Artificial Perception

dyspotian futureI’ve been listening to educational technology hype recently with an eyebrow raised particularly in respect to the ideas being expressed around artificial intelligence and the role of intelligent agents to replace humans. One of the most recent examples of this is Mark Zuckerberg at F8 conference saying ““Our goal with AI is to build systems that are better than people at perception.” The Telegraph provides a summary of his keynote and the F8 conference.

Sit back and reflect on his statement for a moment.

perception
pəˈsɛpʃ(ə)n/
noun
  1.  
    the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses.
    “the normal limits to human perception”
  2.  
    the way in which something is regarded, understood, or interpreted.
    “Hollywood’s perception of the tastes of the American public”

What is perception? – a personal view of the world? – shaped by our emotional state and environment? – An entirely subjective reality. What do we mean by better perception? is this seeing the world logically without the trappings of emotion? – is it about the ‘wisdom of crowds? – If it’s the latter then we know that this is being gradually debunked because we are seeing greater confirmation bias within social media circles, I referred to this in a previous post as ripples in the pond, and there is evidence of the undermining effect of social influence. However there is no doubt that artificial intelligence will have access to a greater dataset and will have the ability to interpret data in ways that would be impossible to humans. My question though might be is that going to translate into better outcomes?

crucibleInvention comes from creative friction, discourse, questioning. In a world where we are all synthesized down within a crucible above the flame of artificial intelligence what happens to inspiration. interpretation. challenge? – this is of course a dyspotian future that people in the AI world are keen to promote because it creates a big dream of the future and a strong emotional connection.

But we do need to be concerned because at a minimum a possible future predicted by Gartner may see smart machines replacing millions of humans but at the same time we should be rational because we must recognize the Myths around AI’s and their usefulness is in support human endeavours, especially around tackling big data challenges.

…so what of humanity?

 

 

My highlights of 2015


“Don’t procrastinate” – that was my only resolution for the New Year as I started 2015. I began the year by moving to Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) which was a big decision as it was a huge change for me to leave behind the research part of my job to focus on the big challenge of working in the learning and teaching area to create the TEL (Technology Enhanced Learning) sub-unit of LTS.
Over the past year we’ve created a sub-unit with 44 extremely dedicated and committed staff from different parts of LTS who have come together to cover four TEL areas which complement each other. These areas are Learning Innovation, Learning Environments, TEL Design and Online Student Experience. All areas are supported by evidence which is gathered through student engagement or by working with areas from across the Open University responsible for data and analytics.

 

…it has been extremely hard work. TEL was created during a change process which saw the OU cut costs and reduce staffing across all units. This meant that we needed to adjust plans in March to take account of the financial constraints. TEL was also created during a period when we could not afford to reduce productivity which meant that people were expected to “double hat”, doing both their previous role and their new TEL role in parallel. I have huge admiration of the team and unit for what has been achieved. We’ve run Hack Days, drop-in events and worked with people across the OU to deliver a series of “Quick Win” projects to accelerate priority activities for TEL and we’ve also collaborated with the IET Learning Design team to create a joint series of Special Interest Group events to stimulate discussion about TEL across the organisation. We have created new websites including the Learning Innovation site. We have introduced a TEL design process across OU module production and have begun to explore co-creation, live student feedback, activity design, workload consistency issues and many more.

tel-cloud

Across the wider Open University the new OpenTEL Priority Research Area has been created which complements TEL, the research feeding through into practice.

As well as the organisational achievements I’ve also had some personal achievements during 2015. I became Acting Director of TEL in May and have enjoyed a year sitting in the “hot seat” driving the work of the unit. I’m now looking forward to taking on a new challenge in 2016 and to passing on the leadership of TEL to Mark Nichols who takes the reins in February.

I have achieved Senior Fellowship status with the Higher Education Academy through an OpenPAD inquiry process. My personal inquiry was my reflection on delivering services for the Open Science Lab (now called Open STEM Lab). I really enjoyed the process of reflection. I would encourage colleagues in HE to go through this process as it is extremely valuable to improving practice across the sector.

downloadI’ve also written a book chapter for a Routledge International publication, again on my work on iSpot and the Open Science Lab, in particular about using a participatory approach and design based research methodology to develop the mobile optimized experience – The book, published today, is called Mobile Learning and STEM: Case studies in practice  (a good read – especially chapter six!). Janice Ansine and Kevin Mcleod helped me to get the chapter in shape. The lead author role gave me a new found admiration for the work of my academic colleagues as it has been very challenging fitting the writing around the other aspects of my job.

