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November 5, 2017

[liveblog] Stefania Druga on how kids can help teach us about AI

Stefania Druga, a graduate student in the Personal Robots research group at the MIT Media Lab, is leading a discussion focusing on how children can help us to better understand and utilize AI. She’s going to talk about some past and future research projects.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She shows two applications of AI developed for kids The first is Cayla, a robotic doll. “It got hacked three days after it was released in Germany” and was banned there. The second is Aristotle, which was supposed to be an Alexa for kids. A few weeks ago Mattel decided not to release it, after “parents worried about their kids’ privacy signed petitions”parents worried about their kids’ privacy signed petitions.

Stefania got interested in what research was being done in this field. She found a couple of papers. One (Lovato & Piper 2015
) showed that children mirrored how they interact with Siri, e.g., how angry or assertive. Antother (McReynolds et al., 2017 [pdf]) found that how children and parents interact with smart toys revealed how little parents and children know about how much info is being collected by these toys, e.g. Hello Barbie’s privacy concerns. It also looked at how parents and children were being incentivized to share info on social media.

Stefania’s group did a pilot study, having parents and 27 kids interact with various intelligent agents, including Alexa, Julie Chatbot, Tina the T.Rex, and Google Home. Four or five chidlren would interact with the agent at a time, with an adult moderator. Their parents were in the room.

Stefania shows a video about this project. After the kids interacted with the agent, they asked if it was smarter than the child, if it’s a friend, if it has feelings. Children anthropomorphize AIs in playful ways. Most of the older children thought the agents were more intelligent than they were, while the younger children weren’t sure. Two conclusions: Makers of these devices should pay more attention to how children interact with them, and we need more research.

What did the children think? They thought the agents were friendly and truthful. “They thought two Alexa devices were separate individuals.”They thought two Alexa devices were separate individuals. The older children thought about these agents differently than the younger ones do. This latter may be because of how children start thinking about smartness as they progress through school. A question: do they think about artificial intelligence as being the same as human intelligence?

After playing with the agents, they would probe the nature of the device. “They are trying to place the ontology of the device.”

Also, they treated the devices as gender ambiguous.

The media glommed onto this pilot study. E.g., MIT Technology Review: “Growing Up with Alexa.” Or NYTimes: “Co-Parenting with Alexa.” Wired: Understanding Generation Alpha. From these articles, it seems that people are really polarized about the wisdom of introducing children to these devices.

Is this good for kids? “It’s complicated,” Stefania says. The real question is: How can children and parents leverage intelligent agents for learning, or for other good ends?

Her group did another study, this summer, that had 30 pairs of children and parents navigate a robot to solve a maze. They’d see the maze from the perspective of the robot. They also saw a video of a real mouse navigating a maze, and of another robot solving the maze by itself. “Does changing the agent (themselves, mouse, robot) change their idea of intelligence?”Does changing the agent (themselves, mouse, robot) change their idea of intelligence? Kids and parents both did the study. Most of the kids mirrored their parents’ choices. They even mirrored the words the parents used…and the value placed on those words.

What next? Her group wants to know how to use these devices for learning. They build extensions using Scratch, including for an open source project called Poppy. (She shows a very cool video of the robot playing, collaborating, painting, etc.) Kids can program it easily. Ultimately, she hopes that this might help kids see that they have agency, and that while the robot is smart at some things, people are smart at other things.

Q&A

Q: You said you also worked with the elderly. What are the chief differences?

A: Seniors and kids have a lot in common. They were especially interested in the fact that these agents can call their families. (We did this on tablets, and some of the elderly can’t use them because their skin is too dry.)

Q: Did learning that they can program the robots change their perspective on how smart the robots are?

A: The kids who got the bot through the maze did not show a change in their perspective. When they become fluent in customizing it and understanding how it computes, it might. It matters a lot to have the parents involved in flipping that paradigm.

Q: How were the parents involved in your pilot study?

A: It varied widely by parent. It was especially important to have the parents there for the younger kids because the device sometimes wouldn’t understand the question, or what sorts of things the child could ask it about.

Q: Did you look at how the participants reacted to robots that have strong or weak characteristics of humans or animals.

A: We’ve looked at whether it’s an embodied intelligent agent or not, but not at that yet. One of our colleagues is looking at questions of empathy.

Q: [me] Do the adults ask their children to thank Siri or other such agents?

A: No.

Q: [me] That suggests they’re tacitly shaping them to think that these devices are outside of our social norms?

Q: In my household, the “thank you” extinguishes itself: you do it a couple of times, and then you give it up.

A: This indicates that these systems right now are designed in a very transactional way. You have to say the wake up call every single phrase. But these devices will advance rapidly. Right now it’s unnatural conversation. But wth chatbots kids have a more natural conversation, and will say thank you. And kids want to teach it things, e.g, their names or favorite color. When Alexa doesn’t know what the answer is, the natural thing is to tell it, but that doesn’t work.

Q: Do the kids think these are friends?

A: There’s a real question around animism. Is it ok for a device to be designed to create a relationship with, say, a senior person and to convince them to take their pills? My answer is that people tend to anthropomorphize everything. Over time, kids will figure out the limitations of these tools.

Q: Kids don’t have genders for the devices? The speaking ones all have female voices. The doll is clearly a female.

A: Kids were interchanging genders because the devices are in a fluid space in the spectrum of genders. “They’re open to the fact that it’s an entirely new entity.”

Q: When you were talking about kids wanting to teach the devices things, I was thinking maybe that’s because they want the robot to know them. My question: Can you say more about what you observed with kids who had intelligent agents at home as opposed to those who do not?

