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Bill Bennett


Tag: education

Biased algorithm behind UK exam mess

There’s a nasty example of the damage poorly thought out algorithms can do from the UK.

New Zealand has an algorithm charter which could protect us from similar problems. Although that’s not certain, read on.

Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, schools in England and Wales were closed during this year’s exam season. The British school year ends in July and the main exams are held in June.

Students couldn’t sit exams the normal way. Instead the exam authorities set up an assessment system. Like other things these days, this meant going digital and using an algorithm.

The tyranny of a normal statistical spread

The exam regulators made a point of using a system that would give a normal statistical spread of grades. That way they could avoid grade inflation.

It’s important for another reason. In the UK there is stiff competition for the best university places. They go to the students with the best exam results. The entry conditions for certain courses can be strict and tough.

To get exam results, the regulators used an algorithm that combined grades given by teachers with a student’s past performance and the past performance of their school as a whole.

In many cases, as many as 40 percent of the total, the qualifications authorities marked students down, below the grades recommended by teachers.

Take from the poor, give to the rich

There was one huge problem with the exercise. It was skewed towards giving students from the ‘better’ schools a shift up and those from the underperforming schools a penalty.

In the UK the best schools are all in the richer areas. People pay a huge premium to buy a house in a better school zone. Which means the exam results rewarded students from better off families.

The bias was huge. The Guardian newspaper described the algorithms used as “a sociological sorting process which entrenches class divides in the state system”.

’…by building in a criterion of past school performance to this year’s A-level and GCSE results, Ofqual has tied the fortunes of individual students to pre-existing inequalities of outcome.”

Talent misses out

At first, many less well-off students who expected places at Oxford or Cambridge or, say, medical school missed out.

A-levels are important in the UK, to a degree they determine the next decade of a students’ life. They are more important than New Zealand’s NCEA exams in that sense.

This week the authorities backed down and went back to grading students based on teacher assessments. Which may fix matters, but after a huge amount of stress and upset plans.

New Zealand’s algorithm charter might not stop a similar abuse here but it could help. That’s because it makes algorithm decisions and the logic behind them transparent. The problem with the UK algorithm was less a lack of transparency and more a set of assumptions that are neither fair nor just.

Educational digital divide revealed as Covid-19 hits

Sooner or later New Zealand schools will close their doors to help slow the Covid-19 outbreak. Some schools have already had temporary closures.

In place of classroom lessons students will be asked to log-on from home and continue some of their education.

Yet at least one-in-five New Zealand school students won’t be able to join those lessons. The educational digital divide is real.

That’s the number of homes without internet access. The 2018 census found 340,000 households, 21 percent of the total did not have an internet connection.

‘Households’ may not be the exactly the same as ‘households with school age children’. It’s near enough.

150,000 students on wrong side of educational digital divide

In round numbers this means about 150,000 school students will be locked out.

Likewise many students don’t have suitable personal devices to connect. A home device may be shared by many family members.

We’ve known about the digital divide for a long time. It’s getting better and there are initiatives1 to improve matters.

The digital divide is a national disgrace. The Covid-19 virus came knocking and we have been found unprepared.

There’s more than one digital divide. Some rural areas remain unconnected. Other areas have poor network connections. Old people are often locked out too.

Fixing digital divide easier than fixing poverty

Yet the digital divide usually comes down to poverty. For families struggling to put bread on the table and a roof over heads, computers and internet access are an unaffordable luxury.

This is about politics. It should not be this way.

We’ll leave the ideological and economic arguments aside. Today the most important question is how can the unconnected take part in a society and education system that is going to be home-based in the immediate future.

There are no simple answers. And there are no quick answers.

While there are projects designed to help, they are patchy and lack funding. They don’t reach far enough into that missing 20 percent.

There isn’t enough time to ramp these programmes up to accommodate the tens of thousands of children who will soon be learning from home without 21st century teaching aids.

Government money

New Zealand’s government has committed NZ$12 billion to fighting the likely economic impact of Covid-19.

It would take NZ$100 million2 to equip each of the 150,000 school students who don’t have access.

This money would include a basic, but serviceable device and internet access for three months. If the crisis continues, subsiding internet access might cost $1 million a month. Perhaps less, 150,000 school children live in fewer than 150,000 homes.

This may not be the right answer to the problem. I’ve used it to illustrate the size of the problem and to put the cost into perspective.

There could be better ways to spend the money. I’d prefer to see more of it ploughed back in to the local economy than sent to tech giants who don’t even pay NZ taxes.