I’ve really enjoyed the friendships I’ve made during 2015 and these will stay with me for life. I’m looking forward to the changes to the the portfolio and to enabling innovation across the University.

 

 

…I haven’t been procrastinating.

My next blog post will be about my thoughts on the external environment, the culture for innovation and the challenges ahead!

Built-in Obsolescence

I had a few days off and took my wife’s bike to the shop to get it fixed as she was complaining about the gears slipping and I thought it may need a new gear sprocket. When I got it there the bike shop owner showed me all the other issues with it. It’s only half as old as my bike but poorly maintained so suffering! – Anyway he said it was about £100 with labour costs to fix all the parts and so it was marginal whether it was worth repairing. I decided in the end to get her a new bike but I’ve since taken the old bike home and fixed it up using parts from other bikes.

The point of this is to say that when I was growing up we had bikes that lasted for decades. The thought of upgrading was never there. Bikes were all the same and parts interchangeable and cheap. Now it appears that bikes have gone the way of other technology. New bikes have more gears than previous versions and the parts are so expensive (compared to a new bike, as bike prices reduce) that it becomes easier and cheaper in many cases to upgrade than to buy parts if there’s a problem. It’s also though because culturally we are changing technology quickly. The rate at which people burn through mobile technology would be staggering to previous generations. It’s true too of PC’s and laptops. As good recent example of this is that the OU is likely to need to invest around 1 million to replace all it’s PC’s to have a new generation that work with Windows 7.

Think about that though for a moment. There’s no doubt that new PC’s are better than old but this is being decided by the Operating System where presumably people have said that it will be more costly to maintain older PC’s than to replace them all to run with the new OS. It’s also about a constant need to move forward, refresh, and not be behind. There are benefits to moving to a new OS but one of the big drivers for this is that older OS’s wont get supported after a certain date. This is the built-in obsolescence.

It suits supplier businesses to build a ‘time to live’ into their products which is just long enough for people to get attached to them but not so long that they can’t be moved onto the ‘next big thing’.

Whilst I’m on the subject of time to live I want to say that there are many fantastic technologies that have driven human progress including the space shuttle, Concorde and Harrier jets to name three.

These technologies were built to respond to a specific set of circumstances and they preformed their purposes fantastically well. Economically it may make sense to get rid of these but they leave a gap in their wake that won’t be filled easily. They also represent the best of human inventiveness. I hope that doesn’t get lost as humans build things on the nano scale and go for smaller, cheaper, faster technology consumables.

But do technologies have a shorter time to live now? – How does this model square with the ‘make do and mend’ recession culture, and also the green ICT (or lack of) of replacing iPhone versions every 6 months to get the latest apps? – I’m concerned that a cultural shift needs to happen both with manufacturing and consumerism to change habits and make people think more about the ‘burn through’ effect and to find models that are more environmentally and ethically sustainable.

Future Learning Systems

If you do one thing this week then watch the YouTube video RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms by Sir Ken Robinson.

Inspirational? – yes I thought so.

I gave a presentation to the OU community last week about future learning systems. Barbara Poniatowska, Liz Burton-Pye  and I presented the current VLE state, 1 year planned and 3-5 year vision respectively a set of short talks and followed these with a “World Cafe“. If you haven’t come across the concept before then I encourage you to visit the website and find out more about it. It’s basically a way for people to think inspirationally around issues, moving between tables where facilitated discussion takes place and there the tablecloths are used by people to write out their ideas and to link them forming a ‘web’  and evolution of thinking. I decided to adapt this a bit and instead of getting people to simply write thoughts and ideas we also asked people to go around afterwards and to add a tick next to the ideas or comments that they most endorsed.

We decided on five themes of “User Generated Content”, “Communication and Collaboration”, “Assessment”, Joining Up” and “Supporting Students Online” (Joining up was about exploring new markets, linking to OER, globalisation etc.)

