Sunday, February 18, 2024

Seeing is not believing


Following on from my last post on the web becoming a digital landfill site, here's more reason for concern. The limited release of Sora, a new AI generated text-to-video application, shows how fast this technology is developing and the terrifying potential it offers for disinformation Watch the video above where Marques Brownlee presents and discusses the demo videos released by OpenAI Sora and compares them to the hilariously inept AI-generated videos of just one year ago. He points out that there are still tell-tale signs of AI in the videos but in many cases you need an experienced eye to spot them. Most people, however, will not even suspect that the films are not real and if we consider the astounding improvements that AI-generated applications have made in the last year we can expect near perfection in the coming year or so.

AI-generated content is of course completely based on existing, copyrighted content but at the same time makes copyright legislation irrelevant. Why use human models in the fashion industry when you can generate totally realistic digital versions? Why pay people or companies for photos, music, graphic design, advertising copy or whatever when you can generate it yourself in seconds for free? I already see lots of ridiculous AI images in my social media feeds and at the moment they're extremely obvious but what happens when I can't tell the difference anymore? No amount of digital literacy is going to help unless you're prepared to analyze the content in depth. We are fast approaching a time when you simply can't believe what you see, hear or read. We could regulate the use of AI and have strict guidelines but that would mean governments taking responsibility, standing up to big business and cooperating globally. Can you seriously believe such a development given the nature of today's governments and power structures? I certainly can't but I would love to be proved wrong.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Will AI turn the web into an information landfill site?

Photo by Shardar Tarikul Islam on Unsplash

Until now we have believed that most of what we see on the web is reliable information and we have developed digitalliteracy skills to fact-check and identify trustworthy sources. With the rapid deployment and advancement of AI, however, I wonder if we are soon reaching a frightening tipping point where it will become impossible to tell fact from fiction and where the lies and disinformation drown out the truth. "Truth is behind a paywall but the lies are free" is a valid comment on today's media landscape and I am afraid that this will get even more pronounced as AI-generated content floods the net.

AI tools can write increasingly plausible news stories, reviews, articles and summaries complete with references and it is easy to be impressed by it all. Often the content is good but there are many cases of so-called hallucinations where the application simply invents things and passes them off as fact. Without considerable knowledge in the field it is very hard not to believe what you read. There are plenty of people using AI to spread propaganda and disinformation with news channels, blogs and sites full of AI-generated content. These are of course free to access unlike serious news media who rely on subscriptions to survive. As more AI-generated content fills the web the new AI-applications will of course trawl the freely available content on which to base their new production. Could this lead to a web that looks like a gigantic landfill site, full of toxic waste?.

A recent example of the wild imagination of AI-applications was in an article in the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter (in Swedish but here's the link). The writer asked an AI-generator, Bard, to describe the careers of the children of the famous Swedish artist/designer couple Carl and Karin Larsson. The answer was well written and detailed but completely wrong. The oldest son actually died at the age of 18 but according to Bard he had a long and successful career as an architect. The careers of the other children were also fabricated. The writer checked the facts from other sources but how many of us would simply accept the AI-generated answer as the truth? What happens when search engines offer us links to AI-hallucinations in the first 20 search results?

A post by Ian Betteridge, The information grey goo, raises the alarm on this threat. He states that anywhere content can be created will ultimately be flooded with AI-generated words and pictures. New AI applications will feed off the old AI content and the mix becomes increasingly inaccurate, resulting in what he describes as AI Grey Goo, a swamp of rubbish:

This is the AI Grey Goo scenario: an internet choked with low-quality content, which never improves, where it is almost impossible to locate public reliable sources for information because the tools we have been able to rely on in the past – Google, social media – can never keep up with the scale of new content being created. Where the volume of content created overwhelms human or algorithmic abilities to sift through it quickly and find high-quality stuff.

Traditional digital literacy skills are not enough to deal with a disinformation overload. We risk a situation where nothing on the web can be trusted. Services like customer reviews, so important to retailers, restaurants and the tourist industry will beome trashed since the bots will be doing all the reviews.

It will be possible to create a programme which says “Find all my products on Amazon. Where the product rating drops below 5, add unique AI-generated reviews until the rating reaches 5 again. Continue monitoring this and adding reviews.”
If we can no longer trust any text, photo or film what on earth can we believe? The trustworthy sources are increasingly forced to charge for access since good journalism costs money to produce and so only the already converted will be able to access fact-checked and scientific content.
With reliable information locked behind paywalls, anyone unwilling or unable to pay will be faced with picking through a rubbish heap of disinformation, scams, and low-quality nonsense.

I know that AI can and will be used to further research and to benefit science, but the negative consequences, in my opinion, far outweigh the positive. We risk the prospect of quality content being hidden behind paywalls whilst the "free" web will be an information landfill. But, like Pandora's box, it's probably too late to close the lid. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Looking back - inspirations and highlights

Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

Oh dear, I realise that I have rather neglected my blog in recent months. After so many years of writing a post every week and sometimes more frequently I feel a bit ashamed at the long breaks this year. Since retirement my engagement in the world of educational technology has faded somewhat and I am finding other interests to fill my life. However, maybe it's good to look back at my journey over the past 15 years, remembering people and events that have inspired me and somehow summing up the experience. Since no one will have read the story through all those hundreds of blog posts through the years, here's a short retrospective.

