All AI, All the Time

So, yeah – I really actually don’t want to be writing about AI all the time. It just seems to dominate the Education conversation these days, and not always in the ways that the AI Cheerleaders want it to. I am actually working on a series of posts that examine a 1992 Instructional Technology textbook to see how long ideas like learning analytics (yes, in 1992), critical pedagogy, and automation have been a part of the Ed-Tech discussion for longer than many realize. Of course, these topics have not been discussed as well as they should have been, but recent attempts to frame them as “newer concerns” are ignoring history.

I am also going to guess that Course Hero is happy that AI is taking all the heat right now?

But there are still so many problematic ideas floating around out there that I think someone needs to say something (to all five of you reading this). And I’m not talking about AI Cheerleaders that go too far, like this:

We know this stuff is too far fetched to be realistic, and even the Quoted Tweet by Kubacka points to why this line of thinking is pointed in the wrong direction.

But I am more concerned about the “good” sounding takes that unfortunately also gloss over some real complexities and issues that will probably keep AI from being useful for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we also know that the untenable-ness of a solution usually doesn’t stop businesses and institutions from still going all in. Anyways, speaking of “all in,” let’s start with the first problematic take:

No One is Paying Attention to AI

Have you been on Twitter or watched the news recently? There are A LOT of people involved and engaged with it – mostly being ignored if we don’t tow the approved line by the “few entrepreneurs and engineers” that control its development. I just don’t see how anyone can take the “everyone is sticking their head in the sand” argument seriously any more. Some people get a bit more focused about how Higher Ed is not paying attention, but that is also not true.

So where are the statements and policies from upper level admin on AI? Well, there are some, but really – when has there been a statement or action about something that is discipline-specific? Oh, sorry – did you not know that there are several fields that don’t have written essay assignments? Whether they stick with standardized quizzes for everything, or are more focused on hands-on skills – or whatever it might be – please keep in mind that essays and papers aren’t as ubiquitous as they used to be (and even back in their heyday, probably still not a majority).

This just shows the myopic nature of so many futurist-lite takes: it affects my field, so we must get a statement from the President of the University on new polices and tools!

The AI Revolution is Causing Rare Societal Transformation

There are many versions of this, from the (mistaken) idea that for thousands of years “technologies that our ancestors used in their childhood were still central to their lives in their old age” to the (also mistaken) idea that we are in a rare societal upheaval on the level of the agricultural and industrial revolutions (which are actually by far not the only two). Just because we look down on agricultural or stone age innovations that happened every generation as “not cool enough,” it doesn’t mean they weren’t happening. Just find a History major and maybe talk with them about any Historical points, please?

Pretty much every generation for thousands of years have had new tools or ideas that changed over their lifetime, whether it was a new plowing tool or a better housing design or whatnot. And there have been more that two revolutions that have caused major transformation throughout human history. Again – find a person with a History degree or two and listen to them.

AI is Getting Better All the Time

GPT-3 was supposed to be the “better” that would begin to take over for humans, but when people started pointing out all of the problems with it (and everything it failed at), the same old AI company line came out: “it will only get better.”

It will improve – but will it actually get better? We will see.

I know that the AI hype is something that many people just started paying attention to over the past 5-10 years, but many of us have also been following for decades. And we have noticed that, while the outputs get more refined and polished, the underlying ability to think and perform cognitive tasks has not advanced beyond “nothing” since the beginning.

And usually you will hear people point out that a majority of AI experts believe there is a real chance that human-level artificial intelligence will be developed within the next few decade. Well… it is complicated. Actual studies usually ask more tricky questions like “if there is a 50% change of developing human level AI” at some point in the future – and over half of the experts are saying there is a 50% chance of it happening in a time frame beyond most of our lifetimes (2060). Of course, your bias will affect how you read that statistic, but to me, having 50% of experts say there is a 50% chance of true human-level artificial intelligence in the far future… is not a real chance at all.

Part of the problem is the belief that more data will cross the divide into Artificial General Intelligence, but it is looking less and less likely that this is so. Remember – GPT-3 was supposed to be the miracle of what happens when we can get more data and computing speed into the mix… and it proved to fall short in many ways. And people are taking notice:

I covered some of this in my last post on AI as well. So is AI getting better all the time? Probably not in the ways you think it is. But the answer is complicated – and what matters more is asking who is gets better for and what purposes it gets better at. Grammar rules? Sure. Thinking more and more like humans? Probably not.

We Should Embrace AI, Not Fear It

It’s always interesting how so many of these conversations just deal with two extremes (“fully embrace” vs “stick head in the sand”), as if there are no options between the two. To me, I have yet to see a good case for why we have to embrace it (and laid out some concerns on that front in my last blog post). “Idea generation” is not really a good reason, since there have been thousands of websites for that for a long time.

But what if the fears are not unfounded? Autumm Caines does an excellent job of exploring some important ethical concerns with AI tools. AI is a data grab at the moment, and it is extracting free labor from every person that uses it. And beyond that, have you thought about what it can be used for as it improves? I mean the abusive side: deep fakes, fake revenge porn, you name it. The more students you send to it, the better it gets at all aspects of faking the world (and people that use it for nefarious purposes will give it more believable scripts to follow, as they will want to exercise more control. They just need the polished output to be better, something that is happening).

“But I don’t help those companies!!!” you might protest, not realizing where “those companies” get their AI updates from.

Educators Won’t Be Able to Detect AI Generated Assignments

I always find it interesting that some AI proponents speak about AI as if students usage will start to happen in the future – even though those of us that are teaching have been seeing AI-generated submissions for months. As I covered in a previous post, I have spoken to dozens and dozens of teachers in person and online that are noting how some students are turning in work with flawless grammar and spelling, but completely missing any cognition or adherence to assignment guidelines. AI submissions are here, and assignments with any level of complexity are easily exposing it.

However, due to studies like this one, proponents of AI are convinced teachers will have a hard time recognizing AI-generated work. But hold on a second – this study is “assessing non-experts’ ability to distinguish between human- and machine-authored text (GPT2 and GPT3) in three domains (stories, news articles, and recipes).” First of all, teacher usually are experts, and second of all, few assignments are as basic as stories, news, or recipes. Even games that test your ability to detect AI-generate content are frustratingly far away from most course assignment designs (and actually, not that hard to still detect if you try the test yourself).

People That Don’t Like AI Are Resistant Due to Science Fiction

Some have a problem believing in AI because it is used in Sci-Fi films and TV shows? Ugh. Okay, now find a sociologist. It is more likely that AI Cheerleaders believe that AI will change the world because of what they saw in movies, not the other way around.

I see this idea one trotted out every once and a while, and… just don’t listen to people that want to use this line of thinking.

AI is Advancing Because It Beats Humans at [insert game name here]

Critics have (correctly) been pointing out that AI being able to beat humans at Chess or other complex strategy games is not really that impressive at all. Closed systems with defined rules (no matter how complex) are not that hard to program in general – it just took time and increases in computing power. But even things like PHP and earlier programming languages could be programmed to beat humans with the same time and computing power.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well, obviously, no one is listening to people like me that have to deal with AI-generated junk submissions in the here and now. You will never see any of us on an AI panel anywhere. I realize there is a big push now (which is really just a continuation of the same old “cheaters” push) to create software that can detect AI-generated content. Which will then be circumvented by students, a move that will in turn lead to more cheating detection surveillance. Another direction many will go is to join the movement way from written answers and more towards standardized tests. While there are many ways to create assignments that will still not be replicable in AI any time in the near future, probably too few will listen to the “better pedagogy” calls as usual. The AI hype will fade as it usually does (as Audrey Watters has taught us with her research), but the damage from that hype will still remain.

AI is a Grift

Okay, maybe I went too extreme with the title, but saying “whoever decided to keep calling it ‘Artificial Intelligence’ after it was clear that it wasn’t ‘intelligence’ was a grifter” was too long and clunky for a post title. Or even for a sentence really.

Or maybe I should say that what we currently call “Artificial Intelligence” is not intelligence, probably never will be, and should more accurately be called “Digital Automation.”

That would be more accurate. And to be honest, I would have no problem with people carrying on with (some of) the work they are currently doing in AI if it was more accurately labeled. Have you ever noticed that so many of the people hyping the glorious future of AI are people who’s jobs depend on AI work receiving continued funding?