This worked very well,  for example here is the tablecloth from the table  where the discussion happened around “user generated content”

User Generated Content Tablecloth

I particularly like the ‘fuzzy felt’ suggestion. I think there’s a killer app waiting just around the corner :).

Seriously though there was a good discussion around the subject and what was interesting was that on tables where the facilitators were from operational units the discussions focused around the ‘here and now’ and on tables where the facilitators were from other units the discussions were more future focussed. This wasn’t because of the facilitators themselves because they’d all been told to allow the discussions to flow between the 1 year and the longer 3-5 year visioning but for some reasons the conversations naturally gravitated in that way. I suspect that there we some ‘historical’ reasons why some discussions were more rooted than others. i.e. the legacy systems that people may love or hate but recall when thinking about what to deliver next.

Overall I really enjoyed the event we had over fifty people attend. I have noticed one or two comments on a very particular subject that are on every tablecloth, some one or two people really having an axe to grind but the method of using the ticks helped to cancel out bias as the really important things for most people got lots of ticks.

If doing it again I’d suggest the following:-

1.       Have some clear ‘feeder questions’ at each table to steer discussions

2.       Have the facilitators shape conversations (or even stop them) if they’re focussing on an area outside what we want to capture. Brief facilitators before the event to explain that.

3.       I think it’s OK to allow the personal agendas to surface as long as they’re within scope and people then construct solutions to the issues raised. So moving conversations past what’s broken and onto the ‘ideal solution’.

4.       Again around personal agendas I think these are fine as long as we provide something like the tick/cross idea which I think worked well to allow people to judge how significant they thought particular things were. This means that personal agendas can surface but may not get many ticks compared to issues which are more ubiquitous/significant to many. There’s also a point to be made here that all concerns raised are legitimate and need to be considered so should not be dismissed (Barbara reminded me of just this point recently and it should not be remembered when gathering requirements to gather them all).

So what were the big ideas? – I’ll reveal one from each topic that I think they’re worth sharing.

Big idea 1. Build widgets/gadgets that are platform neutral to provide services  that follow learners between environments, allowing for VLE and ‘small pieces’ system types. In particular these widgets should provide contextual help and online support and collaboration with other students.

Big idea 2. Provide methods to allow academics to easily leverage other OER material (produced outside of OU) so we become a consumer as well as producer. Use Learning Design to help foster this. Also provide better routes between informal (OER) and formal environments.

Big idea 3. Support (through internal research) prototyping of methods for rich web 2.0 assessment. Once established build into course design where appropriate (again course models and learning design).

Big idea 4. Provide methods to allow students to share content found elsewhere, including references. Allow methods for others to comment and annotate on these shared resources.

Big idea 5. Provide services to allow students to engage in forums and Elluminate and other synchronous/synchronous tools outside of their module (course). Including pre-registration and alumni stages. Make registration process simpler to allow the student to ‘continue discussions’ throughout their learning journey.

I think these are all great ideas and there were more like this which can’t be shared outside the OU but which I’ll be making sure the Learning Systems Visioning Group consider when they next meet and I’ll be pushing to get some of the exploratory work progressed to make sure the OU’s future learning system isn’t just an off the shelf VLE tool but rather actually meets the needs of 21st learners who quite rightly expect more from their education.

Gagging Order, Google et al

I’ve been under what feels like a gagging order for the past twelve months as I’ve been part of a small team at the Open University evaluating Google Apps for Education versus Microsoft Live at Edu as the replacement to OpenText FirstClass system for email and also to provide other services to enhance the OU student experience (eProtfolios being one in particular that the OU would like to examine to see if Google can provide a suitable replacement to the current in-house solution called MyStuff).

This has been a very interesting project for me and I visited Google HQ in London earlier in the year and also went around to various places, including the University of Westminster to check out their use of Google tools. I also visited places that have taken the Microsoft tools route and I visited Microsoft HQ last year too, in both cases the overwhelming majority of the institutions are pleased with the results they have received by moving to a cloud provider and adopting more of a CLE rather than VLE (despite the odd niggling issue). I have to say though that, and this I hope is no disrespect to other UK Universities, they are coming from a place much lower on the curve then the OU when exploring “Virtual Campus” solutions. Most of them have Web CT, Blackboard or in a number of cases POP mail accounts as their VLE equivalent. These places gain a lot in a short time by moving to Google or Microsoft.