I stumbled into higher education in 2004 after many years in adult education and corporate training. I got a job as coordinator of distance education and found the whole concept fascinating. I was inspired by the idea of higher education becoming available to all and not just for those who are able to move to campus and study full-time. I was sure that this vision would inspire governments to fund a shift in higher education towards lifelong learning and widened participation, driven by the development of digital technology. My focus was on trying to promote the benefits of distance education and persuading colleagues to offer more distance and online courses. I had a steep learning curve to understand the complexities of higher education. As a student I didn't really pay any attention to how the university was run or who does what so I felt completely lost at some of the meetings and discussions I attended in my first couple of years. Some aspects of academic life are still a mystery to me quite honestly. I made many mistakes but hopefully learned from most of them.

Inspirational visit to Canada

As I became more familiar with the field I began getting involved in networks with colleagues from other universities in Sweden and through this I got the opportunity to go on a study visit to Canada in October 2005. This was a life-changing visit, or at least career-changing. We visited universities in Vancouver and Edmonton to learn more about how they were offering distance and online education. We saw media production departments with over a hundred employees creating online course material at a time when we had no such unit. The most inspirational institution was Athabasca University, based in a tiny town in the wilds of Alberta but offering online education to students all over Canada and beyond. The idea of a distance university was never implemented in Sweden and I saw a model that we could implement if there was the political will. We had a great meeting with representatives from the university including one of my educational heroes, Terry Anderson, whose work got me really thinking about this new world I had stepped into. 

We also heard a lot about a new concept for us in the form of social software (later social media) and wondered how we could use this in education. I came home laden with notes, references and links and spent the following months investigating all sorts of digital communities and tools. We were busy getting acceptance for learning management systems but I was more interested in the future and started wondering what wonderful things we could do with these new social networks like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter as well as collaborative writing tools, blogs and wikis. As is often the case with visits like this I came home full of enthusiasm and was eager to tell eveyone about all the new things I'd seen and heard. But it's hard to transfer that enthusiasm to colleagues who are often already overworked and focused on current deadlines and priorities. 


Another landmark event for me was my first EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) conference in Dublin in 2011. This was my first real taste of a major international conference in educational technology and it gave me the chance to listen to and meet some of the big names in the field as well as further developing my network. Once again, I came home with masses of references and ideas to follow up. Read my blog post on the conference and some memorable quotes. Since then I have participated in and contributed to many EDEN activities and have benefitted greatly from the expertise and experience of fellow members. The value of organisations like this was to realise that I wasn't the only person who thought that digital technology was a key to the development of education. The sense of community is so valuable when you are still trying to make sense of things and the presence of respected researchers and professors confirms that the field is not just a passing trend. 

Inspirational institutions

Over the years I been able to visit many universities around the world and opened my eyes to other ways of working with online and distance eduation. I realised that even if we have different cultures and contexts we all has so much in common in terms of how to apply educational technology in a pedagogical manner. Some visits were thanks to European or Nordic project funding whilst others were due to invitations to speak at conferences. 

One of the most inspirational was in my homeland, Scotland, namely the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Their decentralised structure with 13 partner colleges and around 70 learning centres spread around the sparsely populated highlands and islands of Scotland inspired several projects in the hope of awakening interest in a similar model for Sweden. I particularly loved the way the boundaries between campus and distance have been blurred or even erased and the focus is on providing access to higher education wherever you live and with options for how you want to study. I have written several posts about UHI in this blog, most recently after a visit in 2019 as well as older visits such as in 2014.

I have always found the concept of open universities particularly interesting as the best way to open up education to all. Distance and online are essential features of these institutions since few of their target group can afford to move to a campus for several years. I have always admired people who study later on in life and manage to transform their lives through education without leaving their home area and thereby contributing to the survival of rural commuities. I have visited several open universities around the world. For example, Allama Iqbal Open University based in Islamabad, Pakistan, offering a mixture of distance and campus education to an annual enrollment of over a million students. Although the courses have a lot of online content and interaction it is simply not feasible to have everything online since so many people have limited or no internet access. I visited their publishing and mailing centre where enormous numbers of course books and compendiums are sent by post all over the country, making them one of the Pakistani post office's biggest customers. They were very much involved in digital content production and their staff were as well informed on developments as my colleagues back in Sweden but they had to offer a combination of digital and analogue in order to reach out to as many students as possible. Read my post on this visit from 2018.

In a similar vein was my visit to another open university working in difficult circumstances, Al Quds Open University, based in Ramallah in Palestine but with campuses aorund the West Bank and in Gaza. I was impressed by their TV studios and the fact they offered courses via broadcast TV to complement their online content. The difficulties of travelling between the different campuses made digital technology an essential part of all operations. I wonder how their institution will recover after the current brutalities in the West Bank not to speak of the appalling destruction going on in Gaza. Read more in my post from 2018.

Inspirational people

It would be impossible to name all the people who have inspired me over the years and helped me to better understand the field of educational technology and how it can be applied. However a few stand out and my shortlist has a distinctive Canadian flavour. As I mentioned above an early influencer was Terry Anderson of Athabasca University and in the spirit of the new networked world I discovered the concept of connectivism and openness thanks to people like George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I loved the idea of learning as part of connected networks and that people could learn together by sharing resources, discussing and collaborating. I saw a future where learning was ubiquitous and encompassed a wide range of formats, from traditional campus programmes to non-formal online study groups where the group members could decide together what and how to study. Another early influence was Morten Flate Paulsen from Norway, former president of EDEN and a leading light in Scandinavian distance and online education. I saw that online universities were not only possible but an essential factor in the development of wider access to higher education. 