Anyways, I see so many people saying “AI is here, we might as well use it. Its not really different than using a calculator, spell check, or Grammerly!” that I wanted to respond to these problematic statements.

First of all, saying that since the “tech is here, we might as well use it” is a weird idea, especially coming from so many critical educators. We have the technology to quickly and easily kill people as well (not just with guns, but drones and other advances). But we don’t just say “hey, guess we have to shoot people because the technology is here!” We usually evaluate the ethics of technology to see what should be done with it, and I keep scratching my head as to why so many people give AI a pass on the core critical questions.

Take, for instance, the The College Essay is Dead article published in the Atlantic. So many people breathlessly share that article as proof that the AI is here. The only problem is – the paragraph on “Learning Styles” in the beginning of the article (the one that the author would give a B+) is completely incorrect about learning styles. It gets everything wrong. If you were really grading it, it should get a zero. Hardly anyone talks about how learning styles are “shaped.” Learning Styles are most often seen as something people magically have, without much thought given to where they came from. When is the last time you saw an article on learning styles that mentioned anything about “the interactions among learning styles and environmental and personal factors,” or anyone at all referring to “the kinds of learning we experience”? What? Kinds of learning we experience?

The AI in this case had no clue what learning styles were, so it mixed what it could find from “learning” and the world of (fashion) “style” and then made sure the grammar and structure followed all the rules it was programmed with. Hardly anyone is noticing that the cognition is still non-existence because they are being wowed by flawless grammar.

Those of us (and there is a growing number of teachers noticing this and talking about it) that are getting AI-generated submissions in our classes are noticing this. We get submissions with perfect grammar and spelling – that completely fail the assignment. Grades are plummeting because students are believing the hype and turning to AI to relieve hectic lives/schedules/etc – and finding out the hard way the that the thought leaders are lying to them.

(For me, I have made it a habit of interacting with my students and turning assignments into conversations, so I have always asked students to re-work assignments that completely miss the instructions. Its just now more and more I am asking the students with no grammar or spelling mistakes to start over. Every time, unfortunately. And I am talking to more and more teachers all over the place that say the exact same thing.)

But anyways – back to the concerning arguments about AI. Some say it is a tool just like Grammerly or spellcheck. Well, on the technical side it definitely isn’t, but I believe they are referring to the usage side… which is also incorrect. You see, Grammarly and spellcheck replaced functions that no one ever really cared if they were outsourced – you could always ask a friend or roommate or who ever “how do you spell this word?” or “hey, can you proofread this paragraph and tell me if the grammar makes sense” and no one cared. That was considered part of the writing process. Asking the same person to write the essay for you? That has always been considered unethical in many cases.

And that is the weird part to me – as much as I have railed against the way we look at cheating here, the main idea behind cheating being wrong was that people wanted students to do the work themselves. I would still agree with that part – its not really “learning” if you just pay some one else to do it. Yet no one has really advanced a “list of ten ways cool profs will use AI in education” list that accounts for the fact that learners will be outsourcing part of the learning process to machines – and decades of research shows that skipping those parts is not good for actually learning things.

This is part of the problem with AI that the hype skips over – Using AI in education shortcuts the process of learning about thinking, writing, art creation, etc. to get to the end product quicker. Even when you use AI as part of the process to generate ideas or create rough drafts, it still removes important parts of the learning process – steps we know from research are important.

But again, educational thought leaders rarely listen to instructional designers or learning scientists. Just gotta get the retweets and grants.

At some point, the AI hype is going to smash head first into the wall of the teachers that hate cheating, where swapping out a contract cheating service for an AI bot is not going to make a difference to their beliefs. It was never about who or what provided the answers, but the fact that it wasn’t the student themselves that did it. Yes, that statement says a lot about Higher Ed. But also, it means your “AI is here, might as well accept it” hot take will find few allies in that arena.

But back (again) to the AI hype. The thought that AI adoption is like calculator adoption is a bit more complicated one, but still not very accurate. First of all, that calculator debate is still not settled for some. And second of all, it was never “free-for-all calculator usage!” People realized that once you become an adult, few people care who does the math as long as it gets done correctly. You can just ask anyone working with you something like “hey – what was the total budget for the lunch session?” and as long you got the correct number, no one cares if it came from you or a calculator or asking your co-worker to add it up. But people still need to learn how math works so they can know they are getting the correct answer (and using a calculator still requires you to know basic math in order to input the numbers correctly, unlike AI that claims to do that thinking for you). So students start off without calculators to learn the basics, and then calculators are gradually worked in as learners move on to more complex topics.

However, if you are asked to write a newsletter for your company – would people be okay with the AI writing it? The answer is probably more complicated, but in many cases they might not care as long as it is accurate (they might want a human editor to check it). But if you are an architect that had to submit a written proposal about how your ideas would be the best solution to a client’s problem, I don’t think that client would want an AI doing the proposal writing work for the architect. There are many times in life where your writing is about proving you know something, and no one would accept that as an AI generated action.

Yes, of course there is a lot that can be said about instructors that create bad assignments and how education has relied too much on bad essays to prove learning when they don’t do that, but sorry AI-hypsters: you don’t get credit for just now figuring that one out when many, many of us in the ID, LS, and other related fields have been trying to raise the alarm on that for decades. You are right, but we see how (most of) you are just now taking that one seriously… just because it strengthens your hype.

Many people are also missing what tools like ChatGPT are designed to do as well. I see so many lists of “how to use ChatGPT in education” that talk about using it as a tool to help generate ideas and answers to questions. However, it is actually a tool that aims to create final answers, essays, paintings, etc. We have had tools to generate ideas and look for answers for decades now – ChatGPT just spits out what those tools have always done when asked (but not always that accurately, as many have noted). The goal of many of the people that are creating these AI tools is to replace humans for certain tasks – not just give ideas. AI has been failing at that for decades, and is not really getting anywhere closer no matter how much you want to believe the “it will only get better” hype that AI companies want you to believe.

(It has to get good at first before it can start getting better FYI.)

This leads back to my first assertion – that there is no such thing as “artificial intelligence.” You see, what we call AI doesn’t have “intelligence” – not the kind that can be “trained” or “get better” – and it is becoming more apparent to many that it never will. Take this article about how AI’s True Goal May No Longer Be Intelligence for instance. It looks at how most AI research has given up on developing true Artificial General Intelligence, and wants you to forget that they never achieved it. What that means is that through the years, some things like machine learning and data analytics were re-branded as “intelligence” because AI is easier to sell to some people than those terms. But it was never intelligent, at least not in the ways that AI companies like to refer to it as.

Sorry – we never achieved true AI, and what we call AI today is mislabeled.

“As a result, the industrialization of AI is shifting the focus from intelligence to achievement” Ray writes in the article above. This is important to note according to Yann LeCun, chief AI scientist at Facebook owner Meta Properties, who “expressed concern that the dominant work of deep learning today, if it simply pursues its present course, will not achieve what he refers to as ‘true’ intelligence, which includes things such as an ability for a computer system to plan a course of action using common sense.” Does that last part sound familiar? Those promoting a coming “Age of AI” are hinting that AI can now plan things for us, like class lessons and college papers.

(And yes, I can’t help but notice that the “Coming Age of AI” hype sounds just like the “Coming Age of Second Life” and “Coming Age of Google Wave” and so on hype. Remember how those were going to disrupt Higher Ed? Remember all the hand-wringing 5-10 years ago over how institutional leaders were not calling emergency meetings about the impact of learning analytics? I do.)

But why does “true” intelligence matter? Well, because AI companies are still selling us the idea that it will have “true” intelligence – because it will “only get better.” Back to the ZDNet article: “LeCun expresses an engineer’s concern that without true intelligence, such programs will ultimately prove brittle, meaning, they could break before they ever do what we want them to do.”

And it only gets worse: “Industrial AI professionals don’t want to ask hard questions, they merely want things to run smoothly…. Even scientists who realize the shortcomings of AI are tempted to put that aside to relish the practical utility of the technology.”

In other words, they are getting wowed by the perfect grammar and while failing to notice that there is no cognition there, like there hasn’t been for decades.

