Archive for the ‘Machine Learning’ Category

One of the world’s most infamous digital visionaries, Marc Prensky, specializes in spreading educational future shock.  Fresh off the plane from California, the education technology guru who coined the phrase “digital natives” did it again in Fredericton, the quiet provincial capital of New Brunswick.  Two hundred delegates attending the N.B. Education Summit (October 16-18, 2019) were visibly stunned by his latest presentation which dropped what he described as a series of “bombs” in what has become his ongoing campaign of creative disruption.

His introductory talk, “From giving kids content to kids fixing real world problems,” featured a series of real zingers. “The goal of education,” Prensky proclaimed, “is not to learn, it is to accomplish things.” “Doing something at the margins will not work” because we have to “leapfrog over the present to reach the future.”When you look out at a classroom, you see networked kids.” Instead of teaching something or developing work-ready skills, we should be preparing students to become “symbiotic human hybrids” in a near future world.

Having spent two breakfasts, totaling more than two hours, face-to-face with Marc Prensky, a few things became crystal clear. The wild success of his obscure 2001 article in On the Horizon on “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” totally surprised him. He is undaunted by the tenacious critics of the research-basis of his claims, and he’s perfectly comfortable in his role as education’s agent provocateur.

Prensky burst on the education scene nearly twenty years ago. His seminal article was discovered by an Australian Gifted Education association in Tasmania, and it exploded from there. Seven books followed, including Digital Game-Based Learning (2001), From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom (2012), and Education to Better Their World (2016).

While riding the wave, he founded his Global Future Foundation based in Palo Alto, California, not far from the home of TED Talks guru Sir Ken Robinson. He is now full-time on the speaking circuit and freely admits that he seeks to “drop a few bombs” in his talks before education audiences. Even though he writes books for a living, he confessed to me that he hasn’t “used a library in years.”

Assembled delegates at the recent Summit were zapped by Prensky in a session designed as a wake-up call for educators. About one-third of the delegates were classroom teachers and they, in particular, greeted his somewhat outlandish claims with barely-concealed skepticism.

Listening to students is good practice, but idealizing today’s kids doesn’t wash with most front-line practitioners.  How should we prepare the next generation? “We treat our kids like PETS (capitalized). Go here, do that… We don’t have to train them to follow us. Let’s treat them as CAPABLE PEOPLE (capitalized).” Making such assumptions about what’s happening in classrooms don’t go over with professionals who, day-in-day-out, model student-focused learning and respect students so much that they would never act that way. Especially so, with teachers struggling to reach students in today’s complex and demanding classroom environments.

Striving for higher student performance standards is not on Prensky’s radar. “Academics have hijacked K-12 education,” he stated. Nor is improving provincial test scores. “We’re not looking to raise PISA scores. That test was designed by engineers – for engineers.” There’s no need to teach content when information is a Google click away, in Prensky’s view.  “All the old stuff is online, so the goal of education is now to equip kids with the power to affect their world.” 

Prensky has survived waves of criticism over the years and remains undaunted by the periodic salvos.  Since inventing the term “digital natives” and becoming their champion, six points of criticism have been raised about his evolving theory of preparing kids for future education:

  1. The Generational Divide: The generational differences between “digital natives” and pre-iPod “digital immigrants” are greatly exaggerated because digital access and fluency are more heavily influenced by factors of gender, race and socio-economic status. Millennials may use ‘social media’ technology without mastering the intricacies of digital learning and utilizing its full potential (Reeves 2008, Helsper and Enyon 2009,  Frawley 2017)).
  2.  Video-Game Based Learning:  Unbridled advocacy of video-game based learning tends to ignore its negative impacts upon teens, including the glorification of violence, video game addiction, and the prevalence of “digital deprivation” as teens retreat into their private worlds (Alliance for Childhood 2004).
  3. Brain Change Theory: Claims that “digital natives” think and process information differently are based upon flimsy evidence, and trace back to work by Dr. Bruce Perry, a Senior Fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, TX. It actually relates more to how fear and trauma affect the brain. This is often cited as an example of “arcade scholarship” or cherry-picking evidence and applying it to support your own contentions (Mackenzie 2007).
  4. Stereotyping of Generations: Young people do not fit neatly into his stereotype of “digital natives” because the younger generation (youth 8-18) is far more complex in its acceptance and use of technology, ranging from light to heavy users of digital technology. Boys who play video games are not representative of the whole generation. (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005, Helsper and Enyon 2009)).
  5. Disempowering of Teachers: Changing methodology and curriculum to please children may help to advance student engagement, but it denigrates “legacy learning” and reduces teachers to mere facilitators of technology programs and applications. Dismissing “content knowledge” is unwise, especially when the proposed alternative is process learning and so vacuous (Mackenzie 2007)
  6. Digital Deprivation:  Expanded and excessive use of video games and digital toys can foster isolation rather than social connection which can be harmful to children and teens. Some prime examples of those adverse effects are exposure to violence, warped social values, and ethical/moral miseducation  (Turkle 1984, Alliance for Childhood 2004))

