Damn Algorithms


In this information age steeped in computers, the engine humming under the surface of this website and much of the technology we use is full of mathematics and computer science. That means it uses algorithms. I was reading a story about how Facebook again (probably constantly) tweaked its algorithms for what we see in our news feed. What is all this about and where did it come from?

Without getting too complicated, an algorithm is a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed. Algorithms can perform calculations, process data and automate reasoning.

The concept and origin of the word goes back centuries. The words 'algorithm' and 'algorism' come from the name al-Khwarizmi. Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-850) and from Algoritmi, the Latin form of his name. He was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, geographer, and scholar. The importance of his contributions to mathematics can also be seen in the word "algebra" which is derived from al-jabr, one of the two operations he used to solve quadratic equations. His name is also the origin of the Spanish guarismo and of Portuguese algarismo, both meaning "digit."

So, why do I damn algorithms? Because they are used to control so much of what we do online. They are hiding behind all of this. You can't read a financial article without hearing about someone changing the algorithms in order to do flash trading or something devious on the stock market. They control the ads you see and what offers come to you and what Amazon recommends that you buy.

The audio below is about how Facebook's stock could benefit from a new Instagram algorithm. Facebook acquired Instagram, which is currently a hot social media property, and their intent is to increase ad revenue rather than increase your pleasure in using the networks.

Some people are very worried about artificial intelligence and robots taking over. The nasty little algorithms are already here.

*  If you want to know how to compute the RSA algorithm shown partially at the top of this post, including how to select values for d, e, n, p, q, and ? (phi), you can watch this video. It also will help insomniacs.

Have You Bought Into Any Snake Oil Edtech?

adI saw a tweet from @chronicle for an article titled "Understanding the Origins of Ed-Tech Snake Oil" and that "snake oil" caught my attention. This has to be an opinion piece and someone is not happy.  

The author is Michael Feldstein and he leads with a quick list of theories that have been marketed to us like products and have led to a real market for products: personalized learning, adaptive learning, brain and learning science and big data.

Feldstein fels that the marketing for some of these educational products hits us like "a late-night infomercial" including the use of movie disclaimer lines - "based on a novel by" becomes "based on the science of neuroplasticity."

He has used the snake oil comparison before. For the new kids in the audience, snake oil come to America via the Chinese laborers building the transcontinental railroad. For them, snake oil was a traditional folk liniment to treat joint pain. Rival American "medicine" salesmen who used the term generically for things marketed as "panaceas or miraculous remedies whose ingredients were usually secret, unidentified, or mischaracterized and mostly inert or ineffective."

Michael could probably live with that definition in the edtech context too. He comes down on a few products in particular in his opinion piece, but the takeaway for me is to think more about how we are "marketed" by vendors using the very research that some of us have done on learning. 

It is worth noting that the original snake oil sometimes was effective, if only because of a placebo effect. But that doesn't mean we want to prescribe its use with our students.


Citing Sources

The Modern Language Association (MLA) says it wants to make the always boring process (as strudent, writer and teacher) of citing sources less tedious. As this article points out, it has only gotten more complicated by the variety of digital sources that have emerged and continue to emerge. I recall faculty laughing at the idea of having to cite a tweet, but now it is definitely accepted.

The latest edition (8th) of the MLA Handbook includes that and YouTube videos and other digital sources. The handbook will also have a digital style center to answer questions and offer samples. More important to users is that it moves towards streamlining citations by taking more of a logic-based, rather than rules-based approach. 

Minds Online

brainOnline courses have definitely opened access to students in remote areas. They also offer option to people with learning requirements that require more flexibility with meeting times, and more critically with issues of physical accessibility and even learning disabilities.

There are lots of books, articles and theses devoted to this research on teaching with technology. More recently, I see research on the ways in which online teaching can improve learning for all students.

More and more traditional, full time, on or near campus students add online courses to their schedule. In many cases, it's for the same reasons as students at a distance - time scheduling around work, and enjoying the freedom and different approaches to learning an online class offers.

We don't hear these courses and programs referred to much anymore as "distance learning" because distance is not the biggest factor for enrollments.

Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University, usually researches language and memory, but a newer book by her looks at the role technology can play in improving the learning experiences of all students. That research appears in Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology.

In an article on chronicle.com, she says that "One of the reasons Northern Arizona University values teaching with technology is our geography and location. We’re located in the middle of some vast, sparsely populated spaces, and a major part of our mission as an institution is to serve the educational needs of the people spread throughout these spaces. Especially critical is our commitment to serving the needs of Native American students, many of whom live or spend time in rural reservation communities." 

It is only recently that educational technology has mixed with neuroscience and cognitive psychology to design with the brain in mind. These designers are considering how attention, memory, critical thinking, and analytical reasoning can be used for technology-aided approaches. This approach seems relevant for teachers and instructional designers.

Online courses by their very delivery seem to be a natural pathway to using technology for learning. Miller says that cognitive psychologists already knew that frequent checks for learning (quizzing) is beneficial to learning. This "testing effect" doesn't work very easily in a traditional classroom. In an online course, repeated quiz attempts with different questions and adaptive learning techniques to adapt a quiz's topics or questions to an individual student is easier. Of course, this technology can also be used with students in an actual classroom with some course retooling.

This is a key concept for Miller who suggests that "for more complex activities such as problem-solving exercises, simulations, and case studies. Using online tools, we can set up multiple scenarios, present them as many times as we want, and customize the content or pacing for different students. We know from research that effortful practice is the way to master complex skills, and technology offers new ways to lead students into this effortful practice."

Miller's book is not just theory. In the chapter on "Putting It All Together," she offers a sample syllabus for an online course with commentary linking the policies to the cognitive principles covered in the book. 

Aligning online pedagogy with learning science and putting instructional design and cognitive science together into usable design principles seems to be a worthy, though difficult, process.


Of Course, There Is Life After College


A new book, There Is Life After College by Jeff Selingo, is out this month. It looks at stories of 20-somethings and their experiences in and out of school and how those experiences shaped their success in the job market.

He looks at factors such as the skills that proved most helpful, in an attempt to discover why some students prosper, while others fail.  (There is a free preview of the book's introduction.)

Jeff Selingo previously wrote College (Un)bound and there is some crossover, such as the need for students to understand the jobs (especially ones that did not exist a few years ago) available to them and the need to be lifelong learners. 

There Is Life After College is about after college and the concerns about that time come not only from students but from parents. Parent are anxious about their college-educated child to successfully landing a good job after graduation and their own or the student's significant debt which (especially in an uncertain job market) may leave that child financially dependent on their parents for years to come. Both parties may well ask, "What did I pay all that money for?"

While Selingo's earlier book may have answered that question with thoughts about alternatives to the degree, such as MOOCs or competency-based degrees, this new book looks a lot at that Return on Investment (ROI).

Does where you go to college matter? Most of the data says it does. The better schools get more students to graduation on time and their name recognition value is real. My one son is in finance and for many of the Wall Street banks and firms he interviewed with they only wanted to look at Ivy League graduates. There is a nice interactive visualization tool from Jon Boeckenstedt that shows graduation rates by the selectivity of the school. The ability of the nation's oldest and wealthiest colleges to graduate white men who end up wealthy is real. Not that less selective schools mean no chance of success, but it may come with more effort required. But the really surprising take on this kind of data to me was that it's not that you should choose a college because of its graduation rate, but that the college will select you based on your propensity to graduate.

For the book, Selingo conducted a survey of young adults who had at least some college experience and were born between 1988 and 1991, giving them some time to start a career in their mid-twenties. Based on that survey, they divided the transition from adolescence into adulthood by new college graduates into three groups: Sprinters, Wanderers, or Stragglers. This charts appears in his newsletter


The full results of the survey are in the book, but one result was that two-thirds of new college graduates fail to find meaningful employment in the years after they leave school. They either drift from job to job, live with their parents or work part-time gigs that don’t require a college degree. 

Of course, there IS life after college, but the book taps a trend we see of more difficult and longer transitions to post-college life and looks to suggest ways that graduates can market themselves. He suggests that process to plan for a young professional starts at the end of high school through college graduation. Seems like this book would make a good high school graduation gift.