More About Alexa and Its AI Siblings

Following up on my previous rant about Alexa in the classroom, two good, related articles from Wired on the subject of artificial intelligence that are worth your time to read.

In one the writer highlights sections of reports to regulators from both Alphabet (Google’s parent) and Microsoft that warn of possible “risk factors” in future products.

From Alphabet:

New products and services, including those that incorporate or utilize artificial intelligence and machine learning, can raise new or exacerbate existing ethical, technological, legal, and other challenges, which may negatively affect our brands and demand for our products and services and adversely affect our revenues and operating results.

Microsoft was more specific:

AI algorithms may be flawed. Datasets may be insufficient or contain biased information. Inappropriate or controversial data practices by Microsoft or others could impair the acceptance of AI solutions. These deficiencies could undermine the decisions, predictions, or analysis AI applications produce, subjecting us to competitive harm, legal liability, and brand or reputational harm.

On the other hand, Amazon, in a report to stockholders, is more worried about governments regulating their products than they are about Alexa activating Skynet at sometime in the future.

The other post is a long excerpt from a book being published this month called “Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think”.

It covers some pieces of recent history in the development of artificially intelligent products and the difficulty of programming a machine to understand the many ways that humans communicate.

I’m undecided about reading the whole book, but this part of it is worth 15 minutes.


The image is the user interface of HAL, the malfunctioning artificial intelligence from the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. It also links to an interesting New York Times story of how the sound of HAL was created.

Hey, Alexa! What Are You Doing In The Classroom?

It’s very hard to escape all the hype around those voice-activated, quasi-AI powered personalities: Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant.1

And, of course, some people bring up the idea of using them in the classroom.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat in on an ISTE webinar2 by a professor of education who was going to explain how we could use Alexa, what he classified as an “internet of things technology”, for teaching and learning.

Notice his thesis was centered on how to use Alexa with students. Not why.

Ok, I can certainly see how there might be a case for hands-free, artificially intelligent devices with certain students, those with visual and motor impairments. Maybe even to support students with reading disabilities.

But are these tools that can really help most students learn?

Currently Alexa and her competitors can only answer specific questions, when they aren’t monitoring the room for requests to place an Amazon order. Sometimes getting to those answers takes several attempts (as unintentionally demonstrated in some of the examples) as the human tailors the question format to fit the algorithms inside the box.

(I wonder how students with far less patience than the presenter would react to Alexa’s confusion.)

He also demonstrated some “add-ons” that would allow a teacher to “program” Alexa with what, to my ear, amounted to little more than audible flashcards and quiz-type activities.

So far, pretty basic stuff. But, when it comes to this supposedly new category of edtech, I have more than a few questions that go beyond how well the algorithm can retrieve facts and quiz kids.

Do we really want to be training our kids how to speak with Alexa (or Siri, or Google)? If we’re going to spend time helping them learn how to frame good questions, wouldn’t it be better if they were working on topics that matter? Topics that might have multiple or open-ended answers?

Instead of two-way artificial conversations with Alexa, how about if the kids learn the art of participating in a meaningful discussion with their peers? Or with other people outside of the classroom?

But if you really want to bring an AI voice into the classroom, why not use it as a great starting point for students to investigate that so-called “intelligence” behind the box?

Let’s do some research into how Siri works? Why does Google Assistant respond in the way it does? Who created the algorithms that sit in the background and why?

What might Amazon be doing with all the verbal data that Alexa is collecting? What could the company (and others?) learn from just listening to us?

The professor didn’t include any of that in his presentation, or anything related to the legal and ethical issues of putting an always-listening, network-connected device from a third party in a setting with children.

Some people in the chat room brought up COPPA, FERPA, and other privacy issues, but the speaker only addressed questions regarding this complex topic in the final few minutes of the session. As you might expect, he didn’t have any actual answers to these concerns.

Anyway, the bottom line to all this is that we need to consider suggestions of using Alexa, or any other always-listening device, in the classroom with a great deal of skepticism. The same goes for any other artificially intelligent device, software, or web service used by students.

At this point, there are far too many unanswered questions, including what’s in the algorithms and how the data collected is being used.


I have one of those HomePods by Apple in my house. I agree with the Wirecutter review: it’s a great speaker, especially for music, but Siri is definitely behind Alexa and Google Assistant in its (her?) artificial intelligence. On the other hand, I have more trust in Apple to keep my secrets. :-)

1. I excluded Samsung’s Bixby from that list because I’ve know absolutely no one who has actually used it, despite being release two years ago.

2. You can see the webinar here but you’ll need to have a paid ISTE membership. His slide deck is available to everyone, however.

The AP Love Affair

Exam

You would be hard pressed to find a bigger cheerleader for Advanced Placement than Jay Mathews. Except possibly for the people at The College Board who run the extremely profitable program.1

For anyone who has not read the Post regularly over the past couple of decades, Mathews is well-known around here for writing full-throated, uncritical columns championing the AP program. Last month alone, three of his five columns centered on that topic.

The fall Education Edition of the Post Sunday Magazine published in October also featured an eight-page spread by Mathews that was ostensibly a profile of the director of the AP program. It was a sloppy wet kiss that a casual reader might have mistaken as nothing more than an “advertorial” paid for by the College Board, mixed in with the other ads for private schools, tutoring services, and military boarding academies.

And, of course, Mathews also is responsible for the farce known as the Challenge Index, an annual ranking that is embraced by schools and news media as a benchmark of high school quality. A measure that is based solely on the number of AP tests taken.2

In all of this promotional work (including at least three related books), Mathews rarely does much to address critics of the AP program. Mostly it consists of setting up very flimsy straw men and quickly knocking them down with a very dismissive attitude. Anyone who doesn’t agree that AP should be the foundation of a high school academic program is misguided at best.

