April 21, 2018

Assessing the dangers of AI applications in education

Image: CaspionReport

Lynch, J. (2017) How AI will destroy education, buZZrobot, 13 November

I’m a bit slow catching up on this (I have a large backlog of articles and books to review), but this is the best critique I have seen of the potential dangers of AI applications in education.

Don’t be put off by the title – it’s not totally anti-AI but thoughtfully criticises some of the current thinking about AI applications in education.

It’s worth reading in full (an 8 minute read) but here’s a quick summary to encourage you to have the full meal rather than a snack, with my bits of flavouring on top:

Measuring the wrong things

Most data collected about student learning is indirect, inauthentic, lacking demonstrable reliability or validity, and reflecting unrealistic retention timelines. And current examples of AIEd often rely on these poor proxies for learning, using data that is easily collectable rather than educationally meaningful.

Yes, but don’t educators do that too?

(re)Discovering bad ways to teach

AIEd solutions frequently incorporate false and/or unsupported educational ideas reflecting the biases of their developers….If AIEd is going to benefit education, it will require strengthening the connection between AI developers and experts in the learning sciences. Otherwise, AIEd will simply ‘discover’ new ways to teach poorly and perpetuate erroneous ideas about teaching and learning.

I hope the good folks at MIT are reading this because this is exactly what happened with their early MOOCs.

Prioritising adaptivity over quality

The ubiquity of poor quality content means AIEd technologies often simply recommend the ‘best’ piece of (crappy) content or identify students at risk of failing a (crappy) online course early in the semester….Improving and evaluating the quality of instructional content is neither easy nor cheap, it also isn’t something any AIEd solution is going to do. 

This comes down to the criteria that AI uses to make recommendations. This means replacing criteria such as the number of hits, or likes, with more educational criteria, such as clarity and reliability. Not easy but not impossible. And we still need to improve the quality of content, whether we use AI or not.

Swapping affect for efficiency

Maybe one day AIEd will be capable of effectively identifying and nurturing student emotions during learning, but until then we must be careful not to offload educational tasks that, on the surface, may appear menial or routine, but critically depend on emotion and meaningful human connections to be optimally beneficial.

AI advocates often argue that they are not trying to replace teachers but to make their life easier or more efficient. Don’t believe them: the key driver of AI applications is cost-reduction, which means reducing the number of teachers, as this is the main cost in education. In fact, the key lesson from all AI developments is that we will need to pay increased attention to the affective and emotional aspects of life in a robot-heavy society, so teachers will become even more important. 

Comment

One problem with being old is that you keep seeing the same old hype going round and round. I remember the same arguments back in the 1980s over artificial intelligence. Millions of dollars went into AI research at the time, including into educational applications, with absolutely no payoff.

There have been some significant developments in AI since then, in particular pattern recognition, access to and analysis of big data sets, and formalized decision-making within limited boundaries. The trick though is to recognise exactly what kind of applications these new AI developments are good for, and what they cannot do well. In other words, the context in which AI is used matters and needs to be taken account of. Thus the importance of Lynch’s comment about involving learning scientists/educators in the design of AI applications in education.

I believe there will be some useful applications of AI in education, but only if there is continuing dialogue between AI developers and ‘learning scientists’/educators as new developments in AI become available. But that will require being very clear about the purpose of AI applications in education and being wide awake to the unintended consequences.

Online education and the professional associations: the case of law

Image: Reality Sandwich, 2015

Lederman, D. (2018) The uncertain landscape for online legal education Inside Higher Education, January 24

The situation in the USA

This is a useful report about the current situation in the USA regarding the accreditation or otherwise of online courses in law. Does the American Bar Association (ABA) recognise qualifications where some or all the courses were taken online?

The answer is: maybe but in most cases so far, no.

In late 2013, the American Bar Association gave a private nonprofit law school in Minnesota permission to create a part-time Juris Doctor program that blended online courses heavily with face-to-face instruction. The Minnesota law school, now called Mitchell Hamline School of Law, just turned out its first two graduates this month.

A handful of law schools, including those at Seton Hall UniversityLoyola University Chicago and Touro University, have recently introduced part-time programs that allow students to take up to 15 credits online (out of a minimum of 83 credits), the maximum now allowed by the American Bar Association.

However, several other law schools have had their petitions for “variances”(as the ABA calls them) to allow some online learning rejected, including some quite prestigious law schools, including those at Syracuse University and Rutgers.

As the article states:

The mixed results about the fates of law schools seeking to expand their online footprints left some legal education observers uncertain about the prospects for online and other innovations in legal education. The ABA is expected to consider as soon as next month some loosening of its rules on online learning, but exactly how remains unclear.

What about Canada?

In Canada, the provinces have delegated accreditation to provincial Legal Societies, such as the Law Society of Ontario/Upper Canada (similar to other professions in Canada, such as engineering.)

