The ‘Google’ Gene

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

There is the argument that the genes of technological innovation are frequently in conflict with emotional intelligence. Successful technological innovation is all about disruption. On the other hand, effective emotional intelligence is all about collaboration, that means how you get like-minded people to achieve a common goal and enjoy it.

One of the companies that managed to coexist collaboration and disruptive innovation is Google. The planet has been Googled, with Google becoming part of our lives, like brushing our teeth. It has eliminated barriers to finding information and knowledge. While the Internet makes information available Google makes it accessible. While twenty years ago entrepreneurs would have said ‘I’d like to be the next Bill Gates and Microsoft’, today people’s great ambition is to be the next Google. It has become the place to go for information and probably the most visible service concocted by mankind.

Collaboration has also been central to Google. Indeed, Google is becoming what Microsoft was in 1998. Microsoft’s power was the ability to leverage its operating system to control the various applications that use the operating system. So, Microsoft offered a free browser to knock out the Netscape browser and attacked Java software that might facilitate competition with the underlying operating system. On the other hand, Google’s power extends to more than one layer of the network. Its power flows from a different source. Google produced an amazing machine for building data, and that data has its own ‘network effect’– the more people who use it, the more data generated. Everything sits on top of that layer, starting with search. Every time we search, we give Google some value because we pick a certain result. And every time we pick a result, Google learns something from that. So each time we do a search, we are adding value to Google’s database. One potential here is that the data layer is more dangerous from a policy perspective as it cuts across layers of human life.

So far, there haven’t been any concrete evidence that Google misbehaved in the way Microsoft misbehaved when they tried to leverage the operating system to protect themselves against competition. So, far they’ve been good guys. Yet, that leads to a question: Why do we expect them to be good guys from now till the end of time?

Like Microsoft, Google might become intoxicated by power and succumb to the same human failures. Theirs might be an old story about how good people deceive themselves. As Microsoft did in the nineties, you become so convinced that you are good that you become oblivious. Is this becoming true at Google today? Hopefully, the counter-argument that the genes of technological innovation exist in harmony with emotional intelligence would be exemplified by Google.

Do you read me HAL?

September 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Internet is not alive, not even in the sense that sourdough is, I know that. But somehow it seems to have a life of its own, bubbling away and growing, throbbing with all the chaos of people using it for all the things they want to do. It moves through our lives on its own terms, it seems, and offers us something we all need a lot: the opportunity to be part of something bigger than just our solitary self.
The Internet is an electronic illusion of coherent life, but the life that animates it is real enough. It is a new manifestation of human co-existence that creates new possibilities for discovery, participation, collaboration, richness. It is what we cannot be on our own: the combined us, which I think is what we all want to experience at some level of our consciousness. The beauty of the Internet for me is that you can enjoy this membership on your own terms. I could not bear to be a member of a church or a bike club, because although part of me wants to be just like everyone else and belong, I don’t like the walls closing in around me. The Internet doesn’t mind what I do: I can watch and listen, I can browse, I can join in, I can commit, I can wander off whenever I want to.
And I can belong to Facebook. Well I do, sort of. Today I thought I’d see how things are going on in there, because it had been a while. Within moments, I received this email: “Hi Chris, Welcome back to Facebook! Let your friends know what you’ve been up to.” It even suggested some people I might like to get in touch with (interesting choices, actually). But I have not let my friends know what I have been up to. This is because (a) I have been up to nothing and (b) thanks to Facebook, I don’t know what the word friend means any more. Still, I guess this means that I do belong, so that must be good.
One of the young people we spoke to in a research interview recently told me that Facebook was great because “it’s all the elements in one place, which is better” and “nowadays you’ve got Facebook on your phone, it almost removes the need for other communications”. Another said, equally approvingly, that “some people are on Facebook 24/7, you can guarantee you can always find them on”. But then again, another (and he was not the only one who saw it this way) had given it up because “I didn’t really like it … the conversations were a bit the same. It’s not the same as speaking personally …”. Well that’s how I feel too – I do not like the required manners of Facebook, at all. And even more, I do not like this thing about channelling everything you do on the Internet through Facebook. It looks to me, right now, that Facebook is growing so fast it could suffocate the whole Internet, replacing freedom and expansiveness with something ultimately lifeless: the inertnet.
So maybe I had better get out while I can. But what will Facebook write to me when I disappear for good? “Where have you gone, Chris?” “Are you trying to leave me now, Chris?” And when I finally cry out in despair, and plead with it to free me from the burden of belonging, it will pause, and then quietly murmur, “I’m sorry, Dave Chris, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Call for a Political Theory of Educational Communications Technologies (CTs)

