Monday, April 22, 2013

A New Purpose for Drones

Given the past week's events in Boston, I started to think about some different ways drones could be used to fight terrorists.  I think we're all familiar with the conventional way this has been done, but what are some other tasks that drones could perform?

If you're only familiar with the drones that have been used by the military in the Middle East, then the first thing you have to know is that drones come in all shapes and sizes.  A drone is essentially a pilotless aircraft, but another way to look at them is to call them by another name: robot.  If you've read my previous posts on robots and drones you'll know that I usually sprinkle some words of caution in their adoption.  This time I'm going to throw caution to the wind and try not think about the Orwellian or dystopian undertones

A good place to start, if you want to see what drones of the future can do, is the jaw dropping TED Talk by Vijay Kumar.  The drones in his demonstration resemble something you might find in a hobby store and can fit in the palm of your hand.  Their functionality is anything but childlike.  He and his students at the University of Pennsylvania programmed their swarms of drones to be agile flyers that could operate autonomously.  They're equipped with proximity sensors and can fly in a programmed flight path or operate independently.  So what if drones like these could be outfitted with bomb-detecting sensors?  Large populated events like the Boston Marathon or State Fairs could have swarms of these small drones flying through the crowd relaying their information to law enforcement.  There's already a group of companies like Qube working on law enforcement versions of drones.  Would it bother you to have a model aircraft buzzing your head?  Then how about a ground-based version?  I can't find my source, but there was a public radio story on a small robot that would nuzzle up against you and lead you to stores in a shopping mall.  Would you be more comfortable with a robotic form of bomb sniffing dogs weaving through the crowd?

One of the reasons drone aircraft have been so readily adopted by the military is that you don't have to worry about pilot fatigue.  I'm assuming they're much lighter than jets and so they can stay in the air for a longer period of time.  Since the drone pilot is sitting miles or continents away, he can take a break and have another operator take his place.  The lockdown in Watertown, MA lasted roughly 18 hours - couldn't drones have played some part in the search?  Drones could follow a precise search pattern and be flown at a lower altitude beneath the helicopters.  I'm not up to speed with all of the camera specs of drones but I'm assuming it's pretty good.  Would a group of drones with night vision and infrared fared better than their human counterparts?  Wouldn't a drone have been a good option for surveying the toxic scene after the Texas fertilizer plant explosion?

Finally, I'm reminded of Adam Carolla's idea for attack crows.  Crows are pretty nasty but perhaps a swarm of drones could have flushed suspect #2 out of the boat.  Could a group of drones incapacitate an individual?  Or what if a flock of drones were launched when the bombs went off to capture the scene in video?  A drone wouldn't react to the panic and confusion like a human would; maybe a set of drones could have provided better view of who was there and where they were going.  With all of the influence that technology had in this latest terror attack, I wouldn't be surprised at all if drones played a helpful role in the next one.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Terrorism in the Digital Age - Lessons from Boston

Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005
Boston Marathon, mile 25, Beacon St., 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Like everyone else, I've been riveted to the news coming out of Boston for the past week.  It's hard to understand why anyone would have done such a thing.  It's equally confusing why they thought they could have gotten away with it, because with each day technology is transforming the world we live in.

We're no longer reliant on CNN or other news agencies to provide our continuous news feed; the  Internet and other digital media is where people go to find information now.  This is a double-edged sword: on one hand the amount of instantaneous information being relayed has increased exponentially while on the other hand the validity of the content should be viewed with a critical eye.  Reddit, Twitter, and other online sites have played a significant role in the national discussion on the Boston Marathon bombings and the search for the perpetrators.  Forget about nightly or even hourly updates, most people are looking minute by minute for accurate information.  This must put a considerable strain on news services and other credible sources of information with detrimental effects.

I won't attempt to comprehend the bombers' minds but if escape was one of their goals they made a serious miscalculation.  Performing their deeds at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, with video and so many cameras present, made their discovery just a matter of time.  I'm curious to learn just how many images were submitted and reviewed by the FBI; it must be a staggering number.  It occurred to me early in the week how online crowdsourcing could be used to review the images in a more expedient manner.  This seems like a good idea until you see how different Reddit threads became what Alex Hern at NewStatesman describes as "a racist Where's Waldo?"  Several individuals became prime suspects in the cyber world followed by several news organizations trying to play catch-up by posting their faces on page 1.  It would seem that eventually even the FBI decided the eyes of the multitude might do more good than harm in their investigation.  After posting video of the suspects and the relevant time stamp, some of the best images were discovered.