Decades? What I mean by that is, if you look at the history section of the Artificial General Intelligence article on Wikipedia, you will see that the hype over AI has been coming and going for decades. Even this article points out that we still don’t have AI: “In 2020, OpenAI developed GPT-3, a language model capable of performing many diverse tasks without specific training. According to Gary Grossman in a VentureBeat article, while there is consensus that GPT-3 is not an example of AGI, it is considered by some to be too advanced to classify as a narrow AI system.” Terms like narrow AI, weak AI, industrial AI, and others were just marketing terms to expand the umbrella of AI to include things that did not have “intelligence,” but could be programmed to mimic human activities. The term “AI,” for now, is just a marketing gimmick. It started out in the 1950s and still has not made any real advances in cognition. It will only get better at fooling people into thinking it is “intelligent.”

A lot is being said now about how AI is going to make writing, painting, etc “obsolete.” The vinyl record would like to have a word with you about that, but even if you were to believe the hype… there is more to consider. Whenever people proclaim that something is “obsolete,” always ask “for who?” In the case of emerging technologies, the answer is almost always “for the rich elite.” Technological advances often only remain free or low cost as long as they need guinea pigs to complete it.

If you are pushing students to use a new technology now because it is free, then you are just hastening the day that they will no longer be able to afford to use it. Not to mention the day it will be weaponized against them. If you don’t believe me, look at the history of Ed-Tech. How many tools started off as free or low cost, got added to curriculum all over the place, and then had fees added or increased? How many Ed-Tech tools have proven to be harmful to the most vulnerable? Do you think AI is going to actually plot a different course than the tech before it?

No, you see – AI is often being created by certain people who have always been able to pay other people to do their work. It was just messy to deal with underpaid labor, so AI is looked at behind the scenes as a way to ditch the messy human part of exploitation. All of the ways you are recommending that ChatGPT be used in courses is just giving them free labor to perfect the tool (at least to their liking). Once they are done with that, do you really think it will stay free or low cost? Give me a break if you are gullible enough to believe it will.

Mark my words: at some point, if the “Age of AI” hype takes off, millions of teachers are suddenly going to have to shift lesson plans once their favorite AI tool is no longer free or is just shut down. Or tons of students that don’t have empathetic teachers might have to sell another organ to afford class AI requirements.

(You might notice how all of the “thoughtful  integration of AI in the classroom” articles are by people that would benefit greatly, directly or indirectly, from hundreds or thousands of more students using ChatGPT.)

On top of all of that – even if the hype does prove true, at this point AI is still untested and unproven. Why are so many people so quick to push an untested solution on their students? I even saw someone promoting how students could use ChatGPT for counseling services. WTF?!?!? That is just abusive to recommend students who need counseling to go to unproven technology, no matter how short staffed your Mental Health Services are.

But wait – there is more! People have also been raising concerns (rightly so) about how AI can be used for intentionally harmful purposes, like everything from faking revenge porn to stock market manipulation. I know most AI evangelists also express concern about this as well, but do they realize that every usage of AI for experimentation or course work will increase the ability of people to intentionally use AI for harm? I have played around with AI as much as anyone else, but I stopped because I realized that if you are using it, you are adding to the problem by helping to refine the algorythms. What does that mean to unleash classes full of students on to it for free labor to improve it?

To be clear here, I have always been a fan of AI generated art, music, and literature as a sub-genre itself. The weird and trippy things that AI has produced in the past are a fascinating look at what happens when you only have a fraction of the trillions of constructs and social understandings we have in our minds. But to treat it as a technology that is fully ready to unleash on our students without much critical thought about how dangerous that could be?

Also, have you noticed that almost every AI ethics panel out there is made entirely of pro-AI people and no skeptics? I am a fan of the work of some of these “pro-AI people,” but where is the true critical balance?

I get that we can’t just ignore AI and do nothing, but there is still a lot of ground between “sticking our heads in the sand” and “full embrace”. For now, like many instructors, I tell students just not to use it if they want to pass. I’m not sure I see that changing any time soon. Most of the good ideas on all of those lists and articles of “how to integrate AI into the classroom” are just basic teaching designs that most teachers think of in their sleep. Bur what damage is going to be done by institutional leaders and company owners rushing in to implement unproven technology? That may “disrupt” things in ways that we don’t want to see come to fruition.

Is AI Generated Art Really Coming for Your Job?

You might have noticed this Twitter thread about improvements in AI-generated art work. Well, if you are still on Twitter that is. Here is the thread – well, at least, until You-Know-Who “MySpaces” Twitter out of service:

So let’s take a look at this claim that AI-generated artwork is coming to disrupt people’s jobs in the very near future. First of all, yes it is really cool to be able to enter a prompt like that and get results like this. There is obviously a lot of improvement in the AI. It actually looks useful now. But saying “a less capable technology is developing faster than a stable dominant technology (human illustration)”…?

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Whoa, now. Time for a reality check. AI art is just now somewhat catching up with where human art has been for hundreds of years. AI was programmed by people that had thousands of years of artistic development easily available in a textbook. So saying that it is “developing faster”? With humans being able to create photo-realistic drawings as well as illustrate any idea that comes to their mind – where is there left to “develop” in art?

That is like a new car company saying they are “developing new cars faster than the stable industry.” Or someone saying that they have blazed new technology in travel because they can cross the country faster in a car than a horse and wagon did in the past. The art field had to blaze trails for thousands of years to get where it is, and the AI versions are just basically cheating to play catch up (and it is still not there yet).

The big question is: can this technology come up with a unique, truly creative piece of artwork on its own? The answer is still “no.” And beating the Lovelace Test is not proof that the answer is “yes,” because the Lovelace test is not really a true test of creativity.

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Yes, all artists stand on the shoulders of others, but there is still an element to creativity that involves blending those influences into something else that transcends being strictly derivative of existing styles. Every single example of AI artwork so far has been very derivative of specific styles of art, usually on purpose because you have to pick an existing artistic style just to get your images in the first place.

But even the example above of an “otter making pizza in Ancient Rome” is NOT a “novel, interesting way” by the standards that true artists use. I am guessing that Mollick is referring to the Lovelace 2.0 Test, which the creator of said test stated that “I didn’t want to conflate intelligence with skill: The average human can play Pictionary but can’t produce a Picasso.”

Of course, the average artist can’t produce an original painting on the level of Picasso either (unless they are just literally re-painting a Picasso, which many artists do to learn their craft). The people working on this particular AI Art Generator have basically advanced the skill of their AI to where it can pass the Lovelace 2.0 Test without really becoming truly creative. And honestly, “Draw me a picture of a man holding a penguin” is a sad measure of artistic creativity – no matter how complex you make that prompt as the test goes along.

But Mollick’s claims in this thread is just an example of people not understanding the field that they say is going to be disrupted. For example, marveling over correct lighting and composition? We have had illustration software that could do this correctly for decades.

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Artists will tell you that in a real world situations, the time consuming part of creating illustrations is figuring out what the human that wants to art… actually wants. “The otter just looks wrong – make it look right!” is VERY common feedback. The client probably also created several specific details about the otter, plane, positions of things, etc that has to be present in any artwork they want. Then there are all of the things they had in their head that they didn’t write down. Pulling those details that out of clients is what professional artists are trained to do.

This is where AI in art, education, etc always falls apart: programmers always have to start with the assumption that people actually know what they want out of the AI generator in the first place. The clients that professionals work with rarely ever want something as simple as “otter on a plane using wifi.” The reality is that they rarely even have that specific or defined idea of what they want in the beginning. There is a difficult skill of learning to figure out what people actually want that the experts in AGI/strong AI/etc tell us is probably never going to be possible from AI.

So, is this a cool development that will become a fun tool for many of us to play around with in the future? Sure. Will people use this in their work? Possibly. Will it disrupt artists across the board? Unlikely. There might be a few places where really generic artwork is the norm and the people that were paid very little to crank them out will be paid very little to input prompts. Look, PhotoShop and asset libraries made creating company logos very, very easy a long time ago. But people still don’t want to take the 30 minutes it takes to put one together, because thinking through all the options is not their thing. You still have to think through those options to enter an AI prompt. And people just want to leave that part to the artists. The same thing was true about the printing press. Hundreds of years of innovation has taught us that the hard part of the creation of art is the human coming up with the ideas, not the tools that create the art.

Are We in the Upside Down? Course Hero, Lumen Learning, and All Kinds of Strange Things are Afoot in Ed-Tech

In my last post on The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero, I stated that I really didn’t want to get into the controversy surrounding recent hirings at Course Hero. That was easy to say when it was just one head-scratching hire, but other things have happened since then that make it hard not to dive in somewhat. But just somewhat!

