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Mining Data (Non-Intrusively)

Related to the previous post, one way I follow news around the right to be forgotten, and the larger topic of data privacy, is using Google news alerts. Not a great research system, instead a little like mining for gold: most days they deliver a whole lot of dirt, mostly from obscure sites.

Then there are the little nuggets that occasionally show up.

Like this press release from a UK start up that promises to “give people back ownership of their personal data online”.

Ok, tell me more.

Do You Really Have a Right to be “Forgotten”?


One “tech” story that seemed to be missing from most of those decade-in-review pieces is that of the “right to be forgotten”. Although this issue is really more about privacy and use of personal data, it’s more relevant to tech than stuff like Amazon extorting local communities in their “search” for a new headquarters.

The concept first jumped on the radar for most people in 2014 when the European Court of Justice ruled that EU citizens had a right to ask search engines to remove “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant” information from their results.1 I first began following this issue around that time and, as you might expect, nothing about this decision turned out to be that simple.

Time To Change The High School Menu

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Freakonomics sounds like it should be the study of strange business practices. But the books, radio show, live shows, and podcast that makes up that franchise tends to wander all over the place looking at problems in various parts of society. Which is probably a big reason why I like what they do.

A recent edition of the podcast took an odd-even-for-them detour titled “America’s Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up“. Although the program got stuck in a few of the usual cliches, including assuming that assessment was going to come in the form of a standardized test, I have to admit they did a pretty good job.

The math curriculum that most high students in the US are subjected to was created early in the previous century and is about as out of touch with the real world as anything in American education. Jo Boaler – author, Stanford professor, and math education reform leader – explains.

The curriculum that we teach in maths1 classrooms was really designed in days that are long past. It was a long time ago that somebody in the U.S. decided to teach what I think of as the geometry sandwich — a course of algebra for a whole year, followed by a course of geometry for a whole year, and then another course of algebra. I don’t know any other country that does that, and it’s part of the problem. So, I would change the curriculum to really reflect real mathematics, and I would also change it to reflect the 21st century, because maths still looks in classrooms pretty much as it did in Victorian days.

Geometry sandwich. Love it.

In the interview with Boaler, the host says that it’s “pretty obvious that we need a radical transformation in the math curriculum” (even if his program hasn’t made it “obvious” at that point) and asks her what students are missing.

When we look at the world out there and the jobs students are going to have, many students will be working with big data sets. So, we haven’t adapted to help students in the most important job many people will do, which is to work with data sets in different ways. So, statistics is really important, as a course, but is under-played. This is a fifth of the curriculum in England and has been for decades. But here in the U.S., it’s sort of a poor cousin to calculus.

Very few people will ever need or use Calculus.2 But the math sequence followed by the vast majority of high school students is focused on that one target.

On the other hand, even those adults who don’t work with big data sets will still need a good understanding of how big data sets work. How that data is collected, organized, analyzed, and presented. Or, very often these days, how it is obtained without the targets’ knowledge or consent, manipulated, and misused.

However, rather than simply add another course to the math curriculum, the program suggests that students should be studying the use of big data sets in subjects where they are actually used, like Biology and Government. Even better, that suggestion comes from the CEO of the College Board, purveyor of the Advanced Placement program and the SAT.

He was asked if the College Board had ever considered creating an AP data science course.

We have, but the more profound thing we’ve done, in candor, and I’ll explain why, is to include data science in the core exams we give like biology, like AP Government, is to make data analysis something you encounter over and over again.

I want to again push back slightly against the most powerful picture of data science as isolating it as a discipline all by itself. It often comes alive in its actual application to situations, and I would just be careful of that. And the reason why I’d be careful of making an AP data-science course is not because we don’t love it and think it’s valuable, but we find our courses spread much more quickly for all kids when they’re not an elective or a special course. That is, if I weave data analysis into AP biology that’s widely given, or if we weave it into AP Government and Politics, which 400,000 kids take, that will touch kids in public schools in all levels of our society. If I create an elective data-science course, that might only be taken by a few who choose to take it.

All of which addresses another problem with the high school curriculum, the ridged isolation of the subjects students study. Silos exist even within the broader topics. I’ve known many who thought of themselves as “Geometry teachers” or “government teachers” and would vigorously resist the suggestion to take another course in their department.

Anyway, there’s much more. And if you teach high school math, the whole podcast is worth an hour of your time. It might be even more relevant if you are simply someone who knows a teenager on whom that Geometry sandwich is being inflicted.

It’s time to radically change the high school math menu, and the ideas in this podcast would be a great place to start.

That math book pictured above was the one I used in high school. It was also the one I used in my first teaching assignment ten years later. It was still a fixture in math education when I left the classroom twenty years after that.

1. She’s British. She gets to use the term maths. I wish it was acceptable in the US since mathematics is not one thing. It is a wide and wonderful collection of many topics.

2. According to a study cited in the podcast, “About 2 percent said that they use calculus on a daily basis, and almost 80 percent say they never use it.”. I’ve read of others with similar results.

No, Google Is Not Free

One of the 800-pound gorillas at ISTE, of course, is Google. They are “gold” sponsors (meaning they kicked in more money than the silver and bronze level companies) and have a huge presence on the vendor floor, both in their own booths and in the booths of dozens (hundreds?) of other companies that connect to them in some way. Plus many, many sessions and posters deal with their various education-related products.

