The humanitarian case for automation: the case of suicide prevention

automation_g_originalsOne of the arguments driving the spread of automation is, in some ways, the polar opposite of cold equations.  Humanitarian reasons can encourage us to automate functions currently performed by humans.  A good example of this is the potential of self-driving cars to reduce automotive-related injuries and deaths.  I suspect that potential is probably the biggest reason for autonomous cars’ rapid rise.

Here’s another one, still in the early research days.  What if we could prevent suicides through the use of artificial intelligence?

That’s the premise of a new study.  All we can see in the open web is the abstract, so let me excerpt the key part:

[W]e used machine learning to measure and fuse two classes of suicidal thought markers: verbal and nonverbal. Machine learning algorithms were used with the subjects’ words and vocal characteristics to classify 379 subjects recruited from two academic medical centers and a rural community hospital into one of three groups: suicidal, mentally ill but not suicidal, or controls. By combining linguistic and acoustic characteristics, subjects could be classified into one of the three groups with up to 85% accuracy. The results provide insight into how advanced technology can be used for suicide assessment and prevention.

“These computational approaches may provide novel opportunities for large-scale innovations in suicidal care.”

It’s a fascinating idea on multiple levels.  In the paper itself (thank you, online friends) we learn that such software uses “state analyses [that] measure dynamic characteristics like verbal and nonverbal communication, termed ‘thought markers’”.  Pestian, Sorter, Connolly, Cohen et al cite an awful lot of preexisting research already identifying suicidal markers in

retrospective suicide notes, newsgroups, and social media (Gomez, 2014; Huang, Goh, & Liew, 2007; Matykiewicz, Duch, & Pestian, 2009). Jashinsky et al. (2015) used multiple annotators to identify the risk of suicide from the keywords and phrases (interrater reliability = .79) in geographically based tweets…  Li, Ng, Chau, Wong, and Yip (2013) presented a framework using machine learning to identify individuals expressing suicidal thoughts in web forums; Zhang et al. (2015) used microblog data to build machine learning models that identified suicidal bloggers with approximately 90% accuracy.

And there is more.

Consider this as a thought experiment.  If their software hits 85% accuracy, after some improvement, how many lives could it save in a mental health care facility?  I’m assuming the program would work on spoken word texts (recordings or transcripts of conversation) and whatever writing patients produce.  Could this kind of software reduce injuries, emotional tolls, and deaths?

Extent the thought experiment to schools.  In an educational setting, we could imagine running the software over LMS posts for a school.  Could that detect and enable the prevention of some self-harm and suicides?

Let’s go further still, beyond institutional settings.  Could hosts of discussion venues for other relatively suicide-prone populations – say, veterans, or anorexia survivors – do the same?

Or assume (for the sake of argument) that this software is generally reliable across populations who aren’t tied together by a particular purpose or identity.  That’ll take some invention and development.  Could we deploy the resulting tools across a social network, like Pinterest, or Twitter, or Facebook?  Facebook is already doing something along these lines. Continue reading

Posted in technology | 1 Comment

On that Stanford information literacy study

stanford-history-education-groupA Stanford University team won a lot of attention this week by releasing a study on how badly teenagers assess information online.  “Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning” examined more than 7,000 students to check their information literacy skills.  The results?

at each level—middle school, high school, and college… young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak.

[W]hen it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped. (emphasis in original)

It’s an interesting and useful article (and I look forward to more from that team), with important implications for information and digital literacy.  Let me pull out some points and themes that struck me.

What literacy?  Weirdly, information literacy as a term doesn’t show up in the report, despite being evoked as a concept all over the place.  Digital literacy only appears once, at the very end, in a discussion of next steps: “We hope to produce a series of high-quality web videos to showcase the depth of the problem revealed by students’ performance on our tasks and demonstrate the link between digital literacy and citizenship.”  In their coverage NPR mentions no form of literacy at all. The WSJ piece mentions media literacy, but not information literacy, which is probably a better term there, especially since the same article complains about a lack of librarians in schools.  This doesn’t speak well to the presence of digital/media/information literacy in late 2016.

Political literacy Some of the questions presume a bit of political awareness on the part of students.  For example, one asks undergraduates to assess the quality of a poll tweeted by  Assessment includes understanding MoveOn’s nature as a partisan advocacy group, plus a similar awareness of the linked Center for American Progress‘ politics:

students must acknowledge how the political motivations of the Center for American Progress and, both of which support stronger gun control measures, may have shaped the structure of the poll and how its results were publicized.

