Will Technology of the Future destroy our relationships?

Photo credit: gurkan.ozsoy via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A TED talk by Siri co-creator Tom Gruber on the affects of artificial intelligence on our work, memory, and social relationships shows promising impact on edging closer and closer to flawless design, making the world around us safer and more efficient. Gruber cites AI’s potential in contributing to a 99.5 percent accuracy rate in diagnosing cancer, an incredible medical feat. But when considering human memory, what will access to accurate recordings of our interactions mean for our social relationships?

The human condition is that our memories fade and are flawed. Augmented Reality tools have the potential to help us remember events exactly as they happened, giving us the ability to pore over them and access them at will. And that’s also a problem. Our memories are flawed for a reason. We all know the phrase, “to forgive and forget”. We reframe our experiences all the time. It’s an important part in mending our relationships when someone has done us wrong. Have a heated argument with a good friend or family member? Maybe their tone wasn’t as harsh as first detected, and could I have over-reacted?

Microsoft’s Gordon Bell is probably the earliest researcher helping us look at evolving issues around perfect memory in his project MylifeBits. The project was meant to be an exploration into paperless archiving and access to one’s own personal information, but raises several issues related to memory loss including how future technology can assist those suffering neural impairment or Alzheimer’s.

The TV series Black Mirror explores the impact of an unwavering Augmented Reality assisted memory in the episode, The Entire History of You, showcasing dire consequences for one couple. The show is known for taking a look at the darker side of a technologically infused society. Still, it raises some valuable questions we need to ponder.

How will our very own personal big brother change the way we interact with one another? Our ability to be honesty with one another? How we speak to one another? Our ability to get close and form intimate and meaningful relationships with others?

The Big Sift


Photo credit: Creative Tools via Foter.com / CC BY

Did you know there are 571 websites created every minute on the Internet? With over 300 million sites added to the world wide web a year, that’s a whole lot of information to sift through, and it’s getting tougher and tougher every year!

How should Teacher Librarians address the big sift?

Post-Truth Era

Living in a post-truth era with a severely weakened news media and a plethora of websites to wade through, finding good information can be like drinking from a fire hose. While it is important to guide students to appropriate vetted resources like the ones in virtual libraries including journal databases and encyclopedias, students are also getting their information from social media sites full of click-bait articles, and other emotionally charged bias-driven sources. Embedding Information and Media literacy into the research process is imperative in the preparation of learners for participation in a democratic society. It also is a key entry point for Teacher Librarians in instructional leadership.

The state of current News Media:

“When reorganisation and cost-cutting in this core area jeopardise accustomed journalistic standards, it hits at the very heart of the political public sphere. Because, without the flow of information gained through extensive research, and without the stimulation of arguments based on an expertise that doesn’t come cheap, public communication loses its discursive vitality. The public media would then cease to resist populist tendencies, and could no longer fulfil the function it should in the context of a democratic constitutional state.”

-Jurgen Habermas, 2007

The digital revolution and migration of advertising dollars online has had a direct impact on the jobs of journalists. The Toronto Star quotes the Public Policy Forum as estimating that one third of journalists lost their jobs between 2010 and 2016 in Canada and since 2010, 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers in Canada have shut their doors or merged with other papers. This is bound to have quite an impact on the quality and breadth of current information our students are finding when searching for information on the Internet. Here are just some of the factors affecting “truth” in online current information.

“Post-Truth” Word of the Year

The 2016 English Oxford dictionary word of the year was “post-truth”. It is an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

The term was selected after cries of fake news and alternative facts following the U.S. presidential election.

Fake News

Fake News is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via fake media news sites or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. Some politicians began to appropriate the phrase “fake news,” using it to describe news organizations that don’t support them. News organizations don’t write fake news, though they are not entirely immune to making erroneous reports. Sites like Snopes work to dispel fake and erroneous news.

Read this article by The Guardian’s Katherine Viner, How Technology Disrupted the Truth

Currency of Online Information

Though the number of websites on the World Wide Web hovers around a billion, 75 percent of those sites are inactive or parked, making it ever more necessary to check currency and validity of sites.

Filter Bubble

UpWorthy’s Eli Pariser coined this term in response to the personalization of the Google search. Because the search function adapts and personalizes returns, matching and ignoring them based on our generated profile, we are more apt to miss information outside that which the computer algorithms have deemed as relevant to us.

Participatory Voices

Skim the report Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online by Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis for an overview of how voices online shape information.

How are you helping students and teachers understand the issues around filtering for good information? How are you helping them build the skills necessary to find good information?

I addressed “The Big Sift” at the Bring It Together Conference in 2015.

Big Brother in our Schools

Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art
Courtesy of Nighted, Deviant Art

Did you know that all schools providing registered childcare in the UK use a Canadian-made Internet filtering system to deter children from becoming terrorists?

Good grief. Kindergarteners are plotting terrorist activities? How they fit all that in between fingerpainting, learning to count to 100, and taking naps, I’ll never know.  Sound a little extreme to be true? Check the news release on Waterloo-based Netsweeper’s own website. Thank goodness we haven’t gone over the edge of paranoia in our schools here in Canada.

