Monday, June 30, 2014

The Facebook Research

The Facebook experiments are actually very clever.

The content stream is the presentation of everyone else's material to an individual user. So, in my content stream, I get stuff from Rod, stuff from my family, stuff from Moncton Free Press, stuff from the City, etc., including some sponsored or promoted content from magazines and advertisers.

Facebook has been tinkering with this content stream since day one. You can't show everything, because there's generally too much. So you show the most 'relevant' links (on some content streams you have the option to 'see most recent' and 'see most relevant'). They are experimenting with what counts as 'relevant'.

Facebook is an advertising company, and therefore the product it sells is the induction of beliefs in the users. Coke, for example, want people to think that Coke is good and good for you, and that they want a Coke now. The NRA wants you to believe that guns are harmless and that "they're trying to take away our freedoms."

So the experiments basically measure whether the presentation of posts created by friends and family, etc., rather than the creation and presenting of actual advertising, can produce the desired result. Intuiitively, it should. Present nothing but crime stories in the news feed and you'll end up thinking crime is everywhere. The experiments measure whether this intuition is correct.

From the perspective of ethics, they are blending two things which are, on the face of it, innocuous:
- they are altering stream results in an attempt to produce a 'better' stream - something every content vendor everywhere does, and has done since the days of FTP and UseNet
- they are accessing publicly available data to analyze it for affective and cognitive properties, something we do as well, and something that does not require permission from individual users

Does the combination of them create an ethical dilemma?

It's not clear to me that it does. Sure, it reinforces Facebook's image as a somewhat greasy operation that will manipulate results in order to satisfy the needs of its advertisers (hence making it no different from Dr. Oz and your local news broadcast). But that's not unethical, at least, not in the sense that you'd take them before the courts.

The question of ethics comes into the equation when there exists some possibility of harm, and where that harm is a predictable outcome of the experiment, and where that sort of harm would not normally be expected. The classic case, of course, is the testing of drugs that have harmful side-effects, where you have not disclosed the side-effects.

In the case of the manipulation of free digital content to stimulate emotional responses, and then measuring for those responses, the presence of actual harm is a lot more difficult to show. The mere production of emotional responses is not harm, otherwise most of what we do every day is ethically wrong. The mere measurement of emotional responses is not harm either.

If we don't actually harm someone, then how could it be ethically unsound? Doing all this in secret could be ethically wrong. But Facebook is not doing it in secret; it's all over ther news.

There is a hard line in research ethics to the effect that any interaction with a user needs to be declared beforehand, and conducted with the explicit consent of the user. I don't subscribe to that line. In one sense it is impractical. There are too many interactions and too many users to require consent in advance. In a second sense it's unnecessary. Research is not inherently evil, and studying people to find out how they work is not wrong. And third, it can be harmful. Creating conditions of consent alters research results; tell people their emotions are being monitored and they change their emotions.

This is the point of disagreement:

"They formulated a research hypothesis and tested it on human subjects. For this, explicit consent is required."

Here is a counterexample:

Engineers have theories regarding the length of left-tern lanes on the highway. To test this hypothesis, they construct a left-turn land, and then measure ho much it underfills or overfills. Based on this work they publish a paper. No research consent is obtained.

Should consent have been obtained? It fails the three tests. First, it is impractical. You can't have drivers fill out a consent form befor they enter the intersection. Second, it is unnecessary. No harm will be caused by the research. And third, requiring consent changes the outcome.

So it seems clear to me that this statement is false. The requirement for explicit consent must depend on different conditions. I argue actual harm must be cause, that it must be practical to obtain consent, and that obtaining consent can't change the results.

Facebook's experiments on users and Emotional Contagion (via Peter Turney)

Listen to your customers, not to the HiPPO -  

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Achievement Gap

Response to Annie Murphy Paul, whose newsletter appeared in my email today, on her article, Technology Is Making Achievement Gaps Bigger.

