Technology is no panacea

Issue 1/2020

Technological progress is essential for improving living standards. It plays a major role - albeit one that is difficult to accurately measure - in improving productivity, and therefore income, for people everywhere. There will always be short-term 'losers' (e.g. horse and buggy operators when motor vehicles were introduced), although even they - and to a greater extent, their children - will benefit from the increased productivity.

But sometimes new technologies are enthusiastically embraced without much concern for whether or not there are actually productivity gains to be had. Take classroom education technology:

Schools across the country have jumped on the education technology bandwagon in recent years, with the encouragement of technophile philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. As older education reform strategies like school choice and attempts to improve teacher quality have failed to bear fruit, educators have pinned their hopes on the idea that instructional software and online tutorials and games can help narrow the massive test-score gap between students at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic scale.
...
But much of the data shows a negative impact [of education technology] at a range of grade levels. A study of millions of high school students in the 36 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that those who used computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.” According to other studies, college students in the US who used laptops or digital devices in their classes did worse on exams. Eighth graders who took Algebra I online did much worse than those who took the course in person. And fourth graders who used tablets in all or almost all their classes had, on average, reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them—a differential equivalent to an entire grade level. In some states, the gap was significantly larger.

The [longish] article lists several reasons for why classroom education technology might be producing those negative outcomes, including distraction, the lack of motivation when learning from a computer versus a person, and the inability of computers to demonstrate the "social usefulness" of knowledge.

I tend to agree. It would appear that educators (or rather, the administrators which spend educational budgets) have been seduced by the allure of technology as a solution to all of their woes, investing heavily in devices and programmes that will do little to help students who, for whatever reason (there are many), are already struggling. The approach reminds me a lot of the blind embrace of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the potential of which has been (and continues to be) massively overrated. The article continues:

Judging from the evidence, the most vulnerable students can be harmed the most by a heavy dose of technology—or, at best, not helped. The OECD study found that "technology is of little help in bridging the skills divide between advantaged and disadvantaged students." In the United States, the test score gap between students who use technology frequently and those who don’t is largest among students from low-income families.

Technology is no panacea. Politicians and educational administrators would do well to take a step back, slow down and actually think through the role technology can play in the classroom before bulk buying the latest device or educational app that promises to solve everything. Implemented properly, technology should produce educational gains for all, not just for students who are already doing relatively well. Simply spending more money on classroom education technology without first addressing the more fundamental, actual reasons why some schools and students are falling behind will only worsen the educational divide.

Enjoy the rest of this week's issue. Cheers,

— Justin


Other bits of interest


Another artificial intelligence misapplication

People, especially those in the tech industry, need to slow down and think a bit more. In this case, AI has been used to answer the wrong question. Essentially, Google's AI breast cancer screening system is flawed [it's a tweet storm so the grammar is poor and it's riddled with typos]:

...if you unleash AI on a problem and prove you are better at finding biopsy proven cancer you have no idea if you are changing the ratio of
harmless to curable to spread-already.

And without knowing that you don't know you are helping.

When you change the rules around how the study is interpreted, you cannot be sure that the net result is better EVER if you find more cancer and EVEN if you find less non-cancer. Because you don't know: harmless from curable from spread-already ratios in what you find.

Don't get me wrong, AI can and will be used for good and I don't doubt the motivations of those at Google who ran the experiment. But people need to think things through a bit more (something AI cannot do) and only use it in areas to which it is suited.

Learn more:


Regulation is also imperfect

Never forget about enforcement. Europe's 2018 "General Data Protection Regulation" (GDPR) was the holy grail of tech regulation, endlessly praised by techies as a model for the rest of the world to emulate. I was skeptical, writing in Issue 1/2019 that:

...while regulations such as GDPR might sound all warm and fuzzy, in practice they have few privacy-boosting effects. Indeed, the only thing the average user will have noticed as a result of the GDPR is the return of the annoying pop-up in the form a “we use cookies” consent box. Worse, it has already worked to further centralise power in the hands of Google and Facebook.

It's now 2020 and that still holds:

Aside from a €50 million fine that France's privacy regulator imposed on Google in January, there have been no fines or remedies levied at a U.S. giant since the GDPR came into effect. And the two nations most directly responsible for policing the tech sector — Ireland and Luxembourg, where the largest tech firms have their European headquarters — have yet to wrap up a single investigation of any magnitude concerning a U.S. firm.

Big firms like regulation, particularly complicated regulation. They just hire lawyers and lobby politicians, delaying a resolution and in the process starve smaller competitors, both actual and potential. Note that the 1 January 2020 California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which has a more clearly defined scope than the GDPR, has already seen Microsoft and Mozilla agree to implement it across the United States and the world, respectively.

Learn more:


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Issue 1/2020: Technology is no panacea was compiled by Dr Justin Pyvis and delivered on 06 January, 2020. Feel free to send feedback, suggestions for future issues, ideas, insults, or pretty much anything that crosses your mind to his Keybase or Twitter account.