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Study Opportunities' Blog

Welcome to 2020!

With the new year comes a new change to the format and contents of the blog. We'll try to add resources and tools each week as well as a news summary. This week we take a look at something that can increase the amount of fun, competition, participation and learning experienced by your learners. We're talking about online testing / quizzing.

"...tests strengthen memory even more than do extra opportunities to study the material."
- from The effects of tests on learning and forgetting : SHANA K. CARPENTER, HAROLD PASHLER, JOHN T. WIXTED, AND EDWARD VUL.
University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, California.
2008

There are many testing and quizzing tools out there. Some are free and others are subscription based. Some allow for a whole range of question types whilst others are basically multiple-choice on steroids.

This week we are going to take a look at one that allows for a competitive class quiz scenario with a live scoreboard that you can project so that your learners can see who is winning. The tool is:

Quizizz.

  • Quizizz is free.
  • It also has a great, gamified feel to it which makes the quizzes feel less intimidating - and I have found that the competitive class quiz creates a buzz in the classroom and energises the learners.
  • The question types are multiple choice, true/false or select the correct answers (multiple select). This is a limited range of question types so, as much fun as it is, don't use Quizizz as your only form of assessment!
  • As a teacher you get feedback on the class average, which questions quiz takers struggle with, marks for the quiz (which can go straight into your mark book) and more.
  • Learners can take the quiz in the classroom - or at their own time at home or on any of their mobile devices (there are native apps for Android and iOS as well as a web interface).

Here are some videos that you can look at to find out more.

If you like the tool, create some quizzes and want to share them you can add them for people to find using the comments below.


News links:

Social Implications

Hardware

SQL

User interface

AI

Software

Hacking

  • Some great examples of how social engineering can be used to hack someone - the topic of social engineering is often difficult to describe or give example of. Use this to give some practical examples - and warn your learners not to do this themselves!

Finally: All about AWS

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Ownership and the digital age

DRM. Digital Rights Management. The mortal enemy of the honest, paying consumer.

Bill Gates: “DRM .... causes too much pain for legitmate buyers”

I have long been a fan of digital media. The idea of being able to access any one of the thousands of songs in my large music library made me an early adopter of the mp3 format - even if it meant ripping hundreds of CDs and naming thousands of tracks. When ebooks made their first appearance I invested heavily. When movies and TV shows became available digitally I quickly transitioned from my large DVD library to the more convenient digital file format. It still bows my mind that wherever I go I can have my entire music library and book library and audiobook library with me - along with any films or TV episodes that I am currently watching (or want to watch in the near future).

What I am saying is that I have embraced digital media since the 1990’s and have seen various digital media platforms come and go. I have always tried to purchase my digital media from legitimate sources. I have often suffered for doing this instead of simply pirating the content.

Because of, you guessed it, DRM.

DRM is a serious topic this week because Microsoft has just closed its online bookstore. And it will be removing access to all the books that customers have bought over the years.

Microsoft announces it will shut down ebook program and confiscate its customers' libraries

At least this time they are giving their customers refunds. A long time ago Microsoft was at the forefront of the whole move to ebooks with a PC based app called ‘Microsoft Reader’. It had a book store and its own, proprietary DRM file format with the .lit extension. I bought many books there. Eventually Microsoft shut down the store and cancelled the app. I was left with a library of books that I had bought and could (and still can) no longer officially read (there are ways around this - thanks Calibre!).

This moves us on to the real topic - in this age of digital media, what do you really own?

Here are some perspectives worth reading...

Black Hole Photo

You have probably seen the image of a black hole captured this week - the first one ever! How about talking about IT’s role in capturing the image?

  • First it was only possible to create the image by linking radio telescopes across the globe in a network to create one massive telescope with a ‘lens / dish’ that is The size of the earth. The telescopes were synchronized using atomic clocks. The telescopes captured the data in April 2017. Yet we are only seeing the image now - because of the time taken to process the data, wreck it and write papers about it.
  • Next is the matter of data - there were over 5 petabytes of it. It took 3 days to capture the radio data - with each telescope capturing around 350 terabytes of data per day. There is no way that this data could be transferred using a network - so it was stored on physical hard drives and flown to a central point for processing. Physically speaking, tons of hard drives were used!!!
  • Finally there is the processing. This is a good case for showing what supercomputers can do (and are used for). As powerful as these machines are, it took two of them to process the data - and that process (including refining the software) took a year to complete!
  • XKCD puts the size of the black hole in perspective


Links for the week:

That’s it for this week

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Brain Hacking - are we all Zucked?

