The article below was shared with me by someone who wished to remain anonymous.
Alexa, Are the Clouds Talking to Each Other?
IMAGINE: A Better World, A Global Education Conference, hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS)
This may be as much a commentary and collection of comments about the conference I attended as it is a report. I suppose it fitting in these times to say it is a commentary/report hybrid.
Here are the three conference themes:
- Innovation and Transformation
- The Role of Machine Learning in Education
- Building the Workforce of Tomorrow
Here are the sessions that were available:
- Voice-Enabled Technologies: Is Education Ready?
- Community Colleges a Economic Engines for Workforce Development
- Education Transformation in the Cloud
- Disruptive Models for Delivering Learning Using the Cloud
- Fireside Chat with Arizona State University: Innovation in Education
- How Innovations in Cloud and Machine Learning are Helping Drive Improvements in Reading Comprehension
- [We] Power Tech: Machine Learning for All
- Creating an Equitable Learning Environment for All Learners
- The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub: A Model for Innovation in Education
- Data Interoperability: Turning a Data Dilemma into Data Democracy with the AWS Cloud
- Research in the Cloud
- [We] Power Tech: Diversity and Inclusion in Computer Science
- Beyond the Buzz: How Machine Learning Is Impacting Student Engagement
- Crossing the Chasm – An Industry & Educational Approach to Close the STEM Skills Gap
- Viable, Flexible, Scalable: University of Michigan’s Information Lifecycle Management Model with AWS
- Global Workforce Readiness: Engaging Today’s Minds for Tomorrow’s Careers
I would encourage you to explore the info on the conference website.
I want to set the stage with a bit of what I bring to the keyboard. I am not a complete technotard. I would encourage you to get out your technotardometer and gauge for yourself where I fall on the technotard scale.
I started using a computer in my classrooms in 1982. Since there were few resources available, I was pretty much self-taught (constructivism?). Fast-forward about twenty years to about 2001. While teaching sixth grade, I received a few technology related grants. One grant outfitted my classroom and that of my fellow grant recipients with enough technology to make our classrooms the most high tech in the state if not the country. I drank the Kool-aid. I was hired as an instructor for the grant recipient training the following year.
Now, I have to tell a little story about my experience as an instructor for this technology grant program. While I had read some about constructivism, providing training helped me develop a better deep conceptual understanding of it. One activity I was put in charge of was one I remembered from my own training—and it was my least favorite. I went off script in giving directions for the activity since I felt the participants needed more guidance as to what they were to do in order to be successful. Boy howdy, I was called aside for a one on one chewing out. I didn’t see that coming. It was intentional that the script directions were so skimpy—they wanted participants to squirm, struggle, and become frustrated trying to figure things out for themselves. Darn, I denied them that opportunity. Oh well, I didn’t apply to be an instructor for the next year. I guess I would have to say from it all that constructivism works—I learned only too well on my own.
Enough on that. Let’s check out the conference… through my jaded and biased perspective. My head didn’t really spin but it sure did a lot of shaking. Don’t recall any nodding on my part.
IMAGINE: A Better World, A Global Education Conference
Any more, I try to stay away from things like this because they really get my crap detector so far out of whack it takes months to recalibrate. Since the conference info was brought to my attention with a note indicating someone should go since it was free and in Seattle. It was free and there was some good swag. Free is good except when it is not.
I am sure my take on the conference is quite different from that of Amazon and other attendees. They said there were over 900 people registered representing 21 countries. My take: the conference was Amazon’s stage where they trotted out clients to tell all about the great things they have done and are doing using AWS (Amazon Web Services). It was a showcase. I suppose it is unreasonable to expect anything less. Plus they can’t let Google be the only digital presence in our education system.
The term educators now seems to include so many more folks than just teachers, and at times excludes teachers. In my eyes, this conference was not put on by educators and not put on for educators. I did meet a few teachers there but most were edtech company CEOs, CIOs, or some other such letter cluster that I don’t understand but am sure must impress someone, especially the letter holder. Higher ed folks were definitely in attendance but they tended to be more of the IT variety rather than academics.
On the website you can read what it says about each of the three conference themes. Here’s my interpretation:
- Innovation and Transformation—move everything to the cloud
- The Role of Machine Learning in Education—AI, voice recognition, text to voice, and Alexa everywhere with everyone 24/7
- Building the Workforce of Tomorrow—push to have kids learn code as early and often as possible
A little about some of the sessions I attended.
Voice-Enabled Technologies: Is Education Ready? This session featured representatives from three universities—the University of Oklahoma (OU), Arizona State University (ASU), and Saint Louis University (SLU). This really was about how these institutions are making use of voice-enabled technology. What the heck does that mean? Think Alexa—Amazon Echo and Echo Dots. I can see a lot of ways this technology can come in handy and be helpful. But is it going too far? SLU has invested in and deployed Amazon Echo Dots in every dorm room. Does that just not tickle your privacy invasion sensibility? While I can see a lot of utility in it, it still feels just down right creepy. Not to mention developing student dependency on such technology for things like reminders about their schedules—class times, assignment due dates, and test dates/times. They as much as said they not only want Alexa in every dorm room but with all off campus students and everywhere on campus. Of course students can shut their Echo Dot off or unplug it. During the Q&A session, a guy from UCLA got up to the mic and asked about privacy concerns, pii collected, and how they are addressing the issue. I had a chance the following day to talk briefly with UCLA guy (and I thanked him for asking the question). We both agreed the response to his question was a typical non-response. The presenters basically brushed it off in a couple of ways. One said there are some things they avoid in order to avoid addressing the issue. I took that to mean they avoid the issue all together and go ahead and do what they are going to do and they avoid doing some things (or at least not disclose they are doing them) that might be controversial. They indicated they weren’t really concerned about privacy because of the benefits in the trade off and students are accustomed to and willing to share their pii in return for those benefits. So all is good. UCLA guy was sharp and he was the only person during the whole conference I heard that raised the issue of data collection and student privacy invasion. I wish I had found out what his role is at UCLA.