According to the Cambridge Times, that same company, Netsweeper has offered “free” internet filtering to the Waterloo Region District School Board on a trial basis. This comes on the heels of a request by school trustees including Cindy Watson, Natalie Waddell, and Kathi Smith to hire “experts” in Internet filtering after one Cambridge couple complained their child had seen pornographic content at school. While I sympathize with the parents, I believe we may be treading in dangerous waters here.

Netsweeper is the same company Toronto’s CitizenLab discovered in 2011 to be blocking sites in Pakistan. Waterloo-based Netsweeper was hired by the Pakistani government  in an effort to block any sites that would seem blasphemous to a muslim-majority, as well as those featuring political discourse, and the news outlet CNN.

Normalizing surveillance in society leads to the eventual acceptance of blocking freedom of information and freedom of speech. That’s a direct hit to democracy.  Am I over-reacting? Well, that’s why I started this post with the story about the terrorist plotting kindergarten kids in the UK! You see, this is how it all starts. Yes, filtering pornographic and racist material makes sense. Of course we want to protect our children. But, we need to consider how best to do that while being cognizant of the short and long-term effects and trade-offs.

There’s always a cost involved when hiring “Internet filtering experts”. Besides the high potential for computer algorithms to inadvertently block perfectly innocuous material and affect access and freedom of information, companies never give anything away for free. We need to consider our children’s privacy as many of these companies are in the business of data mining, especially if offering free services.

So, what’s the practical way to deal with censorship and surveillance for the sake of our children? With 571 websites created every single minute on the Internet, harmful sites are bound to slip through the best content filtering algorithms. That’s why WRDSB teachers use a user-based monitoring system called School Connect where they are able to monitor students’ screens in their classroom. There’s nothing better than this. Teachers act not just as filters intercepting inappropriate content, but as guides and educators, they are able to interject and have a discussion with students about content. This is what we call “education” and “media literacy”.

Is it any wonder the Board has delayed its decision on stricter Internet filters? They’ve got a lot to ponder.


Considering “Audience” in TPAK

Inserting "audience" in TPAK
Inserting “audience” in TPAK. “Reproduced by permission of the publisher, © 2012 by tpack.org” http://tpack.org

School’s out but I’m just revving up. Right now I’m teaching an ABQ course at Queen’s University while taking my Librarianship Qualifications at OISE. The lack of sleep and pots of coffee cause my mind to wander and stumble upon topics I just can’t stop mulling over in my mind. The latest obsession falls on the TPAK model for technological integration in education. “There’s something missing!”, I think to myself. The interconnection of pedagogy, technology and content needs to have some sort of glue that holds it all in place. After 2 cups of my morning brew, I can finally pinpoint what it is. It’s the people element. The missing “A’ in TPAK is “AUDIENCES”. It’s the intersection of representation and interpretation of communicated messages.

Now, this should have been an obvious addition for me, coming from a media background. I’m reminded how Stuart Hall’s theories of dominant and oppositional readings are all shaped by the various filters each one of us carries with us. And aren’t those filters really central to how we use content, implement pedagogy, and construct media representations with technology? Of course they are. It’s all about our own bias. Take a moment to view the list of filters and think about how each may affect each of the three current elements of TPAK.

  • race
  • gender
  • culture and hegemony
  • ability/disability
  • geography
  • politics
  • economics
  • religion/beliefs/values
  • power and authority
  • media bias

TPAK creator Matthew Koehler recognizes that the transactional relationships between the elements is unique due to the various contexts that interplay. Koehler says, “Effective technology integration for pedagogy around specific subject matter requires developing sensitivity to the dynamic, transactional relationship between these components of knowledge situated in unique contexts. Individual teachers, grade-level, school-specific factors, demographics, culture, and other factors ensure that every situation is unique, and no single combination of content, technology, and pedagogy will apply for every teacher, every course, or every view of teaching.” I can’t help feeling that this is of most significance and it’s been buried and hidden from the graphic representation. It’s really the place where we all need to start.

Why do we need to start with audience? Audience defines our purpose for communicating. How and what we say is shaped and interpreted by our own filters and those of others. The purpose here is not to strip away at those filters to create a uniform equalization. It’s to acknowledge that the filters create a unique perspective. This is personalization.

So let’s put it into application.