In your email you state "I'd love to get your feedback!" so I'll take that to heart.

My first impression was of the level of writing. Phrases like "making reference" (instead of 'referring') and "more vocabulary words" (instead of 'larger vocabulary') suggest a lack of writing experience.

There is also a naive air of 'research reveals' this or that (the phrase "Research is finding..." is actually used) when it does no such thing. People perform research, and of results are ever 'revealed' (which they are usually not) they are revealed by people.

Finally, why would you suppose that a few research studies of students in the United States can be generalized to anything? And what is the basis for suggesting that the *computers* increase the digital divide? The cause of (what you call) the Matthew effect is clearly the lack of social support (you refer to 'parents' but there's no reason to suppose that genetic relation is necessary here). So why transfer this problem to a discussion about computers?

So I think you're reading your sources uncritically. The sceptic in me wonders whether that is what you are being paid to do, if you are being paid at all - there is a substantial lobby seeking to limit and reduce the provision of social supports (including computers) to poor people. Or perhaps you simply haven't read sufficiently widely, as is suggested by the level of writing.

I detect a strong strain of the line of thought advanced by people like Daniel Willingham in your writing - we see this in the references to "background knowledge", for example. I don't think the Willingham position is well-supported in the field, and I think a lot of the supporting argumentative infrastructure, such as cognitive load theory, is methodologically unsound. You might disagree with me on this - and that's fine - but it makes presenting the research as you do here, as establishing some sort of fact of the matter - as misrepresentation and even a bit pernicious.

It bothers me because I see this same argument being advanced without any real consideration of its weaknesses from a variety of sources - this one for example, from "America's Quarterly", even uses the same "social envelop" phrasing.

(As an aside, numerous researchers - not "one researcher", as you say - use the phrase "social envelop". But real researchers are careful to say "there is no one appropriate social envelop for educational computing." (Giacquinta, Bauer, Levin, 'Beyond Technology's Promise', 1993, p. 163)

Finally, it concerns me that the solution seems to be to divert resources away from people who need them. A lot of research has suggested that socio-economic background is the primary predictor of educational outcome. It's easy to say that we should simply focus on "training teachers, librarians, parents and children themselves to use computers effectively." But if the 'Matthew effect' is as you describe, then these too would increase the divide, because the well-off people can make better use of these services than poor people.

My own thinking is that the actual cause of the socio-economic divide in education is socio-economic disparity. We live in a world in which most social and institutional structures are designed in such a way as to disproportionately help those who already have an advantage. Proposals for structural reforms we need to address these inequalities are opaqued by distracting nonsense telling us things like "computers don't solve the educational divide all by themselves." Which is probably the point of such articles.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Personal Learning: A Set of Three Talks

Here are abstracts for three talks I have planned for July in London, UK.

For APT 2014 (8th July, Greenwich)

Beyond Free: Open Learning in a Networked World

As the concept of ‘open learning’ has grown it has posed an increasing challenge to educational institutions. First admissions were open, then educational resources were open and now whole courses are open. Proponents moreover are demanding not only that open learning be free of charge, but also that the resources and materials be open source – free for reuse by students and educators for their own purposes. This formed the basis for the original design of the Massive Open Online Course as a connected environment in which participants created and reused resources. In such a learning environment, the provision of education moves beyond the programmed delivery of instructional resources and tasks. Education is no longer ‘delivered’ (for free or otherwise) and instruction is no longer ‘designed’ in the traditional sense. Institutions are no longer at the centre of the ecosystem; their value propositions are challenged and new roles for professors and researchers must be found if they are to survive. In this talk Stephen Downes outlines the steps educational institutions must take to remain relevant: embracing the free and open sharing of knowledge and learning, underlining their key role as public institutions, and engagement in the lives and workplaces of people in the community.