“Social media is the toilet of the internet.” - Lady Gaga.

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Q. How often do we touch our phones?

A. Oh, only about 2,617 times a day.

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Q. How often do we touch anything that’s *not* made by Google or Facebook?

A. Nearly half of touches were guided by apps made by Alphabet and Zuckerberg. The other half were split among the other 700+ apps.

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Social Media is a new phenomenon. It is unprecedented in its reach and adoption speed. Its influence is hard to measure and judge accurately. No living human has ever seen anything like it before. We are living through its birth and evolution - and trying to make sense of it - at the same time that we are expected to teach and guide our learners about its functions, uses and (as the syllabus is fond of saying) its advantages and disadvantages.

Whilst much of the fuss and furore about social media centers on the concept of privacy and how the social media companies exploit and mine our data for their own financial benefit, too little attention is paid to the even larger and more insiduous problem of manipulative and addictive design. Think about this:

We live and work in an attention economy. In many ways, information is less important than user attention (also known as 'engagement').

  • The holy grail for a Social Media company is user engagement.
  • User Engament boils down to one simple metric - how long you spend on the site / using the app.
  • Every extra second / minute / hour you spend ‘engaged’ translates directly into money for the company.
  • Social Media companies will do anything to keep you on the site longer - and coming back for more as often as possible.

Hundreds and thousands of hours of time, research and effort is therefore dedicated to figuring out how to make the 'service' something that you cannot live without - something you crave with all the intensity and harrowing, overwhelming need of the most enslaved drug addict.

Not because you really need it.

Not because it adds that much value and utility to your life.

Not because it makes you feel better.

Simply because it (the 'service') is purposefully designed to exploit every aspect of psychology, behavioural science, neuroscience and design finesse to hook you - so that a (very substantial) profit can be made from your addiction.

Whilst writing this article I checked on LinkedIn (i.e on just one source) - there were 635 psychology related jobs advertised for Facebook for the US alone.

There's a name for it. Persuasive Design. Books have been written about Persuasive Design. Courses created and presented at universities and online. Conferences arranged to help people and companies learn how to create and use it. Privacy is discarded and data gathered (with and without user consent) to be better able to implement it.

The biggest flaw of persuasive design is that we tend to focus on helping ourselves (the programmers / companies) rather than helping the users.

The motivation behind persuasive design is ostensibly to improve the user experience, to create a product that they enjoy using and want to use repeatedly.

The problem is: economics. Creating, maintaining and hosting an online service is not cheap. And people want to make a profit. As big a profit as they can. The problem is, users want to pay as little as they can. Subscriptions are not popular. The only solution anyone has come up with is advertising. Magazines and Newspapers have done it for the longest time. They exist (economically speaking) not as a source of news or entertainment but rather as a way to collect eyeballs and attention so that their creators can make a profit by selling advertising. Their disadvantage is that they are not interactive - they cannot provide the immediate Pavlovian feedback that keeps users coming back for more. They are unable to leverage the

"...subtle psychological tricks that can be used to make people develop habits, such as varying the rewards people receive to create “a craving”, or exploiting negative emotions that can act as “triggers”. “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,”

Advertisers want to know that their messages are being seen. For that to happen Social Media sites need users to actively spend time on the site - time that they can measure and show as proof that adverts are being seen. Repeat Visitors and Time on Site are important metrics. They reflect an increased chance that the user is likely to see your advert multiple times which, in turn, increases the chance that they will respond to it or at least develop a familiarity with your brand or product - making it more likely they will seek it out when they need such a product in the future.

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions,” Eyal writes. “It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later.” None of this is an accident, he writes. It is all “just as their designers intended”.

We are all Experimental Subjects

It's not just all design and psychology theory though.

There are many millions of experiments being run on the internet every day to work out the best way to capture and keep user attention - and how to prod / tempt / guide / lure users into online actions that may not be in their own best interests.

How many of you / your learners know what ‘A’ - ‘B’ testing is?

How many know that every pixel of the Facebook interface is monitored and tested to see just how to maximise user engagement?

For example: If this 'Like' button is a little bigger and a slightly different shade of blue are users more or less likely to click on it? What about if the icon is bigger? Or if the icon is different? Or if we put the button above or below the article?