A: Half already had a device at home. I’m running a workshop in Saudi Arabia with kids there. I’m very curious to see the differences. Also in Europe. We did one in Colombia among kids who had never seen an Alexa before and who wondered where the woman was. They thought there must be a phone inside. They all said good bye at the end.

Q: If the wifi goes down, does the device’s sudden stupidness concern the children? Do they think it died?

A: I haven’t tried that.

[me] Sounds like that would need to go through an IRB.

Q: I think your work is really foundational for people who want to design for kids.

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October 25, 2017

[liveblog] John Palfrey’s new book (and thoughts on rules vs. models)

John Palfrey is doing a launch event at the Berkman Klein Center for his new book, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education. John is the Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, and for many years was the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center and the head of the Harvard Law School Library. He’s also the chairman of the board of the Knight Foundation. This event is being put on by the BKC, the Law Library, and Andover. His new book is available on paper, or online as an open access book. (Of course it is. It’s John Palfrey, people!)

[Disclosure: Typical conversations about JP, when he’s not present, attempt — and fail — to articulate his multi-facted awesomeness. I’ll fail at this also, so I’ll just note that JP is directly responsible for my affiliation with the BKC and and for my co-directorship of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab…and those are just the most visible ways in which he has enabled me to flourish as best I can. ]

Also, at the end of this post I have some reflections on rules vs. models, and the implicit vs. explicit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

John begins by framing the book as an attempt to find a balance between diversity and free expression. Too often we have pitted the two against each other, especially in the past few years, he says: the left argues for diversity and the right argues for free expression. It’s important to have both, although he acknowledges that there are extremely hard cases where there is no reconciliation; in those cases we need rules and boundaries. But we are much better off when we can find common ground.

“This may sound old-fashioned in the liberal way. And that’s true,” he says. But we’re having this debate in part because young people have been advancing ideas that we should be listening to. We need to be taking a hard look.

Our institutions should be deeply devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our institutions haven’t been as supportive of these as they should be, although they’re getting better at it, e.g. getting better at acknowledging the effects of institutional racism.

The diversity argument pushes us toward the question of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are crucial in the same way that every human needs a place where everyone around them supports them and loves them, and where you can say dumb things. We all need zones of comfort, with rules implicit or explicit. It might be a room, a group, a virtual space… E.g., survivors of sexual assault need places where they know there are rules and they can express themselves without feeling at risk.

But, John adds, there should also be spaces where people are uncomfortable, where their beliefs are challenged.

Spaces of both sorts are experienced differently by different people. Privileged people like John experience spaces as safe that others experience as uncomfortable.

The examples in his book include: trigger warnings, safe spaces, the debates over campus symbols, the disinvitation of speakers, etc. These are very hard to navigate and call out for a series of rules or principles. Different schools might approach these differently. E.g.,students from the Gann Academy are here tonight, a local Jewish high school. They well might experience a space differently than students at Andover. Different schools well might need different rules.

Now John turns it over to students for comments. (This is very typical JP: A modest but brilliant intervention and then a generous deferral to the room. I had the privilege of co-teaching a course with him once, and I can attest that he is a brilliant, inspiring teacher. Sorry, but to be such a JP fanboy, but I am at least an evidence-based fanboy.) [I have not captured these student responses adequately, in some cases simply because I had trouble hearing them. They were remarkable, however. And I could not get their names with enough confidence to attempt to reproduce them here. Sorry!]

Student Responses

Student: I graduated from Andover and now I’m at Harvard. I was struck by the book’s idea that we need to get over the dichotomy between diversity and free expression. I want to address Chapter 5, about hate speech. It says each institution ought to assess its own values to come up with its principles about speech and diversity, and those principles ought to be communicated clearly and enforced consistently. But, I believe, we should in fact be debating what the baseline should be for all institutions. We don’t all have full options about what school we’re going to go to, so there ought to be a baseline we all can rely on.

JP: Great critique. Moral relativism is not a good idea. But I don’t think one size fits all. In the hardest cases, there might be sharpest limits. But I do agree there ought to be some sort of baseline around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’d like to see that be a higher baseline, and we’ve worked on this at Andover. State universities are different. E.g., if a neo-Nazi group wants to demonstrate on a state school campus and they follow the rules laid out in the Skokie case, etc., they should be allowed to demonstrate. If they came to Andover, we’d say no. As a baseline, we might want to change the regulations so that the First Amendment doesn’t apply if the experience is detrimental to the education of the students; that would be a very hard line to draw. Even if we did, we still might want to allow local variations.

Student: Brave spaces are often build from safe spaces. E.g., at Andover we used Facebook to build a safe space for women to talk, in the face of academic competitions where misogyny was too common. This led to creating brave places where open, frank discussion across differences was welcomed.

JP: Yes, giving students a sense of safety so they can be brave is an important point. And, yes, brave spaces do often grow from safe spaces.

Andover student: I was struck by why diversity is important: the cross-pollination of ideas. But from my experience, a lot of that hasn’t occurred because we’re stuck in our own groups. There’s also typically a divide between the students and the faculty. Student activitsts are treated as if they’re just going through a phase. How do we bridge that gap?

JP: How do we encourage more cross-pollination? It’s a really hard problem for educators. I’ve been struck by the difference between teaching at Harvard Law and Andover in terms of the comfort with disagreeing across political divides; it was far more comfortable at the Law School. I’ve told students if you present a paper that disagrees with my point of view and argues for it beautifully, you’ll do better than parroting ideas back to me. Second, we have to stop using demeaning language to talk about student activists. BTW, there is an interesting dynamic, as teachers today may well have been activists when they were young and think of themselves as the reformers.

