holiday season, connected devices containing voice-activated assistants from Amazon (Alexa) and Google were among the most popular gifts. This week at the giant Consumer Electronics Show (CES), lots of companies demonstrated many more future products infused with Alexa, Google, and Apple’s Siri. Including “smart” shower hardware.

But, according to the ACLU blog, you may want to think twice about placing an always-on, internet connected microphone in your home.

Overall, digital assistants and other IoT devices create a triple threat to privacy: from government, corporations, and hackers.

It is a significant thing to allow a live microphone in your private space (just as it is to allow them in our public spaces). Once the hardware is in place, and receiving electricity, and connected to the Internet, then you’re reduced to placing your trust in the hands of two things that unfortunately are less than reliable these days: 1) software, and 2) policy.

The constant potential for accidental recording means that users do not necessarily have complete control over what audio gets transmitted to the cloud.

Once their audio is recorded and transmitted to a company, users depend for their privacy on good policies—how it is analyzed; how long and by whom it is stored, and in what form; how it is secured; who else it may be shared with; and any other purposes it may be used for. This includes corporate policies (caveat emptor), but also our nation’s laws and Constitution.

Lots of pieces, technical and legal, that all have to work together to protect your information and privacy. I’m not convinced we’re there yet.

Heading off on an only slight detour, this issue of artificially intelligent assistants is something all of us educators need to watch. I’ve read of a few teachers who have placed Alexa and Google Home devices in their classrooms, although I’m not at all clear on the instructional purpose.

However, beyond that, many edtech companies are already building some form of data-collecting AI into their products. I fully expect to see always-listening, education-related devices being pitched to schools in the very near future, very likely with many of the same issues raised in this article.

Tech Addiction Does Not Have a Tech Solution

The New York Times says the tech backlash is here.

Once uncritically hailed for their innovation and economic success, Silicon Valley companies are under fire from all sides, facing calls to take more responsibility for their role in everything from election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction.

The backlash against big tech has been growing for months. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny for their roles in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for facilitating abusive behavior. Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe for improperly exploiting its market power.

Evidently, the breaking point came this week when two of Apple’s large, institutional investors began pressuring the company to study and find solutions to the addictive nature of their technology, especially among children. Their statement expresses a belief that “long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked”. 

Ok, I understand the addictive properties of gadgets like smartphones and social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat. But is this another case of blaming technology for human problems? Of demanding technological solutions instead of the difficult job of working collectively to change the culture?

I strongly disagree with media that post clickbait headlines like “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy.” and follow them with unsupported statements like this:

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

No. They – those evil smartphones – just sit there doing nothing until someone picks it up. They do not impede daydreaming and creativity and, in my opinion, can actually improve the ability to recall information. On their own smartphones don’t make people more anxious. And they certainly do not “make” parents ignore their children.

Yes, companies like Apple1 should provide tools to help mitigate the “addictive nature” of their products. And Facebook should use some of that highly touted “artificial intelligence” to do a better job of screening out anti-social messaging. All of them certainly need to do a better job of educating parents and teachers on how children interact with their products.

But at this point in history, it’s not possible to compel people to use those tools and that knowledge. I wonder if it’s even possible to educate people how to be more socially responsible on social media when some of the worst examples come from people our political, business, and entertainment “leaders”.

So, the tech “backlash” is here and this debate will continue. With too much of the blame likely directed at the technology and the companies that create it. And not nearly enough of the responsibility accepted by those of us who use it.


1 And Google, which provides the operating system for far more smartphones than Apple and is often ignored in these debates. Of course, much of Android is copied from iOS so there’s that. :-)

Creativity Doesn’t Happen on Clock Time

Clock and Sky

A Harvard professor who studies creative talent in the workplace says her research shows that “arbitrary deadlines are the enemy of creativity”.