The best way to find out is to create multiple different versions of a web page, show it to different people and measure their responses. Then use statistical analysis to figure out which page is better at getting the user to do what you want them to do. This is what A - B testing is.

And it happens all the time. Without our knowledge or consent. We are all part of one continuous experiment on how to make users do things to maximise engagement and profits.

There are many web services to help you do A - B Testing. Google even offers one for free. It's called Google Optimise and they walk you through the steps of how to create and use an A - B test. You can do it yourself. It's easy!

We are all slaves to the Algorithm

The final trick in the arsenal is that Social Media controls what we see. On the one hand User Engagement can be maximised by reducing 'friction'. It's simple - don't display content that disagrees from the users' (measured and tracked) world view, interests, likes, political viewpoint, etc. If the user is liberal, decrease or remove the number or conservative articles, posts, etc. from their feed. If they are conservative, then remove the liberal content.

Data is gathered and collected and then algorithms process that data to narrow down the content presented to us. This in an effort to make the social media site a place we feel comfortable and relaxed and at home in, because our core identities are not being challenged by views that are different from our own.

Being comfortable and secure in our own identities helps to keep us online and 'engaging' for longer. Eli Pariser first popularised this concept in his book The Filter Bubble.

But algorithms don't just keep us in a safe protected filter bubble. Being in a safe, comfortable, familiar environment is not enough. The algorithms go further, seeking out ways to provoke us into response, into clicking and posting and forwarding and coming back later to carry on the 'engagement'.

For this the algorithms like to target our 'Lizard brain' - the most basic and primitive urges we all feel. Sure, a cute and happy post can make us feel good. But does it promote engagement? Not as much as something far more provocative.

"... anger is addictive—it feels good and overrides moral and rational responses because it originates from our primordial, original limbic system—the lizard brain"

"... anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, careless thinkers, and eager to take action. It colors our perception of what’s happening and skews ideas about what right action might be"

It contradicts common sense, but User Engagement is maximised most effectively by content that plays on our fears and provokes outrage, misery, jealousy or despair. This content does not objectively examine or discuss opposing views but rather presents them as a threat or disparages them as ridiculous. Your identity is affirmed by creating an 'us vs them' scenario that provokes and outrages you without making the site feel like a less safe place. Rather the site is you bastion, your place of security from which you can hurl abuse at your foes and be cheered on by likeminded people without ever having to listen to the voice of reason.

Complex issues are simplified to fit in a tweet or headline and the messages make us feel good, even while they make us mad. The simplification creates an illusion that problems are easier to solve than they are, indeed that all problems would be solved if only they (whoever they are) thought like us.

Algorithms maximise the spread of this type of content over longer, more rational arguments aimed at discovering the truth and promoting co-operation, conciliation and arriving at a shared truth. Instead they push us into enclaves, divide us into tribes that cling ever more tightly to what separates rather than what unites. The algorithms discard honest debate and rational discourse in favour of emotional outbursts and denialism.

"a cursory glance at the tenor of cultural discussion online and in the media reveals an outsized level of anger, hyperbole, incivility, and tribalism"

Why? - well, simply because short, outrage inducing pieces generate more 'engagement' than long, rational arguments do.

What is good for the individual, society and humanity at large is substituted for what will generate the most profits.

The algorithms are not trying to make the world a better place, not trying to benefit mankind. They are simply trying to maximise engagement and so maximise profit.

Maybe it is time to stop worrying about the symptoms of the Social Media malaise that affects us all (the collection, sale and exploitation of our private data). Perhaps we should rather worry about a culture that will unthinkingly maximise 'engagement' (and profits) without considering the broader impact these techniques have on us as individuals and on society as a whole.

“Facebook and Google assert with merit that they are giving users what they want,” McNamee says. “The same can be said about tobacco companies and drug dealers.”

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Some resources you can use on this topic:

  • Think Big video on brain hacking

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Gaming at school

Facebook never seems to stop putting its foot in its mouth. They're in the news again this week because of, amongst other things, spreading fake news videos about the victims of the recent mass school shooting in the USA. China also features with a concept sure to appeal to at least some of your learners - namely gaming schools! Then there's a whole batch of other interesting tidbits - specifically an in depth article on how it is becoming more difficult to learn to program.

E-Sports - a career option?