Part of the problem is that I have been waiting to see what big announcements Course Hero might make about upcoming changes. That hasn’t happened – but surely they have something up their sleeve? They make the claim that empowering students is in their DNA – but that isn’t true in it’s current form. Students can upload content – but its almost always content that others (usually instructors or content companies) have created. There is no real power in that – the students really have no say what is contained in that content. The instructor or company does. When students can upload something of their own creation that then becomes part of a class – that would be empowerment.

But why would they need Course Hero for that? They can already upload content to blogs, Google Drive, Dropbox, Discord, you name any one of hundreds of services. There is nothing special about yet another file hosting service – so either Course Hero has no idea what they are talking about, or there is a big change planned to their core model in the near future.

Even their core product – offering answers to assessments/assignments/etc – is not truly empowering for students. Students just take the answers and turn their course work in without learning the content… so at best Course Hero is extractive for students, not empowering.

Sadly, it has been difficult to get Course Hero to address this issue without deflecting to systemic issues. Of course the systemic issues are real and need to be dealt with – but Ed-Tech critics should know better than to deflect to systemic issues when they work for a company that quite literally drives the adversarial relationship between students and teachers. Giving away answers to anything and everything just adds more pressure to students to cheat. Not to mention that Course Hero’s access model creates even more pressure for students to steal content. Well… or to at least do something like that….

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Additionally, Course Hero is also looking to work with instructors. But to do what? Host files? Instructors already have an LMS for that, along with all of the above-mentioned file hosting services. As it stands right now, instructors don’t really need anything new for hosting files or content. So surely they have something else planned, right?

As many have pointed out, there is a need for “reputation-washing” for a company like Course Hero. They are seen as a cheating site that pays little attention to following the law. There probably is something to this – many people have privately expressed irritation at several well-known educators that have defended Course Hero. But they are friends with these people, and don’t want to harm the friendship. I get that. It makes the world feel upside down, and its hard to know how to navigate this weird new situation.

So this leads to the reputation-washing whether Course Hero is wanting it or not. If you look at something like UngradingCon, many of the Session Leaders would probably boycott the conference if they were listed along with the CEO of Course Hero. But when listed with a friend or personal hero that has also aggressively defended Course Hero? Its a lot harder to know what to do when that person is a friend/mentor. Most would still question whether Course Hero and ungrading are a good mix. Like I said in my other post: “I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.”

Certainly there is a lot of value into getting your company into spaces that they wouldn’t be welcome other wise. Even though Course Hero isn’t a strong match for the ungrading world, they are now a part of that community (like it or not).

But surely that is not the whole game plan, right?

Several people recently started to notice that some links to OER resources hosted on the Lumen Learning website started to redirect to the same content on Course Hero. It doesn’t seem like there was an announcement – it just happened. And yes, it was a weird change – Course Hero doesn’t always follow open licenses very well (according to some – the company disagrees). Steel Wagstaff of PressBooks seems to have uncovered the most information about what is going on here.

As several people have noted – Course Hero is blocked on many campuses. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to then realize what could happen here:

Another factor to consider – some of central figures at Lumen Learning have been laying the ground work for a partnership with for-profit Ed-Tech companies:

And yes, it is problematic to imply that people who might disagree with partnering with for-profits are “close-minded.” I risk the wrath of some of DW’s fervent defenders by pointing this out, but its not an attack to point out that less problematic language could have been chosen here.

Of course, since Course Hero does not have a reputation in some circles for protecting students very well, some instructors are not happy about having their content moved to Course Hero (and especially with out ever being told that the content was being moved). Other services are stepping up to offer alternatives, again proving that Course Hero is not offering a service that is unique in itself.

And then there are other wild, strange things going on as well that I am not sure exactly where they fit in the post, but they still do somehow:

So far, it seems that Course Hero is working on getting access to conferences, school servers, and circles of respect that they didn’t have in the past. But the questions still remains… for what purpose? Course Hero does not empower students, they don’t offer a service that instructors can’t get elsewhere, and they aren’t the best place to host OER content. But this is how they are starting to promote their services – even though we know their employees and spokespeople know better. But they also know what is discussed behind closed doors, so you have to wonder what is coming down the pipe to make them start saying these things? Until we find out what that is, the current situation is one of the stranger things happening in the already odd Ed-Tech space.

Heartbreaking Conversations About the Realities of Gun Violence in Schools

I don’t know why news outlets do it this way, but every time there are gunshots at a school in Texas, the only thing you see for a while is “Gunshots reported at Texas School.” If they know someone was killed, then the headline reads “Fatalities reported at Texas School.” Of course, as a parent of a kid in Texas, either one sends me flying to the most recent reports, praying its not my kid’s school.

Which is selfish, of course, but its the new reality living in the wild, wild wes… errr… Texas.

When it doesn’t end up being your kid’s school, but there are fatalities, you are both relieved and sickened (when you realize what too many families are going to go through today).

Then, of course, your kid starts asking all kinds of hard questions:

“Where should I sit in the classroom to avoid getting shot if someone breaks in?”

“Where should I hide if a shooter breaks in?”

“Where should I spread blood on me to look like I have been killed?”

Wow. He should ask those questions. And I did my best to answer (which wasn’t very good).

But it is heartbreaking that he has to ask them in the first place.

He also wanted a police officer permanently assigned to every classroom. I pointed out there aren’t near enough officers to do that. I didn’t have the heart to also talk about how they might not even try to stop a shooter, and the shooter could possibly out gun them if they did. But he has made comments about that as well… so, he knows.

Our kids live in a world where we won’t do what it takes to protect them in schools.

Despite the fact that we have decades of evidence from around the world that gun laws do work, our leaders don’t want to go the proven route. As usual, they have to turn to Ed-Tech to solve problems.

Yes, arming teachers is an Ed-Tech solution. And as a former teacher, I can tell you it is beyond pathetic to think it will work. They expect teachers to fight off some dude brandishing a modified AR-15 and body armor… with a hand pistol? When the police can’t always do the same? If you arm teachers, you will have dozens of students accidentally shot (and probably killed) by those teacher guns before one single teacher gets their first shot off at a shooter. And I would bet they never stop a shooter that way.

Or how about the whole “add more surveillance” options? Really? You want more video footage of carnage that still doesn’t stop anything? How sick is that?

Then there is the whole “door” argument. Also Ed-Tech, and I get why people turn to this option. If you want to do that in addition to gun law reform, that is great. But you also have to realize that school buildings are living, breathing entities that love to find ways to open doors. Teachers know this: they get left open all the time… or blocked when some object falls out of a backpack. Plus it would be literally impossible at many schools to get all students in through a single entrance at the front before noon. And those multiple entry points just love to find ways to stay open.

But wait! The solution is simply to have random inspections to make sure schools are keeping security up… right? Oh, sure. Anyone that has worked at a school knows that 5 seconds after the surprise inspector shows up, every teacher or employee near a security point will be alerted and fixing any issues they see.

Hundreds or thousands of humans inhabit a campus every second it is open – all with a vested interest in seeing their school pass an inspection – and you think you are going to be able to have a “surprise” inspection? Good luck with that.

I used to work as a health inspector. My surprise inspections – where I would show up in between classes and few people saw me come in – were always reported to the cafeteria well before I set foot in there. This was before cellphones and I would literally talk to the secretary in the front office and see hardly anyone else. Yet they still found a student somewhere to run the back way and warn the cafeteria I was coming.

Oh, and shooters can often get in these new secure doors anyways… even when locked and reinforced and made bullet proof…

My son mentioned that he won’t go back to school until he feels safe going. Maybe that is what we need on a national level: give us meaningful, strong gun reform or we don’t take our kids back to school until it happens.

Of course, we would need some massive donations to help support parents that can’t keep their kids home if we did this – but maybe someone should get on that.

And before you ask – yes, I have specific laws in mind to pass. Yes, I know the differences between assault weapons and assault rifles and AR-15 and so on. Quibbling over those things is just wasting time. We all know what we are talking about even if we don’t use the specific correct terms every. single. time. Even if you mean well bringing that up, it is generally a bad faith argument by many others, and it is well past time to #$&?@ stop that.