To qualify for admission to the Lawyer Licensing Process, an applicant must typically have acquired credentials through one of the following options:

  • Graduates of an Accredited Law School (Common Law);
  • Graduates of International or Non-Accredited Canadian Law Schools who must apply to the National Committee on Accreditation (“NCA”) to have their legal education credentials evaluated before they can enter the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Lawyer Licensing Process;
  • Lawyers qualified in other provinces who meet the inter-provincial mobility standards.

Most of those applying for licensing in Canada will come as a result of graduating through an accredited Canadian law school. The Legal Society of Upper Canada provides a list of 20 accredited law schools. These are almost entirely within the provincial public university system, covering all provinces except Newfoundland and the territories.

I could find no statement on the Legal Society of Ontario site about courses taken at these schools through online learning. If anyone can provide me with such information, I would be grateful. However, in most Canadian public universities, online students take the same exams as classroom-based students, and as a result degree transcripts rarely indicate the mode of study.

So are there online courses in law programs in Canada?

According to the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education (2017), just under 20% of responding institutions (or at least 10) offered some credit courses online in law. This was more than in forestry, dentistry or medicine, but somewhat surprisingly, less than in engineering, a profession that so far has refused to accept any ‘distance’ qualifications. eCampusOntario lists at least 13 online courses in law from accredited law schools in Ontario.

A couple of Canadian universities offered a whole online program in law, but not necessarily a full degree. For instance Ryerson University offers the Law Practice Program.  The program, approved conditionally by the Law Society of Upper Canada, adopts a hybrid approach, with a four month practical training period consisting of 14 weeks online and three separate weeks on campus. During these seventeen weeks, candidates work on simulated files developed by practising lawyers. This training is then followed by a four month work placement, where participants work on actual files. However, you already need a degree in law before taking this program.

Similarly once you have a degree, as part of the licensing process in Ontario, during an Articling placement, the candidate is expected to study the online Professional Responsibility and Practice Course (PRP). Therefore it appears that the largest law accreditation agency in Canada is not opposed in principle to online courses. If there is a reluctance to move to online courses or programs in law in Canada, it is more likely to come from the law schools themselves.

So my belief – and it is no more than this – is that currently there are some courses available online in law in Canadian universities, and some hybrid programs with a substantial online component, but no fully online degree yet accredited by a Canadian law society. 

However, I would really like to hear from those of you working in law: what if any are the requirements or limitations in studying law online in Canada?

One business case for OER examined

A video on electricity from the OpenLearn platform

Law, P. and Perryman, L.-A. (2017) How OpenLearn supports a business model for OER Distance Education, Vol. 38, No. 1

The journal: ‘Distance Education’

Distance Education is one of the oldest and most established journals in the field. It is the journal of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA) and over the years it has published some of the best research in distance education. However, it is not an open access journal, so I am providing my own personal review of one of the articles in this, generally excellent, edition. I should point out though that I am a member of the editorial board so do have an interest in supporting this journal.

Editorial

Som Naidu, the editor, does an excellent job of introducing the articles in the journal under the heading of ‘Openness and flexibility are the norm, but what are the challenges?’ He correctly points out that

While distance education is largely responsible for the articulation and spearheading of openness and flexibility as desirable value principles, these educational goals are fast becoming universally attractive across all sectors and modes of education.

The rapid move to blended and more flexible learning and the slow but increasing use of open educational resources (OER) in campus-based based institutions indeed is challenging the uniqueness of distance education in terms of openness and flexibility. It is easy to argue that distance education is now no more than just another delivery option. Nevertheless, there are still important differences, and Som Naidu draws out some interesting comparisons between the experience of on-campus and distance learning that are still valid.

A business model for OER?

In this latest issue of Distance Education, Patrina Law and Leigh-Anne Perryman have written a very interesting paper about the business case for OER based on three surveys of users (in 2013, 2014, and 2015) of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn project. First some information about OpenLearn:

  • OpenLearn is an open content platform. Initially it used samples of course content from the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate ‘modules’ (courses) but now hosts specially commissioned audio, video and other interactive materials and short online courses including free certificates and badges;
  • OpenLearn now offers the equivalent of 850 free courses representing 5% of the undergraduate and graduate degree content;
  • 6 million people visit each year with a total of 46 million unique visitors since it was established in 2006; 
  • 13% of users go on to enquire about the OU’s formal degree programs (equivalent of about 1,000 student enrolments per year).

Law and Perryman provide an excellent review of the business cases for OER put forward by others such as the OECD and Creative Commons, then use the survey data from OpenLearn users to test these arguments. Here’s what they found:

  • provision of OER is complementary rather than competitive with the OU’s formal degree programming
  • over half the users are UK-based
  • about 20% reported a disability
  • median age was 36-45
  • about 20% indicated that English was not their first language
  • 70% had some form of post-secondary qualification
  • 16% were part-time or full-time students
  • about two-thirds of the users were ‘tasting’ or ‘testing’ content before making a decision about whether to take a formal program (at either the OU or another institution)
  • almost half (45%) used OpenLearn to find out more about the UK OU (22% had never heard of it before and altogether over half knew nothing or little previously about the OU)
  • the average cost of conversion to OER was between £1500-£2000 per course
  • 13% of OpenLearn users clicked through to make a formal enquiry resulting in about 1,000 new student registrations.