And one term commonly associated with all of this Googley goodness is free. Educators love free, and they don’t pay to use GSuite, Classroom, Expeditions, Maps, Earth, ChromeOS, Photos, storage, and, of course, Search.

Except these services really are not free.

Instead of sending Google money, education users and their students, like the rest of us, are contributing labor and data to the company. In Google’s own words:

The Google Privacy Policy describes fully how Google services generally use information, including for G Suite for Education users. To summarize, we use the information we collect from all of our services to provide, maintain, protect and improve them, to develop new ones, and to protect Google and our users. We also use this information to offer users tailored content, such as more relevant search results. We may combine personal information from one service with information, including personal information, from other Google services. [emphasis mine]

Another way to look at our relationship with Google comes from an essay in Slate about another free product that’s been in the news lately, Facebook.

There are at least two alternative ways of viewing our relationship to Facebook… The first is to view ourselves as customers of Facebook, paying with our time, attention, and data instead of with money. This implies greater responsibility on both sides.

The second is to view ourselves as part of Facebook’s labor force. Just as bees labor unwittingly on beekeepers’ behalf, our posts and status updates continually enrich Facebook.

Swap Google for Facebook in those statements. We help their marketing department by putting their name and products in front of students, often for many hours a day. We also provide the labor to help develop and test products that will make them a lot of money.

And do not assume students are protected by working in a “closed” Google Education environment. Unless your network never connects to the outside world, there are many ways for Google (and others) to connect your “anonymous” students to advertisers, now and in the future.

Anyway, even with all that, I’m not trying to convince you to quit using Google’s products, either personally or in the classroom. I use some of them myself (although not as much as I used to). I even present conference sessions and workshops encouraging teachers to use Google Earth and Google’s other geo-related resources for their instruction.

However, everyone needs to understand that the cost of “free” admission to Google (or any other services that don’t charge at the door) is your data. Data that is stored, analyzed, connected with other data, and occasionally sold, stolen, or otherwise distributed to third parties. With your permission, since you agreed to the terms of service you probably didn’t read when registering for that first Gmail address.

So, by all means, continue using Google and other free services. But, in the wise words of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, let’s be careful out there.

If you’ve never seen the classic cop show Hill Street Blues, you’ve missed some good TV. At least for the first three or so seasons. I think it’s available on Hulu and maybe other streaming services.

My Flawed ISTE 2018 Journey Report

Smart badge cracked open

My personalized “ISTE 2018 journey” has arrived. This is the report generated from data gathered by the “smart badge technology” attached to our name badge holder. Data that ISTE said would provide us with a “more personalized learning experience”.

So, what insights and revelations does it reveal about my time in Chicago?

Frankly, not much. The report is simply an HTML email with links to program descriptions for the sessions I attended, plus links to “resources” provided by the presenters.

Except I didn’t attend half the sessions that ISTE’s tracker says I did. I’m very sure I was never in the room for “Amazing Must-Have Google Add-Ons, Tips & Tricks and Features You Never Knew” or “Mining Treasures in CSR: Timely, Curriculum-based. Free!”. No offense intended toward the presenters. Just not topics on my must-see list.

Some stops on my “journey” probably came from dropping into a room long enough to have a quick conversation with the presenter. For others, maybe I lingered too close to the room while tweeting or sending a text. And none of my time spent in the Bloggers’ Cafe or Posters area was recorded, even though ISTE placed their short, black receivers in those areas.

The report also doesn’t indicate whether I stayed for the whole session, only listing the time it was scheduled for. I know I was in a couple of sessions scheduled at the same time but ISTE’s tracker only seems to have captured the first one.1

Another oddity in my report is the list of vendors I visited. According to ISTE, this section was not generated by picking up the Bluetooth signal from the tag, only when my badge was scanned by a vendor.

Except that I never allowed anyone to scan my badge.

I did visit the Google booth a couple of times, primarily to see friends and talk to some members of the Geo Education team. But no one scanned me. For the other nine companies listed, I would have a hard time even telling you what they do just from their name. Maybe they had a device for scanning people as they passed. Certainly would be easy to do.

Anyway, the bottom line is that “Your ISTE 2018 Journey” really doesn’t tell me much. It certainly doesn’t explain what happens to my conference data now that the report has been sent. Will it be deleted or does ISTE plan to use it in other ways? Will it be shared with others outside the organization?

And a few other questions running around my warped brain…

Does the organization plan to use this technology again next year? If so, I wonder if the number of attendees who choose not to wear this “smart technology” (which really isn’t that smart) will spike. Will they be more aware and concerned with being tracked around a large convention center?

Is this technology hackable? At least two people I know wrote posts about being able to “see” the badges around them using a free smartphone app. As far as I know, they were only able to read the name assigned (mine was eventBit_18797) but that’s a first step to digging deeper. And possible misuse.

Maybe we need a pre-conference session on playing with this technology next June. It would be fun to see what could be done with tracking devices during ISTE 2019.

The picture is of my smart badge cracked open. Is there some way to read that chip?

1. I’m one of those annoying people who believes in the rule of two feet. If the presenter isn’t meeting my needs, I will get up and leave. Sorry, but I expect the same action from anyone attending a sessions I’m doing.

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