Does Facebook need ethics education?

There has been outrage over Facebook’s psychological experiment on 700,000 unwitting users. In order to test its ability to manipulate users’ posts, Facebook used an algorithm that altered the emotional content of their news feeds. (In half of the cases, it omitted content associated with negative emotions; in the other half, positive emotions.)

According to an abstract, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” The findings were published in the March 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and reported in numerous places, including the Wall Street Journal article that informed this post).

Now, these findings aren’t surprising–who wants to be all cheery when your “friends” are down in the dumps?–but they left many people angry. An experiment of this kind isn’t just a misuse of data; it deliberately provokes people to post things they might not otherwise have posted, in a “space” (i.e., the news feed) that many consider their own, since it includes only what they want to include. (Yes, they’re mistaken in considering it their own, but Facebook does a lot to feed that illusion.)

Did Facebook have the right to conduct this experiment in the first place? Kate Crawford, visiting professor at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, says no. Moreover, she holds that ethics should be part of the education of data scientists. (For a more detailed exposition of this view, see danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679.)

What would “ethics education” look like in this context? Would it focus on the issues at hand, or would it examine ethics more broadly, with readings  and analysis of ethical problems? Would it take the form of a professional development course, or would it start in high school or earlier?

It is possible that the Facebook controversy (and others like it) will lead to a greater emphasis on ethics in education. That could be promising if handled well. One pitfall of ethics education is that it may be reduced to specific issues and even mistaught. That is, those studying the “Ethics of Big Data” may never consider ethics outside of Big Data, or ancient ethical problems that relate to their own, or even the distinction between ethics and morality (which has been articulated in different ways but is worth considering in any case).

So ethics education, if taken up by “big data” and other nebulous entities, will need to go beyond a crash course or PD. Study ethics, but study it well. How do you do that? Read seminal texts, raise questions boldly, stay aware of your errors and fallacies, and put your principles and reasoning into practice. That’s just a start.

Who’s data mining your kids?

Who’s data mining your children? asks Stephanie Simon on Politico.

The NSA has nothing on the ed tech startup known as Knewton.

The data analytics firm has peered into the brains of more than 4 million students across the country. By monitoring every mouse click, every keystroke, every split-second hesitation as children work through digital textbooks, Knewton is able to find out not just what individual kids know, but how they think. It can tell who has trouble focusing on science before lunch — and who will struggle with fractions next Thursday.

The data helps teachers track students’ progress, spot their learning problems and analyze what works best for each child.

Expanding the use of data in K-12 schools and colleges could improve teaching, make education more efficient and spur $300 billion a year in economic growth, according to a 2013 McKinsey report.

But there’s nothing to prevent private companies from sharing or selling the information, writes Simon. The federal education privacy law, written in 1974, is badly out of date, writes Simon. And only 7 percent of school districts bar tech companies from selling student data, according to a recent study.

Data “could be used to target ads to the kids and their families, or to build profiles on them that might be of interest to employers, military recruiters or college admissions officers,” she writes. So far, there’s no proof any company has exploited metadata or student records. But the door is open.

Why ‘just Google it’ doesn’t work

“Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” says Justin Webb, a British TV journalist. “Everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.”

Google is no substitute for learning things by heart, argues Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, in a Telegraph blog.

The less we know, the more we have to use working memory to search for information and make sense of it, he writes. Our working memory can run out of space.

The “just Google it” approach also neglects the knowledge a child needs to search accurately, Young writes.

“Searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for,” writes Libby Purves in a Times column.

A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Even an accurate search is useless if the searcher doesn’t know enough to understand the information retrieved, Young writes.

For instance, if you Google “space station” the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about “low Earth orbit”, “propulsion”, “research platforms”, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

Knowledge is the power to learn  more.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial” — and widely ignored, writes Mark Bauerlein.