The OU is in a different position and so it was a big responsibility to make the decision we thought was the correct one to move the OU forward, I felt especially responsible since when I worked in the Technology faculty in the 1990’s we (the EMERG team) introduced FirstClass to the OU and through T171 with John Naughton, Martin Weller and Gary Alexander made it a core component  in online courses. It was a rich environment compared to the equivalent at the time (and remember this was Windows 3.1 era whereVAX mail and CoSy were around as competitors so it really was giving a whole new set of services to the student with it’s rich conferencing experience).

The upshot is that the Open University has picked Google as the provider of choice. Everyone and his dog is blogging about it but some interesting ones are Niall Sclater (who managed the evaluation process) and Tony Hirst who is starting to think about how these tools may be used.

I’m extremely pleased for three reasons, none are to do with Google being “better” then Microsoft by the way as I think it was really a close thing. They are:-

1. I can finally talk about the things I’ve been doing for the past year and not have NDA’s or confidentiality agreements to worry about, so the future is bright and I can discuss the potentials of the ‘next wave’ of technologies without having a gagging order placed on me.

2. We can start planning on how internal v external works for the organisation; we can explore and exploit the benefits of distributed, cloud and share services solutions.

3. I feel like I can start blogging again properly about techy stuff as I’m a nerd. I had considered setting up an anonymous blog or an internal blog (i.e. a blog to self) to keep track of all my doings  but neither of these seems satisfactory. I like to link to others posts and debate with colleagues online (and offline) so those things seem like anti-blogging to me.

…Never mind Happy New Year, it’s happy new era.

NASA Phoenix landing on Mars

I’ve been looking at the latest pictures from the NASA Phoenix lander on Mars. Does anyone else think these photo’s look a lot like my holiday beach snaps?

Old thinking about new web stuff?

I’ve been engaged in a very productive few weeks of meetings with colleagues looking at ways that the OU can use work better, explore new markets and reach out using new tools. The good side is that there’s lots of positive work going on both inside and outside the organisation. The bad news is that there is definitely some ‘old ideas’ floating around about how best to go about leveraging web technology.

An example of this is that the OU is investing in a strategic partnership with YouTube (sounds interesting doesn’t it?) well as far as I know this actually means that we’ll be able to publish larger files sizes without restrictions and we’ll be able to create ‘areas’ for our stuff, so the OU is putting up 300 course resource videos in a section called OUcourses, there’ll also be a section called OUlife and one called OUresearch (I think I may have got that wrong). This strikes me as a very old fashioned idea of how the OU should use Youtube, it’s the old file/folder model of the world and everything gathered into an OU specific area. I far prefer the model adopted by individual academics who publish course materials directly to Youtube and who benefit by the clickback traffic and other stuff, if people really want to get 300 course resources all bunched together they can browse OpenLearn or the OU public site? – The OU is also paying out to hire a helicopter to take a video of the campus to put an official OU Youtube promotion on the web. Again this strikes me as old school thinking of a very polished advertising video when what is really needed is some low-fi stuff and no corporate bling.

I’ve been looking at the Google Maps mashups as friends of mine are working on projects which involve using the Google Maps API to create useful resources, one is an IM locator service for people using OpenLearn and it’s now out and avialable (Alex Little developed this one), the other is using Gogole Maps to create a picture of species maps (of snails) in the UK for a project called Evolution Megalab (Richard Greenwood did this one). There’s lots of potential for the Google Maps API, especially in where it’s going with dynamic re-routing for journey and travel info and with live street level mapping info. Alex pointed me to a good site that deals with this it’s the Google Maps Mania Blog – I could spend ages looking through it (and will when I get more time). The easy use API and the ability to embed the code easily in host sites makes the Google Maps stuff a real winner in my book. I think there’s much potential for it’s use in the kinds of location/discovery/exploration learning context. Now for some new thinking about how it can be used!