However, as the years went by I began to realise that our favourite platforms, tools and communities were not as free and open as we had assumed and that they were driven by the same factors that have always existed - profit and greed. Reading Audrey Watters' now defunct blog, Hack Education, opened my eyes to the dangers of educational technology - profiting from our personal data, facilitating surveillance and locking us into proprietary solutions. Her predictions were often disregarded at the time but have proved to be disturbingly true, leading to my own disenchantment with the whole field.

My own blogging habit was developed with inspiration from long distance academic bloggers like Tony BatesMartin Weller, Maha Bali, and Steve Wheeler. I never reached their heights of course but I am amazed at how my posts have still reached far and wide. My greatest thrills early on were when one of my role models actually retweeted a link to one of my blog posts and I saw the number of site views suddenly leap. A simple retweet or like can mean a lot when you're finding your way - never dismiss such things as trivial!

Open Networked Learning

This open online problem-based learning (PBL) course started back in 2013 and I was involved as a course organiser and facilitator till 2022. It was certainly the most complex course I have ever been involved in and is run in collaboration with 12-15 universities in 5-8 different countries. Learners are divided into PBL groups to work through five scenarios on different aspects of learning in collaborative networks, aided by a facilitator and co-facilitator. We always tried to make the course as open as possible, indeed the whole course has a Creative Commons license, even if we had to move some parts behind log-ins later on to conform with the European GDPR legislation on data privacy. The course is still offered twice a year and you can find out more on the course site (Open Networked Learning).

I learned so much from each iteration of the course, both from my fellow organisers and facilitators but also from the participants. No names here but you all know who you are. Thanks so much for that amazing experience and I hope the course continues to develop in the coming years.

Networks and unexpected activities

Over the years I have built up a very valuable personal learning network based on social media activity (my blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and so on) as well as through the various organisations that I have belonged to and worked with. That network was a constant source of inspiration and practical help. Often I could post a question on social media and within hours I had several useful answers with links. One opening led to another and I found myself involved in several committees in Sweden, the Nordic region and internationally as well as lots of projects. Some of these took me well out of my comfort zone, working with people who were far more qualified and experienced, but as ever I learnt a lot and hopefully also contributed constructively. The most notable of those "uncomfortable" activities was being a member of the committee that wrote the standard ISO21001, Management systems for educational organizations. I had no previous experience of ISO and realised what an enormous organisation it is and the meticulous work involved in writing and developing standards. I was immensely impressed by many colleagues' attention to detail and ability to handle the constant revisions and discussions.

So, those were some highlights of my journey. I was able to follow many new paths thanks to the understanding of my university who often gave me the benefit of the doubt in terms of my external activities and projects. Often, I was able to cover a large share of my expenses through project funding and fees. It wasn't all success stories, there were quite a few flops and bumps and I was certainly a bit too hasty and enthusiastic at times, especially early on. I certainly didn't follow any traditional academic path and to a large extent let my curiosity guide me. Somehow I made it through to retirement but I hope I have managed to encourage and even inspire colleagues to try new technology and rethink their practice.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Educational project jargon generator

Photo by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

Over the years I've read a lot of project applications, project reports and both listened to and given many presentations about projects. Of course they're full of jargon, especially the buzzwords that are current in the field, and it's virtually impossible to be taken seriously without them. But at the same time, they get very quickly tiresome and many of us have amused ourselves during long meetings at making buzzword bingo sheets and seeing how quickly you can fill them.

So, in an unusual example of humour on this blog, I would like to share with you my own jargon generator that you can use in your next presentation or report. Just pick one word from each column and you have an impressive but meaningless phrase that you can drop in almost anywhere. It's also very useful for mission statements and strategy documents.

deliveringdigitaltriple helixsystems
assessingdiversecutting edgeoutcomes
addressing21st centurycornerstonescholarship

Monday, September 11, 2023

Reading around the world - mission accomplished


My top six books: top row Egypt, Poland, Canada, bottom row Austria, Palestine, Barbados

Earlier this year I wrote about my project to read at least one novel from every country and self-governing territory I have visited (see post, Reading around the world, with a little help from my network). I counted 56 of them and I have now completed my task, taking about a year and a half. I have never read as intensively before, not even during my undergraduate years studying English literature. It has been a wonderful experience, especially because I asked friends from each country for recommendations thus adding a personal touch to each book. Some books I chose myself since I had no obvious contacts in that country but the vast majority were recommendations. I had of course already ticked off quite a few countries before I started, namely the UK (hundreds of titles over the years), Ireland, Sweden, Russia, France, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. 

As I mentioned in my earlier post my only problem country was Liechtenstein. I searched and searched for a novel from there in a language I can read but found nothing. My German is too basic to tackle a novel and the only books I could find were in German. The only book I found was a rather disjointed compilation of folk tales and history complied by a Canadian who had become fascinated by the country. Luxembourg also proved rather elusive and I had to settle for poetry by the excellent Anise Koltz. Maybe I will try a novel in French from Luxembourg though it will be a test of my dormant knowledge of that language. Otherwise I read the vast majority of books in English but also a few in Swedish and Danish.

Since most of the books were recommended by friends they weren't always exactly what I might have chosen myself. Some were tough reading, but they were all rewarding in their own way and this was a good way of widening my choices beyond my own preferences. Although the books come from very  diverse countries and cultures there deal with universal themes: family, home, love, loyalty and their absence. People may do things differently around the world but we have the same hopes and fears. 

