Some big hitting technologies (shiny show special)

Well, it's been an eventful few weeks for technology releases, which have been blogged to death, but here's a quick roundup from my point of view.

Google Wonderwheel – the smallest of the releases, but potentially significant. Wonderwheel gives a visual representation of search terms, with the term at the centre and then related ones around it. Naturally, each of these terms is itself searchable, so you can quickly build up an expanded search tree across a domain. Here is a search I did using Tony Hirst's blog name (OUseful Info) as the starting term:

Expanded Google wonder wheel for 'ouseful' on Twitpic

You could dismiss this as just some shiny added to search, but hat is interesting from an educational perspective is how users might engage with it, and what would be sharable. It encourages exploration around a topic in a manner that standard text results doesn't, so you explore one term after another. And if that expanded tree of searches is sharable, then what you have is a means of generating mindmaps but with the power of search underneath. The search result itself becomes a more sharable object.

Having said that, it gives some strange results currently (it isn't just a Google search made visual), so it has some way to go still.

Wolfram Alpha – speaking of having some way to go still, we have Wolfram Alpha. Wolfram is touted as the tool which will bring sense to the web. To quote from their site:

"We aim to collect and curate all objective data; implement every
known model, method, and algorithm; and make it possible to compute
whatever can be computed about anything. Our goal is to build on the
achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to
provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for
definitive answers to factual queries.

Wolfram|Alpha aims
to bring expert-level knowledge and capabilities to the broadest
possible range of people—spanning all professions and education levels.
Our goal is to accept completely free-form input, and to serve as a
knowledge engine that generates powerful results and presents them with
maximum clarity."

The most immediate comparison is with Google, but Wolfram is different, it aims to be more of a scientific oracle: come to it with a question which systematized knowledge can answer and it will generate a structured response.

One has to except it is in alpha (the clue is in the name), but even so, I found it disappointing. For a successful term it generates a page not dissimilar to a wikipedia page (eg try 'clouds'). But given its claims to 'free-form input', this aspect was weak (eg, try 'cloud formation'), and it doesn't degrade gracefully outside its domains (try 'FA Cup'). I do like the structure it provides, with different categories, and the neat bundle of different representations it gives.

Potentially then it could be used to generate overviews of subjects, and in this respect perhaps wikipedia is a better comparison than Google. Beyond this will be the ability to ask more detailed scientific questions, when it might really become a useful tool for helping students become researchers and ask intelligent questions of data.  And this may be our problem with it at the moment – knowing where it fits amongst our current array of knowledge tools. At the moment, it's a wait and see proposition.

Microsoft Natal – this is Microsoft's answer to the Nintendo Wii for the Xbox. It does away with controls and instead claims to be able to allow interaction purely by camera. There is a good deal of demo about it at the moment, so let's not be surprised if it isn't as good as this flashy video:

But let's assume we get there within the next few years. We should view this not as a games console but as an interaction console: the potential for interaction in education are obviously enormous. Can we really expect students to be using forums when they are used to interacting like this? And beyond this it has implications for how we all work – if we had this level of high quality interaction then the notion of a shared physical space (the office) becomes substantially weakened.

While this may be Microsoft hype at the moment, as a vision of interaction it's powerful. And it demonstrates to me that the gap between what we conceive of as technology (and communication, collaboration, user experience, etc) in the educational world and what people experience in the real world is getting wider.

Google Wave – Google seem to have done what many of us have been expecting they would do, and bundle together some apps and add some new ones to create a suite of tools that looks a lot like a VLE/LMS, only interesting. They call it a 'personal communication and collaboration tool', and it's open source. Michael Feldstein has an excellent overview of its potential. Here is a very long video of its announcement:

Jim argues that it is the death of the VLE/LMS. I have been wary of the argument that higher education has to change because the generation of students today are so accustomed to using cool tools and resources that they will demand the same from education. I am sceptical of it from two perspectives:

1) It overstates the proficiency of lots of students

2) Students don't perceive the tools and resources they use in education as the same type of thing as they do in 'the wild', so therefore accept that they have a different experience.

But I think Google Wave and Natal (and if not them, things like them) change this dynamic. These are very much the same type of tool, and doing the same type of behaviour that will be asked of them in education. Even the most accepting student is then going to ask of their VLE, 'couldn't this be better done in Wave?'

2 Comments

  1. “Students don’t perceive the tools and resources they use in education as the same type of thing as they do in ‘the wild’ so therefore accept that they have a different experience.”
    The OU students I study with (as opposed to work with) make that link all the time, and they constantly use tools that I find quite marginal. For example the oU library resources are fantastic, but my fellow students will turn to Google Scholar as a first resource.
    “Even the most accepting student is then going to ask of their VLE, ‘couldn’t this be better done in Wave?'”
    Maybe you overestimate OU students’ engagement with the VLE as a VLE. I think they largely just ‘look at my course website’. Then they go and search, socialise, mindmap, blog, feed-read and bookmark elsewhere.
    Wave might oust some of the other services they use but they’ll continue ‘dropping in’ to their VLE as they do now.

  2. Project Natal as an interaction console is a great idea, if in the near future they’ll implement this in school as an aide for teaching, well I guess more and more students will be participating in a discussion. It will develop social interaction and it will make subject matters more interesting. Actually, I’ve read an article tackling world of warcraft as a new school subject. I guess it will lessen school drop outs if that thing happen.

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