Student: [hard to hear] At Andover, our classes were seminar-based, which is a luxury not all students have. Also: Wouldn’t encouraging a broader spread of ideas create schisms? How would you create a school identity?

JP: This echoes the first student speaker’s point about establishing a baseline. Not all schools can have 12 students with two teachers in a seminar, as at Andover. We need to find a dialectic. As for schisms: we have to communicate values. Institutions are challenged these days but there is a huge place for them as places that convey values. There needs to be some top down communication of those values. Students can challenge those values, and they should. This gets at the heart of the problem: Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Student: I’m a graduate of Andover and currently at Harvard. My generation has grown up with the Internet. What happens when what is supposed to be a safe space becomes a brave space for some but not all? E.g., a dorm where people speak freely thinking it’s a safe space. What happens when the default values overrides what someone else views as comfortable? What is the power of an institution to develop, monitor, and mold what people actually feel? When communities engage in groupthink, how can an institution construct space safes?

JP: I don’t have an easy answer to this. We do need to remember that these spaces are experienced differently by different people, and the rules ought to reflect this. Some of my best learning came from late night bull sessions. It’s the duty of the institution to do what it can to enable that sort of space. But we also have to recognize that people who have been marginalized react differently. The rule sets need to reflect that fact.

Student: Andover has many different forum spaces available, from hallways to rooms. We get to decide to choose when and where these conversations will occur. For a more traditional public high school where you only have 30-person classroom as a forum, how do we have the difficult conversations that students at Andover choose to have in more intimate settings?

JP: The size and rule-set of the group matters enormously. Even in a traditional HS you can still break a class into groups. The answer is: How do you hack the space?

Student: I’m a freshman at Harvard. Before the era of safe spaces, we’d call them friends: people we can talk with and have no fear that our private words will be made public, and where we will not be judged. Safe spaces may exclude people, e.g., a safe space open only to women.

JP Andover has a group for women of color. That excludes people, and for various reasons we think that’s entirely appropriate an useful.

Q&A

Q [Terry Fisher]: You refer frequently to rule sets. If we wanted to have a discussion in a forum like this, you could announce a set of rules. Or the organizer could announce values, such as: we value respect, or we want people to take the best version of what others say. Or, you could not say anything and model it in your behavior. When you and I went to school, there were no rules in classrooms. It was all done by modeling. But this also meant that gender roles were modeled. My experience of you as a wonderful teacher, JP, is that you model values so well. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of your students talk with the precision and respectfulness that you model. I am worried about relying on rule sets, and doubt their efficacy for the long term. Rather, the best hope is people modeling and conveying better values, as in the old method.

JP: Students, Terry Fischer was my teacher. May answer will be incredibly tentative: It is essential for an institution to convey its values. We do this at Andover. Our values tell us, for example, that we don’t want gender-based balance and are aware that we are in a misogynist culture, and thus need reasonable rules. But, yes, modeling is the most powerful.

Q [Dorothy Zinberg]: I’ve been at Harvard for about 70 yrs and I have seen the importance of an individual in changing an institution. For example, McGeorge Bundy thought he should bring 12 faculty to Harvard from non-traditional backgrounds, including Erik Erikson who did not have a college degree. He had been a disciple of Freud’s. He taught a course at Harvard called “The Lifecycle.” Every Harvard senior was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Erikson was giving brilliant lectures, but I told him it was from his point of view as a man, and had nothing to do with the young women. So, he told me, a grad student, to write the lectures. No traditional professor would have done that. Also: for forming groups, there’s nothing like closing the door. People need to be able to let go and try a lot of ideas.

Q: I am from the Sudan. How do you create a safe space in environments that are exclusive. [I may have gotten that wrong. Sorry.] How do you acknowledge the native American tribes whose land this institution is built on, or the slaves who did the building?

JP: We all have that obligation. [JP gives some examples of the Law School recently acknowledging the slave labor, and the money from slave holders, that helped build the school.]

Q: You used a kitchen as an example of a safe space. Great example. But kitchens are not established or protected by any authority. It’s a new idea that institutions ought to set these up. Do you think there should be safe spaces that are privately set up as well as by institutions? Should some be permitted to exclude people or not?

(JP asks a student to respond): Institutional support can be very helpful when you have a diversity of students. Can institutional safe spaces supplement private ones? I’m not sure. And I do think exclusive groups have a place. As a consensus forms, it’s important to allow the marginalized voices to connect.

Q [ head of Gann]: I’m a grad of Phillips Academy. As head of a religious school, we’re struggling with all these questions. Navigating these spaces isn’t just a political or intellectual activity. It is a work of the heart. If the institution thinks of this only as a rational activity and doesn’t tend to the hearts of our students, and is not explicit about the habits of heart we need to navigate these sensitive waters, only those with natural emotional skills will be able to flourish. We need to develop leaders who can turn hard conversations into generative ones. What would it look like to take on the work of developing social and emotional development?

JP: Ive been to Gann and am confident that’s what you’re doing. And you can see evidence of Andover’s work on it in the students who spoke tonight. Someone asked me if a student became a Nazi, would you expel him? Yes, if it were apparent in his actions, but probably not for his thoughts. Ideally, our students won’t come to have those views because of the social and emotional skills they’re learning. But people in our culture do have those views. Your question brings it back to the project of education and of democracy.

[This session was so JP!]

 


 

A couple of reactions to this discussion without having yet read the book.