Is this fair?  I honestly don’t know if most traditional-age undergraduates would be that aware of advocacy groups and think tanks.  It does suggest information or digital literacy requires a political awareness.

Sponsored research This seems to be a particular blind spot, at least for one exercise.  That speaks well to its power and deviousness as a business outreach approach.


More than 80% of students believed that the native advertisement, identifed by the words “sponsored content,” was a real news story. Some students even mentioned that it was sponsored content but still believed that it was a news article. This suggests that many students have no idea what “sponsored content” means…

Why is this happening? The report quietly recommends improvements in education, naming teachers and curriculum without casting blame, but it’s clear from the document that K-12 has failed these students.  Higher ed, too, has its share of failure, based on the undergraduate responses.  A good question to ask: why is K-20 is so bad at teaching information literacy?

The paper doesn’t speculate on non-scholastic causes, beyond this mildly dismissive account of students’ digital practice: “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to  it between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram…”  They don’t focus exlusively on social media in their questions, however, focusing at least as much on home pages ( and, alas, CNN) as on tweets and Facebook.  Would the researchers like to argue that contemporary social media is structured to challenge information literacy?

We could also reach back to classic media literacy and select advertising as a major culprit.  I would add tv, but that seems out of scope here.

The article Bravo to the Stanford team for paying attention to info lit challenges in underresourced schools.  (There’s an important little note about using paper and pencil, rather than computer-based, exercises)  Kudos to them as well for sharing their exercise materials openly, including media samples, rubrics, etc.  It’s useful to see samples of student responses arranged by rubric positions, too.

Digital literacy Thinking about this research in context of the NMC digital literacy briefing, the Stanford research is much narrower than digital literacy.  Students are not producing much, beyond hand written responses to survey-givers, and those responses don’t seem shared with anyone else – i.e, there’s not sign of students as producers within social networks.  Students did have access to technology to research the problems, which is, once more, within classic information literacy parameters.

I’d love to see how this survey would change if students could create, say, a critical version of that flower photograph, or record a podcast, or ping their social networks for thoughts and feedback.  That would be a very different study.

How worried should we be?  Plenty.  This research should be a serious spur to any educational institution considering information, media, or digital literacy.

But adults shouldn’t rest easy.  We know that older adults – the people more likely to vote than the young – are more likely than these students to rely on tv “news” for information, which is a problem of equal salience and danger.  They have also experienced less training in info/media/digital literacy, which they’ll need as they gradually explore new digital domains.

Posted in digital literacy, libraries | 11 Comments

Digital literacy can be an insurgency

Many large players are interested in digital literacy: libraries, companies, faculty, journalists, even governments.  This could lead us to see digital literacy as an institutionally friendly force, even a conserving one.  What I’d like to argue is that digital literacy is ultimately destabilizing, even insurgent.

(I have given several talks around the world about this theme, most recently in Iceland.  You can watch it below:


There are two key pieces to this, learners as autonomous sense-makers and learners as creators.

First, digital literacy, like information literacy before (and within) it, gives agency to learners (and anyone, really).  Students get to assess the quality of information, figure out how to find it, strategize about its uses.  They have to, in Howard Rheingold’s world, install and run a BS detector of their own.  They do this instead of relying on gatekeepers to a large degree.

The digitally literate have new powers for questioning authority. They can find and use information beyond the scope authority figures might prefer.  Digitally literate people can criticize leaders, CEOs, parties, officials… and teachers.

When this power is combined with mobile, networked devices, authority isn’t what it once was.  The audience, citizens, subjects, etc. can speak truth to power in a new way: by calling leaders on mistakes through online information.  Think about how people attending a city council meeting can critique their leaders, or fans challenge a star in a public event.  Public spaces become informationally richer and also more fraught.


I think I’ve mentioned a fun story from around 2007, when I heard a Bush administration official say some… questionable things in a talk.  I tweeted the statements along with my questions, and received responses from people at the presentation and also folks around the world.  When it came to Q+A I asked the official about one of these statements.  At first she denied saying it (oh yes), then had to fess up when the Twitter crowd backed me (us) up.  Then I conveyed to her questions from people in Sweden and Israel.  Said official wasn’t ready for this experience, and didn’t emerge unscathed.

Second, digitally literate students make stuff and share it.  This leads to instability for the same reasons that free expression often does – powerful institutions and other people may experience speech or art that appalls them.  For example, a fine student of mine circa 2000 wrote a religion class research paper about homoeroticism and Christ, then published it on the web.  This didn’t go over well with every inhabitant of that Bible belt state.

