Monday, January 28, 2019

The Siri/Alexa Effect: It's a Real and Significant Thing, Part 2

The Siri/Alexa Effect was mentioned the other day in a professional learning session when a teacher noted how easy it is for kids to get homework help from Siri, and that's precisely one of the things I talked about it my first post about the Siri/Alexa Effect.

So let's talk a bit more about these fabulous resources, and I'm not being tongue-in-cheek. Like a proud parent, Amazon likes to tout new skills Alexa is learning. Apparently Alexa has over 70,000 skills, and counting. You can find Alexa's top 2018 skills here, or just ask her about her top skills.

Let me say this about Alexa: there are a lot of game connections. A lot. There are other features for home security and management, task management, and wellness. I don't think education was at the forefront of developers' minds when they started developing Alexa.

The voice assistant boom isn't limited to Siri or Alexa, of course. In the run-up to Christmas, we saw Facebook and Google advertising their versions with video and video call capability as well. What tech insiders are trying to tell us is that this technology isn't nearly as sophisticated as we might think; not yet anyway.

Music is the number one reason to use the smartspeaker, or the news or weather. It's stuff we can find anywhere else pretty easily but it's just so much easier to say "Alexa, what's the weather today?" than go all the way over to the computer and make sure it's out of sleep mode and find the icon for The Weather Channel and then, oh my goodness, tap the icon and then actually read the weather information. Exhausting.

But I have an understanding of why people dig the access of Siri and Alexa. And I understand the suspicion many have of Siri or Alexa secretly recording everything we say and not just to make the AI interface smarter. In my house, when we're talking about Alexa, we say "Voldemort" so she doesn't try to respond to something that isn't an actual request.

Some time ago I was talking with a first grade teacher was annoyed that her students didn't understand why they needed to learn how 2 + 1 equals 3. They seemed to think it was enough that they knew that 2 + 1 = 3. They're in first grade so the nuances of place value or number sense is still a work in progress for them. I've been thinking about this a lot and I realize this is likely an outcome of the Siri/Alexa Effect not to mention the Wikipedia/Internet Effect. I mean, why should I know the why or how of something when I can watch it on a YouTube video or when I can just look it up on the internet or ask Alexa? I'm being facetious, but these first graders are likely reflecting what they see happening in their homes with their parents and any older siblings.

Just recently I read an article titled "The Rising Relevance Gap." Let me sum up: school is boring and what kids are learning isn't relevant. Oh yea, I can hear teachers protesting loudly and rightly so in most cases. However, let's think about this a bit.

Last week a facilitator shared a story about a lesson she'd done with some students. They were learning about the life cycle of plants, watching a plant grow and learning a bit about what bees do to help plants grow. The teacher mentioned something about the possibility that some of them might build a robotic bee if there weren't enough bees in the world. One little guy went over the makerspace and started gathering stuff. When asked what he was doing, he said, "Building a robotic bee. Why wait?"

Indeed. Why wait?

Did he know how? No. But he didn't care about that. He cared about figuring out how to create a robotic bee because that could solve a problem. And knowing how to solve a problem often means knowing how to ask questions.

A friend of mine asked me if she could use Voldemort to ask the names of an athlete's children. It took us a few times to craft the question to get to the answer. There was important learning on our parts to figure out how to ask the question to get the answer we wanted.

Just recently I found an article from last August about universities experimenting with Alexa. Students could ask about the university--what time a building closes, the final exam schedule, etc. The universities want more: they want to be able to set up smart tutors. And students want more: they want a personal assistant rather than "a reactive device."

But I want to go back to that smart tutor because I think that's what could really make the most sense for K-20, but then we might be in Google Home, Amazon Echo Show, and Facebook Portal territory. It's one thing to ask Alexa the answer to 3 + 2 or even more complex math problems, though she has her limitations.
Alexa did fine with some basic questions, as you can see. But then I asked her how to calculate a cube root.  Her answer was not helpful. Then I gave her a longer word problem. I asked her, "Alexa, if the width of a square is 4 and the length of a square is 6, what is the area of the square?" She asked me to repeat it, which I did, and then she told me she wasn't sure. I guess Alexa isn't a fan of word problems either.

I realize, though, that one of the reasons kids watch a lot of YouTube videos is because they can learn stuff from them. And let's be real: kids are not alone. I started baking bread again this winter and my first few loaves came out looking really weird. I couldn't remember how to shape the loaf, so what did I do? I looked for a video on YouTube. I can imagine being up to my wrists in flour and bread and asking a smart assistant for a video on how to shape a loaf of bread.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and asking a smart assistant how to solve a differential equation. (Not really, but I've had some weird fixation about differential equations recently; I can't explain it.) I know I'd need to see the process.

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing someone to proofread my paper, and that one is a bit tougher. But what if there was a way for me to share my paper with the smart system and have it read the paper aloud to me while I followed it with the text. And what if the smart system were smart enough to recognize problem phrases, awkward transitions, shifts in verb tenses, etc.?

I can imagine being up against a deadline and needing a way to review for a test. Wouldn't it be amazing if the smart tutor had access to a teacher's old tests, the study materials, and my notes and could quiz me? And, even better, help correct me and direct me where I need to go to review?

I think one of the significant points is that students can learn many things through using a smart system. Maybe they learn how to ask better questions. Maybe they learn that some things they don't really need to learn because they can always ask or look it up.

I believe what's important for all of us to consider is what we'd like students to be able to learn. Perhaps if we helped developers understand those skills, they could begin to design with those ends in mind.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Siri/Alexa Effect: It's a Real and Significant Thing, Part 1

So a child is doing his homework and wants to get through his winter break math homework a little faster. What to do? What to do? Oh, of course. Ask Alexa. Which is what he did. And when he realized that Alexa could help him get the answer to 3 + 2, well, why not just ask her to help with all of his math homework? Yes, why not?