First, about Prof. Fisher’s comment: I think we are all likely to agree that modeling the behavior we want is the most powerful educational tool. JP and Prof. Fisher, are both superb, well, models of this.

But, as Prof. Fisher noted in his question, the dominant model of discourse for our generation silently (and sometimes explicitly) favored males, white middle class values, etc. Explicit rules weren’t as necessary because we had internalized them and had stacked the deck against those who were marginalized by them. Now that diversity has thankfully become an explicit goal, and now that the Internet has thrown us into conversations across differences, we almost always need to make those rules explicit; a conversation among people from across divides of culture, economics, power, etc. that does not explicitly acknowledge the different norms under which the participants operate is almost certainly going to either fragment or end in misunderstanding.

(Clay Shirky and I had a collegial difference of opinion about this about fifteen years ago. Clay argued for online social groups having explicit constitutions. I argued
for the importance of the “unspoken” in groups, and the damage that making norms explicit can cause.)

Second, about the need for setting a baseline: I’m curious to see what JP’s book says about this, because the evidence is that we as a culture cannot agree about what the baseline is: vociferous and often nasty arguments about this have been going on for decades. For example, what’s the baseline for inviting (or disinviting) people with highly noxious views to a private college campus? I don’t see a practical way forward for establishing a baseline answer. We can’t even get Texas schools to stop teaching Creationism.

So, having said that modeling is not enough, and having despaired at establishing a baseline, I think I am left being unhelpfully dialectical:

1. Modeling is essential but not enough.

2. We ought to be appropriately explicit about rules in order to create places where people feel safe enough to be frank and honest…

3. …But we are not going to be able to agree on a meaningful baseline for the U.S., much less internationally — “meaningful” meaning that it is specific enough that it can be applied to difficult cases.

4. But modeling may be the only way we can get to enough agreement that we can set a baseline. We can’t do it by rules because we don’t have enough unspoken agreement about what those rules should be. We can only get to that agreement by seeing our leading voices in every field engage across differences in respectful and emotionally truthful ways. So at the largest level, I find I do agree with Prof. Fisher: we need models.

5. But if our national models are to reflect the values we want as a baseline, we need to be thoughtful, reflective, and explicit about which leading voices we want to elevate as models. We tend to do this not by looking for rules but by looking for Prof. Fisher’s second alternative: values. For example, we say positively that we love John McCain’s being a “maverick” or Kamala Harris’ careful noting of the evidence for her claims, and we disdain Trump’s name-calling. Rules derive from values such as those. Values come before rules.

I just wish I had more hope about the direction we’re going in…although I do see hopeful signs in some of the model voices who are emerging, and most of all, in the younger generation’s embrace of difference.

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October 19, 2017

[liveblog] AI and Education session

Jenn Halen, Sandra Cortesi, Alexa Hasse, and Andres Lombana Bermudez of the Berkman Klein Youth and Media team are leading about a discussion about AI and Education at MIT Media Lab as part of the Ethics and Governance of AI program jointly at the Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and the MIT Media Lab.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Sandra gives an introduction the BKC Youth and Media project. She points out that their projects are co-designed with the groups that they are researching. From the AI folks they’d love ideas and better understanding of AI, for they are just starting to consider the importance of AI to education and youth. They are creating a Digital Media Literacy Platform (which Sandra says they hope to rename).

They show an intro to AI designed to be useful for a teacher introducing the topic to students. It defines, at a high level, AI, machine learning, and neural networks. They also show “learning experiences” (= “XP”) that Berkman Klein summer interns came up with, including AI and well-being, AI and news, autonomous vehicles, and AI and art. They are committed to working on how to educate youth about AI not only in terms of particular areas, but also privacy, safety, etc., always with an eye towards inclusiveness.

They open it up for discussion by posing some questions. 1. How to promote inclusion? How to open it up to the most diverse learning communities? 2. Did we spot any errors in their materials? 3. How to reduce the complexity of this topic? 4. Should some of the examples become their own independent XPs? 5. How to increase engagement? How to make it exciting to people who don’t come into it already interested in the topic?

[And then it got too conversational for me to blog…]

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May 15, 2017

[liveblog][AI] AI and education lightning talks

Sara Watson, a BKC affiliate and a technology critic, is moderating a discussion at the Berkman Klein/Media Lab AI Advance.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Karthik Dinakar at the Media Lab points out what we see in the night sky is in fact distorted by the way gravity bends light, which Einstein called a “gravity lens.” Same for AI: The distortion is often in the data itself. Karthik works on how to help researchers recognize that distortion. He gives an example of how to capture both cardiologist and patient lenses to better to diagnose women’s heart disease.

Chris Bavitz is the head of BKC’s Cyberlaw Clinic. To help Law students understand AI and tech, the Clinic encourages interdisciplinarity. They also help students think critically about the roles of the lawyer and the technologist. The clinic prefers early relationships among them, although thinking too hard about law early on can diminish innovation.

He points to two problems that represent two poles. First, IP and AI: running AI against protected data. Second, issues of fairness, rights, etc.

Leah Plunkett, is a professor at Univ. New Hampshire Law School and is a BKC affiliate. Her topic: How can we use AI to teach? She points out that if Tom Sawyer were real and alive today, he’d be arrested for what he does just in the first chapter. Yet we teach the book as a classic. We think we love a little mischief in our lives, but we apparently don’t like it in our kids. We kick them out of schools. E.g., of 49M students in public schools in 20-11, 3.45M were suspended, and 130,000 students were expelled. These disproportionately affect children from marginalized segments.

Get rid of the BS safety justification and the govt ought to be teaching all our children without exception. So, maybe have AI teach them?

