Friday, 31 July 2020

The Bar For Being Human Just Got Raised Again artificial intelligence continues to improve through both hardware and software engineering advances it'll get to the point where it starts to overtake low functioning human beings.  Then it'll overtake average human beings.  At some point it'll overtake the smartest human beings on the planet.  Ray Kurzweil called this point the technological singularity.  It's the point where we won't know why machine intelligence is doing what it's doing any more than an ant would understand why the humans are having a picnic.

You can read up on GPT-3, the latest step forward in A.I. here, or here, but I'm curious about it from an educational point of view.  GPT-3 is the latest iteration of OpenAI's research into text prediction machine intelligence.  Version three isn't that architecturally different from GPT-2, but it's much, much bigger, by many orders of magnitude.  This brute force approach allows it to adapt and respond with such high fidelity that it surprises people.

What does this mean in education?  GPT-3 based online systems are going to start appearing in the next year.  These systems will take a few suggestions from a human user and create text outputs that will stress a Turing test in terms of how well they are put together and what is being said.  With sufficient training and some smart engineering around focusing inputs, GPT-3 based online systems will write an accurate, original essay on any subject.  It could be used to answer any questions in any subject or formulate text responses even in abstract areas like poetry .  It'll also translate better than anything we've seen so far.  It's GPT-3's agile Swiss-Army-knife effectiveness that will see it falling into student hands sooner rather than later.  Which students?  The ones it already sounds like:

"GPT-3’s ability to dazzle with prose and poetry that sounds entirely natural, even erudite or lyrical, is less surprising. It’s a parlor trick that GPT-2 already performed, though GPT-3 is juiced with more TPU-thirsty parameters to enhance its stylistic abstractions and semantic associations. As with their great-grandmother ELIZA, both benefit from our reliance on simple heuristics for speakers’ cognitive abilities, such as artful and sonorous speech rhythms. Like the bullshitter who gets past their first interview by regurgitating impressive-sounding phrases from the memoir of the CEO, GPT-3 spins some pretty good bullshit."

Dig up some GPT-3 output online and you'll see it uses the fact that it has figured out human speech patterns to smoothly say very little; it's like listening to a slick salesman  This complex machine learning formula is the perfect tool for weak students answering rote, repetitive school assignments, because both those students and the school system they're responding too are so low functioning that this rudimentary A.I. can do the job better (and in less than a second).

"As AI researcher Julian Togelius put it: “GPT-3 often performs like a clever student who hasn’t done their reading, trying to bullshit their way through an exam. Some well-known facts, some half-truths, and some straight lies, strung together in what first looks like a smooth narrative.” (Though as many have pointed out: clever students who know how to bullshit go far in this world because people don’t always scrutinize what they’re saying.)"

So, the bar for human expectation has just moved again.  If you're operating as a teacher or student at the sharp end of human achievement, this is well beneath you, but if you like to trot out the same old material year after year, don't bother assessing process and don't really pay much attention to student work you do mark, this'll fool you.  For a student looking to get something for nothing this is a dream come true.

"GPT-3 would never kill jobs skilled developers. Instead its a wake-up call for cargo coders and developers. It’ll urge them to buckle up and upskill to ensure they’re up for solving complex computer programming problems." (cargo coders are weak programmers who copy and paste code rather than generating it themselves - they're like many students)

The obvious answer to this is to assess process, since a student attempting to hand in work this way would have none.  Of more interest from a pedagogically standpoint is how we should integrate this evolving technology into our learning processes.  OpenAI isn't doing this in an evil attempt to create an entire generation of illiterate children, they're doing it to create A.I. that assists and supports human endeavour and raises it to a higher level.

The last year I was teaching English I had my 3Us try and beat  The standard usage seemed to be an 'aha, I caught you plagiarizing!" punitive response after a minimally reviewed writing process, all done behind a curtain.  By turning that all around  and giving students transparent access to this punitive tool, I had students come to the realization that they could beat turnitin's plagiarism check, but it took so much work to do it effectively that it was easier and more functional to just write the damned thing yourself.  Instead of using tech to catch cheating or banning it outright, we used it to test limitations and validate a meaningful writing process.