 

Reading — or skimming — on the go

As people read more on mobile devices, new apps “promise to make reading on a small screen” easier and faster, reports the Wall Street Journal. But comprehension may suffer.

Spritz Technology’s app is designed for “focused reading on the go,” not Shakespeare, says co-founder and CEO Frank Waldman.

College graduates read about 250 words a minute, on average, says Michael Masson, professor of psychology at the University of Victoria in Canada. A 7-year-old reads about 80 words a minute, while a sixth-grader reads about 185 words a minute.

Spritz users who were reading 250 words a minute sped up to reading 400 words a minute after using the app for 20 minutes with no loss in comprehension, the company’s research claims. 

I took a speed reading course when I was a high school senior. I started at 1,000 comprehensible words per minute (reading speed times the percent of correct answers on a multiple-choice test) and peaked at 5,000 comprehensible wpm. That’s really skimming,  not reading, but it came in very handy in college and in my career. I could get through textbooks and documents very quickly, slowing down when necessary. I find it much harder to speed-read on a screen of any size.

SRI: Khan helps kids learn math

Nine schools that use Khan Academy math lessons are seeing gains in achievement and confidence, an SRI study reports.  

Use of the free online lessons is associated with less math anxiety, reports EdSurge News.

71% of students liked Khan Academy; 32% liked math more as a result of using it;

85% of teachers believe it had a positive impact on student’s understanding of math; 86% would recommend it to other teachers;

Most teachers use Khan videos to supplement their instruction. Only 20 percent used Khan to introduce new concepts.

It’s too soon to say that Khan works in the classroom, the report stresses. “No single implementation model was used across all the sites, and Khan Academy was not used as the sole, or even primary source of math instruction at most sites, making it difficult to isolate its effects.”

Khan Academy will help prepare students for Common Core math testing, Sal Khan announced last week. The web site now includes thousands of math problems aligned to every Common Core math standard in grades K-12

Teachers get tech, but not training


Even more than new technology, teachers want training in how to use tech tools, writes Liz Willen on the Hechinger Report.

Austin, TX. – With apps for everything from annotating poetry to understanding literature through hip hop, it might have seemed teachers in attendance at the sprawling South by Southwest.edu (SXSW) festival last week were hungry for new tools and technology.

After all, a dizzying menu of new classroom technology prevailed; there was even an interactive playground to try it all out.

The RobotsLab was on hand to demonstrate math and science concepts using what else? Robots.

New products like ClassroomIQ promised to give teachers their time back by helping them grade. From Berlin came a new way to learn languages called Unlock Your Brain.

But technology isn’t much use without training, teachers say. In a nationwide survey of more than 600 K-12 teachers, half said they didn’t get enough help in how to use technology in the classroom, reports digedu.

Some teachers feel left out of the debate on how to use technology to improve teaching and learning.

“Teachers show up at large, industry-driven conferences feeling more than a little like middle school students at their first dance. They want to be there so badly but they are completely confused as to how they fit in and what role they should adopt,’’ Shawn Rubin of EdSurge wrote in a column after last year’s festival.

Middle-school teacher Josh Work has 5 Tips to Help Teachers Who Struggle with Technology.

Programming for all?

 Computer science should be a high school graduation requirement, argues Mike Cassidy in the San Jose Mercury News. He wants more girls to give programming a try so they’ll have a shot at Silicon Valley jobs.

In a series called Women in Computing: The Promise Denied, Cassidy focuses on the declining share of women who choose computer science majors: By 2011, it was down to 17.6 percent.

Some colleges have boosted that through outreach programs and classes that persuade women that computing isn’t just for nerds, writes Cassidy.

A Berkeley class called “The Beauty and Joy of Computing” draws as many women as men. In addition to teaching programming, lecturer Dan Garcia explores how computer science can solve real-world problems.

Garcia is training high school teachers to teach computing and creating a MOOC for would-be computer science teachers.