Sarah: So, what can we do?

Chris: We’re thinking about how we can educate state attorneys general, for example.

Karthik: We are so far from getting users, experts, and machine learning folks together.

Leah: Some of it comes down to buy-in and translation across vocabularies and normative frameworks. It helps to build trust to make these translations better.

[I missed the QA from this point on.]

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March 29, 2017

[liveblog] Ed tech hackathon

I’m at an education technology hackathon — “Shaping the Future” — put on by MindCET, an ed tech accelerator created by the Center for Educational Technology in Israel. MindCET’s headquarters are in Yeruham in the Negev, a small-ish town that’s been growing as tech companies migrate there.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Our group created — in a demo hackathon-ish way — a tool that helps teachers create workgroups for collaborative learning based on information gleaned from machine learning about learning capabilities. The judges are four young people who are prodigiously talented computer developers. We named it Sort_ed because my team did not appreciate the sheer (shear?) genius of Zissorz. (My team was awesome.)

“Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.”Our business plan: Mexico will pay for it.

Here are some of the projects presented at the end of the 36 hours of development. Each group has two minutes to present, ruthlessly enforced.

Interest In: A platform for students sharing their interests by learning or teaching. They can create tutorials and list them. They get badges.

Escape the classroom “Classrooms are so boring”Classrooms are so boring. Escape the Classroom uses the power of whatsApp and escape rooms (i.e., the puzzle rooms you try to get out of collaboratively, using educational clues.

Rope. Team-based learning.”Rope Team” is a course format for Moodle that implements a unique workflow for learning a set number of topics.” There are roles and responsibilities, and a workflow with automation. (The creator of Moodle, Martin Dougiamas, is on that team.)

Snippy. Every child has a passion for something. Snippy lets students create content, share it, and share the content of others. A chatbot interviews you and presents relevant materials from what other students have uploaded. You can create a multimedia object to share your passion.

Clash of Brains. No one (hardly) likes tests. This team wants to bring fun and sociality into assessments. Teachers create a quiz and the app sends a code to students. Students can “duel” other students.

Edventure — a tailor-made education adventure. In the example, a friendly monster asks for help with a question. It’s a collaborative RPG for 3-5 players.

Playful — “promoting education through play.” “They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System.”They introduce RRS: Robot Rewards System. You get real-world rewards from a robot: perhaps art, maybe it does a dance, etc. You can also be challenged to hack the robot.

Disruptive text. “For students who hate to read.” For 7-9th graders who struggle to read long texts. The text becomes a riddle they need to decode. They use several techniques to challenge the reader: Difficult fonts. Blurred text until you click. Mirrored words that reverse when clicked.

The Words and Image Challenge. “Students from a local Bedouin school are wearing a word and a drawing of an object.”Students from a local Bedouin school (unfairly adorable) are wearing a word and a drawing of an object. They throw a ball to the person with the name of the object on her or his shirt. You have to throw the ball as quickly as you can, in “hot potato” style.

ReflectMe. A team from the Israeli army has created an app that enables students to give one another feedback. (They contrast this with top-down military structure.) It has a simple, intuitive UI. In the example, students can leave feedback on a video, tied to the time code.

Peerz. Standardization misses individual passion. The future is individualized passion-based learning. But teachers can’t scale for this. A student asks Peerz a question, with hashtags. Other students can respond. The system suggests resources, better questions, etc. The questions are rated. “Peerz monetizes talent discovery.” “Co-creative learning in your pocket.”

EdMarket. “The Amazon of Education.” It gives teachers the ability to choose the best products. EdMarket is a marketplace of learning resources, sponsored by the govt (or so their business plan says). The students and teachers can reference the market.

Owie. “An AI best friend.” It will help students talk about emotions, especially when the situation is stressful. Owie is a chatbot that lets 8-12 year olds communicate with other friends and play emotionally-supportive games.

Shape on You. A virtual reality experience that teaches geometric figures. It aims at making it easier to grasp abstract concepts. You can manipulate figures, see the dimensions, alter them, and see the results. You can share your figure with other students.

Action Learning. They show a robot (a bit Lego-like) that models a robot for delivering water in the desert. They programmed this with the Creative Learning Lab. They created a space, physical and digital, where you can meet others and learn life lessons. “Solving problems that you couldn’t solve in school.”

Who Am I?. How to encourage creation within children, and how to motivate them to be interactive and really invest in the process. Who Am I? is a mini-quest game where you try to discover who is hidden in the room. It’s a mobile app that you navigate by moving the phone. You find clues. Students can make their own puzzles.

DPlay — “Democracy Playground.” “How do you liberate learning for self-reflection.” They created a platform for debating issues and reflecting on one’s own positions. Students fill out a little survey about the opposing positions, reflecting on why they react against it. These surveys are compiled over time. Is a student changing her vote often? Is she always voting with her friends?

OwnEd. They created an app that takes away the stress from students (12-13yr old) who are unsure what subjects they should be taking. It lets them design their own learning program. How do they want to learn? When do they want to learn? An “intuitive app” visually stimulates them to say that they’re most interested in. The backend uses this to suggest areas. The app suggests a time structure for their program. “Breaking the rules around space and time.”

Imagibate.com “Free learners’ mind from the old structures by engaging them in debate.” They use imaginary worlds to make sure the issues are not personally sensitive. The debates will be put up on line. E.g., “a world of unicorns and coffee beans”a world of unicorns and coffee beans, two tribes that have gotten along until the coffee beans learn to make a scent they find pleasurable, but it makes the unicorns sick. The team models a live debate, complete with a unicorn hat.