E-Sports are a thing. There are competitions with significant prizes and even TV stations dedicated to covering people playing games such as StarCraft against each other. The Citizen has an interesting article on China's approach to the concept of learners playing games in school. Well worth a read...

260 million people are already playing eSport games or watching competitions...

the eSport industry will be worth $906 million in global revenues in 2018

China an example of future surveillance state?

Not really an article you can use in the classroom, but an interesting view of ways that the state can use technology to surveil its citizens. Engadget has the details.

Always Connected Windows - limits exposed

Remember a few posts back I mentioned the prospect of an 'Always Connected' Windows machine using ARM processors - and feared that it would have the same kind of limitations as the failed Windows RT project. Well, DigitalTrends has an article detailing these limitations that was briefly listed (and then pulled) by Microsoft. Spoiler: if you were expecting the full Windows experience then prepare to be disappointed.

YouTube, Facebook and Fake News

Recently 17 young people were killed in a school shooting in Florida. Or were they? Right wing gun freaks claim its all a hoax - and YouTube and Facebook spread their message... Business Insider has the details. Om Malik Explains why Facebook will never change this kind of behaviour.

Good Reads:

  • DigitalTrends has the history of 3D printing.
  • 2018 Budget means smartphones will become more expensive in SA - MyBroadband has the details.
  • The New York Times has a great article titled: 'In an era of smart things, sometimes dumb stuff is better'.
  • CNN Has a great segment of biometrics and giving IDs to people without official documentation.
  • TechCentral announces that a Driverless Taxi service has been improved in the US.
  • The BBC shows us a motorbike racing robot.
  • The BBC has a segment that asks the question "What if the internet stops working?".
  • Did you know? Samsung has a TV factory in SA that can produce 5000 units a day. MyBroadband has the details.
  • Allen Downey has an excellent article on why it is becoming more difficult to learn programming.
  • Bloomberg has a great segment on the connected car. Ars Technica adds more information to scare you even more.
  • Business Insider talks about how social media lures you in and makes an addict of you.

Free Resource:

This YouTube channel has a set of lessons on how computing theory that you could find very useful.

That's it! Hope it's useful.

Comments

The importance of being Uncertain and other fun facts...

Welcome to our 50th blog post. We hope that the blog has at least made one useful contribution to your teaching, classroom and / or learners. This week's news tends towards the lighter side and there are a couple of fun things you can show your learners to put smiles on their faces.

Uncertainty rules!

The first item on the agenda is MIT engineers proving that you don't need GPS and precise knowledge of location to improve an autonomous drone's ability to avoid obstacles. Instead they allow the drone to keep what they call a 'nano map' in memory which the drone continually refers to. By comparing past images with the current image the drone can position itself relative to obstacles and take the appropriate evasive action.This is much closer to how we humans do things and reduces crash rates from 28% to 2%!

Weird Hardware Hack

Q: What do you get if you combine parts from a flatbed scanner, dot matrix printer and a hard drive, with some mechanical parts and a pencil?

A: The weird 'printer' below that uses a pencil to 'tap' out an image.

Useful? NO. Fascinating? Yes!


Robots continue their advance...

Wired has a story on how Boston Dynamic's Spot robot dog can now open doors (video below). Makes me think of the 'Metalhead' episode from Black Mirror season 4.

Or maybe not so much... The Winter Olympics provided the ideal opportunity for various robotics teams to show just how far robots have to go. The narrative is not English but the visuals are universally understandable.

5G and Wild Boars

More from the Winter Olympics. 5G is a specification that is only due to hit mainstream in 2020. South Korea has been using the technology (capable go 10 Gigabits data transmission speed) in various demonstrations throughout the Olympics. One of the uses is for automated defences against Wild Boars to keep them from invading competition tracks. TechCentral has the details.

Recycling old computers into art

Zayd Menck has built a model of Midtown Manhattan (New York) from old computer parts...


In other news:

    • The BBC reports that Bitcoin mining in Iceland is about to use more electricity than all the households in the country.
    • Meanwhile the SA Reserve bank wants to regulate Bitcoin in SA (MyBroadband).
    • Facebook lost 2.8 Million US users under 28 years old last year (Recode).
    • Facebook (again) is getting more intrusive by asking you to add lists to your wall... (Engadget).
    • Want to take better photographs? This AI will shock you into getting it right! (Hackaday)

And that's it for this week. Enjoy!

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