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.