Also – anyone that wants to say that the Second Amendment is “sacred” – that is blasphemy and you should stop that as well. There is not a single religious text out there that refers to 2A as “sacred” (most are against weapons in many cases – especially the Bible). Go look up what the word “Amendment” means. There is nothing saying that we couldn’t abolish the Second Amendment if we wanted. I used to be against that option, but after decades of waiting for our leaders to enact “common sense” gun laws… I am tired of seeing nothing happen. So I have a lot more sympathy for the “Abolish 2A” crowd.

Does that upset you? Too bad. I have been waiting for decades for real change to happen while supporting those that want to keep 2A… and it has led to nothing but more death and carnage. So I don’t care about 2A anymore. Sorry if that offends you – you should have been pushing to get better gun laws than getting people like me to protect 2A itself. I’m tired of empty thoughts and prayers. Tired of people arguing moot points about definitions and changeable amendments being somehow sacred and Ed-Tech options that are garbage as actual solutions and all the pathetic nothingness that is putting my son’s life at risk. Do something meaningful in this area or just get out of the way.

Metaversity, Tri-Brid Models, and the Same-Ol, Same-Ol “Innovation”

“Is education moving to a “tri-brid” model that flows between in-person, online and simulated environments?” asks the article titled With Money From Facebook, 10 Colleges Turn Their Campuses into ‘Metaversities’ on EdSurge. Of course, the answer is “no” – but you have to wonder how much time and attention will be given to this idea before it fades into the GoogleWave is the future of Education graveyard?

To be honest, I actually enjoy VR – I have fun playing the occasional game in there, or “hanging out” with family in other cities. I think the ability to create simulations makes VR an interesting educational tool. Interactive tools? Meh – don’t hate them, don’t love them. But to move towards making an entire educational experience or course or campus inside of VR sounds like we are going the wrong direction away from the “Sage on the Stage” model. Sitting and watching an instructor in a class room is replaced with sitting there with the classroom strapped to your face (and collecting all kinds of data on decisions you make without even leaving the room). “Only better” as I guess the people involved with this Enagage-supported project would claim.

It was the whole claim of “Tri-Brid” that first caught my attention:

“Arés argues that the rise of VR technologies will shift the current hybrid model of education—which draws on separate in-person and online environments—into a ‘tri-brid’ model, one that moves ‘seamlessly between online, in-person and simulated, without the limits of time, travel and scale.'”

First of – how do you move “seamlessly” between in-person and simulated when in-person is limited by time, travel, and scale? They point out that learners without VR headsets can use a monitor – so let’s be real here. The “simulated” portion is really just another version of Zoom. This is not really a Tri-Brid but an “Extended Hybrid” model. Look at the picture at the top of the article – it is still a Sage-on-the-Stage, still a white professor lecturing an all-white class, the same ol’, same ol’… with a cool 3-D model added to the PowerPoint.

Sounds a lot like Second Life, right? “Not so fast!” the creators say:

“This may bring to mind the now-defunct digital campuses that universities set up 15 years ago using Second Life—but leaders of the new project are quick to claim that this will be way better.”

Well, okay – I have used Occulus, and in many ways it does work better than Second Life. But when people talk about Second Life in this context, they aren’t talking about graphic quality, or interface design, or any of that. Of course we expect those aspects to improve over time. The problem with Second Life classrooms was that for every one of them that were actually interesting, there were dozens more that we just sub-par equivalents to a video conference. It took lots of time and money to create decent scenarios, and half the time the novelty of those wore off and people went back to more traditional online modes.

In other words – for every “look at how the heart functions by going inside of one” simulation that was out there, there were so so so many “here is my classroom camera feed streaming to a screen in a vague virtual re-creation of my classroom.”

There are other foundational problems with the idea as well. Monica Arés, head of Immersive Learning at Meta, had this to say about VR:

Arés, the leader of Immersive Learning at Meta, is a former teacher. She recalls the nagging worry that her lessons might not hold her students’ attention. “I would spend countless hours trying to create lessons that are visually rich,” Arés says. “I knew the second I put that headset on it was the medium I had been looking for.”

Any Instructional Designer and most teachers will tell you that there are all kinds of ways to get student attention beyond just finding “visually rich” lessons. When your foundational idea of what makes learning effective is so skewed like this… I have to worry about the overall project.

And the problems don’t just stop there. David Whelan, founder and CEO of Engage, had this to say:

“Computers started in homes as entertainment, then creeped into school, then into everyday use items and at jobs,” Whelan says. “VR could take the same route.”

This is not true at all. Most people that I know first interacted with computers at schools and Universities long before they had one at home. Read any book on the 80s. Many people were even working on computers at a job before getting one at home. They were really, really expensive at the beginning. Many of us remember arranging our schedules around light traffic time at school/university computer labs so that we could find a free machine.

Computers started at businesses and universities. Its a pretty easy historical fact to look up.

Maybe Whelan grew up in a wealthy home that could afford a home computer early. Maybe he is not old enough to even know where computers started. I honestly don’t know anything about him. Either way – it makes you question the ability of his company to really know what is going on and where the tech world is going.

Then there is the question of whether or not students will actually like being in VR in the first place. The article makes this claim:

“Trying to pay attention in a college course while manipulating an avatar around a virtual classroom can feel a little odd. But the new Stanford study suggests that this kind of setting gets more comfortable for students over time.”

However, I noticed that the article does not go into how comfortable students were overall, or how much their comfort actually increased over time.

Turns out, the answer to both is more like “not very much.”

If you look at the original article in question, the results aren’t that impressive. When students were asked to rate “enjoyment” on a Likert scale of 1 to 5, the results hovered between 3.1 and 3.7. In some ways of crunching the data, it did slightly increase over time – but not by much:

Self-presence and spatial presence (feeling like you are really in the environment) both hovered around 4 on a Likert scale of 1 to 7. Social presence and entitativity (“the degree to which a collection of people is perceived as a single, unified entity”) fared a little better: between 5 and 6 on a 1 to 7 Likert scale. But how much of that is attributed to all of the work online courses have put into increasing those aspects online for decades?

Overall, a more honest reading of the outcomes of the study is that, on average, the reaction to comfort in VR was “meh.” Sure – all factors increased over time, but how much of that increase came from the learners being more aware of those factors because they were asked about them ever week? And is it really that surprising to say that people get more used to using something the more they use it? That doesn’t mean they really like it in the first place.

But you might also say “if they want to waste money on a rabbit hole, what’s the big deal? Its not like they have their sights set on anything bigger.” Well….

“I do hope that things like the socioeconomic divide and geography divide can potentially be bridged in education because of some of these new technologies like VR,” (Greg Heiberger, associate dean of academics and student success at South Dakota State University) says. “Those would be the two tenets I would guess are near the top of their (Meta Immersive Learning) list: making money and giving some of those resources back to make the world a better place.”

Not sure how they plan to eliminate redlining, food distribution, prejudices, and all kinds of other societal problems that drive these divides… through VR (and other tech)? A statement like this kind of feels like the “tossing a roll of paper towels” moment of this whole idea. If there is one thing we have learned about the world, is that you can always count on the rich to give their wealth to the poor and not some huge vanity project purchase.

But obviously, Heiberger needs to talk to Arés about all of this “trickle-down” wealth:

“Arés said that Meta is not focused on earning revenue from the partnership; instead, the ‘main goal is to increase access to education and transform the way we learn.'”

Transform the way we learn – by sticking a white dude avatar in front of a 3-D PowerPoint Screen and then strapping this transformed classroom to students face so they can virtually sit in desks from the comfort of their own homes. Even though those homes might not be “comfortable” for all, and you can only wear an Occulus so long before your face starts hurting. Funny how research studies never examine how deep the red marks in the shape of a headset are on users’ face at the end of these immersive learning sessions.

Updates on the Never-Ending Reclaim Project

So with all of the weirdness that is going on in the Ed Tech world recently and the general world today, I needed something to take my mind off of things. I wanted to add a quick update about my Never-Ending Reclaim Project at the end of that post… but it ended up being too long! So, in the interest of archiving the good, the bad, and the ugly of what I am finding out there (not all of it is being kept even if I am reclaiming access)…. here are some interesting (to me, at least) updates of where things are.