The winner was Who Am I?. We came in second, by one vote.

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March 18, 2017

How a thirteen-year-old interprets what's been given

“Of course what I’ve just said may not be right,” concluded the thirteen year old girl, “but what’s important is to engage in the interpretation and to participate in the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years.”

So said the bas mitzvah girl at an orthodox Jewish synagogue this afternoon. She is the daughter of friends, so I went. And because it is an orthodox synagogue, I didn’t violate the Sabbath by taking notes. Thus that quote isn’t even close enough to count as a paraphrase. But that is the thought that she ended her D’var Torah with. (I’m sure as heck violating the Sabbath now by writing this, but I am not an observant Jew.)

The D’var Torah is a talk on that week’s portion of the Torah. Presenting one before the congregation is a mark of one’s coming of age. The bas mitzvah girl (or bar mitzvah boy) labors for months on the talk, which at least in the orthodox world is a work of scholarship that shows command of the Hebrew sources, that interprets the words of the Torah to find some relevant meaning and frequently some surprising insight, and that follows the carefully worked out rules that guide this interpretation as a fundamental practice of the religion.

While the Torah’s words themselves are taken as sacred and as given by G-d, they are understood to have been given to us human beings to be interpreted and applied. Further, that interpretation requires one to consult the most revered teachers (rabbis) in the tradition. An interpretation that does not present the interpretations of revered rabbis who disagree about the topic is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that writes off prior interpretations with which one disagrees is not listening carefully enough and is likely to be flawed. An interpretation that declares that it is unequivocally the correct interpretation is wrong in that certainty and is likely to be flawed in its stance.

It seems to me — and of course I’m biased — that these principles could be very helpful regardless of one’s religion or discipline. Jewish interpretation takes the Word as the given. Secular fields take facts as the given. The given is not given unless it is taken, and taking is an act of interpretation. Always.

If that taking is assumed to be subjective and without boundaries, then we end up living in fantasy worlds, shouting at those bastards who believe different fantasies. But if there are established principles that guide the interpretations, then we can talk and learn from one another.

If we interpret without consulting prior interpretations, then we’re missing the chance to reflect on the history that has shaped our ideas. This is not just arrogance but stupidity.

If we fail to consult interpretations that disagree with one another, we not only will likely miss the truth, but we will emerge from the darkness certain that we are right.

If we consult prior interpretations that disagree but insist that we must declare one right and the other wrong, we are being so arrogant that we think we can stand in unequivocal judgment of the greatest minds in our history.

If we come out of the interpretation certain that we are right, then we are far more foolish than the thirteen year old I heard speak this morning.

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March 1, 2017

[liveblog] Five global challenges and the role of the university

Juan Carlos De Martin is giving a lunchtime talk called “Five global challenges and the role of the university,” with Charles Nesson. These are two of my favorite people. Juan Carlos is here to talk about his new book (in Italian), Università Futura – Tra Democrazia e Bit.

Charlie introduces Juan Carlos by describing his first meeting with him at a conference in Torino at which the idea of the Nexa Center of Internet and Society
, which is now a reality.

Juan Carlos begins by tracing the book’s traIn the book and here he will talk about five global challenges. Why five? Because that’s how we he sees it, but it’s subjective.

  1. Democracy. It’s in crisis.

  2. Environment. For example, you may have heard about this global warming thing. It’s hard for us to think about such large systems.

  3. Technology. E.g., bio tech, AI, nanotech, neuro-cognition. The benefits of these are important, but the problems they raise are very difficult.

  4. Economy. Growth is slowing. Trade is slowing. How do we ensure a decent livelihood to all?

  5. Geopolitics. The world order seems to be undergoing constant change. How do we preserve the peace?

We are in uncharted waters, he says: high risk and high unpredictability. ““I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers”I don’t want to sound apocalyptic, because I’m not, but we have to face the dangers.”
Juan Carlos makes three observations:

First, we are going to need lots of knowledge, more than ever before.

Second, we’ll need people capable of interpreting, using, and producing such knowledge, more than ever before.

Third, in democracies we need the knowledge to get to as many people as possible, and as many people as possible have to become better critical thinkers. “There’s a clear rejection of experts which we, as people in universities, need to take seriously…What did we do wrong to lose the trust of people?”

These three observations lead to the idea that universities should play an important role. So, what is the current state of the university?

First, for the past forty years, universities have pursued knowledge useful to the economy.

Second, there has been an emphasis on training workers, which makes sense, but has meant less emphasis on educating people as full humans and citizens.

Third, the university has been a normative organization (like non-profits and churches) that has been pushed to become more of a utilitarian organization (like businesses). This shows itself in, for example, the excessive use of quantitative metrics for promotion, an insane emphasis on publishing for its own sake, and a hyper-disciplinarity because it’s easier to publish within a smaller slice.

These mean that the historically multi-dimensional mission of the university has been flattened, and the spirit has gone from normative to utilitarian. “All of this represents a problem if we want the university to help society face … 21st century problems.” (Juan Carlos says that he wrote the book in Italian [his English is perfect] because when he began in 2008, Italian universities were beginning a seven year contraction of 20%.)

We need all kinds of knowledge — not just what looks useful right now — because we don’t know what will be useful. We need interdisciplinarity because so many societal challenges — including all the ones he began the talk with — are interdisciplinary. But the incentives are not currently in that direction. And we need “effective interaction with the general public.” This is not just about communicating or transferring knowledge; it has to be genuinely interactive.

We need, he says, the university to speak the truth.

