Deep Text

What is "deep text?"  It may have other meanings in the future, but right now Deep Text is an AI engine that Facebook is building. The goal of Deep Text is big - to understand the meaning and sentiment behind all of the text posted by users to Facebook. It is also intended that the engine will help identify content that people may be interested in, and also to weed out spam.

The genesis of Deep Text goes back to an AI paper published last year,"Text Understanding from Scratch," by Xiang Zhang and Yann LeCun.

Facebook pays attention to anything you type in the network, not just "posts" but also comments on other people's posts, Facebook researchers say that 70% of us regularly type and then decide not to post. They are interested in this self-censorship that occurs. Men are more likely to self-censor their social network posts, compared to women. Facebook tracks what you type, even if you never post it. 

Why does Facebook care? If they know what your typing is about, it can show it to other people who care about that topic, and, of course, it can better target ads to you and others.

This is not easy if you want to get deeper into the text. If you type the word "Uber" what does that mean? Do you need a ride? Are you complaining or complimenting the Uber service? What can Facebook know if you type "They are the Uber of food trucks"? 

This is a deep use of text analysis. With 400,000 new stories and 125,000 comments on public posts being shared every minute on Facebook, they need to analyze several thousand per second across 20 languages. A human might be able to do a few per minute, but obviously this is far beyond the capabilities of humans, The intelligence need to be artificial.

A piece on talks about how in Facebook Messenger might use Deep Text for chat bots to talk more like a human, interpreting text rather than giving programmed replies to anticipated queries. Saying "I need a new phone" is very different from "I just bought a new phone."The former opens the opportunity to suggest a purchase. The latter might mean you are open to writing a review.

Along with filtering spam, it could also filter abusive comments and to generally improve search from within Facebook.
Parsing text with software has been going on for decades. Machine scoring of writing samples has been an ongoing and controversial since it began. Ellis Batten Page discussed back in 1966 the possibility of scoring essays by computer, and in 1968 he published his successful work with a program called Project Essay Grade™ (PEG™). But the technology of that time, didn't allow computerized essay scoring to be cost-effective, Today, companies like Educational Testing Service offer these services, but what Facebook wants to do is quite different and in some ways more sophisticated.

Deep Text leverages several deep neural network architectures. These are things that are beyond my scope of knowledge - convolutional and recurrent neural nets, word-level and character-level based learning - but I will be using it, and so I want to understand what is going on behind the page.

If you read about Microsoft’s Tay chatbot, you know that it was artificial intelligence that was supposed to learn how to talk like a teenager. users gamed the software and "taught" it to talk like a Nazi, which became big news on social media. The bot was created by Microsoft's Technology and Research, and Bing divisions and named "Tay" as an acronym "thinking about you."

Facebook is testing Deep Text in limited and specific scenarios.

How Transparent Is Your Teaching?

by Daniel Baránek CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

by Daniel Baránek CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It seems that I am most likely to hear the word "transparency" used these days in the context of politics, science, engineering and business. The term implies openness, communication, and accountability. Being transparent means operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. I don't hear it much in terms of education. 

Mary-Ann Winkelmes is now the Coordinator of Instructional Development and Research at the University of Nevada (UNLV) and an affiliate scholar in UNLV's department of history, as well as a Senior Fellow of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U). But Mary-Ann started in higher education as a teacher of Italian Renaissance art and architecture. She developed an interest in trying to learn more about how her students were learning the content. Over the years, this has moved her away from art history and towards teaching and learning. 

If you teach, think about a lesson or exercise that is one of your favorites to use. How much of your teaching of that is now habit and how "transparent" is the assignment or task? She found that many traditional assignments come with little or no explanation and that students complete them because their professors tell them to. What she wants faculty to think about how is not only how they teach but also to ask their students to think about how they learn. 

In a 2015 interview, she defined transparency in this way: "Transparency means teaching students about more than just the course subject matter. It means telling students about your rationale for how and why you've chosen to shape their learning experiences. Most of the time, college faculty think and plan carefully about how the required work in their courses will lead students through a meaningful learning process. But students don't understand that because teachers stop short of discussing it with them. Transparency in teaching and learning requires that teachers and students talk about the process of how students are learning just as explicitly as they talk about the course content – or what students are learning."  

Winkelmes spent time at Harvard University's Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, the University of Chicago's Center for Teaching and Learning, and the University of Illinois where she created the Transparency Project in Teaching and Learning in 2010. Now she trains professors in “transparent” teaching.

This approach helps students understand why they have received an assignment, what they are expected to do, and how they will be evaluated. In The Unwritten Rules of College  How Professors Can Make Assignments Transparent, she describes how faculty involved in the project considered three questions when creating assignments: the task, the purpose, and the criteria.

This sounds so very basic to creating an assignment, but she finds it is frequent;y lacking in assignments. Perhaps those assignments are more translucent or even opaque.

Students need to be told exactly they are to do, including knowing the purpose of the assignment. Why are they being asked to do this and what is the instructor’s goal? What are the criteria that will be used to evaluate the work that the students submit?

She believes that knowing those three things can help motivate students and make their courses relevant.

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, 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.


How Do You Define Personalized Learning?

Higher education leaders share how they define personalized learning.

Including: Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education, Georgetown University; Tahnja Wilson, Sr. Mgr. of Strategic Design Initiatives, Arizona State University; David Wiley, Chief Academic Officer, Lumen Learning; Bryan Alexander, Founder, Bryan Alexander Consulting LLC; Shannon McCarty, Dean of Instruction & Academic Affairs, Rio Salado College; Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University;  Tristan Denley, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs ,Tennessee Board of Regents