Students in my grade 12 college level English class did a guided research and inquiry project for their summative that allowed them to focus on communicating for a specific audience but allowed them choice in production of a media representation. The project was presented to them as a question so that they could focus on their personal connection and a targeted audience. “If you could go back and tell your grade 9 or 10 self one really valuable piece of advice, what would it be?” The students were to leave their legacy by presenting in small groups to rotating groups of younger grades (thank-you to Karen Blaak for creating the project). The topics students came up with were varied and included (to name just a few):

  • how to use technology to organize your high school life of academics, activities, social lives, and after school jobs
  • maintaining a healthy teen lifestyle through diet and exercise
  • how to save money to buy a car and your independence
  • maintaining good attendance and punctuality in the school setting
  • avoiding social isolation and depression

These topics may seem very simple, but each presentation had a personal story that supported the authenticity of the purpose behind the presentation. These students were sharing their experiences and coming up with solutions through experience, discussions with others, and research. Not only that, but these experiences and solutions are transferrable life hacks.
Though the focus was on communicating with an audience, TPAK was applied to the project. Here’s a quick overview of the three areas that needed to be combined so that transformation learning could take place.
Technology (as tools/support):

  • The assignment was posted on Google Classroom so that students could have 24/7 access to any needed documents.
  • Video tutorials and online guides were made available for using the various technologies
  • Google Docs, presentations, and forms were used for 24/7 accessible collaboration, gathering and enacting active research, and representation

Pedagogy: Inquiry based, project-based, problem solving

Content/Knowledge: English curriculum expectations on reading, writing, research, representation, presentation skills, combined with personal experience/connections

Now, here’s where the exciting transformation takes place as the elements of technology, pedagogy, and content/knowledge combine. Students selected the medium that best suited their targeted audience, researched topic, perspective, interest, personality, and skill level to communicate their message. Here are some example of the types of media presentations students produced:

  • a video of a series of interviews conducted of experts, youth, and parents; followed up with an online survey
  • a fictional diary that was read to the younger students and used for a guided discussion
  • a series of games the students played to initiate problem solving in the selected topic area
  • a series of pamphlets and posters providing information and tips, along with an online poll to gauge impact and opinion
  • pecha kucha style presentations, followed by online quizzes and verbal discussion

Students really bought in to the project as they were able to express themselves with media in whatever way they wanted to. They followed the guidelines of a research-based inquiry model and English curriculum expectations, kept the targeted audience in sight, and used technology to analyze and synthesize content, produce media representations, and personally express themselves. The wide variances in topics and representation serve to highlight the overarching impact that the “people element” makes in this personalized learning process. Place any of the filters listed above over the media products and the personalized voice of the author shines through. As mentioned at the start of this post, the missing “A’ in TPAK is “AUDIENCES”. It’s the heart of representation and interpretation of communicated messages.

A Matter of Equalization

Ever the optimist, I ended a recent online group hangout about danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated” with hopes that we would someday find something in our tools that would help move us towards the equalization of voice and representation on the Internet. I don’t consider myself a techno-utopian and hopefully by the time you read to the end of this post, you will realize I’m not a hardcore technological determinist either. But, isn’t there some chance of shifting just a little closer to equalization through the Internet?

What factors do we need to alter in online spaces as we move towards equalization? Are they age? Race? Gender? Anonymity? And what factors can be hidden or manipulated so that others are not aware of them in online public spaces? The massive online role-playing game Second Life was supposed to do just that before it turned into a wasteland of virtual sex. In SL, participants create an avatar, most going in with hopes that their experiences may change from those they have had in real life, experiences that are shaped by their defining characteristics of age, race, gender, and even ability. A female avatar may be operated by a human male and vice versa. A person in a wheelchair has legs through an avatar. Inevitably though, we end up giving ourselves away…our use of language, our beliefs and values still end up coming through our mediated avatars. So does our knowledge of the world. And for many left in the virtual space of SL, some of our basest desires.

Most people using the Internet have accepted the belief that we should be the same person online as we are in the real world, though we do construct our identities in ways that are favourable to us. The Internet still affords us access to others we may not have met in RL. Ask any tech-savvy teacher who goes to an educational conference and they’ll point out any number of people they met through Twitter before meeting them in person. The Internet affords us wider audiences. They are there for the taking if we know how to navigate them.

A few years ago, students at a local high school in Waterloo started a Facebook campaign to save a custodian’s job who was being moved to the night shift. The popular custodian was known to whistle tunes in the halls and smile and talk to the kids. Hundreds of kids signed online petitions, organized rallies and the distribution of promotional items for their cause, such as t-shirts. Although Facebook afforded students opportunity for public discourse, a wider engaged audience, and access to people of all ages, the campaign failed and the custodian was moved back to the night shift. The students felt disempowered. What they failed to recognize were the existing power structures that live outside the Internet. You see, the custodian was being moved to the night shift because he was only filling in temporarily. The regular full-time employee was coming back from leave. The students had no understanding of the power structures of a union. They thought their voice and numbers would be enough. They thought wrong.

Equalization does not come through the tools. Until age, gender, and race are no longer a shaping factor in our knowledge and beliefs, we will not achieve any advancements in equalization. Until existing societal structures can be navigated, we will not achieve equalization. Until the digital divide of access to technology is erased, we will not achieve equalization. Tools aside, it’s really about shifting pre-existing judgement. That’s why Media literacy and education will always be the cornerstone of any of those shifts, however slight, that we make towards equalization.

You can view the original hangout here on danah boyd’s book. It was a great opportunity to share thoughts on the book with educators from all over.
It’s Complicated