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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Blind Trust in People and Machines: Time to Open Our Eyes and Be Wise





Headlines this morning: 
"'We have let you down': Toyota apologizes and introduces fix in gas pedal crisis.

Ignoring a sticky gas pedal, and trusting in Toyota's world renowned engineering instead of their good common sense, may have in fact gotten some people killed.  And thus, today's post.

I've been thinking a lot about Technology and the trust of "experts" lately.  Let me take you on a journey via some articles that have me thinking in this way.

The Radiation Boom - As Technology Surges, Radiation Safeguards Lag

This horrific New York Times story posted last week recounts how the software used to administer radiation often crashes, and that those who administer the radiation often don't double check the computer, even after the crash. In fact, on page 3 of this article, one set of tests:

"from 2000 to 2008 found that 15 percent to 20 percent of hospitals using linear accelerators in clinical trials had at least one radiation beam outside the acceptable range.

“We haven’t been sufficiently outspoken about this, although we are now in the process of correcting that,” said Dr. Ibbott, whose group is based at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Hospitals sometimes embrace new technologies before medical personnel can agree on how best to use them."

Does this sound familiar?

It is so vital to have those in the school on board with implementing new technology. But let me ask you this, who tests the software that is being used with students? We look at the textbooks, but do we review the software? Do we test it? Do we look over their shoulder? Or do we just test that it does what it says it does?  Are people being sufficiently outspoken when there are valid concerns with technology implementation? (with information based on facts rather than fear.)

Software Companies Don't Always Tell the Truth
As shown with the students in my class who recently reviewed sites for kids 12 years old and under, we turned up some horrific sites.  Habbo.com for example markets itself to kids.  Although the terms of use has some stern language and parents are supposed to review it if their child is under 18, it is very obvious that this is not happening.  If you review what my student Hannah with the Super Social Safety group found says:

"Hello everybody. My name is Hannah and I reviewed the site Habbo. Many people have recommended this site saying its very good. I wanted to find out what the age recommendation was, and I found that it was aimed at teens. Many older teenagers were not getting on the site, so it was mostly younger teens.This ranged from about 12 to 15. I am a fifteen year old and I thought that i would really like this site.

When I first went into the site, I was immediately shocked by the names of the rooms and some of the conversations that people were having.They were disgusting and inappropriate for kids at a young age. I had not expected for young teenagers to be talking about that many sexual things. Many of what people would say would have an innaproprate word in what they were saying.

The site did not allow bad words, so when somebody said something bad it would come out as Bobba. I at first did not get the whole bobba thing until I tried to see if you could say a bad word. For instance, if you wanted to say " I am going to suck your blood." The sentence would come out looking like " I am going to bobba your blood." If someone really wanted to say something without it looking like bobba they would simply type the word and just add an extra letter. I brought my teacher over, Mrs. Davis, and she saw all the conversations. The whole time I was in a room people were asking each other if they were single and private information.While I was there for five minutes I had been asked if I was single five times. I was also asked if I had MSN and if I had a web cam so we could " talk."  I was offended and disgusted the whole time I was on the site. I do not think that people realized how bad this site was, and they did not know that their children were on this site.

Maybe the next time someone recommends a site that they think will be good, they should go and check it out first. Thank you for listening for what I thought about the site Habbo."

The whole script and video with screenshots may be found here

So, my question is:

  • Are we blindly trusting technology?
  • Are we testing software and services OURSELVES to make sure that it does what it says it should? This is one reason for pilot programs.

Experts Can Fail Us
As I was pondering this on Saturday, Kindle Nation Daily released a portion of a best selling book, Waking Up Blind, by Tom Harbin, MD.  I was riveted by the story of how an over-busy doctor who was a "renowned expert" in opthamology changed charts, operated on the wrong eyes, and was contradicted by other "lower level" experts who told patients that they had nothing wrong with them but those patients trusted the "expert" instead.  This expert only had 2-3 minutes with each patient and had the fire marshall threatening to shut him down for firecode violations.

When confronted with the fact that this doctor was causing people to go blind, this is what another doctor said to himself:

"So what do you say to the patient? My chairman blew it; he missed your disease; sorry you're blind, but it's too late now. Instead of paying attention to the pressure recorded by his assistants and giving you some drops to keep you from going blind, he crossed out the numbers he didn't like, put his fingers on your eye, even though they quit doing that years and years ago, and wrote that the pressure was normal. So now your eye is blind and it didn't need to be. And I've seen so many like you already, I'm sick and half crazy. But, he couldn't express these thoughts to a patient."

What? 


This is why a book like Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High are so important.  And, in my opinion, it is time to put this type of book into the hands of teachers, parents, principals, curriculum directors - anyone charged with helping educate our students.


We have scarce resources, and we SHOULD be second guessing how we're spending our money.  What are we seeing for what we spend.  I'm IT director at my school, and yet, all the PO's I cut still go through the principal and often through the curriculum director. The practice of justifying what I'm doing keeps me thinking and questioning if there are other, better ways to do it.  Additionally, there are times when some things need to come out in the open.


But it is not my job!


If you think this, I want you to get the movie Amazing Grace about Sir William Wilberforce, the Englishman who singlehandedly pushed forward the abolition of slavery in the English Empire.  It is called Amazing Grace because the song was penned by his priest, the captain of a slave vessel for twenty years who said he lived in the company of "20,000 African ghosts who haunted his dreams." This is a powerful movie that everyone should see.


Oh, but, Vicki, that is preposterous, we're not talking about slavery here!  

You know what, my friend, if a machine malfunctions and the people don't check behind it to find the malfunction, that is murder.  

And if a person, no matter how powerful, is performing malpractice and you do not speak out about it, then are you not an accomplice to murder?


And if you see that valuable money is being wasted, that resources aren't being used wisely, and even more importantly, that children are being harmed by something we're doing, then it is your responsibility to have those Crucial conversations.  To speak out in a way to help positive change happen.


There is a way to speak out.  Great books like How to Win Friends & Influence People, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, and Crucial Conversations have helped me with these skills.


It is not a matter of distrust. It is a matter of knowing that machines do what they are told to do.  And if they are told to do the wrong thing, they do the wrong thing. It is our job to oversee the machines. 

It is our job to audit the experts.  If they are speaking the wrong thing, then we should speak back. It is our job to advocate for ourselves, our children, our organizations, our world.


And let me also point out, in a world of increasing complexity, more experts than ever, and high-stakes everything, teaching our children how to have these crucial conversations is also important.  The people who can have these conversations will improve and mark their organizations and themselves with a higher level of success than they would have otherwise.  Truly, crucial conversations are a skill to teach our students.  But what do you do with students who try to escalate issues that they think are unfair at school? Do we allow these crucial conversations to happen?


The best schools have empowering administrators who listen to those around them and empower them to be part of positive change.  They have the personal trust of those around them who know that the administrator cares for them personally and is ethical and asks for the teacher to be ethical as well.  


My opinion after reading these articles and thinking this through:


Time To Open Our Eyes and Be Wise, Blind Trust Leaves Our Future To Others - it is the job of all of us to be part of building a better future.

Teacher, parapro, principal, curriculum director, media specialist. We are all part of a team.  Let's have the crucial conversations we need to have to start moving forward.



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