IBM’s Watson is very 20th century


Posted on 15th February 2011 by Judy Breck in Crowd review | Next


As you have likely heard, the competition began last night between IBM’s Watson computer and Jeopardy’s 2 greatest champions. The competition is described in a Chronicle of Higher Education story yesterday. Today the New York times is offering a game where you can test your Jeopardy skills against Watson.

I think that at least for the foreseeable future, the best way to use computers for arriving at correct answers is what Google captured that revolutionized search engines by placing human knowledge into an open network where the crowd reviews it. I will bet that a Google search will correctly answer any question asked in this contest, and do so faster than either Watson or the past champions. If that is not true, I think it will be true in the future as algorithms continue to be perfected for using networks to capture the wisdom of the crowd.

You may think me daft, but I poo-poo Watson knowing that network science is not yet in the mainstream and has a lot of enlightenment to bring to the sciences. This is a course now being taught by Barabasi, who discovered scale-free networks and is one of the handful of seminal network scientists. The lectures do not have audio (I hope that is coming!) but the PowerPoints are worth downloading to review the images if you are interested in this topic. The first lecture has a slide quoting Stephen Hawking saying: “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” Two slides later this simple statement sums things up: “Behind each complex system there is a network that defines the interactions between the components.” Crowd wisdom is a product of the mammoth open internet.

For example: Mobile phones and internet access have provided in Egypt (65% have the devices) a network that allows the citizenry a role in defining things.

I think the Jeopardy competition will be fun to watch, but that Watson amounts to IBM spending a whole lot of money on something very 20th century.

Yes, I realize the artificial intelligence and natural language folks believe they are working on the future. Perhaps they have enough appreciation for the roles of complexity and network science — but that I doubt.

Digital natives have a greater understanding of Wikipedia


Posted on 11th February 2011 by Judy Breck in Crowd review | Findability | Next


There is good reason students trust how Wikipedia is edited: two levels of crowd review.

Did pre-digital students dig into heuristics-related issues before quoting encyclopedias Britannica? or Americana? or Newsweek? or Life? or their textbook? I was there. I know they did not. As a student at Northwestern University in the 1950s, I was expected to trust mainstream media, my textbooks assigned by a professor, and the books in Deering Library. Checking into how these sources were edited never came up.

Against that background, assumptions need to be questioned in a Wired Campus story today titled Wikipedia’s Editing Process Is Still a Mystery to Students. The Wired story is about the work of a Ph.D candidate now active at Northwestern University. A section from the Wired story follows:

Ms. Menchen-Trevino found it surprising that members of the “digital native” generation—defined by Wikipedia itself as “a young person, who — through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts” — remain unaware of the way in which the online encyclopedia functions.

“People need to update their heuristics,” she says.

Wikipedia remains a valuable resource for students, she acknowledges, but they need to be aware of who is editing content and of the conversations surrounding certain topics, especially those that may be controversial or are ever-changing.

Of the students in the study, 77 percent had used Wikipedia at some point in their research, 47 percent went through a search engine to reach Wikipedia, 19 percent went to the site directly, and 36 percent used both direct access and a search engine to reach the site.

Many students increasingly “approach Wikipedia as a search engine,” says Ms. Hargittai.

Digital natives are relying on crowd review. Wikipedia contents they access have been reviewed in ways unimaginable in the 1950s: Anyone can jump into Wikipedia content to fix errors and add knowledge. Those who have assumed the crowd reviewers would corrupt knowledge have been proven largely wrong by the experience of Wikipedia. Back in the 1950s we had more reasons to have questioned our sources — which often had limited input from biased authors. For sure, digital natives are getting far more diverse sources of knowledge and opinion than we ever did.

By using Wikipedia as a search engine, the students — who are digital natives — demonstrate their greater understanding of Wikipedia than researchers quoted in the Wired story seem to have. When a student jumps into a Wikipedia article from a search engine results page, the ranking of that page by the search engine has provided a first level of crowd review from the open internet. If that same student then uses Wikipedia as a search engine, she is taking advantage of the review of her subject by the crowd of Wikipedians. Nothing close to this broad and multiple review ever happened at Deering Library in the 1950s.

Virtually any student anywhere can (soon) read virtually all books


Posted on 9th February 2011 by Judy Breck in Findability | Mobiles | Next

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The iPhone pictures above are from a video by Lexcycle, the makers of the iPhone reader called Stanza. Anyone who cares about doing right by students should watch this video — or in some other way get a real idea of the ease and power with which books can be placed in the hands of learners by letting them read books on their handheld devices. Mashable described Stanza and four similar readers in an article last April titled 5 Fantastic Free iPhone E-book Reader Apps.

Reading on phones is not all that new. As far back as four years ago, reading novels on phones was making headlines: Big Books Hit Japan’s Tiny Phones.

In recent months, digital publishing has been maturing. It is revolutionizing the publishing industry.

Availability of books is proliferating. Venerable, wonderful Project Gutenberg remains true to its original philosophy by now offering free ebooks:

Project Gutenberg is the place where you can download over 33,000 free ebooks to read on your PC, iPad, Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone, Android or other portable device…. Over 100,000 free ebooks are available through our Partners, Affiliates and Resources.

