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.

Your Attention. Now!

A man walks onto the TED stage and introduces himself: “I was a design ethicist at Google, where I studied how do you ethically steer people’s thoughts.”.

My first thought was, how is it possible to “ethically” steer people’s thoughts? However, I think this particular speaker, now billed as a “design thinker”, may be worth listening to.

In his TED talk from last spring, Tristan Harris wants us to know about the “handful of people working at a handful of technology companies” who are working very hard to attract our attention and hang onto it for as long as possible. The better to sell that attention – us – to their advertisers. And they want to leave nothing to chance.

Because it’s not evolving randomly. There’s a hidden goal driving the direction of all of the technology we make, and that goal is the race for our attention. Because every new site — TED, elections, politicians, games, even meditation apps — have to compete for one thing, which is our attention, and there’s only so much of it. And the best way to get people’s attention is to know how someone’s mind works. And there’s a whole bunch of persuasive techniques that I learned in college at a lab called the Persuasive Technology Lab to get people’s attention.

Teachers especially need to understand what he’s talking about since they work with some of the primary targets of these companies looking for attention. If you teach high school students, possibly middle school, maybe even play this in class and follow it with a discussion. We need to help students understand what these adults are doing to them.

Finally, this is a good time to remember that, if you are not paying for a service, chances are you are the product, not the customer. Everything comes with a price and, on the web, that price is very often your information.

Teaching by Algorithm

A BBC video starts by asking “Could computer algorithms upgrade education?”. It just gets worse from there.

It’s a profile of the Alt Schools, a small chain of private schools based in San Francisco, funded by tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg. They also ask if this is the school of the future… and I certainly hope not.

I love the part where the CEO is giving the camera a tour of the company offices and notes that “almost everyone down there on the floor is a programmer”, and then, over there in the back, you have the educators. Plus the marketing and design people.

It’s pretty clear from that tour and this whole profile that the philosophy behind Alt School is very much driven by coding and data. They are using all this data (collected from largely rich, white kids based on the school in the video) to train their algorithms, with the goal to automate the teaching process. Something that makes the video’s note about the diminishing influence of teachers leading to a decline in good people entering the profession even more likely.

Or am I being paranoid?

Certainly teaching in a school where everything is recorded and deposited into a computer is pretty creepy. But is “hyper-personalized” instruction, driven by massive amounts of data and delivered by screen, really the future of learning? Or is it just the future for kids whose districts have the money to buy into this kind of marketing?

Watch the video. The New Yorker and Wired Magazine offer more details in their stories about this concept.

Look Behind the Graph

According to many excited retweets in my stream today, the number of females and “underrepresented” minorities taking AP Computer Science tests is way up. Like double up according to USA Today.

 

Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade (although a little rain today might be nice :-), but I’m also bothered by the unquestioned acceptance of statistics in the form of dramatic bar charts. So let’s take a closer look at that chart.

Notice that the bar to the far right combines two AP exams, the standard AP CS A exam, first offered in 1984, and the new AP CS Principles exam which was first administered in May of this year.

If you remove that new program, there is still a growth in both females and “underrepresented” minorities1 in the CS A class, just not nearly as dramatic as reported in the headlines. Even so, a very positive sign. It’s also positive that so many students are enrolling in the Principles course, which is far more accessible to those who are not necessarily looking at CS as a career path.

However, also missing from the analysis, both in the article and tweets pointing to it, is any information about how many of those new students actually did well on those AP exams. Five is the best score but three or four would also be respectable. We could discuss some value in earning a two.

I call this the Jay Mathews syndrome: attributing all success to just taking an AP exam, regardless of any measure of actual learning demonstrated by it.

Anyway, I mean absolutely no disparagement of the efforts to encourage more female and minority students to at least sample the study of computer science. And hopefully we’ll see this kind of steady increase when AP statistics are released next summer.

But anytime someone reports huge statistical increases, or decreases, especially in anything dealing with education, be skeptical and take a closer look. The story is likely much more complicated than the graph out front.

Personalized Learning by Facebook

If there’s one thing Facebook is great at it’s collecting and using data on “members”. Those skills are why the company is attractive to advertisers. So why not have the same programmers who built that attention-grabbing system create “a powerful tool that could reshape how students learn”?

That tool is called Basecamp, a joint project with the Summit charter school network, and is described in this Post article as a program that “tailors lessons to individual students using software that tracks their progress”. More personalized learning.

And personalized learning systems requires lots and lots of data to do the job.

But it also captures a stream of data, and Bilicki had to sign a consent form for her children to participate, allowing their personal data to be shared with companies such as Facebook and Google. That data, the form said, could include names, email addresses, schoolwork, grades and Internet activity. Summit Basecamp promised to limit its use of the information — barring it from being used, for example, to deliver targeted ads — but Bilicki agonized over whether to sign the form.

Question: if they promise not to use the data to deliver targeted ads, why is it being shared with Facebook and Google? Two of the largest distributors of targeted advertising?

Anyway, currently about 20,000 students in 100 charter and public schools are providing that data as the company is racing to have their product ready by the beginning of the school year next fall. A product that will compete with similar personalized learning systems from dozens of edtech startups.

Although the reporter tries to put a positive face on this story – starting with a headline claiming the software “shows promise” – there are so many things wrong with this project beyond the involvement of Facebook. Like this:

“There’s a lot of hype,” said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor who researches student privacy. “In effect, they are experimenting on children.”

Then there’s the fact that the developers have very little evidence of the effectiveness of personalized learning systems.

“We really don’t know that much about personalized learning,” said Monica Bulger, senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York.

Which applies to all the other companies on the hunt for venture capital to develop their version of personalize learning.

Not addressed in this story, of course, is whether the curriculum being “personalized”, how it is presented, and the pacing is appropriate for every child. Or if their learning from these systems will be meaningful enough to persist past the spring exams.

But I suppose none of these concerns are important as long as schools can boost test scores, administrators can keep their jobs, and investors are paid their profit.

At least in this case, a billionaire (Zuckerberg) is paying the bills. And Summit is the one organization in the world immune to potential data loss.

“We’re offering this for free to people,” she [Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit] said. “If we don’t protect the organization, anyone could sue us for anything — which seems crazy to me.”

I’m convinced.