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.

3-2-1 For 10-23-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

David Letterman always had a certain intelligence to his goofy sense of humor, and aspects of that personality shine in this profile about his life in retirement (that creepy beard!) and his work on a series about the global effects of climate change. Maybe you need to be a baby boomer to fully appreciate him, but I’ve been a fan of Letterman after finding his work in college. (about 11 minutes)

But what if I don’t want to be a baby boomer? What if someone doesn’t feel a part of the group into which they’ve been sorted by demographers? You can be a Perennial. A new grouping one writer has created, based “on shared values and passions” instead of the “faux constructs behind an age-based system of classification”. It’s a nice idea. We’ll see if anyone else joins. (about 3 minutes)

We are told self-driving cars are well on their way. But before everyone jumps into one, one writer wants us to take a close look at the computer controlled systems we already have. For example, almost all commercial airplanes are being mostly flown by computers and mistakes can happen. “The rarer the exception gets, as with fly-by-wire, the less gracefully we are likely to deal with it”. Don’t read this during your next flight, but do read it. (about 21 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

The Sporkful is an odd little podcast about food, but it’s not about cooking. The segments explore how food and the activity of eating reflects American society and culture. A great example is the first of a four part series on the subtle, and not so subtle, racial and cultural signals restaurants put out “that tell you what kind of place it is, and whether it’s for you”. (41:31)

Many supermarkets and other stores offer self-checkout registers these days and more are adding the option every day (I hate the ones at the local hardware store). The history of it’s invention is an interesting story, created by a Canadian doctor. Listen to this Planet Money segment for that and to find out why grocery store checkout still sucks. (20:27)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

Pixar has created some of the best movies of the past twenty years. Not best animated movies. Best movies. Period. A great example of the powerful storytelling nurtured in that environment is this incredibly moving short film created by two Pixar artists in their spare time. I wish my spare time was half as creative. (6:45) [Note: the site says this film will be available for a “limited time”, although it doesn’t say how long that is.]