Book chapter published: Shaping our algorithms before they shape us

I’ve just had a chapter published in an edited collection entitled: Artificial Intelligence and Inclusive Education: Speculative Futures and Emerging Practices. The book is edited by Jeremy Knox, Yuchen Wang and Michael Gallagher and is available here.

Here’s the citation: Rowe M. (2019) Shaping Our Algorithms Before They Shape Us. In: Knox J., Wang Y., Gallagher M. (eds) Artificial Intelligence and Inclusive Education. Perspectives on Rethinking and Reforming Education. Springer, Singapore.

And here’s my abstract:

A common refrain among teachers is that they cannot be replaced by intelligent machines because of the essential human element that lies at the centre of teaching and learning. While it is true that there are some aspects of the teacher-student relationship that may ultimately present insurmountable obstacles to the complete automation of teaching, there are important gaps in practice where artificial intelligence (AI) will inevitably find room to move. Machine learning is the branch of AI research that uses algorithms to find statistical correlations between variables that may or may not be known to the researchers. The implications of this are profound and are leading to significant progress being made in natural language processing, computer vision, navigation and planning. But machine learning is not all-powerful, and there are important technical limitations that will constrain the extent of its use and promotion in education, provided that teachers are aware of these limitations and are included in the process of shepherding the technology into practice. This has always been important but when a technology has the potential of AI we would do well to ensure that teachers are intentionally included in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of AI-based systems in education.

adapting to constant change

The human work of tomorrow will not be based on competencies best-suited for machines, because creative work that is continuously changing cannot be replicated by machines or code. While machine learning may be powerful, connected human learning is novel, innovative, and inspired.

Source: Jarche, H. (2018). adapting to constant change.

A good post on why learning how to learn is the only reasonable way to think about the future of work (and professional education). The upshot is that Communities of Practice are implicated in helping us adapt to working environments that are constantly changing, as will most likely continue to be the case.

However, I probably wouldn’t take the approach that it’s “us vs machines” because I don’t think that’s where we’re going to end up. I think it’s more likely that those who work closely with AI-based systems will outperform and replace those who don’t. In other words, we’re not competing with machines for our jobs; we’re competing with other people who use machines more effectively than we do.

Trying to be better than machines is not only difficult but our capitalist economy makes it pretty near impossible.

This is both true and a bit odd. No-one thinks they need to be able to do complex mathematics without calculators, and those who are better at using calculators can do more complex mathematics. Why is it such a big leap to realise that we don’t have to be better image classifiers than machines either? Let’s accept that diagnosis from CT will be performed by AI and focus on how that frees up physician time for other human- and patient-centred tasks. What will medical education look like when we’re teaching students that adapting while working with machines is the only way to stay relevant? I think that clinicians who graduate from medical schools who take this approach are more likely to be employed in the future.

Technology Beyond the Tools

You didn’t need to know about how to print on a printing press in order to read a printed book. Writing implements were readily available in various forms in order to record thoughts, as well as communicate with them. The use was simple requiring nothing more than penmanship. The rapid advancement of technology has changed this. Tech has evolved so quickly and so universally in our culture that there is now literacy required in order for people to effectively and efficiently use it.

Reading and writing as a literacy was hard enough for many of us, and now we are seeing that there is a whole new literacy that needs to be not only learned, but taught by us as well.

Source: Whitby, T. (2018). Technology Beyond the Tools.

I wrote about the need to develop these new literacies in a recent article (under review) in OpenPhysio. From the article:

As clinicians become single nodes (and not even the most important nodes) within information networks, they will need data literacy to read, analyse, interpret and make use of vast data sets. As they find themselves having to work more collaboratively with AI-based systems, they will need the technological literacy that enables them to understand the vocabulary of computer science and engineering that enables them to communicate with machines. Failing that, we may find that clinicians will simply be messengers and technicians carrying out the instructions provided by algorithms.

It really does seem like we’re moving towards a society in which the successful use of technology is, at least to some extent, premised on your understanding of how it works. As educators, it is incumbent on us to 1) know how the technology works so that we can 2) help students use it effectively while at the same time avoid exploitation by for-profit companies.

See also: Aoun, J. (2017). Robot proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. MIT Press.

Robots in the classroom? Preparing for the automation of teaching | BERA

Agendas around AI and education have been dominated by technology designers and vendors, business interests and corporate reformers. There is a clear need for vigorous responses from educators, students, parents and other groups with a stake in public education. What do we all want from our education systems as AI-driven automation becomes more prominent across society?

Source: Robots in the classroom? Preparing for the automation of teaching | BERA

We need teachers, clinicians, and clinician educators involved in the process of designing, developing, implementing and evaluating AI-based systems in the higher education and clinical context. As long as the agenda for 21st century education and clinical care is driven by corporate interests (and how could it not, given the enormous commercial value of AI), it’s likely that those responsible for teaching the next generation of health professionals will be passive recipients of algorithmic decision-making rather than empowered participants in their design.

Five Reasons Why CAPS is Harming Our Children

Five reasons why CAPS is harming our children, by Marina Goetze

CAPS is the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement that describes the South African national curriculum for Grades R – 12. I don’t work in the basic education sector but I have friends who do and this is something they talk about all the time. You could probably say the same thing about many (most?) higher education curricula.