My top titles

Many friends have asked me which books I liked best. They all had their merits and it's impossible to make any sort of ranking list but after careful consideration, here is my list of six particularly memorable titles, in no particular order.

Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy

A magnificent family saga tracing a Cairo family's fortunes through a turbulent period in Egypt's history as it tries to free itself from British colonial rule and the struggle between tradition and modernity. The story is told from different perspectives and shows the tensions between generations and genders. The strict patriarchal order shown at the start is soon shown to be full of contradictions as is the modernist attitudes that develop later in the book. All the characters have their flaws as well as virtues and we develop an understanding for all of them. Three books in one and a major read, but well worth it. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988.

Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob

An epic novel about the Jewish 18th century cult leader Jacob Frank who claimed to be the Messiah and developed a considerable and devoted following among dissident Jews in Poland and central Europe. Although Jacob is the central figure we learn about him through the eyes of many followers and critics.He has undoubted charm and charisma but is also a manipulating narcissist with no empathy or humility and we have little or no sympathy for him. The book is meticulously researched and the level of detail is sometimes overwhelming, but at the same time fascinating. The atmosphere is dark and intricately described, full of mysticism and philosophical discourse and the lasting impression of the book is more about this atmosphere than the events described.

If pushed I would probably put this one at the top of my list simply because it was so powerful. It's not an easy read and deserves to be reread to really appreciate it but I will certainly never forget it. I can clearly see why Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company

A moving and very thought-provoking story of four homeless drifters in a nameless Canadian city trying to survive in the brutal winter where some homeless people freeze to death if they can't find shelter. All four have had tough times, suffered cruelty and bitter disappointment and ended up on the streets. They are survivors but have found strength in each other's company. They spend their days in cinemas watching movies, an escape to other worlds. They get to know a former journalist who still has a home but has lost his bearings in life and also finds solice in the cinema. He then becomes a sort of mentor for the group especially when their fortunes turn dramatically.

One day one of the group finds a lottery ticket that proves to be a jackpot winner and suddenly the group are rich. This could so easily become a rather clichéd novel about how their lives are transformed by unexpected riches but not here. They use their winnings wisely to help them find a new home, not so much physically but more emotionally. It's a touching story about roots, home, love and companionship and although there are some harrowing episodes it leaves a lasting taste of hope.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)

A haunting collection of memories from the occupants of the cemetery of a small Austrian town. Each chapter features memories of people who have recently died and by piecing together these narratives we get to know the town and the events and dramas that have taken place there in recent years. The field in the title is the name the locals have given to the cemetery. Some chapters are inter-related as we read different perspectives of the same event. Some are tales of loneliness and disappointment, others are full of hope and redemption. Some chapters are very short, only a couple of paragraphs, and are impossible to interpret beyond guesswork. I enjoyed the thoughtful and rather melancholic atmosphere of this book. 

Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura

The tale of a woman and her family forced to flee from their Palestinian village in 1948 as Israeli forces took over large parts of Palestinian territory. Her father and brothers are killed as are many of the village's men and the survivors head north to exile in Lebanon's refugee camps (where their descendants still live, 75 years later). She is a survivor and brings up her children in exile, always longing for the home that has been forever lost. Tragedy strikes again in the 1982 massacre in the refugee camp of Shatila but once again she manages to survive. It is not so much a political book but the story of a woman's courage and resourcefulness to keep her family going through so much hardship. In the end there is hope since her sons find prosperous lives far from the restrictions of the refugee camps. The woman stays however holding on to her memories of home.

Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo

A charming book of magic and wonder, based on African folk tales mixed with Caribbean traditions. In a world where everyday life is influenced by the whims and sometimes mischievous designs of spirits called djombi, a young woman finds a magic stick, the chaos stick. This belongs to the Indigo Lord who desperately needs to recover it because his magic powers are limited without the stick. He eventually finds her and takes her away to far-off places and adventures. They learn to respect each other and the Indigo Lord finds that this mortal is much cleverer than most humans. I loved this book because it was a welcome break from the tragedy and suffering of so many other books. A real feel-good book but with with depth and food for thought.

What next? I will just keep reading more from these countries and maybe widen my search to countries that I haven't visited but where I have friends or countries that I wish I could have visited. This project has opened my eyes to all the literature beyond the Anglo-American tradition that I was brought up on. I would like to read more African literature since all the books I read from there so far have been very rewarding. I need to move south of the Sahara for new perspectives.

The list 

UK, Ireland, France, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland were already well read before this project started.