Comment

Very importantly, Law and Perryman link the growing use of OpenLearn to the sudden increase in tuition fees in the UK (£9,000 a year in general, and £5,000 per year for an OU full time degree). Students are not willing to risk this cost without being sure they stand a chance of success and have an interest in the subject. OpenLearn allows them to test this.

This is an important point. The UK government policy of very high tuition fees does appear to be negatively impacting access for many potential students, or at least making them think very carefully before committing to such a large investment. The OU in particular has lost student enrolments as its fees have gone up. There is a danger in my mind that OER can be politically used as a diversion from ‘true’ open education for credit that is available to everyone, irrespective of their means. The best form of open education remains a well-funded state system.

This leads to my one serious criticism of the article. Apart from the cost of conversion, no proper analysis of the true cost of OpenLearn is given so the title is misleading. It does not describe a business model, with full input costs and output benefits stated in monetary terms, but a business case which provides uncosted but positive arguments based on other than cost factors. 

This is a really important distinction because the business model depends heavily on adequate funding for the formal, degree programs which provide the base for the OpenLearn materials. Without that funding, and other costs, OpenLearn will quickly become unsustainable. It is not a parasite in the negative sense of the word but it can’t exist without the funding for the core function of the OU. Without a sense of the full cost of OpenLearn it remains difficult to judge whether the obvious benefits are worth the drain on the OU’s other resources, as the money has to come from somewhere.

Otherwise this is a very good article that should read carefully by anyone concerned with policy regarding the use of OER.

U.S. university/college financing ‘stabilizing’

Image: © Moody, 2015

Image: © Moody, 2015

Unauthored (2015) Stability and Modest Growth Expected for U.S. Colleges, Inside Higher Ed, December 3

Lederman, D. (2015) ‘Stabilizing’ Financial Picture, Inside Higher Education, July 8

These two reports are for the record (i.e. to help me find the data when I need it for other articles). Nevertheless, they are still interesting.

These are reports of analyses by Moody on the financial status of universities and colleges in the USA. Lederman’s article is about a report released on the financial status of universities and colleges in 2014, and the more recent article is a projection over the next year to 18 months into 2016.

These reports are important, because for the first time since the great U.S. recession in 2008, there is actually overall growth in revenues, especially from state funding, even though tuition revenue is actually declining slightly overall. Nevertheless, the proportion of funding from the state is still considerably less than in 2004, and the situation is not even, with the less prestigious local/state universities still more likely to be in financial trouble than the larger, more prestigious land-grant and private universities.

‘Stabilization’ does not mean that the pressure to reduce the costs of higher education will ease, especially with regard to tuition fees, but it may mean that we will see less media hype about MOOCs and other technology innovations disrupting higher education. Getting costs under control while revenues stabilize will still remain essential, and the more local, less-selective institutions are particularly vulnerable, which is likely to lead to even less equity in the system: to those that have shall it be given.

Does distance education socialize students? A study from Québec

image ©www.ameriquefrançais.org, 2014

image © www.amériquefrançaise.org, 2014

Loisier, J. (2014) Socialisation des Etudiants en FAD au Canada Francophone Montréal QC: REFAD

REFAD (the Canadian francophone distance education network) has published a very interesting research paper on socialization and distance education in francophone Canada by one of its research consultants, Dr. Jean Loisier. If you can read French, and are interested in research on the extent to which socialization exists and the role it plays in online and distance education, this report is essential reading. (Because of the value of this report, I hope it will be made available in English so that it can have a wider market).

As well as providing a good review of theoretical issues around the subject of socialization in education, which takes into account  students’ use of social media, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 26 distance education leaders in the majority of francophone post-secondary institutions, and 121 questionnaires received from distance education instructors.

The report covers six topics:

  • characteristics of francophone distance learners and their mode of distance learning (individual, cohort, flexible);
  • technologies that support or discourage socialization;
  • teaching strategies that focus or not on collaborative activities;
  • phenomena associated with group activities;
  • the need for “social relations” between students;
  • actions taken by Canadian institutions to support the integration of distance students, and the importance these institutions give to different aspects of socialization in relation to educational goals, and the importance these aspects of socialization have in maintaining and strengthening ties within the Francophone communities outside Quebec.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize a 144 page report in French, but Loisier’s conclusions in particular are quite provocative (if I have translated correctly!). He notes that while most distance education leaders support the idea of collaborative learning and the socialization of students, in practice this does not happen often in distance programs, and in any case collaborative learning often conflicts with the desire of distance students for individual and flexible learning. Furthermore, socialization does not occur automatically online merely by putting students together in groups. Nevertheless, there are important educational goals that are best facilitated through collaborative learning, but careful planning and a framework/context  are needed that avoid the more affective or emotional elements of socialization, and focus more on the cognitive elements of learning in a group.

This is one of the most interesting, provocative and useful research reports I’ve read in a long while.