For London School of Economics ( 9th July-Central London)
Beyond Institutions: Personal Learning in a Networked World

In a networked world people become less and less dependent on institutional learning begin to and begin to create their own learning. This creates challenges for institutions, but it also creates challenges for students. In the past, personal learning has been represented as a form of autodidacticism where students either read books at random in the library or at best studied programmed education texts and videos. Today personalized learning is supported using adaptive learning and interactive digital resources. Neither offers what we would call a complete learning experience, as we know there is a social and supportive dimension that must be included. The challenge is to design learning systems that are supportive without asserting control, providing access to a wide range of resources from multiple institutions, but in addition, scaffolding frameworks, access to social and professional networks and support though personal and mobile computing devices, devices and tools, and in workplace systems generally. In this talk Stephen Downes discusses developments in a personal learning infrastructure and outlines how professionals, as both teachers and learners, can take advantage of them.

For ePIC 2014 (11th July, Greenwich)  

Beyond Assessment: Recognizing Achievement in a Networked World

If formal learning can be thought of as supporting the acquisition of a body of knowledge, informal learning can be characterized as supporting the completion of a task or objective. Formal learning may be seen as ‘just in case’ while informal learning can be seen as ‘just in time’. From the perspective of the learner, the success of informal learning can be seen as immediate and manifest: it supports the completion of the task or objective. But how can informal learning be seen as supporting the first objective: the achievement, over time, of mastery over a field or domain of knowledge. Traditional formal learning employs exams and assignments to test achievement, and often includes process-based metrics, such as attendance time, to ensure a relevant base of experience has been obtained. And contemporary recognition of informal learning employs similar means, deploying testing and interviews to provide what is called ‘prior learning assessment’. Today, though, alternative metrics are being deployed. ePortfolios and Open Badges are only the first wave in what will emerge as a wider network-based form of assessment that makes tests and reviews unnecessary. In this talk Stephen Downes will talk about work being done in network-based automated competency development and recognition, the challenges it presents to traditional institutions, and the opportunities created for genuinely autonomous open learning.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Pollution and the Wildlife

Hello, Mr.Downes
My name is ---------- ------. You can call me Amy. I am 15 years old. I live in Thailand. Now I have a project about the environment. And I have to search about the pollution and the wildlife. May you answer me my questions about the pollution and the wildlife. If you have no time it's okay, but if you want to exchange me, please send me your answer.

Thank you very much. :)

Hiya Amy,

Thank you for writing. I am afraid I do not know nearly as much as I should about pollution and wildlife. But if you have specific questions you would like to ask, I will answer them as well as I can.

-- Stephen

OK. Thank you very much for your answer. I have read in your block on the internet about the pollution and the propaganda. But I don't understand it too much. So I sent you my email. There are not difficult questions. Well I want to know about the pollution in the past and now. What do think about there? And do you think technology is the one which can change the pollution? My mom has told me about China that now are using propaganda to say that it is good to have polluted air for false reasons. I don't understand why they use it.


Hiya Amy,

On may places, pollution was worse in the past than it is now. The air in London, England, for example, was so polluted with coal smoke that you couldn't see your way around. In Los Angeles, there was a permanent haze in the air. Where I lived, in Ottawa, the waters of the Rideau Canal and Lac Leamy were so polluted people had to stay away from them. The air became so acidic the rain fell as 'acid rain' and killed the fish in the lakes.  A woman, Rachel Carson, wrote about 'Silent Spring', because so many birds were dying from chemicals in the environment.

All of this pollution was addressed with a series of measured in the 1970s and 1980s:
- cars were required to use non-lead gasoline and lower emission standards
- the use of coal to generate power and for heating was replaced with much cleaner fuels
- pesticides, such as DDT, were banned, and phosphates were removed from detergent
- poisonous chemicals, such as polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) were strictly controlled
- sewage treatment plants were built to clean water being dumped in rivers
- factories and power plants were required to reduce emissions
- chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) were removed from aerosol sprays to help the ozone layer

This had the effect of greatly cleaning the environment. However in many cases they cost money, and they took time to spread to poorer regions of the world. Many places still burn coal (I can smell it in the air when I travel; it's very distinctive) including eastern Europe and China. Many nations still use older cars, which continue to pollute. In many places, garbage is still a major problem, because there isn't enough money for public cleaning and garbage collection. And sewage treatment continues to be a problem.