His proposal is that we “rediscover the roots of the university” and update them to present times. There is a solution in those roots, he says.

At the root, education is a personal relationship among human beings. ““Education is not mere information transfer”Education is not mere information transfer.” This means educating human beings and citizens, not just workers.

Everyone agrees we need critical thinking, but we need to work on how to teach it and what it means. We need critical thinkers because we need people who can handle unexpected situations.

We need universities to be institutions that can take the long view, can go slowly, value silence, that enable concentration. These were characteristics of universities for a thousand years.
What universities can do:

1. To achieve inter-disciplinarity, we cannot abolish disciplines; they play an important role. But we need to avoid walls between them. “Maybe a little short fence” that people can easily cross.

2. We need to strongly encourage heterodox thinking. Some disciplines need this urgently; Juan Carlos calls out economics as an example.

3. The university should itself be a “trustee of the unborn,” i.e., of the generation to come. “The university has always had the role of bridging the dead and the unborn.” In Europe this has been a role of the state, but they’re doing it less and less.

A side effect is that the university should be the conscience and critic of society. He quotes Pres. Drew Faust on whether universities are doing this enough.

4. Universities need to engage with the public, listening to their concerns. That doesn’t mean pandering to them. Only dialogue will help people learn.

5. Universities need to actively employ the Internet to achieve its objectives. Juan Carlos’ research on this topic began with the Internet, but it flipped, focusing first on the university.

Overall, he says, “we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character”we need new ideas, critical thinking, and character. By that last he means moral commitment. Universities can move in that direction by rediscovering their roots, and updating them.

Charlie now leads a session in which we begin by posting questions to http://cyber.harvard.edu/questions/list.php . I cannot keep up with the conversation. The session is being webcast and the recording will be posted. (Charlie is a celebrated teacher with a special skill in engaging groups like this.)


I agree with everything Juan Carlos says, and especially am heartened by the idea that the university as an institution can help to re-moor us. But I then find myself thinking that it took enormous forces to knock universities off their 1,000 year mission. Those same forces are implacable. Can universities deny the fusion of powers that put them in this position in the first place?

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November 11, 2016

Life will, uh, find a way

Mike Ananny [twitter: ananny] had to guest-lecture a class about media, communications and news on Nov. 9. He recounts the session with an implicit sense of wonder that we can lift our head up from the dirt after that giant Monty Python jackboot dropped on us.

monty pyton foot

It’s a reminder that step by step, we’ll make some progress back to where we were and then beyond.

No, I don’t really believe that. Not yet.

But I will.

Thanks to you.

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June 11, 2016

Keeping MOOCs open—platforms vs. protocols

Tarun Vagani reports that Coursera has served notice that it is closing its archive of prior MOOCs (massive open online courses). As Coursera put it in an email:

Effective June 30, 2016, courses on the old platform will no longer be available.

Also, Coursera is phasing out its free certificates to those who successfully complete a course, according to CourseraJunkie.

There’s nothing wrong with a MOOC platform charging for whatever they want to charge for. There is something terribly wrong with the educational system handing power over MOOCs to a commercial entity.

MOOCs are here to stay. But we once again need to learn the danger of centralized platforms. Protocols are safer — more generative, more resistant to capture — than platforms. Distributed archives are safer than centralized archives.

Thank goodness the idea of the Decentalized Web (or, as I prefer to think of it, the Decent Web) is gaining momentum. Not a moment too soon.

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October 28, 2015

[liveblog] International Univ. Lib. conference: Afternoon panel

I’m at the International Conference on University Libraries (Conferencia Internacional sobre Bibliotecas Universitarias) in Mexico City.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

I am often relying on simultaneous translators, so the following is extra-specially unreliable.

Lynn Rudasill, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The process of traditional Business-Based Strategic planning

  • Define the mission

  • Establish measurable goals

  • Implements strategies for those goals

  • Align resources to support these efforts

  • Employ the strategy as a large, iterative formalized process

The IFLA Trend Report reports on regional trends. It was developed by info people, not librarians. It reports on five trends

  • Increasing access to info

  • Online education

  • Privacy and data protection

  • Hyper-connected societies

  • New societies

Another report worth reading: The ALA Center for the Future of the Library Trends.

Her favorite: The Horizon Report series. The reports lay out timelines. The recent one has some topics shared between Higher Ed and Academic Libraries, including maker spaces.

These reports make clear the problems for strategic planning: “”We are no longer hierarchically based. We are networks.””“We are no longer hierarchically based. We are networks.” Not top down.

So we have to move from strategic plans (static, hierarchical) to strategic planning (dynamic, networked). Alternatives:

Strategic Framework: Identifies service objectives and their populations. Locates services that are no longer useful.

Grassroots Strategic Planning: Open engagement by all employees, often beginning with an all-=staff retreat. Ideas are broadly solicited, often anonymously. All ideas a discussed equally. There are brainstorming sessions. Decisions are made by buy-in from all quarters.

SOAR (was SWOT): Strengths, opportunities, aspirations, and results. It’s an “appreciative inquiry to focus on best possible future.” It’s a much more positive approach.

Agile planning and scrum development: Flexible leadership, and overall leader and facilitator. Crosstraining. Teams focus on specific goals. The product owner is responsible for the final result.

Lourdes Epstein Cal y Mayor

[I missed the beginning. Sorry.] She thinks it important that research labs accept the ethical dimensions of what they’re doing. She quotes a tweet from @JGrobelny: “Libraries need to protect the culture of learning, not just its resources.” We have not done a good job measuring the impact of our work. What’s more important, our resources or our competencies? Even the distinction between hard and soft skills is suspect.