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education describes how ebooks are reconfiguring citations. The conclusion of the article quotes an expert who “. . . looks forward to a time when most reading is done digitally, and electronic links replace long descriptions of how to find each reference.”

If someone had predicted in that past that all students anywhere could hold virtually any book in their hands and read it there, that person would have been dismissed as a cockeyed optimist.

Yet we now know that virtually any student anywhere can read virtually all books on his/her phone — as soon as we get it done. What are we waiting for?

Handuprisings and handschooling


Posted on 29th January 2011 by Judy Breck in Mobiles | Next


Handhelds are empowering revolutions. Why are we not using them to empower education?

This morning at Howard Rheingold’s, where I am on the blogging team, I posted this: Could Egypt be having a “Flash Mob Revolution?” I quoted a post by Jazz Shaw who described how mobile devices are used to organize scattered mobile device owners to takes some sort of action.

Another blogger, Mark A.M. Kramer, writes about how the Egyptian government has shut down wireless communication in order to halt the demonstrations.

I just heard on the news that U.S. State Department spokesman P.J Crowley is using Twitter to send policy messages about Egypt.

Lesson: The way to reach Egyptians is through their handheld devices.

Question: Why then do we not deliver knowledge for the learning in the same way? Why not?

If the Sphinx knows he is not talking.

A gumball perspective on global handschooling


Posted on 25th January 2011 by Judy Breck in Equality | Mobiles | Next

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In this video presentation from NUMBERSUSA.ORG, Roy Beck uses each gumball to represent one million impoverished people. The theme of Beck’s presentation is the futility of immigration as a means of curing poverty. He concludes that it is much more effective to bring the change to where they live to lift the 5.6 billion people represented by the gumballs, than to solve their woes through immigration.

Let’s use the gumballs to think about handschooling:

Most of the 5.6 billion people represented in the gumballs already have a mobile phone. Soon essentially all of them will.

Impoverish people, as Beck calls these billions, are trending strongly to leapfrogging stationery computers to use the internet, connecting online with their mobiles instead.

Most of the student-aged population in the gumballs have inadequate schools or none at all. The task of building, equipping, and running enough schools could take decades — if indeed it can be done at all. Each gumball = a million students, which is the number of students in the world’s largest school system, in New York City. That system has more than 1600 individual schools. Even a handful of gumballs is many hundreds of schools.

Instead of pouring money into building a hundreds of old time brick and mortar schools each year, to enroll a gumball or two worth of students, why not enlightened Beck’s full jars of student-age and older people right away? They can use their mobiles to browse the Web to locate knowledge and learn it.

I suggest you watch Beck’s video and think about it in terms of education instead of immigration. The massiveness of th challenge of building schools is made dramatically clear — yet the handschooling solution is within our easy reach.

HT/R. Dalke

“Academically Adrift” book reveals college realities


Posted on 18th January 2011 by Judy Breck in Findability | Mobiles | Schools we now have

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Appalling academic inadequacies revealed in the new book Academically Adrift are buzzing across the education world and into pubic awareness. From today’s headlines:

USA Today: “Report: First two years of college show small gains”

Chronicle of Higher Education: “New Book Lays Failure to Learn on Colleges’ Doorsteps”

At, even though only the hardcover (for $66) is offered, Academically Adrift, released three days ago, is already selling in the site’s top 5,000 books. The publisher, Chicago University Press also offers a $25 paperback.

Why the big interest? The pie chart from the book (and USA Today) breaks down how students spend their time. The USA Today story begins with this summary of the results of what kids are actually accomplishing academically on campus:

Nearly half of the nation’s undergraduates show almost no gains in learning in their first two years of college, in large part because colleges don’t make academics a priority, a new report shows.

Instructors tend to be more focused on their own faculty research than teaching younger students, who in turn are more tuned in to their social lives, according to the report, based on a book titled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Findings are based on transcripts and surveys of more than 3,000 full-time traditional-age students on 29 campuses nationwide, along with their results on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test that gauges students’ critical thinking, analytic reasoning and writing skills.

How long could it be before colleges could address this situation and truly change it? Who knows? And can we really expect education as served up at colleges to get better?

Yet an individual student’s mobile web browser — smartphone, iPad, laptop — offers immediate access to anything he or she would want to learn. Shall we fix the colleges? Sure — but what about the current generation of students?

While the colleges are figuring out 21st century education, current students can go ahead and learn using the new great source of knowledge that they already have in their hands.

And if you are thinking: Gosh, will the kids really do that? My answer is individually many, many of them will. Handschooling is the great future port for academic knowledge, and it is reachable now for today’s students who want to go there. We can be certain students will stay academically adrift if we perpetuate the myth that the way colleges are doing academics now will somehow deliver to them the knowledge they want to learn.

UPDATE: I posted the above text at 10AM. By 5PM, as I add this update, Academically Adrift is #34 on the Amazon list of best-selling books. Amazon is now selling the paperback version for $18.

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