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.

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