It’s easy to think of other examples.  Professors can publish sites criticizing their institution.  Activists can use social media to share thoughts and plan actions.  A well-timed and -done YouTube video can arouse passions.

This is where social (or “soft”) skills really come in.  That’s where digital literacy should encourage students to think about the affordances and implications of making and sharing, of critique.


Depending on the kind of reader you are, you may or may not see insurgency as a good thing.  It helps to keep in mind that anybody can be an insurgent, including actors you may love or abhor.   Oppressors can use digital literacy’s tools to oppress, and victimized population use them to protect themselves or revolt.  Teaching or supporting digital literacy programs is a trickier proposition than it might seem.

This is one reason why I’m not sure “digital citizenship” is something people can really agree upon.  Actually using digital tools in a civic way is more diverse and challenging that the relatively calm word “citizenship” often entails.  For instance, as American foreign policy keeps rediscovering, “giving” people democracy can mean they’ll vote for the “wrong” people.

Speaking of American foreign policy, I’m not trying to make the argument that the internet automagically liberates people.  As I said above, people can use digital literacy to enslave and torment others.  Insurgency is a multi-hued thing.

The flip side is definitely there.  As Evgeny Morozov and others have demonstrated, governments and companies can use people’s digital literacy productions to defend and strengthen themselves.  I agree with that, but wanted to point out that the insurgent potential remains.

Back to the classroom: I suspect this is one reason digital literacy has a hard time growing.  It represents the potential to empower students to challenge each other and instructors, as well as become insurgent outside of class, as with my student’s homoerotic paper.  Not all faculty find this a desirable or even tolerable thing.  How many teachers and professors spend time trying to maintain or expand their authority?  Conversely, how many were trained on how to teach an actually interactive class?  How many of are thrilled when students grow into their agency and act upon it?

If digital literacy is ultimately an insurgency, or at least contains insurgent possibilities, we educators need to take that into account in our strategy and practice.

(cartoon from XKCD; insurgents photo by dominique cappronnier)

Posted in digital literacy | 2 Comments

We Make the Road by Walking: chapters 1-2

Welcome to our book club’s reading of We Make the Road by Walking.  In this post we can discuss the first two chapters, “Introduction” and “Formative Years”, along with the book’s front matter and anything else that pertains.

In this post I’ll offer a summary of the reading, followed by some reflections and discussion questions.

To read previous posts about this reading, including explanations of what we’re up to, click here.

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersI. Summary

The text is almost entirely a conversation between Horton and Freire, a spoken book (3).  In the brief opening chapter the offer some initial thoughts about the project, then get down to business.

“Formative Years” describes how these two great educators started on their respective paths.  Myles Horton relates growing up loving reading and being frustrated by school, struggling to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, loving books then distancing himself from them, loving and learning from his wife, gradually developing a community-based school, then helping spin off Citizenship Schools.  He admits to frequent missteps and frustrations as his model of learning and social interaction unfolded.

Paulo Freire explores his early passion for, and practice of, teaching, along with his learning about sharp class differences (57-58).  This includes working within and being frustrated by the school system, but also rising in academia and attaining a government position.  Like Horton Freire speaks of loving and learning from his wife (62, 65, etc.).  He also touches on political struggles, the outcome of which – a coup in Brazil – forced him to leave his country.

Both men share their textual influences.  For Horton, it was the Bible, Percy Shelley (Prometheus Unbound (1820) in particular), and Karl Marx (34-5).  For Freire, Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth (1961)), Albert Memmi (The Colonizer and the Colonized), Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language (1934)), and Antonio Gramsci (36).

II. Reflections

Throughout the book is a frequent call to act, to get things going, which is definitely inspirational, at least to me.  It also feels like an opposition to planning ahead, a urge to spontaneity and figuring things out along the way.  For example, “[w]e cannot wait to create tomorrow, but we have to start creating.” (56)  “[T]he way you really learn is to start something and learn as you go along.” (40) Speakers characterize the book itself this way, as unplanned and emergent.  I’m reminded of some schools of thought in design thinking and IT.

A key theme for Horton is understanding individual problems in their social and political setting, as with his childhood realization of his parents’ financial problems (17) or figuring out why his classmates hated reading (27).