Ranganathan’s 5th Law of Library Science: “The Library is a Growing Organism.” We shouldn’t be surprised that libraries are changing. She cites Michael Gorman’s 1998 update of this.

We should pay attention to the growing number of Open Access scientific journals. This is crucial for libraries.

We need to be learning the lessons of Web 2.0. There is a profound change in the role of the social, in power relations. We need a broad view of what is happening.

The rise of VUCA: Volatility uncertainity, complexity, and ambiguity. We should match it with Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. We need to pay attention to those who we have written off or marginalized.

We should be doing more with predictive analysis to help our users. We need support from our institutions for this. For example, theDASH repository at Harvard (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard). [Yay!] And “why aren’t we creating our own courses?”why aren’t we creating our own courses? We should be organizing info organiccally, with a virtuous circle of data, information and knowledge.

We live in amazing, amazing times. If we can join in the cycle of the generation of knowledge, we will succeed: user centered, open to society, and library-based…that’s how we create communities and networks of knowledge.

What do we do with information? Technologies of information set the emphasis. [Translation is fading out] Digital natives won’t be able to make sense of information unless we teach them the key competencies. The solutions are not technological. You can’t just hand out iPads.

We have to be mindful of our discourse. We get distracted by shiny tech. We have evolved from manuscripts constrained to the elite. But now with digital objects–not just digital books–there can be mass production of interconnected info, used by prosumers, some of whom may be kids coming up with worthy contributions. How do we assess all of these resources? That’s a major challenge for libraries.

But we’re learning. Bloom’s taxonomy is transforming into verbs: record, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, create. Now the last step of learning is to create. If I’m not creating, I’m not fully learning. A library that does not understand this will turn into a museum or a warehouse. Creation and collaboration the keywords of our time. Our use of library space should reflect this.

We need to move from:

  • individual to collective

  • Consumer to producuer

  • Resources to rpocessors

  • Institutional to “out-stitution” [does not translate well]

Scott Bennett

Scott is Yale University Librarian Emeritus. His topic is “Library as Learning Space.”

He says there have been leitmotifs today, including the librarians ought to act more as educators. Librarians tell him that they want to build a space for learning, but then can’t say what they want to go on in the space. Scott is going to talk about what learning is.

Libraries have recently faced two revolutions. First, the self-empowerment revolution brought about by the presence of Internet browser. Second, pedagogical changes from the Sage on the Stage to a Guy on the Side. This changes the relationship between learner and teacher, and between novice and expert.

As a consequence of the first much of the print collection has disappeared from prime library space. Because of the second traditional services–reference services–are vanishing. Scott will focus on the second.

Two concepts help understand the revolution in learning. First, from learning about to learning to be. E.g., away “from learning facts of science and toward learning to think like a scientist.”from learning facts of science and toward learning to think like a scientist. Second, learning as a perpetual process of becoming.

We should think of ourselves first as educators. That will help us decide how to shape library space. “We must focus most fundamentally on the voluntary relationship between expert and novice, teacher and learner.”

The first question is: Who owns the learning space of libraries? Second: How do we shape the experience of becoming.

Wh owns library space? “Almost everyone on campus feels ownership. Yet we typically treat students as guests or visitors.”Almost everyone on campus feels ownership. Yet we typically treat students as guests or visitors. We’ve started creating student-owned commons, especially in science buildings. Students own their tutoring space as they occupy it.

“How does our presence shape our relationship with students?” Reference desks announce a relationship in which one person owns the desk and has authoritative knowledge. The desk also is designed for queueing. “”So designed, service desks reinforce a transactional, consumerist vision of what we do.””“So designed, service desks reinforce a transactional, consumerist vision of what we do.” We’ve tried re-designing them, but we rarely think about how we can present ourselves to learners, establish a relationship with them, without using the desk to define who we are and how we work.

Tutoring staff typically do not see themselves as Sages on Stages. This determines how they shape their tutoring spaces, which sends a distinct message to learners that is quite different from that of the typical library space. Librarians think of themselves as learning coaches, but the spaces and services send a very different message. That helps librarians sense of themselves as professionals, but does not engage in the new forms of learning.

To become educators, we have to rethink our presence in library space. Presence involves issues of ownership and pedagogy. Librarians understand themselves primarily in terms of learning and not service delivery. The goal is for us to be in learning spaces without dominating them. Presence in learning is the single most important issue in planning spaces.

Q&A

Q: Libraries are filled with people doing low-quality learning, sitting quietly. But we have spaces that can accommodate more engaged, embodied learning.

Q: What traits must a librarian have to become an educator in this learning speaes?
Scott: The librarian should shift his/her sense of primarily focus from the student to the faculty because that scales better. Mopping up after a bad teacher is not as effective as working with the teacher. “Librarians ought to have their offices with the educators in their disciplines.”Librarians ought to have their offices with the educators in their disciplines. The library building should not be their home.

Q: All organizations ought to have strategic planning.

Lynn: Sometimes we only the measure the things that are easy to measure. We don’t go beyond log analysis to see what the students are learning. Also our planning, we tend to be driven by the advances of techology. But why aren’t we driving technology instead of allowing it to drive us?

Lourdes: We’re moving to new processes but haven’t established ways to measure. Now we can automate much of the measurement. But we also need to carry out qualitative studies. But we also have to ask what we’re going to do with the data. We have done many studies but we do nothing with them. We don’t go to the Dean and ask for backing for new programs.

Q: I agree with Lourdes that the library ought to be seen as a lab. We have to adapt.

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