Austria: Robert Seehaller - Fältet (Eng. The field)
Barbados: Karen Lord - Redemption in indigo
Belarus: Uladzimir Karatkevich - King Stakh’s wild hunt
Belgium: Lize Spit - The melting
Bosnia & Herzegovina: Ivo Andrić - The Pasha’s concubine and other tales
Bulgaria: Georgi Gospodinov: Time shelter
Canada: Richard Wagamese - A ragged company, Jack London - Call of the wild
Croatia: Miroslav Krleza - Harbours rich with ships
Czech RepFranz Kafka - MetamorphosisJaroslav Hasek - The good soldier Svejk
DDR (East Germany): Christa Wolf, - They divided the sky
Egypt: Naguib Mahfouz - Cairo Trilogy
Estonia: A H Tammsaare - Vargamäe, The misadventures of the new Satan
Faroe Islands: Jörgen-Frantz Jacobsen - Barbara, William Heinesen - De fortabte spillemænd (Eng. The lost musicians)
Germany: Alfred Döblin - Berlin Alexanderplatz
Greece: Theodor Kallifatides - Ännu ett liv (Eng. Another life)
Greenland: Niviaq Korneliussen - Blomsterdalen (Eng. Flower Valley)
Hungary: Sandor Marai - Embers
Indonesia:Y B Mangunwijaya - Durga / Umayi
Israel: Amos Oz - A tale of love and darkness
Italy: Tomasi di Lampedusa - The Leopard, Sibilla Aleramo.- A Woman
Jordan: Abdelrahman Munif - Cities of salt
Lebanon: Amin Maalouf - The rock of TaniosIman Humaydan (ed) - Beirut Noir
Latvia: Nora Ikstena - Modersmjölken (Eng. Soviet milk)
Liechtenstein: Tales of Liechtenstein, then and now
Lithuania: Zemaite - Marriage for love
Luxembourg: Anise Koltz - At the edge of the night
Malaysia: Tan Twan Eng - The garden of evening mists
Montenegro: Olja Knezevic - Milena and other social reforms
Morocco: Tahar Ben Jalloun - The pleasure marriage
Netherlands: W F Hermans - Beyond sleep
Oman: Abdulaziz al Farsi - Earth weeps, Saturn laughs
Pakistan: Mohsin Hamid - The reluctant fundamentalist
Palestine: Radwa Ashour - The woman from Tantoura
Poland: Olga Tokarczuk - Books of Jacob
Portugal: José Saramago - Blindheten (Eng. Blindness), Alla namnen (Eng. All the names), Richard Zimler - The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
Qatar: Abdulaziz Al-Mahmoud - The Corsair
Romania: Dan Lungu - I’m an old commie
Slovenia: Drago Jancar - I saw her that night
Spain: Miguel de Cervantes - Don Quixote
Sri Lanka: Romesh Gunesekera - Reef
Switzerland: Friedrich Dürrenmatt - The pledge
Trinidad & Tobago: V S Naipaul - A house for Mr Biswas
Tunisia: Albert Memmi - The desert, Hassouna Moshabi - Solitaire
Turkey: Orhan Pamuk - Snow, The black book
UAE: Maha Gargash - The sand fish
Venezuela: Ana Teresa Torres - Dona Ines vs oblivion
Åland: Ulla-Lena Lundberg - Is

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Digital is never forever - print still matters

Photo by Mayer Tawfik on Unsplash

We have lulled ourselves into a false security that digital content is permanent and have therefore entrusted our society's most important records to servers, often owned by commercial corporations. But as file formats change every few years and new technologies make old ones obsolete, everything has to be converted and updated and some content may be lost on the way. Files can be corrupted or hacked. Our own stores of family photos and videos will probably not last as long as the old negatives and tapes unless we keep updating them. I have several disks and CD-ROMs that have become unreadable. Digital vulnerability is an issue.

A new threat has been added now that we depend so much on cloud storage and streaming. The company that owns the service can at any time decide to withdraw certain services or even delete content. This digital vulnerability is highlighted in an article on SlateWhy 2024 Will Be Like Nineteen Eighty-Four. Users of Amazon's Kindle platform for e-books who had bought George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm discovered recently that the books had been suddenly deleted from their devices. Amazon claimed that there were legal irregularities with the copies and therefore they had to delete them. The users were refunded and the explanation seemed plausible. This has happened with other publications as well but the irony of the two most famous works of a dystopian authoritarian future being suddenly deleted from all devices is alarming. Even if this may have been an honest mistake it shows that these companies have enormous power of the content we can access.

The worst thing about this story isn’t Amazon’s conduct; it’s the company’s technical capabilities. Now we know that Amazon can delete anything it wants from your electronic reader. That’s an awesome power, and Amazon’s justification in this instance is beside the point.
We still have millions of printed copies of these books as well as digital versions on other e-book platforms but if we continue to move towards a completely digital future the risks are clear. Our digital content can be deleted, our accounts can be blocked and our access limited. It's not hard to imagine how this power can be misused. In a rational, civilised society governed by laws that work in the interests of the public good this would be regulated but we don't live in that sort of world today. We have put enormous power in the hands of a few extremely powerful global corporations.
Most of the e-books, videos, video games, and mobile apps that we buy these days day aren’t really ours. They come to us with digital strings that stretch back to a single decider—Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, or whomever else. Steve Jobs has confirmed that every iPhone routinely checks back with Apple to make sure the apps you’ve purchased are still kosher; Apple reserves the right to kill any app at any time for any reason. But why stop there? If Apple or Amazon can decide to delete stuff you’ve bought, then surely a court—or, to channel Orwell, perhaps even a totalitarian regime—could force them to do the same. Like a lot of others, I’ve predicted the Kindle is the future of publishing. Now we know what the future of book banning looks like, too.

One of many disturbing echoes of the 1930s is the growth in banning and even burning books that challenge the narrow-minded values of a government or militant political or religious movement. This is not restricted to authoritarian regimes like Russia, Iran or China but also now in many European countries, both western and eastern. Authorities can try to stop libraries from lending certain books or schools from letting pupils read them or even stop shops from selling them, but copies will always be out there and people will hide them and circulate them even when banned. That's how many important works have survived through years of repression and tyranny. Once printed books are out there it is impossible to be sure that you have eliminated them all.