First of all, its pretty weird trying to make sure you have ownership of every account you have created. Random things in life suddenly remind you of things you had totally forgotten. Walking by a store one day reminds you “oh, hey – RedBox still exists and I think I had an online account there as well.” Or a random link reminds you that you also had a Reddit account at one time. All reclaimed!

I finally came to a place of acceptance with the not-quite-perfect html exports of WordPress sites. It seems that everything from site suckers to WP plugins just don’t get what relative truly means. Or maybe I just don’t get the settings correct? Anyways – it seems they always add a slash at the beginning of base level files like this: “/images/picture.jpg” or “/css/style.css” or whatever.  That forces my computer and the websites where I deposit them to look in the base directory for everything – but I am trying to get them to go in a sub-folder of an “archive” folder. So the browser just sits there forever trying to figure out what is going on. For less complex websites, its easy enough to remove that slash quickly (“images/picture.jpg” or “css/style.css” or whatever) – and boom! instant relative website that can work online or offline where ever I put it. When archiving WordPress sites with complicated folder structures, it takes a bit of thinking to know how many “../” or “../../” etc to replace those “/” with – and time consuming if you have to think through all “/” in your document.

There is one workaround to make it a bit easier. I have found exporting from within WordPress to be a bit better than external site suckers, because WordPress will still get you all of your orphaned files and pages. This means that bad link you didn’t realized was there can be fixed with one edit, rather than jumping into to hope and pray that the file is there (only about 50/50 record of that so far for me, unfortunately). Plus, you can hard code a long link with your website address in there – making finding and replacing absolute links with relative “../../” links very, very quick and easy per page. Which I wrote about before – but it’s the best option I have found so far.

The reason this is important is because the old LINK website has bit the dust for now it seems. This was apparently a problem with Google and not the people running the site. They tried everything they could to renew the website registration – but it was originally registered through Google. Let me warn you: don’t do that. It starts easy enough to register… but renewals get harder and more complicated each time. I experienced this a couple of years myself – and it just got worse after that.

Anyways, I was able to get html archives of all LINK lab sites just in case something went wrong (again, it just seemed inevitable the way Google was going). So I have html back-ups of DALMOOC, Pivot to Online Learning MOOC, Open Ed MOOC, etc. Most of these are hard coded to work on my personal website – but I have been able to get DALMOOC converted over to true relative html. I can easily move that folder where ever I want – or send the files to whatever archive site the good folks still bearing the LINK torch set up for LINK Lab. I will work on the other courses as I get time as well.

The other weird thing that happened is that I actually got control of my MySpace account back! The form that I linked to in the last post… actually worked? I mean, it took over a month to hear anything, but I am back in. And it is a sad wasteland in there. Almost all real data is gone – and only a few pictures remain of the many I uploaded. But I now control my corner of the wasteland at least.

I also was able to somewhat re-create the custom profile I made back in the day. The html template I found on GitHub was cool, but also several years beyond the last version I had used. My resurrected custom code didn’t work. But I poked around in and found a save of Tom’s profile from the date that I saved my custom code. I put the two together, and BAM! I had my profile back in html! Well, it was Tom’s profile styled like mine. So I started replacing Tom’s information with mine as best as I could remember it (or using Latin sample text where I couldn’t). I also found a way to make an image of the profile music player that plays the sample of music that I had on there if you click it.

Now… before I share the link, please keep in mind that I realize this profile has some cultural appropriation. At the time, I was married to someone that traced their heritage back to India, so I was trying to mix her heritage and mine (Irish) on my MySpace page. But anyways – today I would replace the Hindi and sitar (yes I did actually learn to play a few songs on it, even though I have forgotten how) with something from my cultural background. But this is what it was back in the day.

Now, if only I could get the the Foursquare/Swarm people to be as…. umm… “responsive” as the MySpace team…

I also seem to have found some of the limitations of Ruffle – you can’t really import external files (images, other SWF files, etc), which I did a lot in tthe E-SPY X-500. So I just had to link to an external list of the lessons that I wanted to import into the game. I set it up that way because we wanted to be able to upgrade the lessons as needed without re-doing the entire game. For example, the Tobacco Lesson 11 lets the student build a simple Tobacco awareness website – it was pretty basic, but we had bigger plans to make it more robust. But at least it works as originally designed now. Oh, and you have to use the back button to get back to the list.

I also found that many ActionScript functions don’t work in Ruffle, like the code that makes text scroll within small boxes. Oh, well. Maybe there has been an update that I need to look into.

After doing some poking around on Digg and Delicious, it seems that my original Digg account is gone forever (unless someone knows of a way to log in with email?), but Delicious is still around. Kind of. I was able to log in and export my posts from there. It seems like it is just a data repository of your old stuff (can’t add new stuff), but that is a start. You can export to JSON and HTML formats – if you can remember your password (it seems like the password reset function is not implemented yet). The html format also doesn’t look that great, and it saved the tags and dates even though they aren’t displayed. So I decided to grab the html and CSS from their site to make my archive look a lot cleaner. I also decided to go for 60 resultsw per page rather than 20, because mine were all short “Ed Tech new updates” type things anyways.

Anyways, I find this type of stuff fascinating. Some of you might think I am trying too hard to get stuff that should be forgotten, and maybe you are right. Especially after seeing how my old MySpace profile looked. I still need to find a way to convert old Flash files to html5 (without buying an Adobe subscription). I also wonder if I can find a site that emulates old installs of LAMP so I can get a 14 year old export of WordPress working again (WP tells me its too old to import now – boo!). More things to look into!

The Quick(ish) Guide to Why Some People Don’t Like Course Hero

If you are part of certain circles in the education world (especially on Twitter), you probably saw the controversy yesterday about a well-known education critic being hired by the Ed-Tech company Course Hero. I really don’t want to wade into that controversy too much – I don’t know the people involved well enough to comment on their motives. I have never witnessed the whole “change a company from within” strategy ever work, but I know there is no shortage of people who will try. However, Course Hero has run under many people’s radars for a while, and I thought I would go into why some people don’t like the company’s product or business model.

So what exactly is Course Hero? Well, if you read the company hype, you will find things like “partnering with, connecting, learning from and teaching educators in support of them in empowering learners.” Which doesn’t really mean anything specific to be honest. The reality is that they are a resource sharing website, primarily driven by student labor. Students can find answers to test questions, past papers, course documents, and all kinds of materials related to courses they are taking (including entire chapters and courses). After free trials of various kinds, they also have to pay for this access. In turn, they are encouraged to upload documents for other students.

Now, I will say that I am typically sympathetic of students that use websites like this – even though I will still warn them not to.

So before I dive into that problematic system, I will point out to students that using Course Hero can be dangerous. Your institution probably has strongly-worded “Academic Honesty” statements that spell out harsh possibilities for being caught sharing your work with other students or uploading your instructor’s copyrighted content to any website without their permission (and institutions also often claim copyright on course content as well). Even if your intent is to share examples to help other students (something many instructors even encourage), your institution might not see it that way. Plus, I did a quick search through Course Hero yesterday and found a large number of papers that still had the students’ name on them. That means that a random school official could be surfing through their website, see your name, and get you in trouble for a course from a couple of years ago. Course Hero does not appear to be doing much to protect the students that it uses for free labor, so “user beware.”

However, like I said, it is important to understand why students use Course Hero. So many of our institutions still promote high stakes assessment (tests, essays, etc) as the main mode for “weeding out” students (side note: never refer to your students as “weeds”). Sometimes this even comes wrapped in poorly designed courses that don’t do enough to prepare students for these assessments. Students are then given the impression that cheating is the only way other students survive the gauntlet (and in many cases, this is probably true). Focusing on the students that use Course Hero misses the real problem of an institutional system that created the pressure to cheat in the first place.

But remember students – if you are caught using Course Hero, your institution will most likely not do any soul searching on the way they created the pressure to move you in that direction. They will just punish you and move on. Again – user beware.

I see nothing in Course Hero that pushes back against this problematic pedagogy. In fact, it only seems geared to empower that system. I really don’t see a way that Course Hero could co-exist with ungrading, or if students would even bother to use it if grades were low-stakes in any way.

What you have is a company that utilizes free labor (yes, just like other companies like Facebook) and a “freemium” model to get users to start paying. It also has an internal tokening system that creates rewards for uploading content (search Twitter for Course Hero, and most of what you get is users claiming to sell these tokens for cheap). Because most of the users at some point or another are desperate to survive a harsh academic system somewhere, many feel Course Hero is a predatory service relying on student fear. Yes, they do position themselves as a pro-student company, but honestly I don’t see how they are more pro-student than anyone else.