In the past, wildlife suffered most from hunting. Species like the passenger pigeon, which was used for food, became extinct. Wolves and buffalo and and moose became very rare. Strict limits on hunting saved many species. In the oceans, species like the right whale and the cod have been fished almost to extinction. We now have strict limits on hunting these species, though some nations do not observe them.

After hunting was limited, many species of wildlife continued to be harmed by pollution. In the past, great flocks of songbirds used to fill the skies of North America, but now these are greatly reduced in number. The monarch butterfly lost its major food source, the milkweed, and while I used to see many butterflies as a child, I no longer see them in nearly the same number. We have had to restock lakes and rivers with fish, and we have set up preserves for buffalo (such as Elk Island National park in Alberta).

Another problem with wildlife is caused by invasive species. These are animals or insects that travel great distances using modern transportation and take hold in environment where there are no natural predators. Australia, for example, now has a problem with cane toads. Here in Canada, we have had problems with starlings (an aggressive bird species), lampreys (a type of fish) and with Eurasian water-milfoil (an invasive plant).

All countries try to minimize their impact on the environment, and no country that I know of believes that any of these pollutants are actually a benefit. I have not heard of China saying it is good to have polluted air. During the Olympics in 2008 the Chinese government undertook measures to reduce pollution in Beijing, which helped a lot. But these were only temporary, because of the cost, and Beijing still has major problems with pollution.

Today, a major concern about pollution is climate change. This is the result of the emission of greenhouse gases, mostly carbon dioxide, into the air. These gases trap sunlight that is reflecting from the surface of the earth, causing the atmosphere to warm up (it's the same way a greenhouse warms up in sunlight, because sunlight can enter through the glass, but reflected energy is trapped inside.

Some measures have been undertaken against greenhouse gases, but there has not been the widespread action there was in the 1970s and 1980s. Many governments have denied that greenhouse gases cause climate change, though there is strong scientific evidence that they do, and though we have been observing temperature increases in recent years. There is a cost to reducing greenhouse gases, because we have to convert from coal and oil and gas to energy sources that do not release carbon dioxide, such as solar or wind energy.

One of the major results of climate change is that as the global temperature increases, polar ice melts, and the sea level increases. Just recently, the western Antarctic ice shelf begin to melt and slide into the sea, a process scientist said is "irreversible", and will result in the sea level rising 10 meters. This will take decades to happen, though. I have myself seen evidence of retreating glaciers - the Colombia icefield, for example, has been shrinking for years. As the mountain glaciers disappear, major rivers that depend on the ice will dry up.

Where you live, in  Thailand, the major impact of climate change will be less predictable and more extreme weather. You have always had to weather major hurricanes and other storms. These will increase in frequency, and will become more severe. You will also experience wider variations in temperature, including periods of unusual cold as well as periods of extreme heat.

The impact of climate change on wildlife can be severe. They cannot adapt to change the way humans do. In Canada, polar bears depend on sea ice to go out and hunt fish and seals, but the sea ice isn't there, and they starve. Warm water allows invasive species to displace natural fish populations. Food supplies become scarce, as forests die from insects or burn in fires, and small animals and birds are impacted.

Unlike in the past, when pollution could be addressed locally, issues like climate change require global cooperation. To date, however, we do not have effective means of international cooperation. The rich nations do not provide the poor nations with the assistance they need to address pollution and climate change. And the poor nations continue as a result to pollute their environment and cause climate change. We have been successful in addressing many forms of pollution in the past, but will have to work together much better in the future.

I hope this helps.