  1. It it too content heavy. Because we think that covering content is the same thing as teaching.
  2. There is no time for consolidation. Because there is so much content to cover.
  3. It is too rigid. Because teachers can’t possible be trusted to take students where they need to go at the pace they need to go.
  4. Children are over assessed. Because we think that assessment is evidence of learning.
  5. We are not producing thinkers. Because a curriculum that emphasises assessment of content has no space for developing creativity.

Read the original piece on LinkedIn.

Action research as liberation

"Paulo Freire" by Slobodan Dimitrov - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Kemmis & Mctaggert’s (1990) definition of action research is that it is about improving the lives of people through transformation. It is an emancipatory approach to the research process that does as much for the participants as for the researchers. I’m busy reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, so the idea of a research process in the educational context as being a form of emancipation for students stands out. The idea that, through trying to learn more about learning and teaching, we can improve both, sits well with me.

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)


Some thoughts on education from two interviews

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts on my hour long commute to work every day. One of my favourite series is the Tim Ferriss Show, because I get a lot of insight into my own academic practices from listening to these high performers from other domains. Earlier this week I listened to Tim interview Chris Sacca and Eric Weinstein. The quotes from the interviews that resonated with me are presented below (note: listening to a few minutes of audio is very different to transcribing and reading that audio…this took much longer than expected).

Chris Sacca on Shark Tank, Building Your Business, and Startup Mistakes:

Question: If you were to start your own school to educate youth, how would you do it? What would you concentrate on? How much would you pay the teachers? Is education the answer to the world’s problems?

Answer: Presuppose that you weren’t using schools to just train your kids to be “successful”. Think about how the purpose of education up to this point has always been: Do well in school and you can get into a great college. Get into a great college and you can get into a great grad school and then you can get a great job. And that has been the baseline underlying assumption for our education system for at least a generation now…probably two.

And yet, imagine if that weren’t the case. I was lucky. I went to one of the most competitive schools in the country. Among my peers were kids who went to all the fanciest boarding schools, all the best prep schools, all the best high schools. I went to a public high school. I went there with trepidation, assuming that I would get trampled by these kids. And, while their life experiences were certainly more diverse and exciting than mine because they had money to do all kinds of cool things, and they had AP classes that I didn’t necessarily have, spending time with them I realised that their world views were incredibly narrow. Most of them had never lived or worked among poor people. Most of them hadn’t actually volunteered. Most of them hadn’t had service jobs, tipping jobs. They hadn’t worked manual labour. The same went on when I worked out in Silicon Valley with top Harvard and Stanford grads at Google and beyond, all across the valley. The same kind of thing…I found people who were incredibly “successful” and yet had very uni-dimensional lives.

So, back to your question: if I were to start my own school…What if you started a school that pre-supposed the goal was: Happy kids. And I mean Happy with a capital H. Balanced. Thoughtful. Compassionate. Do-ers. What if their resume would never matter. Some of you have heard me say before, that the only people who care about your GPA are people who you’ve given no other basis to evaluate you.

What if, instead you wanted to build an education that fostered: Interesting. Understanding. Action. Experience. I don’t know what that school looks like but that’s how my wife, Crystelle and I have been approaching raising our three daughters. I’ve yet to see test scores correlate with happiness. I’ve yet to even see test scores correlate with Learning, with a capital L. So I don’t know what I would do to re-invent the education system or any particular school, but it’s certainly top of mind for me.


Eric Weinstein on Challenging “Reality,” Working with Peter Thiel, and Destroying Education to Save It:

Question: If you had to create a class for any grade level from 9th grade to the end of college, what would the class be and when would you teach it?

Answer: Part of the problem surrounds, where would I be allowed to teach this class? The first question is: Are you really allowed to deeply question your teacher, or your school?…What you’re always looking for, is an education that makes students unteachable by standard methods. And this is where we get into the trouble, which is…we don’t talk about teaching disabilities, we talk about learning disabilities. And a lot of the kids that I want are kids that have been labelled learning disabled but they’re actually super-learners.

They’re like learners on steroids that have some deficits to pay for their super-power. When teachers can’t deal with this, we label those kids “learning disabled” to cover up for the fact that the economics of teaching require that one central actor – the teacher – be able to lead a room of 20 or more people in lock step. Well, that’s not a good model.

What I want, is to get as many of my dangerous kids out of that idiom, whether it requires dropping out of high school, dropping out of college…not for no purpose. Drop into something. Start creating. Build it. Join a lab. Skip college.

Note: Eric Weinstein works at Thiel Capital, which is linked to the Thiel Foundation that provides a fellowship for students to drop out of college and work on projects they care about. So, his point about dropping out of, or skipping college, needs to be considered in that light.

This will revolutionise education

Great video on the problems with making predictions about how certain technologies are poised to revolutionise education. There’s nothing particularly new in the video, but the presentation makes it really clear why comparison-type studies of technology in education are problematic. It also does well to make the point that learning is about what happens inside the student’s head and is a process that, while influenced by teachers, is not dependent on them.

Using the web to empower agents of change: Presentation at The Network – TUFH conference

These are the slides from the presentation I gave at The Network: Towards Unity for Health conference in Fortaleza, Brazil (2014).

The talk looked at how we’re trying to prepare health professional students for an increasingly complex health system, but we’re still using teaching methods that originated centuries ago. I ask questions about how we can change teaching practices to take into account the characteristics we expect of our graduates. I discussed the importance of taking a critical stance towards the implementation of technological solutions, and to be careful of making assumptions about the use of technology to solve all problems.