Most critical assessments of Marc Pensky’s case for pursuing “digital wisdom” call into question its efficacy and even its existence. “Digital technology can be used to make us not just wiser but smarter” is his more recent contention. Knowing how to make things is “know how” but it is only one type of knowledge and hardly a complete picture of what constitutes human wisdom.

Combining technology with human judgement has advanced through AI (artificial intelligence), but it’s probably foolhardy to call it “digital wisdom.” It implies, to be frank, that only things that can be qualified and turned into algorithms have value and denigrates the wisdom of the ages.  Championing the inventive mind is fine, but that can also lead to blind acceptance of the calculating, self-interested, and socially-unconscious mind. Where humanity perishes, so do the foundations of civilizations.

Why does digital evangelist Marc Prensky stirr up such controversy in the education world?  Where’s the evidence to support his case for the existence of “digital nativism”? Does “digital wisdom” exist or is it just a new term for useful knowledge or “know how”? Should teaching knowledge to students be completely abandoned in the digital education future?  

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Curriculum and pedagogy have become captives of the Machine and a few brave souls in the education world are challenging the new orthodoxy. When Leo Marx’s 1964 classic of American literary criticism The Machine in the Garden first appeared, it met with a cool reception, especially among those enthralled with the modernizing forces of the urban-industrial order. Today, that book is hailed as “the most stimulating book in American studies and the one most likely to exert an influence upon scholarship.”

Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine (Crown House Publishing, 2019) makes a bold, imaginative and compelling case for rediscovering the foundations of a knowledge-rich curriculum. Confronting the “deep learning” supposedly facilitated by machine learning, we are reintroduced to a sadly forgotten world where knowledge still matters and teaching is about making human connections and future-proofing today’s students.  It is, predictably,ruffling feathers in conventional progressive educational curriculum circles and even sparking the odd superficial, reactive drive-by assessment.

Robinson’s latest book is a worthy sequel to his ground-breaking 2013 education philosophy and teaching classic, Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Thought-provoking and enlightening books like Trivium 21c are rarities in a field littered with turgid, politically-correct and impenetrable philosophical tombs or ‘how to’ curriculum manuals designed to advance the careers of school-system consultants.  Resurrecting the trivium of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric has a way of exposing the frail foundations and ideologically-driven research sustaining the prevailing progressive consensus, seemingly threatened by the dialectic and comfortable in its presentist assumptions.

Robinson’s highly original work is so fresh that it breaks the conventional categories and binary thinking that readily applies “progressive” or “essentialist” labels to every new contribution to the field. While Trivium 21c and Athena versus the Machine testify to the centrality of knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom, it is all in the service of vanquishing machine-learning and restoring the human element in today’s classrooms.  It is a brilliant fusion of two traditions previously considered to be polar opposites and contradictions impossible to bridge in curriculum, teaching, and learning.

MartinRobinsonrED17Inspiring teachers like Robinson rarely posses the gift of being able to translate their discoveries and secrets onto the written page let alone witty, thought-provoking, elegantly-written, soundly researched books. The author, a seasoned London high school dramatic arts teacher, actually personifies what he is espousing — a stimulating, intellectually engaging, mischievous cast of mind that ignites your interest in a classroom.  Watching him in action at researchED conferences, he is a truly riveting teacher and his books further enhance that reputation.