“I was always getting into trouble for reading in school” (20) – me too!  (I wonder how many people working in education had this experience, and if we constitute a kind of rebellious strand within schooling) Continue reading

Posted in readings | Tagged | 19 Comments

The plan for reading _We Make the Road by Walking_

Our online book club is about to start talking about We Make the Road by Walking.  Plenty of people have indicated interest across social media, from Twitter to Facebook.  So a logical question to ask is, how will we do this?

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersLet me describe the way our readings have worked over the past few years.  Then let’s see if that works and/or what else you all would like to do.

Usually we agree on a reading schedule, after I propose it and people review it (see below for this one).  The norm is some chunk of reading per week, such as a chapter or two, depending on the writing.  Here I’d like to suggests one chapter a week, except combing the first two, since one is five pages, and also fusing the last two, 5+6, because they’re each short.

Each week I emit a blog post.  Those are loaded up with a summary of the reading, some reflections, and starting questions for discussion.  That gets copied to or announced on other social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+), plus Goodreads (here’s my Road page).  Each blog post shares the same blog tag (/road in this case), so readers can easily find all the posts on that reading.

People then respond in multiple ways.  Some leave comments on my blog posts.  Others write their own blog posts, and WordPress usually recognizes them with a link from mine.  Some take to Twitter or Facebook to respond; I try to wrangle as much of that as possible.

The Schedule: I picked Mondays for convenience, and because it gives the full work week to respond.

November 21, 2016: chapters 1 (“Introduction”) and 2 (“Formative Years”).  People can read front matter beforehand or during this time, or not at all.

November 28: chapter 3, “Ideas”

December 5: chapter 4, “Educational Practice”

December 12: chapters 5 (“Education and Social Change”) and 6 (“Reflections”)

December 19: a followup post looking back on the whole thing.

How does that sound?

Other possible things we can do This strategy is by no means fixed in stone.  It’s what we’ve done over time with previous readings, with different practices emerging along the way.  The blog focus has worked well, since it’s there and linkable for the long term (unlike, say, Facebook), accessible to anyone on the open web, searchable, and organized.

The plan might be too disintegrated. Once I called it the exploded Twitter book club.  Or maybe it should be narrowed down to a simpler format, like a listserv or simply a Twitter hashtag.

Or expanded, to include in addition to the blog…

  1. A dedicated hashtag for Twitter, Instagram, etc.
  2. Videoconference discussions (Google+ Hangout, Skype, Shindig, Zoom, etc).
  3. A podcast, with as many of us as we can wrangle.
  4. A Facebook group (one example, albeit closed) .
  5. A Goodreads group (here’s one example from Emma Watson).
  6. A Google Doc or wiki for notes and reflections (see below for one already started).
  7. f2f meeting for those in the same area.
  8. An email list.
  9. An old school web-based discussion forum.
  10. I could add more posts during the long week between anchor posts.
  11. Slack (suggested by Allison Salisbury)
  12. Other!

I’m flexible and happy to experiment.  I’m also happy to put time into this, as I’ve done in the past.

While you all brood about options, let me start sharing some resources about the book we’re starting to read.


Ben Scragg started up a Google Doc with readings and video.  Check it out, and add to it!

The title is from a Machado poem.  Here’s one text and translation:

Caminante, son tus huellas el camino, y nada más; caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar. Al andar se hace camino, y al volver la vista atrás se ve la senda que nunca se ha de volver a pisar. Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. By walking one makes the road, and upon glancing behind one sees the path that never will be trod again. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.

Here’s a video of a reading. (thanks to Kate Bowles)

You’ve Got To Move (1985) (IMDB) is a documentary about the Highland School.  I can’t find a copy of the movie, but there’s a trailer on Vimeo:

You Got To Move: Stories of Change in the South from Milestone Film & Video on Vimeo.

(thanks to Ben Scragg for spotting it)

Otherwise… happy reading!  I look forward to your comments.

Posted in readings | Tagged | 6 Comments

Our next book club reading: We Make the Road by Walking

As our book club finishes up its most recent science fiction reading, we are getting ready for our next title.  And this time we will switch away from sf, and towards education.  Not just education, in fact, but a work about the connections between learning, teaching, and social justice.

We Make the Road by Walking Conversations on Education and Social Change Search the full text of this book Search Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John PetersThe book is We Make the Road by Walking (Temple Press, Goodreads, Amazon).  The full title is, actually, We Make the Road by Walking:  Conversations on Education and Social Change.  Authors are Myles Horton and Paulo Freire; editors include Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters.