Digital is different however. In the world of e-books you never really own your e-book, it is dependent on the device or app you use to read it with and that can be upgraded, replaced or disappear completely. When a digital service dies all your content goes with it unless you get advance warning and find a way to download it. My music collection on Spotify exists only as long as I pay the subscription and the company still offers the service. Quite a few songs on my Spotify playlists are shaded in light grey with the explanation that they are no longer available. They haven't been censored or anything like that but we have to accept that content can be withdrawn. If Google pulled the plug on this platform, Blogger, all my blog content goes with it. Digital is never forever.

Digital content is transient and unreliable. It can be deleted without your consent and I'm sure with the growth of AI, all content can be manipulated and changed to better reflect a dominant ideology. We need to preserve knowledge safely for the future and not be reliant on just one medium.Print still matters.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Farewell Twitter - breaking up is hard to do

Photo by Alexander Shatov on Unsplash

It looks like it is time to leave the sinking ship of the app formerly known as Twitter after almost 15 years of tweeting. Elon Musk, looking and behaving more and more like a classic James Bond villain, has succeeded in destroying a major social media channel in one year of chaotic ownership. His strategy seems to be to scare off all serious users and create a new platform, X, for right wing extremism, conspiracy theories and disinformation. In that case he has succeeded. 

However, I'm sad to leave because over the years I have made so many valuable connections on Twitter that have lead to collaboration and new friendships, as well as countless useful links, inspirational chats and moral support. I've met people on Twitter who I have then met at conferences, written articles with and formed projects with. It took me a few years of work to build up a network on Twitter. Many colleagues gave up with it because they had so few connections and didn't work out how to attract more. There was little or no interest in the platform here in Sweden back then so I reached out internationally, following educators I knew and admired and then checking who they followed. That way I built up a network of trusted sources. Then I had to find ways of getting people to follow me otherwise I'd be simply tweeting into a vacuum. I focused on sharing useful content (articles, news, threads) and using hashtags to reach as many as possible. Slowly people started following me and connections began to happen. I followed people and channels who offered useful content for my work and assumed that some of themwould find me a useful contact. I also started using Twitter to generate traffic to my blogs and that certainly helped them thrive. I remember the day one of my educational gurus retweeted one of my blog posts and I saw the sudden peak in page views - I really felt I'd made the big time! That has happened quite often since then but I still get a great feeling when a major name in my field notices what I've done. No names mentioned but I thank you all. 

I have made many exciting contacts and one in particular still makes me smile. I saw a tweet one day from a school teacher in Canada  who had seen a nice Swedish brochure about using Creative Commons licenses in school. She wondered if anyone could translate it to English. I happened to know the person who wrote the original and we very quickly created a new English version and sent it to the Canadian teacher. This then spread and was used in many schools. I then got an invitation from the teacher to meet her class on Skype one afternoon and talk about Creative Commons as well as answering the pupils' questions about life in Sweden. All that because I answered a tweet.

Then there have been all the tweetchats. I have taken part in many of these and organised many too. If you have never tried one before it goes like this. You announce a chat session in advance and a suitable hashtag. At the proposed time you send a tweet with the hashtag welcoming everyone to the tweetchat. Participants "tune in" by searching for the hashtag on Twitter or whatever app you use for it. The participants can then introduce themselves and you can make a few welcoming remarks and repeat the chat rules. The key is that the hashtag must appear on every post. Then you ask a question and wait for responses. As the answers come in you can comment on them and encourage participants to comment on each others' posts. You keep feeding the discussion until the time is up, usually after one hour. It's rather chaotic - some people find it stressful and confusing whilst others thrive. I love hosting but you end up typing almost non-stop for an hour. If you have experienced users the chat just flies along and participants share links, ideas and new perspectives. I will miss this and even if the same thing can be done on other platforms I don't really have the energy to start all over again.

As Twitter implodes into a platform called X it is time for the world's media, institutions, companies and leaders to leave and stop using it as a channel for serious dissemination and discussion. I hope that world politics will no longer be conducted on X. I'm not sure where they should move to though. Do we really trust Meta's new Threads? Is Mastodon able to become a default news source? Or is the new social media landscape too fragmented? Twitter has been an extremely powerful medium for 15 years and it is hard to understand how it could be destroyed so quickly.

Curiously, I have never really seen the dark side of Twitter. Maybe it's due to a combination of being careful who I follow and the algorithms being very effective at feeding me content that I want to see. Anyway, my feed has always been full of education content as well as increasing amounts of climate research and humanitarian posts with almost no trace of the toxic garbage that have made the platform so infamous, especially since Musk turned off all the safety controls. I'm still reluctant to completely switch off because I still get good useful content from both contacts and trusted news media. I've deleted Twitter from my mobile but haven't quite pressed the button to completely exit. Breaking up is hard to do.

PS. I have now deleted my account.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Into the vortex of the post-truth era

Photo by Manuel M. Almeida on Unsplash

I can't help it but here's another post about my concerns with artificial intelligence. AI is already being used to churn out fake news stories, entire sites of it, as well as fake reviews of hotels, restaurants, movies and much much more. It can be used to write plausible project plans, essays and academic articles (often without substance or any originality complete with references both genuine and invented), fake videos of people saying and doing things they never did in reality (whatever that is!), scripts for TV shows, novels - the list goes on and on. Since AI can produce an infinite amount of content in a few blinks of an eye, I wonder what happens when most of the content on the web is AI-generated. And since AI trawls the web for content it will be trawling other AI content and producing new content based on its own content. This sounds like a wormhole into a Wonderland where nothing is real and fact and fiction have become completely blurred into each other. 