Robinson tackles what is perhaps the central educational issue of our time — the contest between Athena (the goddess of wisdom) and the Machine (mechanical thinking and the quantification of learning). His metaphoric imagery breathes real life into the educational debate and reminds us that the “beating heart” of the school is its curriculum and it should not be subsumed by globalized conceptions of the function of education or attempts to reduce it to a vehicle for social justice. “Bringing the human back” into education has found a champion.

Reading Robinson’s book one is struck by how it is informed by, and builds upon, the cutting-edge social criticism of the late Neil Postman.  Searching for a way of reconstructing a “transcendent narrative,” he shares Postman’s despair over “life with no meaning” where “learning has no purpose.” Preparing students for success in the 21st century technological world or to challenge class inequalities fill the vacuum, but further accentuate utilitarian or instrumentalist conceptions of promoting social mobility or social justice.  Fully-educated students possessing a liberal education, Robinson argues, recognize the true value of knowledge and enjoy the significant advantage of cultural mobility.

The author delights in challenging prevailing curriculum assumptions and in tweaking educators absorbed in student-centred learning who invent the curriculum in response to passing fancy or children’s immediate interests. “Curriculum,” according to Robinson, “is a dialectical pursuit framed around great narratives” and should be respectful of our “subject disciplines” which are our “great muses.”

Parroting progressive education philosophy and echoing the popular dogma of “21st century learning” are more alike than recognized by many of today’s school change theorists, curriculum consultants and their followers.  Going along with prevailing currents associated with technology-driven learning, Robinson reminds us, means succumbing to mechanized processes that feed off quantifiable outcomes. Succumbing to the “doctrine of child-centred learning” or “project-based miasma” runs the risk of producing a generation of “little Napoleons” who are “conned into thinking that they are central to the culture in which they find themselves.”

Robinson has the courage to expose some oft-forgotten educational truths. Powerful, life-altering lessons should not be reserved for upwardly mobile families attuned to the benefits of liberal education. True wisdom comes from pursuing knowledge for its own sake. “Knowledge is,” in Robinson’s words, ” not a pick ‘n’ mix smorgasbord of consumerist passions” and is “understandable within contexts — for example, words are most useful in sentences, paragraphs, stories, and books” (p. 142)

Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine does pay homage to the wisdom bequeathed by Western civilization without making apologies for doing so. Athena is a cleverly-constructed proxy and conduit for Robinson’s own thinking on the purpose and role of education. He points out that dismissing the traditional humanist curriculum as “white or middle class” may be easy, but it is also ill-considered. The so-called Western education tradition has deep roots going back to Muslim scholars and pre-Christian thinkers. It has also been challenged, over the centuries, and proven itself capable of thriving on argument and emotion, reason and debate, and equipping students so that they can “make up their own minds.”

Martin Robinson’s new book stands out because it is so unlike the current crop of curriculum books pouring out of California-based Corwin Publishing and featured in Educational Leadership, the flagship magazine of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  “Computer-aided inspiration,” envisioned by Seymour Papert in his seminal work Mindstorms (1980), gave way to “computer-aided instruction” and has now morphed into digital surveillance, data collection, and measurement of outcomes. That transformation goes unrecognized in too many books offering up curriculum panaceas.

The breadth and depth of  Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine sets it apart in the field of contemporary educational philosophy and criticism. It deserves to be discussed along with some of the most influential radical education texts, such as French philosopher, theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul‘s The Technological Society (1954), Paul Goodman‘s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), Neil Postman‘s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), and Ivan Illich‘s Tools for Conviviality (1973). We are sometimes slow to recognize books that shatter perceptions and significantly alter our understanding of curriculum, teaching, and learning.

What makes Martin Robinson’s Curriculum: Athena versus the Machine such a compelling and original education book?   Can it be properly understood without reading and digesting its prequel, Trivium 21c?   Why is the book so difficult to categorize, label and dismiss? How does the current crop of system-bound curriculum books stack up against this piece of work? Will the book, like Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, live on as an influential contribution to understanding societal transformation? 



