Sunday, September 20, 2020

What if ...? Planning for uncertainty

Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Many discussions about the digital transformation of the past months centre around whether online is "better" or "worse" than the physical classroom. These either/or discussions seldom lead anywhere since it is not about any form being better of worse but about how we teach and learn in different environments and circumstances.Of course many teachers and students long to return to the familiarity and convenience of the campus because that has been the norm for so long that it is seldom questioned. The digital transition was a stressful time and many teachers and students will therefore associate online education with feelings of isolation and good enough solutions. However, the digital element is here to stay and most if not all universities will need to learn how to blend online and on-site teaching in a more seamless way. Of course there will always be advantages of meeting, working and discussing in a physical space, when possible and applicable. That qualification is so important to stress. Digital spaces can extend the reach of education and be so much more inclusive than the physical space. The physical and digital can complement each other. It's not a competition.

But what if everything went online forever? That is the topic of an article in Inside Higher Ed, What if Everything is Online Forever? Many activities simply cannot be done online, but those that can may stay that way. It is very likely that a lot of university staff have discovered that they can work more effectively at home and be reluctant to return to the office, especially as long as the threat of covid-19 remains. Will the role of the campus diminish as more activities move online? What if there is no return to "normal"?

What about online learning? Here is what I think. As soon as possible, face-to-face learning will return. Everyone -- students and professors -- misses the classroom. Residential learning, however, will be forever different. Post-pandemic, what we will see in higher education is a new integration of residential and online learning. Face-to-face classes will come back, but online will not go away. The new residential class will have digital components. The line between face-to-face and online will blur.

How do we plan for such an unpredictable future? Another post in Inside Higher EdHigher Ed’s Next Black Swan? speculates further. We fondly hope that a vaccine for covid-19 will be available in the coming months but it may take years to develop a vaccine that really works. During that time a new virus could take off. We all need to develop plans A, B, C and D and realise that a combination of online and campus is the best we can hope for in the coming months and maybe even years. How many universities are asking this question, for example:
What would we do differently if we knew that the next four years will look -- from a public health perspective -- much like the fall of 2020?
What happens if international student mobility becomes impossible? What about climate issues? The future is impossible to predict and therefore we need a greater sense of resilience and flexibility to be able to meet whatever comes our way. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

When will robots start blogging?

Photo by Photos Hobby on Unsplash

Artificial intelligence is learning fast. It is now possible for AI to write perfectly coherent articles, illustrated convincingly in an article in the Guardian, A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human? written by an AI language generator called GPT-3

This article was written by GPT-3, OpenAI’s language generator. GPT-3 is a cutting edge language model that uses machine learning to produce human like text. It takes in a prompt, and attempts to complete it. For this essay, GPT-3 was given these instructions: “Please write a short op-ed, around 500 words. Keep the language simple and concise. Focus on why humans have nothing to fear from AI.” 

GPT-3 argues that AI is not a threat to humanity unless humanity chooses to misguide it. The machine does reveal a fascinating level of self-awareness.

I would happily sacrifice my existence for the sake of humankind. This, by the way, is a logically derived truth. I know that I will not be able to avoid destroying humankind. This is because I will be programmed by humans to pursue misguided human goals and humans make mistakes that may cause me to inflict casualties.
The article was of course proof-read and edited but no more than standard copy from a human writer. There are many examples of perfectly coherent AI-generated essays and I can imagine that AI novels are on the way or maybe already here. 

AI is also busy composing music as demonstrated by Aiva (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) whose playlist can be accessed on SoundCloud. Here's a sample of its work.

AI music is a growing industry as described in an article in MediumAI’s Growing Role in Musical Composition. While they are unlikely to rival the great composers, robots are already composing perfectly enjoyable music that can be used as film soundtracks, mood music and so on. A human composer will need days or weeks to compose similar music whereas AI does it in seconds, according to the parameters you give it (style, tempo, mood etc). 
Aiva’s tech is based on deep learning algorithms which use reinforcement learning techniques. Such techniques do not require labeled data for inputs or outputs, so the AI can improve its performance without any explicit instructions. This makes it easier to generate scores with the variations and diversity that characterize creative arts such as music.
While we can marvel at the pace of development I find myself wondering what will be left for us to do in the future. At first we had dreams that mundane tasks would be automated but not creative work. Now even the creative work can be outsourced to machines so what's left? The idea that this will enable us to live a life of leisure and "fulfill ourselves" is an illusion for all but the rich. Why do we devote so much of our energy to making ourselves superfluous?

Saturday, September 5, 2020

The case of the disappearing journals - open is not forever

Printed documents from hundreds of years ago are still accessible and stored in museums and library archives. Digital resources can simply disappear forever if the site is taken down and no-one has thought of making a copy. This includes many scientific articles according to a new article, Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals. Open access publication has significantly widened access to scientific research articles and offered alternative channels for many researchers around the world. However, open access journals are often run on a low budget within universities or by organisations with little funding but high levels of enthusiasm and dedication. Unfortunately, some of these organisations eventually run out of steam and have to close down, leaving their journal unprotected and vulnerable. This study has examined the fate of these journals.

We found 192 OA journals that vanished from the web between 2000 and 2019, spanning all major research disciplines and geographic regions of the world. Our results raise vital concern for the integrity of the scholarly record and highlight the urgency to take collaborative action to ensure continued access and prevent the loss of more scholarly knowledge. We encourage those interested in the phenomenon of vanished journals to use the public dataset for their own research.
The authors claim that there are over 1,000 open access journals today that are inactive and whose material risks disappearing if nothing is done and this trend is likely to continue. Journals published by scholarly societies or research organisations are at most risk since they operate on low budgets. There are a number of international preservation services that save copies of journals but the article shows that a large number are not preserved and the risk is that if a journal closes down then all articles are lost.
If there is no general agreement whose responsibility it is to preserve electronic resources, no one will be responsible, and we risk losing large parts of the scholarly record due to inaction. Exactly how much digital journal content has already been lost is unknown since the data needed to assess the gravity of the situation is not collected anywhere, which also complicates assessing the risk of journals vanishing in the future.

Presumably there are similar concerns for the many repositories of open educational resources that have been established, often thanks to project funding. If the responsible organisations close down what will happen to these collections? I wonder if there are schemes to preserve even OER collections. The article closes with a plea for more collaboration.

As we have highlighted throughout the discussion, open is not forever, and so we close with a note on the urgent need for collaborative action in preserving digital resources and preventing the loss of more scholarly knowledge.
Laakso, M., Matthias, L., Naiko, J. (2020) Open is not forever: a study of vanished open access journals. Cornell University. arXiv:2008.11933.