A quick aside: homework over the winter break is dumb. I know teachers think it might help a winter break slide, but it's still dumb. Homework as a general rule is dumb. But that and the whole slide things are different posts.

I've written a bit about the Siri/Alexa Effect here. There's nothing scientific about my thinking, just observational anecdotal data, which is enough for me to realize there is an issue. A problem? Yes, of a sort.

I first observed it when second and third graders were shouting questions at Siri because they didn't know how to or couldn't be bothered to do the research for something they were supposed to be doing. Let me unpack that a bit. First, they were shouting questions. Why? Because they didn't know how to frame questions and they figured they could simply repeat the question louder and maybe she'd get it. Of course, by then there are several students shouting similar questions at Siri on different devices and the students don't realize that each device is picking up what is now just noise. I can't do one of those "get your attention" whistles, but I can shout, which is what I finally did since the teacher seemed oblivious. . . a different issue altogether.

Second, they didn't know how to frame questions. They had no idea how to ask a question other than to repeat what was on the worksheet. Yes, they're in second and third grades (similar projects, different classrooms, different teachers), but that's part of what teachers are supposed to be helping them learn how to do. Right? Hmmm. Hang on to that thought.

Third, they were in a hurry to finish the project because they just wanted to get it done. They saw no value in the project. They apparently felt whatever learning might occur through that project was of no value to them. In their defense, they're urban kids so the whole habitat thing of prairies and such is foreign to them. They were completing a worksheet and then they were going to do a pizza box diorama. Why were they in a hurry? Because if they hurried they'd get to play games on their iPads.

So much going on there, right? I can imagine people suggesting that Siri be disabled on student iPads, which, by the way, a lot of teachers have already done. I can imagine people being outraged that Alexa might be in schools because it might enable students to cheat, but it's not just Alexa or Siri. It's not the technology that disturbs me.

I use Google all the time to do research, but I also know how to do research. I know how to craft a question. I have an idea of what I want to find so I know how to revise the question or the search terms if I'm not getting what I think I should get. I also know how to review the resources returned to me and to look at more than the first three items. Far too many students of all ages have no idea how to do any of that. That's what disturbs me.

It also disturbs me that students see technology as a resource for entertainment: videos, Snapchat, Instagram, texting, etc. They seem to see it less as a resource for learning, but, what's more insidious, they don't seem to value learning or learning how to learn. THAT is the Siri/Alexa Effect. Why should they bother to learn when they know they can ask a device anything and it will tell them?

A corollary to the Siri/Alexa Effect is that students, like many of their parents, don't feel the need to dig any deeper than that first item returned. They know nothing about search engine optimization, that organizations and people have ways to boost their sites and resources so Google or Siri or Alexa finds them first. They don't realize that often Siri and Alexa seem to default to Wikipedia. They don't know or seem to care that whatever answer they get may not be accurate, may be overly biased, may not be true.

There is a lot of learning science research going on just now. I have a stack of resources to read, to think about, and to synthesize. What I do already know is this: there is no easy answer. The other thing I already know is that we have to got help our students learn how to learn, and to value the process of learning.

When we ask them to complete a worksheet or a project and all of the emphasis is on the worksheet or the project (or the homework), we tell them that the end product is the most important thing. We also tell them that the process of learning is less important than their compliance to complete the worksheet or project or homework. No, we don't say that in so many words, but what we emphasize and how we emphasize it speaks volumes about what seems to be really important and, what they "hear" is that learning itself isn't important. That is becoming the worst possible outcome of the Siri/Alexa Effect.

I'm not suggesting we cut off students from using these technologies, but I am suggesting we need to help students learn how to use these resources for more effective learning. The fact is that such resources are a future for our students, so let's learn how to use them well, to determine how best to craft questions to do research in such a manner (more on that in a later blog post), and to be wise and savvy enough to continue beyond the first answer offered to us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

2019 BTS: Let us be grateful

It's 2019. People are already pontificating about all sorts of things that could happen in 2019 though the year is barely in its second day (in the United States, in Central Time) as I write this. The reflection of what was the best, and worst, of 2018 continues and will eventually stop. Thank goodness.

Teachers and administrators are already working to start school again, thinking about those back-to-school lessons, how to greet students as they come back from the winter break.

Educators have talked a lot about mindfulness and SEL this past year, so let's speak of those two things in context of back-to-school. 

First, let us be mindful that not every child had a merry Christmas nor a happy new year. Not all holidays were merry and bright; some were dark and difficult for a whole range of reasons. Second, let us be realistic that for many of our students, school is a refuge and they will be grateful to be back at school even if they seem to be nominal students. And some of our students might be stressed because they're worried about the inevitable "What did you get for Christmas?" question.

You might invite your students to begin a gratitude journal (another resource is here), and model that by saying that you're grateful your students returned to school and how happy you are to see them. Your gratitude is about your students and maybe their smiles, not about stuff. If you're working with younger students, they may not yet have the writing skills for a journal, but they can draw pictures. So maybe they're grateful for school, for recess, for flowers. It doesn't matter but helping them focus on the good things they experience in their worlds is important. The more they express gratitude about small things, the better able they might be able to see and express gratitude for larger things as they learn to see and experience their worlds differently.

As students develop those skills for seeing their worlds and experiences differently, through a lens of gratitude, through a greater sense of safety and even control, perhaps, just perhaps the way they see and think about learning will begin to change for the better, which is the gist of SEL.

Expressing gratitude for one thing takes little time, but the payoff is bound to be substantial over time.

So thank you for what you do for your students every day. Every day.