Reviews have been a problem for a long time with people being paid to write fake reviews to make or break a hotel, restaurant, destination, book or film. But why pay people to write nonsense when AI does it instantly and for free. This is highlighted in a n article in the GuardianFake reviews: can we trust what we read online as use of AI explodes? The review sites like Trip Advisor, Amazon etc are aware of the problem and try to filter out the obvious fakes but very soon we will not be able to tell the difference, making the whole process meaningless. In the end you stop reading the reviews. The companies behind the AI tools simply ignore the issue - they lit the fuse and then watch the fireworks.

Guardian Money asked OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, why it does not prevent its AI tool from producing fake reviews of hotels, restaurants and products that the “reviewer” has never visited or used. We made multiple attempts to contact the company and submitted a number of questions but it did not respond by the time this article was published.
AI music is also thriving with streaming services offering playlists of AI-generated formula music in various genres. Since this music is generated by scanning thousands of human compositions the music industry is concerned about copyright and royalties as described in an article on CNN, Universal Music Group calls AI music a ‘fraud,’ wants it banned from streaming platforms. Experts say it’s not that easy. We could theoretically stop it but it's hard to prove breach of copyright when the AI tool has sampled thousands of pieces. 
“You can flag your site not to be searched. But that’s a request — you can’t prevent it. You can just request that someone not do it,” said Shelly Palmer, Professor of Advanced Media at Syracuse University.
Pandora's box is wide open and it looks very unlikely that we will be able to impose regulations. Once again the companies benefitting from the AI-generated content are predictably silent:
Music streamers Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora did not return request for comment.
I have read many articles about how we can harness AI to open up new opportunities in education, health care and other fields and there will be some excellent examples of good practice. But in terms of the wider impact I simply can't imagine human beings acting so rationally. We are truly entering the post-truth era.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Wave goodbye to the edtech cruisers and focus on real community building

Photo by Peter Hansen on Unsplash

One year after retirement and it's a strange feeling standing on the quay watching the edtech ship sail away from me and onwards towards the horizon. I've tried to maintain contact with the issues I used to find so important but if you're not onboard and involved it all feels more remote every day until the ship disappears over the horizon. There are new technologies and platforms on board now and my personal learning environment has become almost obsolete.I thrived on the social media boom of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Diigo and so on and the opportunities these fascinating channels offered for networking, collaboration, sharing and creativity. It was a great ride for about 12 years but it has all turned sour as the platforms have become polluted with algorithm-driven ads, propaganda and toxicity. Having spent so long urging teachers to use social media to widen their horizons, increase their impact and foster collaboration I realised that I might now be leading them into a trap. So now the edtech cruiser is sailing away loaded with new technologies and platforms that I simply can't relate to anymore. But maybe we have to reset our ambitions about networking and settle for less flashy but more sustainable solutions.

A post by Inger Mewburn in her excellent blog The thesis whispererThe enshittification of academic social media, really rang a lot of bells for me. She has also been a strong advocate of academics using social media to promote their work and build networks. But now she advises caution with using social media on the grounds that no matter how good the content you share may be you will not get exposure thanks to algorithms that prioritise content that will generate income. It's also hard to make contact with others when the algorithms continually push other stuff in front of you.

Maybe Threads is the next big platform and indeed the initial uptake is spectacular, though here in the EU it is blocked since it is full of major privacy issues that violate the GDPR regulations (well played EU!). But even if you can use Threads it's probably not a good idea. It looks good but it feeds off your privacy and is fully integrated with the rest of Meta's platforms.

Inger proposes a revised set of recommendations to academics wanting to use social media in their work. Think very carefully before you use mainstream social media in your teaching. Think especially about the privacy issues to which you may be exposing students and colleagues. Use these channels for social contacts if you want but don't share content there; own your content by having your own space for it. For building a network she suggests the good old-fashioned mailing lists. I certainly found e-mail newsletters a good way to reach out though there are issues with that, especially the problem that many organisations ' firewalls automatically block newsletters as suspected spam. But certainly you can reach out to known subscribers and build your community through that.

Email is still the best distribution medium of them all: cost free and free from algorithms. I just started a mailing list for people interested in my neurodiversity in the PhD research – I already have 160 or so people signed up, which is so incredible (thank you!). I plan to use this list to test out research ideas and get feedback on research in progress. Much more effective than shouting into the wind on Threads or something.

She also mentions a possible revival of blogging, something I would of course welcome. Use your blog as a space to share your ideas and offer advice. The best way to blog is to host the blog yourself and be in complete control. I made the mistake of opting for the convenience of Google's Blogger platform back in the days when I believed they were working for the common good and so all my writing is in their domain. 

Of course Mastodon and its family of open source social media in the Fediverse is the sustainable and uncommercial option to create communities, though it's always a good idea to check each platform first to see if it's right for you (don't assume that all are automatically trustworthy). If I was still active that's where I'd go. The Fediverse will not go mainstream and will remain a refuge for those who see through the glitter and flashy facade of the Big Five, but maybe we have to accept that meaningful collaboration is limited in scale. Leave the big platforms and connect with people rather than bots and trolls. It may not be as flashy and may not have all the bells and whistles but it works.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

To fail is human - let's share and learn from it

Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

Behind every success there are lots of failures. Papers that never got published, projects that didn't get funded, courses that flopped, examinations failed, opportunities missed and so on. It happens to everyone but is seldom talked about or analysed. The success cult promoted on sites like LinkedIn shows a steady stream of successful people doing great things (more often than not "awesome"). Rather than being inspired I have often been a bit depressed when scrolling through all the success stories. It's a similar feeling at conferences which are also celebrations of success. I don't mean that we shouldn't celebrate success, but there are also lessons to be learned from less successful activities, since we can all relate to them. We may not feel we have ever reached the successful heights of the best practice cases but we can all identify with schemes that didn't win any silverware. But it's so hard to get people to share those experiences - it takes courage to admit your failures. But we could learn a lot by sharing these examples and discussing how we could improve. Most importantly hearing that even the most respected educators have failed many times in the careers.