Toward the end of the Sunday Magazine article, he mentions in one paragraph two rather prominent critics of the AP program, and then allows the subject of his piece to dismiss them with a couple of quotes containing no real rebuttal.

One of those critics is the 2009 documentary “Race to Nowhere”. In the film, produces look at how students are under increasing pressure to “succeed” in school, including by being pushed into taking more AP classes.

The other is a 2012 article from The Atlantic with the provocative title “AP Classes Are a Scam”.

Although I wouldn’t go so far to call the program a scam, the author, a former government professor at Boston College, makes some excellent points that deserve to be part of the debate. His last bullet point is one of my favorites.

To me, the most serious count against Advanced Placement courses is that the AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Which relates directly to some of my primary criticisms of the AP program, and especially the huge emphasis the classes receive in most high schools in this area.

For one, the whole AP program drives an assumption that the goal of every student should be attending a four-year college. Indeed, the entire curriculum is dictated by university officials who benefit from the stream of new customers. Too often, kids are given the impression that anything other than a brand name college represents failure.

Looking at the bigger picture, the AP structure reinforces the idea that a pure academic approach is the only way to understand any subject. That subjects can only be studied within their silo, a segmented approach to learning that was already an entrenched attitude in most of the high schools I’ve worked with over the years and now extending down into the lower grades.

That intellectual curiosity the professor spoke of is difficult, if not impossible, in a rigidly designed curriculum that leaves little room for exploration outside of the silo.

Anyway, after all that ranting, I wouldn’t advocate for high schools to drop AP classes entirely (as some schools are doing). I’ve both taken and taught AP courses, as well as spending a few summers scoring them and there is some value in the concept (if not the current execution).

Schools should be providing students with the option to participate. With the emphasis on option.

We need to help students understand and explore ALL their options during their time in K12 classrooms. Structuring high school entirely around a college-level program, which Jay Mathews appears to be pushing with his AP love affair, slams the door shut to those choices.


Image: Exam by Alberto G. Posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. They also own the equally profitable, and questionable, SAT and other related testing programs. You can find more data on the finances of the College Board and other “non-profit” testing groups at Americans for Educational Testing Reform.

2. If you want to torture yourself with it, I’ve written far too much about that crap in this space.

Finding the Tall Poppies

In a previous post I explained my process for keeping up with what’s going on the in world without turning on TV news. It’s pretty simple, very personal, and definitely not for everyone.

Recently I got a little reinforcement for my approach from a “futurist” whose approach for reading less news and being better informed was profiled in a Quartz article.

I disagree with some of his ideas – like getting off social media and “going dark” for periods of time. And I’ve never been comfortable in striking up conversations with random strangers.

But here are a few of his ideas I can completely endorse.

1. Practice selective ignorance

Trying to keep up with everything happening is a great recipe for frustration. So concentrate on finding better information on fewer but important topics.

3. Find the “tall poppies”
The futurist advises that each of us cultivate a network of curious and remarkable people who are hungry for interesting information and can guide our thinking. Such remarkable characters are called “tall poppies” in some companies, and Watson believes collecting these human blooms drives success.

Love that term “tall poppies”. For me, I also want poppies in my network who challenge my thinking in a constructive way.

5. Find sources you trust
Follow reliable, thoughtful, forward-looking publications and journalists online and let them do the heavy lifting, finding the most interesting info for you.

As I said in the earlier post, this is the core of my learning process. Creating reliable, thoughtful material takes hard work and time. You don’t get that from the talking heads channels.

Finally, he recommends travel, something more Americans need to do. Even if it’s visiting unfamiliar parts of your own country.


The image illustrates an article called Humans are Built to be Futurists on Futurist.com, a relatively new blog written by a futurist consultant.

Questioning Dubious Statistics

BBC More or Less Postcard

More or Less is a radio programme1 and podcast produced by the BBC World Service. The weekly show tries to make sense of the statistics presented in popular media (including the broadcasts of their own organisation1) in a way the average educated listener can understand.

As you might expect, a common thread in the podcast is whether the numbers reported in stories about studies, polls, and surveys are accurate and used appropriately. Spoiler alert: they often are not.

In a recent “bonus” podcast, the host offers a short debunking guide that would fit on a post card2 from his holiday at the shore. “How to question dubious statistics in just a few short steps.”

The whole thing is worth ten minutes of your time. If you teach math to high school students, you may even want to play it for them.

However, if you’re very short of time, the final step is, for me, the most important idea presented.

Number 6: Be Curious.

If a statistic is worth sharing, isn’t it worth understanding first?

Forget that nagging feeling that says you might just be spoiling a good story. Facts matter… but facts are also fascinating.

Treat them as puzzles. Treat surprising or counterintuitive claims, not with suspicion nor open arms but as mysteries to be solved. It’s fun.

And they close with this reminder.

Hopefully, with this postcard as your guide, you can step into a world of statistical adventure. Because it’s not just about winning arguments, it’s about being curious. The world, after all, is a fascinating place.

Whether you consider statistics “fun” or an “adventure”, the advice is solid. Be curious, some would say skeptical, about the numbers constantly being thrown at you in the news and your social media feed. Very often the story behind them is far more interesting, and different, from what has been presented in the headline.


If you listen to podcasts, More or Less is a good one to add to your playlist. I would have embedded a player here for the episode but the BBC doesn’t allow those of us outside the UK to do that kind of thing.

1. British show, British spelling. :)

2. For you kids out there, postcards were something your parents (maybe grandparents) sent from locations where they were on vacation in the days before Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the rest. It was a slower method of trying to impress their friends and relatives. Or maybe make them jealous.