Scholars of time have found similar results in their research. Creative work operates on “event time,” meaning it always requires as much time as needed to organically get the job done. (Think of novel writers or other artists.) Other types of work operate on “clock time,” and are aligned with scheduled events. (A teacher obeys classroom hours and the semester calendar, for instance. An Amazon warehouse manager knows the number of customer orders that can be fulfilled in an hour.)

In education, we are forever talking about the need to help students develop their creativity. How they must learn to be more innovative (often used as a synonym for creativity) and entrepreneurial. Engage in problem solving, inquiry, and design thinking. All the “4 C’s” and “21st century skills” stuff.

We talk about all that but continue to run schools on “clock time”. Learning as a scheduled event. Science happens in this block of time. The project is due Friday (with penalties for submitting it late). The high-stakes test is next week, even if you need more time to understand. 

In many ways, most schools are run more like that Amazon warehouse than a place where creativity can thrive.

Just a thought.

Wasted Space

Exam

There are many things I don’t understand about the writing of Jay Mathews, former chief education writer for the Washington Post and current weekly columnist. Mostly why the paper continues to waste valuable newsprint on his work.

His column from last Monday is a good example.

Mathews begins by condemning the decline in the number of states that require students to pass one or more standardized tests in order to graduate. He says this a “national movement led by educators, parents and legislators”, calling it a “breathtaking turnabout, but without much celebrating”. Because polls related to public perception of school quality have not changed in five years?

He continues by complaining about “creative programs to boost achievement” being used by some states. Mathews says, those efforts are “failing miserably”, according to a report by “45 experts (including many teachers) who peered deeply into the state plans required by the new law”.

After spending the first half of the piece trying to make the case that the lack of standardized testing is hurting schools and students (with his usual lack of evidence), Mathews actually writes a statement that makes sense.

The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much, but the Collaborative for Student Success study indicates that reducing exit tests is not likely to bring much improvement, either.

So, maybe the focus of Mathews column should have been on alternatives to standardized testing, which he admits don’t seem to make any difference.

Anyway, this mess ends with some additional odd and unsupported statements, including his usual plug for the Advance Placement program. Which, of course, is another standardized testing program, one run by colleges rather than states.

We love making schools more accountable. Then, we hate the idea. This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.

Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference. As always, that will be what saves us.

Does he understand that the excess of standardized testing has been driving “energetic and creative teachers” out of the classroom for a decade or more?

And why is this crap allowed to appear in a major national newspaper?


Image: Exam by Alberto G. on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Average Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Fair

 

In all the yelling back and forth (aka “discussion”) about net neutrality rules last year, much was said and written about the “average” internet user in the US.

The FCC chairman, who led efforts to kill them, and his supporters claimed that competition in the market would take care of any issues related to ISPs who try to slow or block competitors on their networks. According to this theory, customers could just switch to another provider if their current ISP begins to play with the traffic.

Except that “average” doesn’t mean everyone is equal, and is usually a crappy way to understand any issue.

The map above illustrates just how bad the internet market is for most locations in the US. It uses actual data about the availability of high bandwidth access, the kind necessary to fully benefit from modern web services, and clearly demonstrates that it “varies greatly based on where you live”.

Average in this example is weighted very heavily in favor of metropolitan areas where households are likely to have at least two high bandwidth choices when it comes to internet service providers. The darker colors on the map show areas with fewer choices and slower speeds.

But even in those lighter areas, like that splotch of white around Washington DC where I live, choice doesn’t necessarily mean competition. Our two major ISPs offer the same packages at the same price. And once the furor over this issue dies down, both are equally likely to favor their own content over competitors. We do have a few other, smaller, options buzzing around but they are not equivalent, even if the chairman wants us to believe they are.

So, maybe “average” is acceptable to those who dislike all governmental regulation. But it’s not to the millions who are below, and far below, that average.


On another issue, this map was created using data from a variety of public sources and ESRIs wonderful Story Map application. You can zoom in to the county level to get more information, although you should pull the map into it’s own window for best results.