Security cameras from several establishments on Boylston Street provided additional images and  left some to call for an increased amount of video surveillance in America's cities.  Closed-circuit television has been used extensively in London for years with little effect, but what I find puzzling is how Americans could lobby for more CCTV surveillance when it can't even enact mandatory gun registration.  CCTV rings of Big Brother and seems to go against an American sense of freedom, or does it?  I think this is an interesting discussion: do you have a right of privacy in a public place?  People are constantly setting off alarms over Google's privacy issues, even its Google Glass before they are released.  We can all anticipate some level of surveillance within business buildings or even online, but what about in the neighborhood park?  As I mentioned in a previous post on Drones, privacy issues are going to be tested in the 21st Century.  How do you feel about this?

As the manhunt reached its peak, we found that technology once again didn't disappoint us.  Police tracked the fleeing suspects using the carjacked victim's cellphone.  News stations used Google Earth views extensively to give us the lay of the land.  While the reporters and TV crews were kept at a safe distance, eyewitnesses in Watertown began Tweeting us updates on the action.  Andrew Kitzenberg (@AKitz) tweeted as law enforcement engaged the suspects outside his window and did a TV interview during the lockdown via Skype where he was able to point out the bullet holes in his walls.  Watertown was overwhelmed with boots on the ground but at the climax it was thermal imaging equipment and a police robot that provided essential functions that made sure all those boots got home safe.

So now that it seems this crisis has reached its conclusion, we'd be wise to contemplate on how technology is transforming the world we live in.  Technology contributed greatly to the bombing investigation but it also gave us a view of the ethical and societal issues we'll be facing in the digital age.  Laying in hospitals across Boston, the survivors of that terrible day are the ones who need it most of all now.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

5th Anniversary of

Funny how time flies.  As I checked my calendar, I was surprised to see that today is the 5th Anniversary of  It's hard for me to imagine that it has only been 5 years but then again I'm even more amazed at how far we've come.

I consider myself fortunate to have latched onto the 21st Century movement in Education when I did.  I don't know if that makes me one of the pioneers, but I started this journey in good company.  Real World Math was my Masters project in Educational Technology after starting my graduate work in 2006.  At this time, Google was just gaining in prominence and expanding its offerings to other areas; they acquired YouTube, and Google Earth was just a couple of years old.  This was also the time when social media was beginning.  Twitter was born and Facebook was growing exponentially.  Leaders in Educational Technology began to emerge.  Steve Hardagon was starting Classroom 2.0, Jerome Burg was about to launch GoogleLitTrips, and bloggers, such as Will Richardson, began to provide a narrative for thought leadership.  The Web 2.0 phenomenon was in full swing with a plethora of blogs, wikis, and personal websites being added every day - an Internet Renaissance.  It was all new to me but as I look back now I realize that it was new to most people.  

At that time, it wasn't the notion of creating a website for the Internet that I found daunting but rather creating a website that anyone would notice.  Perhaps the true power of the Web wasn't realized yet.  After moving RWM last summer it has been harder for me to get an accurate count, but I place the number of unique visitors to the site to be well over 200,000.  What I find incredible about that number is that one can assume that, for the most part, it is made up almost entirely of math educators.  That pleases me greatly not only for the sense of accomplishment but it also validates the work that I set out to do - a transformation of math learning.  Whether you lean more towards Dan Meyer's work or Sal Khan, I think the bar is moving, and that is a good thing for everyone.

The other thing I find encouraging about the 200,000+ visitors is that they've come from over 141 countries.  I get the most traffic from English speaking countries (United States, Canada, and Australia) but RWM has also gotten the attention from countries on every other continent.  I feel the true global impact of the Internet is still to be seen, but once people of different languages can collaborate without restriction I think we'll see another large shift in what gets accomplished.

So, in retrospect, maybe it doesn't seem like it's been five years because gauging time with technology is like calculating in dog years.  Maybe one year for you and me is like 5 years of technology?  No doubt it's an exciting time to be living in for anyone who lives on the web.  Let's hope the next five years will be good for Real World Math.  As alway, I thank you for your support.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Attack of the Drones

Drones (Photo credit: Ars Electronica)
The topic of drones has come to the nation's attention again with the leak of an administrative policy memo.  The brief appears to be a legal justification for targeting Americans abroad who have formed an allegiance with enemy combatants.  This seems to me to be a preclude to a number of ethical questions the nation will face regarding the use of drones.  I think we would be wise to raise these questions with students today since, for good or bad, drones will undoubtably play a larger role in future.

Whenever I have a group of Guam students looking at the island in Google Earth, they are always surprised that they are able to get a bird's-eye view of the local Air Force base.  The ability to see rows of F-18s parked on the tarmac doesn't seem right to them because in reality they don't have access to the base.  Some question whether Google is giving assistance to enemies by providing these views.  From Street View's privacy issues to objections from foreign governments, questions such as these illustrate how advances in technology can sometimes move faster than what public discourse is ready for.

I think most people would be surprised to learn that the number of drone attacks increased significantly when Barack Obama became President.  Less than 50 strikes were reported in 2008 compared to over 120 in 2010.  (This will undoubtably be a topic raised during John Brennan's upcoming CIA Chief confirmation hearing since Brennan is credited as leading the drone program in recent years.)  The argument for military drone aircraft is that they don't require a pilot in the traditional sense.  They are controlled by persons hundreds of miles, or perhaps continents, away. This puts American pilots out of harm's way and makes pilot fatigue a non-issue.  I'm sure military drone aircraft are also less expensive to manufacture and maintain than traditional fighter jets.  The drones may also be more accurate in their targeting, which leads me to arguments against.  A number of strikes in the Middle East have resulted in large numbers of civillian casualties.  If the drones are expendable, does that encourage an even greater use of them?  I think the fact that drones are un-manned aircraft gives most people pause.  How do you feel about sending robots out to kill other humans?  This seems to be a question out of science fiction, but it is the reality of today and a question I think we should pose to students.

What are the acceptable limits of drone use?  I don't mean to present myself as a drone opponent.  I think there is incredible potential in their use (as you can see in the video below) but I think the drone discussion should begin now.  It will be an issue today's youth will face in their daily lives and as the drone industry grows they may find themselves a part of it.  So what do you think? Should drones be used to patrol our borders?  Should police departments have them?  How do you feel about a squadron of drones enforcing our nation's speed limits?  What does "pilot-error" mean in regards to drones?  How do you feel about advertisers using drones?  What does drone airspace mean?  How big can a drone be?  How small?  Can a drone block your view of something?  Can a drone play audio?  How loud?  Would you accept homework from a student's drone?  How would you prove drone crimes? Should we keep drone technology - the good and the bad - away from other countries?  What would a terrorist do with a drone?  What would a drone war look like?

I would love to do a post devoted to the positive use of drones.  They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and show great promise in aid to the environment, medicine, and safety.  Call me paranoid, but right now, I'm thinking about the drone hazards we may face tomorrow.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

What's your moonshot?

R Is for Rocket
The folks at Google have done it again, releasing a sharp video entitled Moonshot Thinking.  The inspirational video consists of a number of people speaking about our history of out of the box thinking and where it has gotten us.  The title refers to the type of audacious thinking such as believing that we could actually land a man on the moon - a truly remarkable feat when you consider that it came just 60 years after the release of the Model T.

This video also seems to be Google's announcement of the Solve for X project.  Solve for X began at a Google event a year ago when "forty-six scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world came together to discuss and debate radical solutions using breakthrough technologies to some really big problems."  The group is supported by Google. Their website has a definite TED-like feel to it, with a number of videos presenting moonshot thinking.  I'm sure Google detractors will view this as a rip-off, but I like the focus of the site.

To have moonshot thinking, they say, is not to look for 10% improvements, but to strive for achievements that advance us tenfold.  Now, if you've followed this blog at all, you've probably detected a twinge of my dismay over our present educational system.  I'm not camping in a tent on Arne Duncan's lawn but you could put me in with the Occupy Education crowd.  I'm a fan of Diane Ravitch, Will Richardson, Lee Crockett, Sir Ken Robinson, and other big thinkers so you can imagine where I'm heading.  My moonshot thinking is that we completely overhaul how we educate children.  Wait, I supposed to back this up with something?  Is that how this works?    I guess before I assemble my team I'll delve into the Solve for X site more to find my inspiration.  I encourage you to do the same.

What's your moonshot?  

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Friday, January 18, 2013

The fundamental needs of students

Comfortable Seating, Learning Resource Centre,...
I was listening to public radio the other day and came across an interview with David Sazuki.  Sazuki is a Canadian scientist, you probably have seen in nature documentaries on public television.  In the discussion, he was making the point that humans have made the mistake of using nature as fuel for the global economy.  He argued that this should be reversed; that it is human invention that should be servicing the environment.  Air, he said, is a fundamental need of humans.  We can not live without it.  Therefore, air is an absolute necessity to human existance and whatever form the global economy takes, it must not compromise the quality of our air.  Humans have fundamental needs that should not be taken for granted nor should we lose sight of their value.  I pondered this for a while and then began think of it in terms of Education.  What are the fundamental needs of students?  What are the most basic of items that are indispensable for student learning to occur?

Haven. I think we could agree that a student doesn't necessarily have to have a school setting to learn. Students can receive their education online, be homeschooled, or perhaps use a natural setting to learn, but I think a location... a destination... a haven, where learning can take place unhindered, is a fundamental need. I'm sure most of us would opt for a traditional school setting but, sadly, this simply isn't the case for many children around the world. Girls in Afghanistan or children in refugee camps may not have this option. A haven where the child feels safe, protected, or sheltered from external elements, be they natural or man-made, is an absolute necessity.

Once a fundamental need is identified, you must then evaluate its condition or possible threats to it. An immediate solution should be found or else anything that follows is compromised. Common Core standards are meaningless if a student doesn't have a haven to learn. In the U.S., a safe haven may mean that students have to be protected against gun violence. In other locations, it may be that the children need heat, a roof, or clean water. Whatever the case, a student's need for a learning haven must be addressed.

Curiosity. Perhaps this seems less dire than the previous, but I think a child's curiosity is absolutely essential for learning occur. One might combine this with motivation, but in its truest form a child's inquisitiveness is key. It is the genesis of learning. Take a moment to observe any toddler and you will see that this is true. Her curiosity leads her to take her first step, utter her first words, and explore her surroundings. While we may try to encourage her interest with motivation or reward, it is self-driven curiosity that produces the greatest results for her and the greatest challenge for us. The difficulty lies in the fact that this is an internal drive and varies from person to person. We may be able to cause some positive effect by providing an environment where curiosity can flourish, in fact, it is essential that we try to do this. This not only refers back to my haven argument, but also serves as a reminder that our instructional materials should engage the learner. Bubble tests and drill work won't foster curiosity. Letter grades may encourage performance but do not serve as a replacement to the power of the inquisitive mind. Curiosity is a fundamental need and it is why we should pay close attention to the learning environments of children especially in their early formative years.

Communication. This may appear to be an obvious choice but it certainly shouldn't be taken for granted.  My appreciation of this fundamental need has only grown with my work with special needs children. The ability to receive and convey information is at the core of the learning process. Before assessing an internet connection, textbook supply, or lesson plan, consider how precious and complicated adequate communication can be. Is the content at a sufficient level of difficulty? Is the format or media used sufficient? Blind students or those with learning disabilities will certainly require special methods, but each child has communication needs to varying degrees. Reflect upon Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences and consider if you are communicating effectively with each and every student. It is a daunting task but crucial for effectual learning to occur. We have an incredible number of ways we can convey learning material today but there are just as many distinctive needs of the children that receive it. That they receive information or challenges in an appropriate format is a fundamental need.  

The students, in turn, need to be able to demonstrate their understanding. This may imply various forms of written or oral assessments, but I am more concerned with the most basic level of communication with the teacher. It is essential that each student is able to communicate in some way their comprehension or difficulties, and have an instructor that reacts to each accordingly. Even the solitary learner needs a cue of success or growth.

Foundation. The importance of having a strong base of knowledge is in direct relation to the difficulty of the task. You cannot climb a ladder starting on the 10th rung. A strong foundation includes strategies, conceptual knowledge, language, and other prerequisites. To ignore this fundamental need is to invite frustration and detachment from the learning process; this is precisely what happens when students are advanced to the next lesson or grade level before they are ready. If you accept foundation as a fundamental need then you should be receptive to the ideas of self-paced or individualized learning; the development of or, again, the multiple intelligences of each child is unique. I think it is obvious now that the way education has lumped students together and expected them to learn uniformly is one of the reasons why standardized scores seem so dismal. That is an aberration formed in large part because of our insistence to group their qualitative data by grade. Regardless, whether it is an advancement in grade level, moving from one lesson to the next, or tackling a single idea, a student must have a foundation to grow from.

Teacher. To include a teacher as a fundamental need does not infer that this is true only in the traditional sense. A teacher can come in many guises: a computer, peer, nature, or the student's curiosity could perform as the teacher in some sense. In any form, I think the primary role of the teacher is to present a challenge to the learner. It should start at the foundation and then be communicated in a way that satiates the curiosity. A quality teacher would adjust each element accordingly for the learner and then advance the idea to a higher degree. A responsive teacher would give feedback and encouragement when needed. Once again, this is a fundamental need that can be applied in many ways; additionally, what works best for one person may not work for another. The established practice is to provide an instructor until a child reaches maturity, but the independent learner - the curious - should be encouraged at all times.

So there you have it; my fundamental needs of students. A haven, curiosity, communication, foundation, and teacher are essential components for learning. A lacking of any of these components will have a detrimental affect on a student's performance and should be rectified immediately. Perhaps additions should be made or my reasoning is faulty? Think about it for a while and add your suggestions in the comments. Test your idea for various forms of learning; for instance, love may seem like a fundamental need but isn't one that a computer would supply.

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