If you have a better idea, don’t keep it to yourself.

It’s never the right time

It’s probably too late to get all the ducks in a row for the coming wave of learning from home. Even if everything else was fine, and it isn’t, supply chain problems would make it hard to find 150,000 low cost devices in a hurry. There would be a huge number of last minute broadband installs.

As always we should have started sooner. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act now. By some accounts Covid-19 may come in waves. We might miss this one, yet have everything in place for the next wave.

This is not only about the educational digital divide. Having as many as possible of the most vulnerable 20 percent of the population connected to digital services from governments and private sector companies is going to improve lives. During the virus outbreak it could save lives.

  1. One of my favourites is the excellent Spark Jump programme that gives broadband access to less well off families. It uses fixed wireless broadband. It may look like this contradicts Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job but while fixed wireless isn’t great for binge-watching streaming TV, it is ideal for plugging coverage gaps in a hurry and more than enough for basic and educational needs.
  2. I admit I plucked this number out of thin air. The precise size isn’t the important issue here. ↩︎

Digital divide targeted in government inclusion blueprint

Getting more New Zealanders online is the government’s goal with its Digital Inclusion Blueprint. The plan is to bridge the digital divide and make sure people don’t miss out as more and more vital services move on to the internet.

Government Digital Services Minister Megan Woods launched the blueprint on Friday.

She says: “Some people can’t easily apply for jobs as many recruitment processes start online. Kids may be prevented from doing their homework.

“Others could feel isolated from more digitally savvy friends and family who communicate using social media. We want to ensure no one is left out or left behind as more and more of our lives move online.”

Life hard without a connection

She is right. It is already hard to do simple everyday things without an internet connection. It will get harder.

Even something as simple as arranging for a council rubbish pick-up or buying insurance is difficult without an internet connection.

We tend to underestimate the number of New Zealanders without internet access. In part that’s because of the way government collects official information. Much of it is now done through the web.

When it isn’t, officials often collect data by phone. The problem here is that people without home internet connections are often the same people who don’t have mobile phones.

More offline than you might think

At the 20/20 Trust, Bill Dashfield says at least 11 percent of the population do not use the internet. This group is likely to include older, poorer, rural and non-Pākehā New Zealanders. That makes for a digital divide.

Woods says: “Access to online service is a key priority is one of my priorities and an area Government has already invested in. For example, the Prime Minister recently announced $21 million funding for Regional Digital Hubs (RDHs) in towns to connect local people and businesses to digital services.

This is a good start. It helps that the government supported ultra-fast broadband programme now extends further into rural New Zealand. Eventually about 85 percent of the country will get fibre. Almost everyone else will have better broadband, either in the shape of fixed wireless or improved copper connections.

InternetNZ Jordan Carter zoomed in on one aspect of the divide in a press release.

Call for action on digital divide

He says; “We welcome, in particular, the development of Te Whata Kōrero. It’s a call to action for tāngata whenua to work alongside the government to provide leadership on digital inclusion”.

Moreover, he nails the biggest problem: funding.

Previous governments managed to find close to $2 billion to build UFB and the other broadband improvement projects. Now it has to earmark money to make sure everyone can reap the benefits of fibre and other fast broadband technologies.

The good news is it won’t cost anything like $2 billion. Even five percent of that will pay for a lot of small local initiatives. Small projects are the best way to get people across the digital divide. It will be a lot cheaper than maintaining offline government services for jobs that are better done online.

Let’s hope there are funds in the budget to pay for inclusion.

Schools moving to the cloud

Network for Learning says ‘moving to the cloud’ is on the to-do list for many New Zealand schools. Here’s the first of a series of posts I’ve written for the N4L blog that aim to demystify the cloud and how to make use of it. It’s written for a non-technical audience.

“Cloud computing is using remote computers for jobs that were once done by local machines.

We call it cloud because the computers are somewhere else on the internet. Most of the time you don’t need to know where they are.

When the idea was first developed, people would draw diagrams to illustrate how it worked. They used pictures of clouds to show the remote computers could be anywhere. The image and the metaphor stuck.”

Read more at The Cloud.

Education, technology and digital divides

As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.

The debate hasn’t stopped.

It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.

It has a good point.

Digital curriculum

There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.

Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.

While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.

But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.

They are fundamental.

Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.

Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing

You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.

Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.

Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.

Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.

If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.

At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.

Education bigger picture

Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.

We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.

Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.

People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.

The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.

It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.

Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.

So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.