I imagine education's first response to GPT-3 driven plagiarism tools will be to try and ban them, but as usual that's backwards.  A.I. supported human intelligence isn't being developed for us to do less, but to enable us to do more.  From that point of view, an A.I. supported writing process should move rubric expectations for everyone upwards.  What used to meet expectations should now fail to meet expectations.  A digitally supported writer should already be leveraging tools to mitigate grammar and spelling errors, and teachers should be teaching effective use of these tools.  Where 5-10 grammar errors in a paper might have gotten you a level three/meets expectation before, there should now be none because digital supports should be integrated, proficiency in them expected and output from them meeting raised expectations.  With that technical work supported, student writers should be focusing on developing rhetoric, continuity of thought, voice and style.

The same goes for A.I. supported writing as we enter the Twenty-Twenties.  We should be evolving writing processes to include A.I. editorial review, A.I. supported enhanced research and maybe even A.I. driven originality of thinking.  Can you imagine a Turing test as a part of writing process that tells a student that their writing isn't as human as a GPT-3 piece?  That's using A.I. to raise the bar.  Can you imagine what student writing might look like if advanced word prediction A.I.s like GPT-3 were integrated into student writing processes?  We all need to be thinking about that, now.  It's what literacy is going to look like in the next decade.

Beyond writing you're going to see GPT-3 driven online tools rock rote, standardized (lazy) learning.  Like your worksheets?  A student will be able to scan a worksheet and receive accurate, textually correct responses instantly, to any question, in any subject.  If you're using the same old assignments over and over, the A.I. will find that and use previous examples to produce even more complex and relevant answers.  If you assess student learning through limited, repeated single-assessment final products, you just got punked.

The irony is the teachers who struggle most with this new threshold of human expectation are also the ones who will use it to mark student work.  In those teach-like-it's-1960 classes, A.I. written papers will be handed in by students and then marked by A.I. markers - no humans will have played a part in any of that 'learning'.

OTHER READING  "the world’s most impressive AI. Humans are being given limited use – for now – to make sure things don’t go wrong"
A technical analysis of GPT-3:  OpenAI recently published GPT-3, the largest language model ever trained. GPT-3 has 175 billion parameters and would require 355 years and $4,600,000 to train

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Pandemic Protocols: A COVID19 Ready Ontario Secondary System

COVID19 school early in the pandemic -
all that infrastructure not doing anything.
We can do better.
I've been reading the never ending speculation driven by an increasing panic on the part of educators as this school year approaches and this Ontario government seems incapable of planning for it.  When the panic rises too high people start making demands for things that we've never had, like a guaranteed safe school.  Teachers have been getting ill at schools since schools began, but this isn't about that, it's about managing COVID19 to the best of our scientific knowledge.  The point isn't to aim at the impossible, it's to put as many reasonable processes in place as possible to protect the people in the system.

This is about secondary (high) school, which might sound odd because no one is talking about high school COVID19 planning, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

From my admittedly layman's point of view there are two sides to COVID19 management.  One is the social responsibility side, which is something people seem to be struggling with.  The other is monitoring and response.  For me, if the system were to spin up in September following these rules, I think we could get things working as well as possible under the circumstances.