This is the gist of a nice article by Tracy Nevatte in Times Higher EducationLead by example and share your failures. She calls on senior academics to share their failures and how they contributed to later success. Many young researchers and teachers despair at repeated rejections and wonder if they are really cut out for a career in education and an opportunity to be rassured that everyone has felt like that at some point can be more inspiring than listening to stories of constant success.

We rarely see senior academics share their failures, either with each other or with those at the start of their careers, but their career trajectory is undoubtedly full of them. Do they not share these stories because they’re ashamed or, rather, do they not see them as failures in the first place? The latter seems more likely. Only when we normalise failure, and take the isolating power of it away, can failures equal success. But it’s going to take effort from early career researchers, research leaders, institutions and funders to get there.
There are indeed failure conferences, sharing experience and discussing how to improve. See Failcon for example. I've never managed to attend one but wish I had been able to. It's not easy, however, to attract speakers who are willing to talk about their less successful ventures and you certainly don't get any career points for doing so. Being a keynote speaker at a failure conference would not be something to post on LinkedIn. But we need to remove the shame and stigma and dare to share. Realising the even the top practitioners have a long string of flops behind them can reassure many who feel like giving up. By opening up like this and discussing our shortcomings we can also move away from the toxic overworking culture that has so often been spread on social media with people bragging about the unfeasibly long hours they spend working on their projects, papers, course design and project applications.

This post was written without any contribution from AI. I wonder if AI can discuss its own vulnerability ...

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching - overcoming inertia

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

The pandemic threw all educational institutions into the deep end of the educational technology pool. Adapting to what was for most institutions a relatively new form of teaching and learning was a traumatic but also transformative experience. In the wake of that experience the most obvious strategy was to take stock and make a thorough review of what worked, what didn't work and how to improve in terms of using digital technology. In an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world the likelihood of further crises is extremely high and therefore the need to ensure that education can quickly adapt.

There is no shortage of research, reports, guidelines, tools, webinars and conferences to help educational institutions improve their use of educational technology in teaching and learning. Organisations like the European Commission, EUA (European University Association), EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) and many others have run projects, produced reports and run dozens of webinars and conferences all based on extensive research but somehow they seldom result in major changes on the ground. It's not simply about the adotpion of technology, that is really not the main point, it is a change towards more inclusive and active forms of teaching and learning. It's about learning to learn by active involvement in meaningful collaborative work where technology is an enabling factor. But the main barrier is the reluctance to change from the traditional information transfer model that so many people feel comfortable with and which is perceived as effective and indeed symbolic of higher education.

An excellent way to move towards this is to look carefully at how technology is used in the institution today and how this contributes to a more holistic view of teaching and learning - a process of self-assessment. This has been the focus of a recent EUA project, DIGI-HE that I have been involved in (on the advisory board). The project has included numerous studies, consultations and thematic peer groups reaching a broad range of educational institutions and in various disciplines. One report in particular offers a comprehensive overview of the wide range of self-assessment tools available and advise on their use: Developing a high performance digital education ecosystem - Institutional self-assessment instruments.

Set against this prerogative and growing strategic interest, this report presents a review of 20 instruments from around the globe designed for self-assessment of digitally enhanced learning and teaching at higher education institutions. It offers a number of insightful observations concerning their use (or non-use) by institutions for promoting both quality enhancement and digital capacity development. It should be of immediate interest to higher education institutions, but also to policy makers, developers of instruments, and generally, to all those who seek information on such instruments.

The project also produced a MOOC on FutureLearnInside Digital Higher Education: Self-Assessment Guide for Educators. Here institutional leaders are taken through the process of reviewing the institution's current strategies and planning for a self-assessment, looking at both risks and opportunities. The course was run during the spring but is available as an asynchronous self-study course. This is a good springboard to kick-start a change process and the project's various reports provide further guidance and inspiration from institutions who have already started their transformation process. 

This is one example of the abundance of the guidance and support available for digital transformation and pedagogical development but as the saying goes: you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. Despite the clear benefits of conducting a self-assessment there seems to be a great reluctance to do so, despite the lessons of the pandemic and the abundance of research into active collaborative learning. The first barrier is the abundance of tools that creates anxiety on which one to choose. Faced with too much choice we simply don't make a choice. I think we all experience feelings like this in our daily lives when faced with the myriad of choices available in everything between insurance to telecom providers. It seems that we all suffer from inertia when it comes to actions that threaten our comforable balance. 

Self-assesment also demands a lot of time and energy at a time when most people feel already stressed and overworked. It also risks exposing wasteful practices or inequalities in the present system and thus creating conflict. The pandemic was certainly disruptive (tragically so for millions around the world) and there were signs that we would need to rethink our structures and systems to adapt to new challenges. However, we seem to have simply reverted to old practices again without much reflection. Changing the way we live and work is too demanding so we return to the default. Thatä's why we can't expect too much of institutions to embark on such costly processes voluntarily (with a few exceptions). Governments and authorities need to help them find space and time for these processes and offer incentives for doing so. Then we can hopefully create some momentum that will generate interest and widen involvement.