Also of note is the general legality of Course Hero – it’s pretty easy to find many, many examples of how they are in violation of NC licenses. But on top of that, since all material (in the U.S. at least) is automatically copyrighted once it is created – I don’t see how much on their website is technically legal at all (outside of the occasional rare public domain license). You don’t have to agree with copyright laws – I am just pointing out the statues here as they currently stand. In addition, most institutions have added copyright rules that require you to at least get the permission of the instructor, if not the entire institution, before uploading to any external website. Since it would take a massive legal fund to challenge any one of these points, Course Hero probably enjoys a relative “freedom” from legal prosecution. From many accounts I can find online, it is very difficult to get copyrighted material taken down with a simple take down notice. Course Hero does not have a great record of responding to critics of any kind (despite what some might say), including direct legal challenges.

Plus, many institutions will directly name Course Hero as a reason why they have to get proctoring surveillance solutions. Course Hero may not like it (or maybe they do – who knows?), but they are a major player in the course surveillance system. You will hear Course Hero directly named by institutions as one reason they need to increase surveillance. As many people have put it, dealing with a nuclear arms race by adding more nuclear missiles is a step in the wrong direction.

You may disagree with all of these assertions about Course Hero (I am sure the company does). I would refer you back to the title of the post – these are reasons why people don’t like Course Hero. There are many other reasons as well. I’m not here to weigh the praise alongside the criticism.

One of the oldest, cliche moves in the book for tech companies in general is to hire a critic into a high level position at their company. They hope to borrow that critic’s reputation to clean up their image. It never works that way, but still companies try all the time Is that what Course Hero is doing now? Only time will tell. Every single critic that has ever been duped by a tech company in the past all claimed before hand that they were too smart to get duped. Sometimes, they were even hired by someone that really meant it… until that person got forced out by larger forces in the company.

Ultimately, companies don’t really care that much about any of that drama. Drama creates attention, and attention is what they need. They know that when they hire a critic, they also get the loyalty of some of that critic’s friends and colleagues along the way. They know they are getting multiple defenses of their company from many other respected voices… for free. And with Course Hero, you are already seeing that. These defenses range from the normal “I won’t attack someone just for taking a job” (agreed) to the questionable justifications of the company actions to the downright passive aggressive denigrations. One person even made me think “well, Headmaster Killjoy is here to swat down the plebes that dare have a different opinion!” Then there are the attacks and fights. I sincerely hope the people that become that aggressive will realize that they only make people hate Course Hero more when they do that.

Anyways, my only real message here is to please understand why there is so much distrust of Course Hero out there. Most of the disagreement with the recent announcement has been serious and respectful, despite what the defenders of the announcement will claim. Not all disagreements have been cordial, obviously… but the announcement came with the direct statement that “this will upset people.” Why tear into people when they are responding exactly as noted?

Or the bigger question: if Course Hero is a good company that truly engages with it’s critics… they why does it need to be subverted from within? Some people are saying both, and it really doesn’t match if you think about it.

We Know Why You Hate Online Learning – and It Has Nothing to Do With Quality

In some ways, I get why some people are saying they hate online learning. Almost everyone was forced into it – even those that didn’t choose it originally. We live in a time where most people that enter school (or teach at school) are aware that there is an online option. There are a few cases where people want to take or teach online courses when there aren’t any options to do so for the most part. But for everyone else, if you wanted to learn or teach online, you probably were able to choose that. The millions that were forced to switch suddenly last year did so against their first preference, and I get how that frustrates many of them.

Let’s face it – we all know that what has been happening the past two years is often not fully implemented, funded, and institutionally-supported online learning. Most tried hard to make it work, but due to shortages in training, prep time, or funding/support, a lot of it fell short of the true potential of online learning.

Of course, this was also true about face to face learning before the pandemic – even dedicated teachers are held back because of systems that don’t give them enough time, or train them well enough, or give them the money and resources they need. We just act like this is the “Facts of Life” for on campus learning… you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have…. a gold standard….?

Nope. Any institutional leader or edu-celebrity that proclaims that on-campus learning is inherently superior to online learning is being disingenuous. They know that reality doesn’t support their claims. They just hate online learning… but not for quality reasons.

The real reason? It’s all about the power and control. Leaders can’t control their students, faculty, and staff remotely like they can on campus. And that control not only brings them a power trip – it also brings in big $$$ for schools when they can manipulate students into spending more money on campus.

And that’s it really: the real reason you have leaders (institutional, thought, and otherwise) claiming that online learning is inferior, and that on campus learning is the “gold standard,” is because they lose power (and the money that comes with that power).

Now – if a student or faculty or even University president proclaims that they hate online learning in and of itself – I get it. We all have personal preferences – I love online learning, but I get why it isn’t for everyone.

But there is a difference between saying one personally doesn’t like it, and saying online learning is inferior, failed, snake oil, etc.

The difference, of course, is research. There really is research showing that there is no significant difference between various outcomes of online learning and on campus learning. Probably one of the best sources to look at for research is the National Research Center for Distance Education and Technological Advancements (DETA) at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee’s “No Significant Different” database:

“This site is intended to function as an ever-growing repository of comparative media studies in education research. Both no significant differences (NSD) and significant differences (SD) studies are constantly being solicited for inclusion in the website. In addition to studies that document no significant difference (NSD), the website includes studies which do document significant differences (SD) in student outcomes based on the mode of education delivery.”

Current, the numbers in that database are categorized as:

  • 141 studies that show no significant difference
  • 51 studies that show “Significant Difference – Better Results with Technology” (online usually being said technology)
  • 2 studies that haven’t been indexed yet
  • 0 studies showing “Significant Difference – Better Results in the Classroom”
  • 0 entries showing mixed results

Maybe it is just my bias… but it seems that the results are starting to trend towards online maybe being… better?

Recently I was in a huge Twitter argument with a group of K-12 educational leaders from the UK that were demanding that I provide an article that proves that online learning could even work at all. They had already ignored two responses to these demands from a female colleague of mine – and still demanded that I provide a link of my own even though I had pointed them to those tweets and the DETA database already. So I just refused to give out any more links to people that weren’t going to look at them anyway – and got attacked in all kinds of horrible ways. But it seems like they were under the impression that I had website addresses to killer pro-online education studies memorized and I was just being a jerk in not spitting them out in a few seconds. Look – asking an online educator to provide one article proving that online learning is okay is like asking a Geologist to provide one study that proves that rocks exist within the Earth. A few might have something in mind, but most of us don’t spend a lot of time memorizing what we see as “proof of the obvious.” Others seemed to think that academics have all the time in the world to respond to tweet #54 demanding that one all-proving link. Look – no one owes you free labor. If you ask for something and they don’t give it, learn to respect people’s time enough to accept that maybe they are as busy as you. Especially if you were the one that came in swinging with the “online learning is a dying evil” rhetoric.

It’s all complicated. I will be the first person to tell you it comes down to personal preferences on whether you should do online learning or not, and for most people its not even an either/or. Different contexts call for different modalities for each person at any given moment. We just need to kill the dated and problematic “in-person learning is the gold standard” BS.

See also:

(Cover photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash)

The Never-Ending Reclaim Project Continues

Like many of you, I have been spending a considerable amount of time reclaiming my data and spaces online. A lot of that is focused on downloading and archiving my data (especially blog posts, reviews, comments, etc) from a myriad of websites I have used through the years. Well, decades now. I don’t know if this post will be of interest to anyone, but it will be a record (Jim Groom-style) for me – and hopefully someone will stumble across a couple of problems I have run into and have some suggestions for me.

So this all started several years (or more) ago when I ran into the idea of the IndieWeb and realized I didn’t have to lose data to dying websites like MySpace and Jaiku. I could take a proactive approach by collecting my information and storing it on my own (and the awesome folks at Reclaim Hosting make it super easy in many ways). So I started downloading data from various websites, and importing blog or informational posts from any website that I could. Then I realized two email addresses I used for a lot of websites through the years could possibly die someday, so I started going back to where ever I could find those email addresses and reclaimed access to those services. Which was mostly on a bunch of dead or dying websites, but it uncovered more posts and blogs to archive. Then several unexpected unfortunate events happened to me last year and this year. Finding out my job in academia was being eliminated caused me to comb through 15 years of signing up for all kinds of services and journals and all kinds of things to discover even more stuff to reclaim. Then an unexpected divorce also caused me to have to comb through even more stuff online, causing even more stuff to reclaim to come to light. So here are the basics of what I found out.