The text is a discussion between two of the 20th century’s great educational thinkers and practitioners.  Freire might be best known outside of his native Brazil for his classic Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968), Horton for creating the Highlander Folk School (est. 1932) in American Appalachia.

I am almost done, and find the book rich, stimulating, utterly accessible, and very hard  to stop reading.  I love hearing their unique voices, filtered through audio tape and textual transcription.

As the publisher puts it,

Throughout their highly personal conversations recorded here, Horton and Freire discuss the nature of social change and empowerment and their individual literacy campaigns…

The themes they discuss illuminate problems faced by educators and activists around the world who are concerned with linking participatory education to the practice of liberation and social change.

The book is out of print, unfortunately, but you can find copies.  Check your libraries for their holdings or inter-library loan service.  Amazon links to tons of used editions.  If you have a used bookstore, check there as well.

I’d like to give people time to find a copy and start reading.  How about November 28th?  Or Black Friday, so you can shun the malls (if you still have them) and instead enjoy the day off with a fantastic book?

I want to give full credit to Kristen Eshleman for suggesting the reading on Twitter.  This is her idea, and I’m very grateful.

Join us in walking the road!

Posted in readings | Tagged | 11 Comments

How Americans are using social media in 2016: essential new Pew report

How do Americans use social media? This is a question of vital importance to educators, and of especial moment during this election season.  It’s one I’ve been tracking since before it was called Web 2.0.

The Pew team has just issued a new report on this question, and it’s essential reading.  Shannon Greenwood, Andrew Perrin and Maeve Duggan have done solid work.  Let me pull out some key aspects.

Facebook remains the giant in social media, dominating the landscape. Reports of its death are simply – I have to say it – wrong and stupid:

Social media platform use 2016 Pew

This finding isn’t based just on active accounts, but also on the kind of use.  “Roughly three-quarters (76%) of Facebook users report that they visit the site daily (55% visit several times a day, and 22% visit about once per day). ”  Meanwhile, Instagram is rising, and Twitter is falling behind.

And see just how many Americans use social media:

Nearly eight-in-ten online Americans (79%) now use Facebook, more than double the share that uses Twitter (24%), Pinterest (31%), Instagram (32%) or LinkedIn (29%). On a total population basis (accounting for Americans who do not use the internet at all), that means that 68% of all U.S. adults are Facebook users, while 28% use Instagram, 26% use Pinterest, 25% use LinkedIn and 21% use Twitter.

“68% of all U.S. adults are Facebook users”: think about that.

We are also promiscuous in our social media habits, with “[m]ore than half of online adults (56%) us[ing] more than one of the five social media platforms measured in this survey”.

Using multiple social media platforms, Pew 2016

Demographics: the age cliche continues to offer truth.  88% of people aged 18-29 use Facebook, compared to 84% aged 30-49, 72% 50-64%, and 62% for the over-65 set.  The age gap is broader for Facebook’s image platform, as 59% of people aged 18-29 use Instagram, a proportion dropping steadily to 33% for people aged 30-49, then 18% for those 50-64 years of age, and a scant 8% for 65 and over.  Ditto Twitter: “Some 36% of online adults ages 18-29 are on the social network, more than triple the share among online adults ages 65 and older (just 10% of whom are Twitter users).”

We can find the same age-tech relationship with messaging apps:

Some 56% of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use auto-delete apps, more than four times the share among those 30-49 (13%) and six times the share among those 50 or older (9%). Similarly, 42% of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use more general messaging apps like WhatsApp or Kik, compared with 19% of smartphone owners ages 50 or older.

Gender: Pinterest remains the women’s platform, with 45% of women using it, compared to only 17% of men.

Speaking of women owning social media, somewhat more women (83%) than men (75%) use Facebook.  The same goes for Instagram, 38% to 26%. Will we at some point gender Instagram or Facebook as female?

Education isn’t the strongest determinant of social media usage, although higher education attainment does map onto somewhat higher Twitter usage.  One exception is LinkedIn, which

has long been especially popular with college graduates and high income earners, and this trend continues to hold true… 45% of online adults with an annual household income of $75,000 or more use LinkedIn, compared with just 21% of those living in households with an annual income of less than $30,000.

Overall, there aren’t any surprises in the study, except to those who like to proclaim Facebook dead.   Many trendlines continue, like the gendering of Pinterest, the gigantism of Facebook, and the persistence of the age-tech dynamic… but the continuation of trends is actually useful information.

Posted in research topics | 4 Comments