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A recent headline in the New Scientist caught the eye of University College London Professor Rose Luckin, widely regarded as the “Dr. Who of AI in Education.” It read: “AI achieves its best mark ever on a set of English exam questions.” The machine was well on its way to mastering knowledge-based curriculum tested on examinations. What was thrilling to Dr. Luckin, might well be a wake-up call for teachers and educators everywhere.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now driving automation in the workplace and the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is dawning. How AI will impact and possibly transform education is now emerging as a major concern for front-line teachers, technology skeptics, and informed parents. A recent Public Lecture by Rose Luckin, based upon her new book Machine Learning and Intelligence, provided  not only a cutting-edge summary of recent developments, but a chilling reminder of the potential unintended consequences for teachers.

AI refers to “technology that is capable of actions and behaviours that require intelligence when done by humans.” It is no longer the stuff of science fiction and popping up everywhere from voice-activated digital assistants in telephones to automatic passport gates in airports to navigation apps to guide us driving our cars. It’s creeping into our lives in subtle and virtually undetectable ways.

AI has not been an overnight success. It originated in September 1956, some 63 years ago, in a Dartmouth College NH lab as a summer project undertaken by ten ambitious scientists.  The initial project was focused on AI and its educational potential. The pioneers worked from this premise: “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”  Flash forward to today — and it’s closer to actual realization.

Dr. Luckin has taken up that challenge and has been working for two decades to develop “Colin,” a robot teaching assistant to help lighten teachers’ workloads. Her creation is software-based and assists teachers with organizing starter activities, collating daily student performance records, assessing the mental state of students, and assessing how well a learner is engaging with lessons.

Scary scenarios are emerging fueled by a few leading thinkers and technology skeptics.  Tesla CEO Elon Musk once warned that AI posed an “existential threat” to humanity and that humans may need to merge with machines to avoid becoming “house cats” to artificially intelligent robots.  Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has forecast that AI will “either be the best thing or the worst thing for humanity.” There’s no need for immediate panic: Current AI technology is still quite limited and remains mechanically algorithmic and programmed to act upon pattern recognition.

One very astute analyst for buZZrobot, Jay Lynch, has identified the potential dangers in the educational domain:

Measuring the Wrong Things

Gathering data that is easiest to collect rather than educationally meaningful. In the absence of directly measured student leaning, AI relies upon proxies for learning such as student test scores, school grades, or self-reported learning gains. This exemplifies the problem of “garbage in, garbage out.”

Perpetuating Bad Ways to Teach

Many AIfE algorithms are based upon data from large scale learning assessments and lack an appreciation of, and input from, actual teachers and learning scientists with a grounding in learning theory. AI development teams tend to lack relevant knowledge in the science of learning and instruction. One glaring example was IBM’s Watson Element for Educators, which was based entirely upon now discredited “learning styles” theory and gave skewed advice for improving instruction.

Giving Priority to Adaptability rather that Quality

Personalizing learning is the prevailing ideology in the IT sector and it is most evident in AI software and hardware. Meeting the needs of each learner is the priority and the technology is designed to deliver the ‘right’ content at the ‘right’ time.  It’s a false assumption that the quality of that content is fine and, in fact, much of it is awful. Quality of content deserves to  be prioritized and that requires more direct teacher input and a better grasp of the science of learning.

Replacing Humans with Intelligent Agents

The primary impact of AI is to remove teachers from the learning process — substituting “intelligent agents” for actual human beings. Defenders claim that the goal is not to supplant teachers but rather to “automate routine tasks” and to generate insights to enable teachers to adapt their teaching to make lessons more effective.  AI’s purveyors seem blind to the fact that teaching is a “caring profession,” particularly in the early grades.

American education technology critic Audrey Watters is one of the most influential skeptics and she has expressed alarm over the potential unintended consequences. ” We should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?”  The implicit and disturbing answer – teachers as professionals are virtually interchangeable with robots.

Will teachers and robots come to cohabit tomorrow’s classrooms? How will teaching be impacted by the capabilities of future AI technologies? Without human contact and feedback, will student motivation become a problem in education?  Will AI ever be able to engage students in critical thinking or explore the socio-emotional domain of learning? Who will be there in the classroom to encourage and emotionally support students confronted with challenging academic tasks?


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