Faking It

When the web was new, we were very worried about the reliability of online content. We were moving from an environment where the means of publication were controlled. There were gatekeepers who controlled what content got published. They ensured that the information the public consumed was accurate and reliable. At least, that was the idea.

With the web, that changed because everyone suddenly had the ability to publish content. Anyone could make a web page. So we had to figure out how assess the credibility of a web site. I remember, when working on my Master’s degree in the late 90s, that information literacy was just starting to become a thing.  We were worried that our students might believe everything they read online.  So we tried to teach them the look critically at information resources. That work continues now, nearly a generation later.

But things have become more difficult. With the advent of Photoshop and other image editing software, it’s pretty easy to edit pictures to enhance or omit details. Sometimes, this is done for reasons of vanity, but it’s often done for political reasons as well. So now, in addition to assessing the reliability of web sites and news stories, we have to question the legitimacy of photographs, too. It’s okay. We’re getting better at it. We’re becoming more skeptical. Hopefully, we’re asking questions and citing sources and applying deductive reasoning and the scientific method to separate fact from fiction. I mean, it’s not like we’re just throwing up our hands and saying everything we don’t like is fake, right?

But here we go, making things harder again. Last year, Adobe showed a demo of its new VoCo product. With a 20 minute sample of a speaker’s voice, you can quickly and easily edit the audio and make the speaker say anything you want.

This isn’t out yet, but it’s coming in a future version of Adobe Creative Cloud, a widely used graphic arts package that includes Photoshop, InDesign, and other “standard” tools used by professionals and amateurs alike to edit digital work.

So now, you can take an audio recording and edit it as easily as a word processing document to make the speaker say anything you want. That’s really cool, but also terrifying. But wait, there’s more. Check out this research project at Stanford:

See what they’re doing there? Using nothing more complicated than a webcam, they’re mapping facial features onto an existing video. If you pair these two technologies together, you can create a video that makes any public figure say anything you want.

Sure, it’s not perfect. This is still complicated software. It’s cumbersome to use, especially when you’re trying to put all the pieces together. And the results aren’t great. You can tell from this video that the technology is not quite at the point where it’s going to fool most people.

But our job just got harder. On one level, it not too bad that we have to teach our students to think critically about video and audio. We really should have seen that coming. And we’re teaching students to think critically about information, regardless of the form. They just need to be aware that video and audio, like pictures and text, can be manipulated. Information has meta information. HOW do you know? What is the source for the position you’re taking? Why do you trust that source? We need to challenge our students and each other to make the information about the information just as important as the content itself.

But the real problem is the plausible deniability. We can no longer prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone said something or did something. You have video of me holding up a convenience store? Prove that it’s me and that it hasn’t been altered. You claim you have an audio recording of a public figure making misogynist / racist / anti-semitic / anti-American comments? Prove that it hasn’t been doctored. Because it’s easy to fabricate these things now, we can use the technology as a scapegoat to disavow responsibility for our words and actions.

Information literacy includes the skills of selecting and curating information, assessing reliability and credibility, and then using that information in responsible ways. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to do that anymore. And you can’t prove that I’m wrong.

 

Acknowledgment: Almost all of this came from the RadioLab Story “Breaking News.” Those guys do fantastic work. You should go listen.

Also, I have no idea where the Lincoln photo originally came from. It’s literally all over the place. No, I don’t have permission to use it.

Advertisements

Twitter Worth Watching

I faded away from Twitter a couple years ago. Looking back, I seem to tweet when I’m at conferences, when I’m on vacation, and when I publish a new blog post. That’s mostly it. I read Twitter even less often. It’s not that I don’t like the people, or that there aren’t worthwhile conversations going on. It’s just that the fire hose can be overwhelming, and it’s increasingly difficult to find content that’s relevant to me..

Twitter TVI used to compare Twitter to cable TV. If you have cable, then you can turn on the TV and have lots of options for what to watch. But sometimes, you turn the TV off and do something else. You don’t feel guilty about not watching ALL of the shows. And you certainly don’t try to watch all of the channels at the same time. Twitter is there. It’s an endless stream of content. So when you want to watch something, you turn on the TV.

Last month, we spent a week in a house with cable TV. It’s been a long time since we cut the cord, and there was some excitement around all of the TV options we suddenly had. That excitement faded quickly, though. After scrolling through the directory a few times, it was clear we weren’t missing much. We could watch cooking shows or celebrity gossip shows or reality TV. There were sports shows and talk shows and sports talk shows. We had plenty of opportunities to buy premium content, or to buy products from several channels selling things we don’t want or need. There were lots of channels showing reruns of shows that were horrible the first time around. Eventually, we ended up watching Jurassic Park III. Three times. And that’s not even one of the good Jurassic Park movies.

Maybe the same is true with Twitter. There’s plenty of political commentary, but nothing that’s actually going to convince people to change their opinions. There are lots of tweets extolling the virtues of teachers, and just as many from teachers who are compelled to remind us that they’re not working this month. There are the usual trite observations on testing and Common Core and how the government is ruining the schools. And there are links. Links to the latest tool, or the latest meme. Links to photos and videos. People sitting around tables at conferences. Bare feet in front of the beach or the pool. Kids doing crazy or adorable things. And that’s all fine. It’s entertaining, I guess. It’s certainly better than cable TV.