  • If your child had been in contact with anyone infected they should be withdrawn from school for two weeks in quarantine.  During this time they are expected to keep up with class work remotely unless they have severe symptoms, in which case a doctor's note can release them from school work
  • Any child who is screened and discovered to have COVID19 is isolated at school and sent home at the earliest possible opportunity with minimal contact with others.  All schools have an isolated space reserved for this possibility
  • Staff and students are to wear PPE when in close proximity to each other.  When social distancing is possible it is the preferred method of management.
  • Any staff or student who does not follow PPE protocols is to be removed from interaction and re-trained
  • All staff are trained in PPE expectations prior to the beginning of school
  • All students are to be trained in PPE usage prior to beginning instruction
  • Heightened cleaning regimes are to be followed in all classrooms, especially focusing on shared work spaces and technology.  All will be sanitized at the end of each period
  • Classes will be quad-mestered to reduce traffic, but secondary schools will be open all day on a regular schedule
  • Lunches are to take place in quad-mestered classes
  • Strict hall-pass protocols are to be in place to minimize wandering and out of class interaction
  • No student has locker access during pandemic protocols
  • Students will be required to wear masks while bussing, but normal bussing loads will occur
  • Students will be trained to minimize physical contact while bussing or transitioning between classes
  • Any student who does not comply with COVID19 safety training will be re-trained
  • Students or families unwilling to comply with pandemic safety requirements are to be withdrawn from physical schooling if re-training proves ineffective and offered remote learning options with credible expectations and work required or credits will not be granted
  • All staff and students will be subject to random temperature tests
  • Any staff or student who show fever will be spot tested for COVID19
  • Testing will focus on students and staff who were in contact with any infected person
  • If COVID19 is found to be present, the staff or student with it are to be immediately isolated from the school population and sent home for a minimum of 2 weeks quarantine (remote learning is expected to continue unless symptoms are severe)
  • If COVID19 is found through tracing to be transmitting between people in a school then an outbreak shall be declared and the school shall be closed and quarantined for one week and all shared surfaces disinfected.  During a school quarantine class work is expected to continue remotely
  • Upon return all staff and students will be tested for fever and any found will be tested for COVID19
  • Random spot checks for COVID19 testing will continue
  • School boards are responsible for putting testing procedures in place at every location that ensure a minimum of 10% of the school population will be tested for COVID19 each term
  • Any classroom which is so over full that it causes repeated closures is to be reassessed (and really should never happened in the first place because learning in such terrible conditions should never have happened to begin with), and reorganized to be more medically and pedagogically sound
  • Teachers are to provide all in-class material online
  • Where possible teachers are not to provide material on physical mediums (like paper) which can transmit the virus
  • All teachers are provided with technology that allows them to video any instruction which are then to be shared in online classrooms for any students unable to attend
  • Teachers are encouraged to use blended learning strategies that leverage remote learning systems even when face to face
  • Any shared workspaces or technology must be cleaned at the end of each class
  • Remote learning outcomes are to be assessed using the same criteria as in-class learning outcomes
  • Teachers who are in subject areas that are unable to operate during pandemic protocols (COOP, outdoor education etc) will be used to relieve choke points in over full classes
There are countries in the world who have proven that with appropriate individual responsibility, access to cleaning and personal protective equipment and with regular monitoring and rapid response, COVID19 can be managed effectively.  If we're going to argue that education is a vital service to society then we need to provide access to schooling to as many students as possible in as safe and transparently monitored an environment as possible.  This suggestion emphasizes the importance of social engineering in managing the virus individually while also making it clear what system responsibilities are in responding to an outbreak.  Instead of being paralyzed by this pandemic we should be applying these practical and effective solutions to managing it.

I've been watching MotoGP restart the motorcycling world championship this past week.  They have strict protocols in place that if ignored get you banned.  What are they doing?
  • Personal responsibility for social distancing and group health
  • Testing all participants regularly including entry temperature testing for everyone on site
  • Being completely transparent in testing
  • Grouped teams with interaction between teams minimized
  • PPE everywhere for everyone
  • Enhanced hand washing and personal hygiene
  • No audience/crowds
  • Minimum technical and press personnel to allow for social distancing
How's it going?  No cases, no outbreaks.  Press is able to 'tele-commute' to races, drastically reducing interactions and the quality of commentary is as good as it ever was - which begs the question:  why were media outlets sending full teams to remote races in the first place?  All of this involves radically changing how things are being done and demanding the stringent following of guidelines - something we seem incapable of organizing in public education in Ontario, which is a real shame for students and families across the province.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Educational Bourgeoisie