How Innovations in Cloud and Machine Learning are Helping Drive Improvements in Reading Comprehension I had hopes this one was going to address how to improve reading comprehension. If it did, I guess I missed it. It’s possible my head was in the cloud. It seemed like the point of this session was using the cloud and machine learning for some translating, analyzing, and interpreting.
Creating an Equitable Learning Environment for All Learners There were two presenters for this session. The one that stands out in my mind was a local school district IT director. They have Chrome books issued to every student in the district. Elementary students don’t get to take theirs home but middle and high school students do. All of the software is in the cloud. This has resulted in considerable cost saving and saves considerable IT personnel time. I just wonder if the cost savings are offset by the district’s expenditure for AWS. Uploading software to the cloud once and having it accessible by all student and faculty devices certainly beats having to load and manage the software on each individual computer/device.
Beyond the Buzz: How Machine Learning Is Impacting Student Engagement
This one had some interesting presentations. One was about how the White House Historical Association is using the cloud and machine learning to deliver their education programs. Another was by a university professor who shared how he uses technology to foster engagement in his students of climate and space sciences and engineering. While what he is doing is fascinating there is an alarming aspect. He works with Echo 360 to engage students. Watch the video on the website to learn more. What they are doing is really impressive. The alarm flags went up on realizing that not only is the professor being captured on video during his class sessions, all of the students are as well with it being analyzed. Think of possible implications—facial recognition software and the analytics that can take place. Should anyone be concerned about student privacy invasion? None was expressed. I guess the Wow! factor can override and obfuscate any such concerns. The third presenter works on accessibility issues at ETS. He is very visually impaired. Can one say blind these days without catching the wrath of the political correct police and being assigned a derogatory label they will deem politically correct? In work to make tests more accessible to those with disabilities text to voice technology is advancing to an impressive new level.
The closing keynote was titled Machine Learning: In the Cloud, in the Classroom, in Student Success. The presenter was Michael Horn, Co-Founder and Distinguished Fellow of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation. His talk was about disruptive innovation (cloud, cloud, cloud).
Friday’s lunch: outstanding salmon. Yum. This was when free was really good.
Emphasized often and embedded in many of the introductions was that this is all to Make the World a Better Place… through AI, voice technology, cloud computing, every kid coding, and disruptive innovation.
Chipping students was never mentioned. I wonder if that is because student ID cards are chipped or because it might have a negative revenue stream impact.
The conference helped me understand how misguided I have been over the years as I have bemoaned the lack of attention disruptive innovation has given to what I view as fundamental to education—reading, math, and content knowledge instruction. With their heads in the cloud the conference crowd seems to have a different set of fundamentals for education (coding and cloud computing). I finally get it. Reading is no longer an important skill what with text to voice technology being sophisticated enough to read whatever a student needs read. “Alexa, read the first chapter of Macbeth to me.” We have been told for several years now that content knowledge is not important for students to know since they can use Google. Google is already so old school. Just ask Alexa anything you need to know. Technology elevated keyboarding skills over neat (or even sloppy) handwriting (printing or cursive) as early as third grade. Now those keyboarding skills may become less important, possibly even obsolete, as voice technology takes over. Calculators can be put back in the classroom cabinets now thanks to sophisticated voice technology able to interpret equations and solve math problems most likely with deep conceptual understanding. And since Alexa will have that deep conceptual understanding will it be necessary for our students to have the same?
What happened to Siri? Oh, that’s right. Siri is not an Amazon product.
No one was asking questions about whether any of this stuff should be done or not. They are only listening to the gurus telling them they need to do this stuff. Everyone was holding out their cups for Kool-Aid refills while I was desperately seeking a sizeable barf bag knowing the cup would overflow if I used it.
It was nice to be joined on Friday by a friend so I would have someone to be alone with together. Her insight is always great and it was nice to be in the company of another head shaker in the midst of head nodding Kool-Aid drinkers. I do have the feeling we might not have been alone. I Imagine UCLA guy did some head shaking and he was drinking coffee when I talked with him.
I’m looking for the technology that will allow me to go back in time and become a fur trapper in the American West. The technology of that time suits me fine. I’ll name my mule Alexa. If I should be so fortunate as to have any pack horses they will be named Echo and Dot. And I will talk to them all day long and I will appreciate their responses to my questions. Talk about real world contructivism. It’s important that we all watch our topknot.
All that said I have one question. “Alexa, can I go back to being a total technotard or do I just have to Imagine the world as a better place?”