Downloading your data from websites is usually the most straight forward process, as long as the site offers a data download option or an export feature for your posts. One thing I have noticed is that the data that is downloaded does change from time to time – for instance, a good friend of mine suddenly died a few years ago and his family deleted all of his online accounts. So now there are posts on Facebook where he and I had long conversations that just look like I am arguing with myself. So instead of deleting previous data downloads with new, fresh downloads – I keep an archive of past exports. Did a past one capture those conversations that are now one-sided? I don’t know, but I should go look. I really hope so.

Then there were things like Jaiku that are long gone, but I never got a chance to download the data. Bummer. However, thanks to the work of the Internet Archive I did find a lot of my Jaiku posts in their archives. So I decided to copy the html and stitch together my own archive of some my jaikus – including a few comment that I could also find and some pages from the Jaiku site just for nostalgia. Clicking on any avatar on that page leads to me. Some of the other links work as well. But this little archive shows that even 12 years ago Jaiku was way more interesting than Twitter. I also archived as much as I could of the EduGeek Journal Jaiku channel as well. Interesting that this is where Twitter Hashtags directly got the # from (even though technically it came from older sources, it was Jaiku’s Channels that made Twitter users start using the # to mimic the function).

One site that is sadly long gone is MySpace. I can’t even sign in or reset my password anymore (probably hacked a long time ago). But the important data is gone – it seems MySpace lost or deleted most of it. I should have captured the html and custom CSS I worked for hours on way back in the day. But even the mighty Internet Archive didn’t capture any of that. However, after digging around some, I found this form to submit a support ticket, and then a GitHub project that has Tom’s MySpace profile html. And then searching through my files at home, of course I kept a copy of the CSS I created to customize my profile. So I might have to just make up a bunch of stuff about myself to replace the stuff about Tom, but I could actually have an archive of all of the time I wasted…. errr… “invested” in learning how to hack a custom MySpace profile.

Of course, the biggest project has been capturing my blogs. I thought I only had a handful of Blogger sites to import to WordPress, but then I kept digging up more. WordPress sites for several grad classes.  Old conference blogs. Old work blogs. Some attempts to use Known. Even a short attempt at Tumblr. So many short blogs. So I imported all that I could into one WordPress blog archive on my own site. All of that is easy. Some of the blogs that I liked I even created html archives of the layout. The one that I am having trouble with is Instagram. I would love to import all of my Instagram posts to WordPress blog with a template like the one I set up for my artwork gallery. I found some suggestions online for how to do that, but they only import the last 20 entries. I can import the rest one by one using copy and paste if I want to, but hopefully someone will come up with a way to automate it. Any ideas?

Of course, some of these blogs were older WordPress installations on my website, while others were attached to classes like the HumanMOOC that only make sense as a complete package. But its a pain to keep over a dozen WordPress installations updated and working. So I decided it was time to archive some sites as they are as html exports and shut down the WordPress version. The problem is, I really wanted a stand alone html export that could be moved to any folder or website and still work. The most recommended WordPress html export tool that I found when I started a few years ago (WP Static) doesn’t really work well for the relative links needed to do that. I could export to a defined folder on my site and it would hard code those specific links into every page, but then I can’t move it around (the Jaiku archive I created above can work any where I put it, or even offline if needed).  WP Static does have a relative link function, but it keep messing up the number of “../”‘s you need to make links work. Half the time, it just gets lost and serves up a blank page. Even a quick search and replace on a page doesn’t fix it.

So I looked around at other options, none worked any different. Even desktop based site suckers well… they suck too much. What I mean is, if there is a link to another website on your site, it will try to suck that entire site as well! Finally, I found Simply Static. It has a relative link function as well, and it doesn’t work right out of the download either. But it only messes up in one way, and a quick find and replace on a page makes your archived page spring to life. The only problem is that because of the layers upon layers of sub directories that WordPress uses, you have to do a find and replace per page to get the correct number of “../”‘s right. So it’s a quick process on simple sites… but a longer process on more complex sites. But it works in the end. I have a standalone html archive of the HumanMOOC that I helped to co-design and co-teach that will work where ever I put it. A bonus feature is that I got to finally fix some of the things that I didn’t have time to get right in the WordPress version. The activity bank images never worked right, but now I can have an image per activity. The blog hub now has individual avatars per person so you can see who posted what. The DALMOOC, OpenEdMOOC, and Pivot MOOC should be coming soon. ish.

Then there were other random things I needed to archive. All of my Storify archives, which neatly exported to html, but are slowly dying out as people close accounts, or Twitter changes how they display pictures, or a hundred other reasons. Is it worth going through each one and grabbing what is left? Several chatbots I created are still kicking around, but also falling apart as I need to apparently update the code to not point to the dead LINK Lab website. Add that one to my massive to-do list. Even an old OLC presentation that I did “choose your own presentation topic” style with the audience.

Oh, and going way back there are a good number of html websites I designed 1999-2005 that I am still keeping around for memory sake. Most are too embarrassing to link to, but the one I like the most is the one that I mention in several bios – the website I created to help students when I was an 8th grade Science teacher: Mr. Crosslin’s Class Online. Also my first serious attempt at putting course work online.

Speaking of old sites, I have so many sites that I built in Flash that I have been trying to figure out what to do with for years. I can still open Flash on an ancient computer I have, so I have exported all of my Flash files to image and/or movie files. But some are still a bit complex for that, and even the less complex ones are no fun to watch as a movie. Is there a way to convert FLA files to HTML5? I have looked a little and didn’t like what I found. If anyone knows of a way, even if I have to pay, please let me know.

So I thought for a while that my archives of several websites I created with Flash would be limited to still images of what happened. But then I came across Ruffle. You drop a couple of files on your site, and a few lines of code on your page, and – BAM! – your Flash files start magically working. So now I can get the old U Monthly Magazine archives back online (a lot is still missing, but I will dig it out eventually). My favorite Flash website I (mostly) created is the E-SPY X-500 – a goofy attempt at an educational game that I created for a company that I worked for after teaching.  Go ahead and kick around in there – not every thing works (yet, but on the list), but see if you can find the hidden Easter eggs. You can log in with any username or password over three characters. It has been totally disconnected from the MySQL database, so no data is collected. I should point out that the cartoon characters you will see once inside were not drawn by me, but our staff artist at the time Samuel Torres.

Of course, I have also be going through and making sure that my main portfolio is up to date, because it really serves as an archive of papers, presentations, videos, artwork, and other projects as well. I have also been working on things like a games archive. All kinds of random attempts to create games are in there, including some of the ones I mentioned above (I still need to create a Twine environment for the This Picture app game idea). Oh, and somewhere in the middle of all of this, I am also trying to work with my Mom to create a tribute site to my Grandfather’s artwork, since he sold paintings and worked as a staff artist for a newspaper in a major city.

Changing over email address is quite the chore. I had to look for old accounts with two old email addresses in them, and then I had to go through 15 years of work emails to see which accounts I would want to keep after leaving (mostly access to journals I published in, review accounts, professional website accounts, and others like that). Most places were pretty straight forward. Some places were not. It took a lot of work to get control of my Flickr account. I still can’t get control of my MySpace account – does their support team still even exist? A lot of these accounts I will probably shut down. But I was surprised at how haphazard I was in using whatever email address to sign up for whatever account. At least its all back with me again. And, of course, trying to separate 20 years of joint accounts from my former marriage was a huge undertaking. Some places make it nearly impossible to do that. But then I had to go back through all of these accounts I got back or websites I created and update bio listings about family where needed.

So, even though there isn’t a light at the end of tunnel, I know that a sighting of that light should come soon. Despite all that is left, I still feel that I have cut back my online presence to a streamlined, manageable amount. Someday I will be shutting down some massive websites like this one, so I hope to find even better ways to convert WordPress to html as well. Which I guess I will… give to my son some day? Donate to a museum? Will be people even care about archives like this in a few decades? I guess I will figure that out someday…