A couple of months ago Alanna did a podcast with Albert Fong and myself on seminal books from our adolescence. I was all about Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers when I was a teen.  It felt somewhat biographical (I joined cadets because my friend did - like Juan, the main character in the novel), but in retrospect the philosophy in the novel is what really struck home because it emphasized a clarity of purpose that I've always found elusive.  At various points in the novel Heinlein goes to great lengths analyzing the failures of Twentieth Century thinking.  When Juan is in officer training he gets to the bottom of why the robotically armoured mobile infantry of the 23rd Century are willing to have themselves launched out of an orbiting spaceship and 'dropped' into a terrifying war zone:

"The root of our morale is: “Everybody works, everybody fights.” An M.I. doesn’t pull strings to get a soft, safe job; there aren’t any - all “soft, safe” jobs are filled by civilians; that goldbricking private climbs into his capsule certain that everybody, from general to private, is doing it with him. Light-years away and on a different day, or maybe an hour or so later—no matter. What does matter is that everybody drops.

...many armies in the past commissioned 10 per cent of their number, or even 15 per cent—and sometimes a preposterous 20 per cent! This sounds like a fairy tale but it was a fact, especially during the XXth century. What kind of an army has more “officers” than corporals? (And more non-coms than privates!)

An army organized to lose wars—if history means anything. An army that is mostly organization, red tape, and overhead, most of whose “soldiers” never fight."
(Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers)

I don't know where we are in Ontario education when it comes to teachers who are teaching versus teachers who are getting paid as teachers but aren't, but if you factor in all the support positions across the system I suspect that 20% is optimistic.  For every teacher earning a teacher's salary that doesn't teach, classroom teachers carry the burden.  When classroom average sizes increase (as they seem to every contract these days), you seldom see support positions disappear.  The education system is much more hierarchical than you might think.

At the school level we've already got a number of teachers working in non-instructional roles but, like the 20th Century military that Heinlein criticizes, the fairy tale of a system with too much support and not enough boots on the ground continues at the board level where you find people earning teacher salaries doing administrative jobs ranging from shuffling health and safety paperwork to managing budgets.  In addition to making teacher pay without teaching, each of these support roles has to be supported by a multitude of larger classes in order to keep a 23 students to each 'teacher' average ratio.

The only place the education system ever seems to want to make cuts or create harsh, standardized testing to assess effectiveness is in the classroom.  Meanwhile, there is a hidden bureaucracy that remains untouched by cuts that hurt how children learn.

I've had a go at this before on Dusty World, but what kicked it off this time was a writing gig that came up recently.  I took a swing at it and was surprised to get a call back.  Why was I surprised?  These kinds of jobs tend to get passed around in that insular group of educational bourgeoisie who operate beyond the classroom.  Unsurprisingly, I appeared to be the only classroom teacher in the meeting.  I was then stunned when I was told that instead of actually creating subject specific material for this subject council we were going to create material that supported the specialty programming that everyone else in the group ran as their day job.  A guidance councillor who isn't even qualified in this subject area then stated that we'd be writing support material for other subjects as well.  This got me quite angry.  I thought the purpose of subject councils was to support their subjects.  The long and the short of this very frustrating interaction is that I seem to have been removed from the program.

I'm still boiling about this as I look at my upcoming dangerously over-full, under equipped classes. Instead of helping me and thousands of other teachers protect our programs,  this subject council is busy feeding the educational bourgeoisie a second pay-cheque to support what they're already doing in their day jobs at a board office.

I'm feeling very much a part of educational proletariat right now, but then all I do is actually teach. Heinlein was right, your morale takes a real kick in the head when you realize you're doing the job others found their way out of as soon as they possibly could.

Were it the 23rd Century and humanity were united in an intergalactic war against insects intent on destroying us, I'd be proud to call myself a mobile infantryman doing a difficult job while knowing the organization I work with and the society it is serving recognizes and supports that difficult effort organizationally. Instead I work in Ontario public education.


Just in case you think I'm right out to lunch, this just got shared on the upcoming school openings in Thames Valley.  If you're in the upper echelons, your safety is our first priority...