Everyone should take a computer class, says Chris Stephenson, executive director of the Computer Science Teachers Association. “To allow students to graduate with no real understanding of what is happening and how that is created is really shortsighted.”

Cassidy thinks girls would like programming if they tried it.

Imagine if classes were widely available and that girls were required to take computer science in high school or earlier. They would see how computing often requires teamwork and is a key tool in other areas, such as medicine, environmental science, finance, politics and space exploration — thereby putting a lie to the stereotype that programming is a solitary pursuit in which writing cool code is an end in itself.

A group of “tech superstars” have started Code.org to push state legislatures and school boards to add computer science to the list of core college-prep courses. “Co-founder Hadi Partovi, a Seattle-area angel investor and coding evangelist, says the organization will pay to train existing K-12 teachers to teach computer science,” reports Cassidy. The group wants a class in every high school.

In Rebooting the Pathway to Success, the Association for Computing Machinery calls for expanding K-12 computer science education and making it part of the STEM core.

I’m all for expanding opportunities for young people — female, male, whatever — to learn programming. I took a computer class in high school myself in the days of paper tape readers. (I took it to meet boys, not realizing I’d meet nerdy boys.)

But I don’t think mandatory programming will make significantly more girls — or blacks and Latinos — see coding as “cool.” It’s cool if you’re into logic. I did some programming in college too in a “math for non-math majors” class. I liked it. Everyone else hated it.

And I’m very dubious about adding graduation requirements. If computer science is added, something else should be deleted. Maybe a programming language can substitute for a foreign language?

President plays with student’s iPad

President Obama had fun playing with a student’s iPad on a visit to Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Maryland. “Valerie is doing outstanding calculations here, describing right angles,” the president said. Valerie had divided 360 by 4 to get 100 degrees for a right angle, notes Alexander Russo. Which is wrong.

‘Teacherpreneurs’ vie for startup funds

“Teacherpreneurs” — teachers with ed-tech ideas — competed for start-up funding at a Brooklyn event organized by 4.0 Schools.

“I’m a high school social studies teacher, and I had a problem,” (Eric) Nelson told more than 100 educators, entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts in a crowded Brooklyn loft. “My students were disengaged when learning about the world in which they lived in an era in which global competence matters more than ever.”

Inspired by fantasy football, he developed “Fantasy Geopolitics,” an interactive game in which students draft countries to teams and earn points as their picks come up in the news. He now teaches a “Fantasy Geopolitics” elective at a Minnesota charter school and is hoping for “Silicon Alley” funding to reach more teachers.

When Borne Digital‘s Daniel Fountenberry volunteered at a Harlem elementary school, he saw teachers provide different books and assignments to different groups. “The teacher was clearly overworked. She struggled to administer five different learning groups within one classroom. So I thought, what if a book could adapt to each child’s needs, so the students could read and learn together?”

Books That Grow, an e-reader, lets every student read the same story with easier or harder vocabulary. As students improve, the reading challenge grows.

Maya Gat left her teaching job at Bronx Community Charter School to develop Branching Minds.

The Web-based application lets users answer questions about areas where a child is struggling and generates a list of resources, from online tools and toys to classes and community resources, to help parents and teachers find necessary support systems.

Also up for funding was SmartestK12, an online platform that lets teachers transform documents into digital assignments.

10 tech trends in education

10 Major Technology Trends in Education include the rise of mobile computing and teachers assigning video lessons, according to the 2013 Speak Up Survey from Project Tomorrow.

Eighty-nine percent of high school students and 50 percent of upper-elementary students have access to Internet-connected smart phones, the survey reports. 

Sixty-four percent of students use 3G- or 4G-enabled devices as their primary means of connecting to the Internet; another 23 percent connect through an Internet-enabled TV or Wii console.

Forty-six percent of teachers are using video in in the classroom. One-third of students watch online video lessons to help with their homework — the “Khan Academy effect” — and 23 percent of students watch video created by their teachers.

For techno-skeptics: