Monday, January 29, 2018

Learning through social media - becoming part of a learning community

In an effort to attain better work / study / life balance, I have started to bring some organisation into one aspect of my informal learning, which is of New Zealand flora and fauna. Having tramped (hiked) around most of the South Island for almost forty years, I learnt, through a process of osmosis, some of the common plants, birds, insects and lizards/skinks commonly encountered in NZ's diverse natural landscapes. As I near retirement, I am in need of an intellectually challenging hobby and my long standing forays into ‘naming things’ may become an avenue to take up time released through retirement from work.

My initial attempts to bring structure my botanical instruction began by collating photos of plants taken on various tramps / walks. To date, after 2 years, almost 300 plants archived on Picasa, now Google photos, with identification sought through references to a range of books on my shelves, library books and then an increasing array of digital resources found through Google. Of which botany has extensive resources, with this site a good one archiving the myriad links.

All the above makes use of my current research skills, albeit in a more visual medium. I also sought out botanically trained, or inclined walking companions, many of whom patiently explained the nuances of identifying the rather large corpus of plants in NZ. Including a wide range of small leaved shrubs - with this book by Hugh Wilson and Tim Galloway an essential reference.

Several months ago, on advice from one of these ‘teachers’, I subscribed to Naturewatch. The contribution of networked learning has increased my learning several fold. I have also been able to observe how the on-line community on Naturewatch interact and support kindred spirits. So now, I try to upload photos a day or so after I have recorded the specimens. I usually attempt to identity the plant/s as I upload them, so would have made an effort to find the plant in my ‘hard-copy’ or digital resources first or use the nifty visual matching facility on the site. Then, usually within ½ a day, my sample would either be confirmed, or alternative identification would be offered. Through this process, I have learnt to be more careful with my initial identifications and to especially take note of seminal identification features and regional aspects.

Remembering the names of these plants is a major challenge. However, I have found associating the plant to the place where the photo was taken, provides a good initial anchor into my neural framework. Then, repeating the plant name when I encounter another sample, helps to reinforce the memory and lead to better recall on following occasions. Plants which have been contentious and have led to a discussion on Naturewatch have also been helpful. The experience of interacting with others and discussing the rationale for identification, again assists with future recollection.

All in, a good foray into the realm of possibilities opened up by the internet. When I shared the above with a good amateur botanist friend of mine, who is in her eighties, she was impressed by the ease of information sharing. Replacing the time honoured method of snail mail correspondence and asynchronous interaction. So, my learning is work in progress. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

How we will earn money without jobs? Will robots, enabled by quantum computing, take those jobs?

Three connected readings from last week.

1) Had a look at the TedTalk by Martin Ford which summarises his book - The rise of the robots: technology and the threat of a jobless future (2016).

The book summarises the challenges NOW and proposes ways to support workers through the transition. In short:
  • Jobs will be taken away
  • Jobs will change – new jobs created – see Today online for similar
  • jobs will become more interestin as robots remove the mundane, repetitive aspects
  • Jobs will disappear – e.g. horses at the turn of 1900.

There will be and already is an encroachment of machines on to things that make humans unique, including the ability to think, learn and create – some machines can now do these things.
Advances in technology now undergoing exponential change, increase in cognitive capability with an improvement on the ability to learn (e.g. winning at Go)
Proposes the result will be a  lose of jobs, stagnant wages and precarious job. However, the global economics hinges on consumerism / market, therefore, if no one has money then economies decline.
Rationalises basic income (UBI) as a solution to decouple work from income.
Basic income is not a panacea but a start. UBI needs to be followed up with incorporation of incentives into basic income so people still thrive to achieve social, individual, community and meaning and fulfilment in our lives. Therefore, it might be more politically acceptable if some differentiation allowed in basic income. 

2) Article last week in the NZ Herald on 'don't be afraid of robots taking your job'. 

Proposes, more automation = more opportunity to develop high-value service or products especially in relationship based services. Time saved in not having to do boring and routine tasks can be diverted to development of niche premium products; personalised services; ability to be nimble and adaptive to market changes and to be the disruptor, not the disrupted.
Encourages jobs in the trades, personalised assistance type roles and the importance of continually developing excellent communication and relationship-building skills.

Provides examples in retail of how above already being put in place. - American context. 
  • Robotic shopping carts – or no carts at all
  • Digital mirrors to visualise new outfits, lipstick, sunglasses etc,
  • Prices that change by the hour – digital tags on shelves
  • Technology to help you find better fitting shoes and coordinating outfits
  • Robots that restock shelves and guide you to what you need

3) Then a NY Times article providing a background and summary to quantum computing.
Proposes quantum computing to be well on its way, with use of quantum with ‘normal PC’ via cloud and processing speeds improve up to 100,000 faster than now.
Implications include the importance of ‘life long learning’ so everyone able to keep up with changes. Quote from article:
“Therefore, education needs to shift “from education as a content transfer to learning as a continuous process where the focused outcome is the ability to learn and adapt with agency as opposed to the transactional action of acquiring a set skill,” said McGowan
“Instructors/teachers move from guiding and accessing that transfer process to providing social and emotional support to the individual as they move into the role of driving their own continuous learning.”

All the articles concur there WILL be major impacts on how jobs are constituted. There needs to be leadership and direction from governments to cope with the coming social impacts. For individuals, it will be a time to ensure one does not keep one's head in the sand but to be aware of what is coming and to try to plan ahead. Individuals with the literacies and wherewithal to be flexible and continually able to keep up with shifts in the job market, will be the ones who will survive the coming challenges. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

A day in the life of the brain - book overview

Book by Professor / Baroness Susan Greenfield, A day in the life of the brain: the neuroscience of consciousness from dawn to dusk, published in 2016.

Read this intermittenly across the summer break, and wrote this up, in snatches across last week from digital notes taken after reading each chapter. I have tidied to provide continuity and have added the book into my list of 'need to read through another time' as the book deserves another read to pick out the applicable information to teaching and learning.

For the moment, this overview is a work in progress. 

There is review of the book from the Guardian which is mostly positive. The book has 9 chapters plus notes and references – 66 pages or about one third of the book.

The main thread of the book is the identification of what actually makes up consciousness from the perspective of images taken of the brain as it is active. The various aspects of what makes up consciousness is unpacked through the various routines in a ‘typical’ day.

The first chapter is titles ‘in the dark’. This introductory chapter tries to define ‘consciousness’ by summarising the various approaches taken thus far to understand the concept. The chapter argues that although there has been much progress, we are still some way to understanding how consciousness works. There is still no distinct brain area, or network of brain cells / neurons or clusters of brain cells in which consciousness can be found. Recent advances in neuroscience has concentrated on identifying the various contributions of different brain cells, parts of the brain etc. See connectomeetc.  The book tries to come up with a model or conception of what is consciousness and how it works, to provide some grounding for further work in neuroscience to validate the idea. The model promoted in the book relies on unravelling how ‘neural assemblies’ work. Theses assemblies are posited to be ‘deposits’ from which consciousness ripples forth.

The book then works through a series of explanatory chapters, loosely tied to the ‘day in the life’ theme. Chapter two delves into states of consciousness when we sleep and undergo anaesthesia. There is discussion on what is consciousness and the variability of this state of being. The concept of neuronal assemblies is then introduced through its historical evolution and a summary of present hypothesis which come through advances in MRi. The analogy of stones thrown into a pond and the ripples that occur is then used to provide a visual anchor for neuronal assemblies.

Chapter 3 explores consciousness in non-humans and uses this to further expand on the details of neuronal assemblies. For example, the variables and effects – using the analogy of ripples on a pond – of a bigger / smaller stone and the force / angle of approach etc. when thrown in. A useful diagram is introduced, explained and discussed. This diagram tries to unpack the ‘differences’ between mind (the personalised system), the brain (consisting of neural networks) and consciousness (the subjective experiences – sensory and cognitive). A continuum of ‘scholarship’ is also designated to each – philosophy studying the mind, psychology and neuroscience concentrating on the brain and consciousness and theology with focus on consciousness. Neuronal assemblies are proposed to bring some order and holism in to how we can understand the links between brain plasticity, neurogenesis, exercise and conscious thought.

The fourth chapter explores the five senses, and the neuroanatomy challenge. Essentially the chapter argues that the brain works in an all-inclusive manner. Even though one part of the brain may be the main site of activity for an individual sense, the way organisms perceive the world, is holistic. We do not just see, but seeing also includes tactile, aural and other senses. The VAK – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic – learning styles approach – is debunked as learning requires interconnection of various parts of the brain to achieve new learning.

Chapter 5 ‘at the office’ is used to mop up the many other ‘sensings’ we need to undertake to perceive our world. Physical features like how we sense, feel, be emotionally affected by colour; our spatial sense; and subjective reactions to the environment are discussed.

Chapter 6 ‘problems at home’ looks into the way the brain develops (adolescence); mental issues (depression; demetia); how the brain deals with pain, to further develop the argument for the existence and function of neuronal assemblies.

Dreaming is the focus on chapter 7. A summary is made of the function, history, phylogeny, neuroscience foundations of dreaming. Chapter 8 brings the argument together with a discussion on whether neuronal assemblies are the rosetta stone for bringing the fields of physiology and phenomenology together. A possible mechanism for the generation of consciousness is proposed and summarised in a diagram.

The last chapter closes the book with how space and time may be traversed through understanding on how ‘assemblies’ improve our understandings of how the brain and consciousness work. As per usual, questions are posed for further investigation and study.

Overall, a readable book without too many parts which are dense and difficult to unravel. Most of the time, the argument put forward is clear. Based on reviews - whether the concept of neuronal assemblies withstand the test of time, remains to be seen. 

Monday, January 08, 2018

Plans for 2018

Looking forward to another busy and productive year. The year will require good planning on my part as there will be quite a bit to get through. We will be down 2.3 educational developers (. 0.5 and a 0.8 = 1.3 through retirement and another moving to a different role in the schools sector). One of us is also working for another part of the institution. Therefore, the shortfall will need to be shared amongst the educational developers left.

To start the year, I will need to support the programme development process for two degrees. Both are reviews of degrees with long histories at Ara. The computing degree should be off to NZQA by the end of summer. The midwifery degree to be away by Easter.
A priority through the year is to analyse the data and findings from the 7 sub-projects which make up the eassessment project. The project report is due in the middle of the year. 5 of the 7 sub-projects have now completed their participatory action research cycles and have or are writing up their reports.

In anticipation of the above curriculum development activities, I have worked on several articles near the end of last year and have already submitted two journal articles for publication in 2018. However, will also need to make a start on articles for publication in 2019. There should be 7 articles generated through the e-assessment project. I will be working on submitting 3 to 4 across 2018.

This year, NVCER ‘no-frills’ and the NZ VET research forumwill be held in August, in Sydney. My initial plan was to support several of the eassessment projects to be presented at each. Now, we will need to work on presenting a few of the sub-projects in Sydney instead. Also, the annual AVETRA conference is now ‘re-branded’ to be a practitioners research conference. It is to be held in Melbourne at the end of April. I will be putting in a paper for this conference around the outcomes of the eassessment project as well.