But to say this is the most valuable professional development experience I’ve ever had is going a bit far. Sure, we can connect to other people all over the world who share our goals, frustrations, challenges, and successes. We can work collaboratively to improve learning for thousands of kids. But given the choice, most of us would rather watch the video of the baby elephant taking a bath. I’m including myself here. I stopped writing this so I could go watch that video again.

Maybe curation is the key. I need to be able to filter the conversations so I only see the stuff that’s relevant for me. That’s hard to do, and I think it’s a big reason why I don’t engage more. I’ve moved past the “hey isn’t this cool; look at me talking to people all over the world” phase. I’m pretty much done with “we need to stop preparing our students for the industrial age” conversation, because learning in our schools really has changed in the last few years. I also don’t have much patience for the “common core / testing / NCLB / accountability is the worst thing to happen to public education in a generation” argument, which is entirely counterproductive and mostly false. And I’m so done with the whiny “look at how hard I work as a teacher / why don’t you treat me like a professional / is it summer yet?” conversations.

So these days, I’m back to using aggregators. My Twitter account feeds Flipboard and Paper.li. When I want to check in, I go there. It’s a mix of content from many sources. It gives me the best of the content that’s being shared among the people I follow. I still do occasionally follow new people and unfollow old ones. And once in a while, if I think I have something worth sharing, I’ll post.  But I’m not really engaging in Twitter directly very often, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing much.

Photo credit: Esther Vargas on Flickr.

 

Cheating

There was a social studies test coming up in seventh grade.

Jimmy is a conscientious student. He works hard, tries to please his parents and his teachers, and is helpful to others. Jimmy is a 21st century kid. He uses his Chromebook in most of his classes. He’s a self-directed learner. He has experience working collaboratively with his peers. He uses his information literacy skills to get factual information from multiple sources. He has learned to articulate and demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

But Jimmy also knows that his social studies teacher pretty much follows the textbook. They’re studying chapter 14, so he looks online for tools to help him study for the chapter 14 test in his social studies book. He finds lots of resources, shared online by lots of teachers for their students. There are Quizlet flash cards, Kahoot quizzes, online study guides, and many other resources to help him prepare for the test.

Jimmy starts collecting these resources into a Google doc that he shares with some of his fellow students as a study guide. They work together to prepare for the test. It is unclear whether Jimmy realized that he had the actual test questions in his study guide, because his teacher’s test and the online study guides are both based on the tests that come with the textbook. Since they’re now 14 chapters into the school year, there’s a pretty good chance that he knew exactly which questions would be on the test.


David and Sarah are high school students taking an AP science class. With a couple weeks to go until the AP test, their teacher gives them a take-home practice test to help them prepare. The practice test comes with a scantron sheet where they bubble in their answers to the multiple choice questions.

Sarah knows that David is one of the smartest students in the class. She texts him and asks him to send her his answers to the practice test, presumably so she could compare them with her own answers. He takes a picture of his scantron sheet and sends it to her. He also sends it to a third student, Michael.

What Sarah didn’t know was that she and David had different tests. So when she blindly changed her answers to match his, she ended up with a score of 22%. Michael, on the other hand, didn’t change his answers and ended up doing better on the practice test than David did. All three students received failing grades and disciplinary action, including possible removal from National Honor Society.


An anonymous student sent a high school government teacher some photos of the final exam that is coming up in a few weeks. The photos of the test were clearly taken in the teacher’s classroom. The student was identified from other evidence in the photos and confessed to copying and sharing the test. But it is unclear how many students now have access to the test, or how many other tests are circulating among students who aren’t emailing them back to their teachers.


All of these are (mostly) real, and they’ve all happened within the last month. I changed some names and minor details. We are clearly seeing some growing pains as we come to terms with next generation learning and its relationship to traditional assessments.

Education used to be about knowledge and skills. We went to school to learn content and processes. And those things are still important. Our students need to know how Ohio’s state government compares with the federal government. It’s helpful for them to have some context of West African culture. There’s still a place in our society for legible handwriting and spelling and even multiplication facts, if we don’t go overboard with it.

But the reality is that our students are carrying around devices with them that have all of the answers, and those devices are not going away. So if our assessment of learning is limited to recall, we are really only testing their ability to Google and memorize.

So maybe it’s time to assess differently. We can use these recall types of tests as formative assessments. They give the teacher an idea of where the student is academically. They’re a progress report. They might provide information about how instruction needs to be adjusted to meet the student’s needs. But they’re not the final product of learning.

What is it that the student can DO with the knowledge and skills? Can they solve a unique problem? Can they combine information from different contexts in innovative ways? Can they recognize patterns and provide analysis and draw conclusions? What can they produce that demonstrates their learning?

Do we even have to have exams? One of the biggest criticisms of the current trends in education is that we over-test our students. This spring, we have 52 state-mandated test sessions, which average 90 minutes each. On average, every student will spend six hours testing (and there are several grade levels that don’t have any testing). That’s not counting testing for special education, gifted, English language learners, college entrance exams, or AP tests. It also doesn’t include the diagnostic tests that are used to help students prepare for the state tests. When we add to that the idea that our students should take summative final exams, and that we have large unit tests in many classes every few weeks, we have strengthened the argument that the most important thing we teach students is how to take a test.

These middle schoolers are different. The current sixth and seventh graders are not playing the school game the same way that the sophomores and juniors do. It’s going to be interesting to see whether the school adapts to the students or the students conform to the more traditional approaches of the older grades. In the meantime, we’re going to see a lot more friction as next generation learning comes into conflict with traditional teaching practices.

Photo credit: Hariadhi on Wikimedia Commons.