September 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

Although CTs as artefacts are logically neutral, they do not make themselves or exist in a vacuum. Instead, they are constructed and fragmented by powerful and powerless interests. However, it is the powerful interests, of course, that tend to be the ones sitting at the planning table and deciding how the product is planned. Our HEIs, which are supposed to have education as their top priority, however, should strengthen powerless interests. This strengthening can be done by viewing the process of planning and developing educational CTs as a political activity in which all stakeholders collectively negotiate interests and needs. Such involvement by stakeholders should be regarded as an integral part of education if we want to inculcate a culture of critical reflection into our graduates and wider society. This implies that all members of HEIs should be trained to be politically literate and reflectively critical, aware of processes at the forefront of their consciousness. This suggests the establishment of a new field of research that views educational CTs through a political lens.
One may express serious reservations about how realistic the suggestion of stakeholder involvement is, arguing that conservative academic societies must be pushed into technological developments to embrace them. Besides, stakeholders who lack intimate and practical comprehension of organisations and technologies must not be supplied with power. These two arguments, to an extent, have their own logic. Thus, the involving of stakeholders should not mean authorising them to freely determine a syllabus or policy. Instead, it should mean using stakeholders to reach a more nuanced picture of conceptual contrast and, in turn, to make informed decisions. This is important, since effective organisational conceptualisation, development and creativity are likely to come not simply down from ‘the top’ but also up from ‘the bottom.’ Stakeholder involvement enhances understanding, acceptance, ownership and responsibility. However, this involvement is also likely to raise consciousness and, in turn, to ignite a possibly dormant battle. Such conflict, however, is not in itself undesirable, since it is an important mechanism for spreading a culture of critical reflection throughout society.

Playing a game of terminology

September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

Aleks Krotoski recently wrote an article on games, which was published in the journal, Nature. In it, she used computer-based games such as Fate of the World and World Without Oil to illustrate her point that these games could be used as platforms for learning, particularly for Science. In response to the article, Anthony D. Pellegrini cautioned that “games and play mean different things in an educational context” and that it is incorrect for Krotoski to use the two terms interchangeably. Yet when I read the article again, I struggled to find instances where Krotoski used games and play interchangeably. In the few rare occasions when she did, she was referring to the action of playing the game, rather than play itself. It didn’t help that the introductory sentence of the article, “Sophisticated multimedia experiments offer platforms for learning about science through play”, seemed to place the emphasis on play instead of games.

Whilst I agree with Pellegrini that care has to be taken when defining and using terminology, I fail to see why this should be a contentious point in the context of Krotoski’s article. The whole point of Krotoski’s article is to highlight the potential of computer-based games in learning. Even if the meaning of “play” has been synonymously associated with “games”, my opinion is that the difference in semantics is subtle, especially for non-domain experts. This is not to say that I condone a loose use of terminologies in technical writing. What I am questioning is whether one should see an article in its entirety and appreciate the ideas it is trying to convey, or zoom in to dissect the definition of a single term used in the passage. There is, after all, a danger of missing the forest for the trees.

Nevertheless, if I may play a game with words myself, I’ll say that I agree with Pellegrini that Krotoski’s article did little to support her suggestion that “computer-based play can support learning in schools“. It did, however, give the readers some idea of how “computer-based play can support learning”, though not necessarily in schools or in the formal educational context.

Kindling interest in e-book readers

September 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Like many people in the education world I’m addicted to my favourite bookshops. Of course I buy books online as well, and I’ve even been known to read Three Men in a Boat on my laptop, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Most of my own research work also involves using source material that has been digitised. Without such tools my life would be ten times harder than it is – thinking about the research process for graduate students in the 1970s makes me grateful for the searching, indexing, tagging, annotating and sharing that is now so easy to do.

I can’t get away however from the pleasure of browsing real books in a real bookstore, and so it frustrates me when discussion of digitising books turns into a battle between lovers of the book and those who have seen the future and are sure it Tweets. Books are a well understood, easy to replicate technology. The future lifespan of the book can be counted in decades in my opinion and possibly another few centuries.

Alongside this traditionally published material we can expect to use specialist devices to access the written word. I  recently borrowed an Amazon Kindle and a Sony E-book reader from the Bodleian library, in order to see how they function as research tools for students. I have also spent part of the summer playing with various members of Apple’s i-family of products, including the new i-Phone 4’s crystal clear Retina Display.

There are some great independent reviewers of these products and I’m not going to do that here. What I am going to do is use them to explain how education technology can change the landscape in which learning takes place, often in surprising ways. My own experience of using these products was that, in contrast to my pre-conceptions, e-book readers were not well suited to my needs as a researcher.  I could only use them to read and annotate – or share my notes or do a multitude of other really useful things. For me though, I can do all that on my laptop and also multi-task with other work. For pleasure reading though I found them really useful. This doesn’t mean I would never use one for research purposes but that for me, and I find this a somewhat odd thought, an e-book reader is not going to the top of my research tool wish-list. I’m sure there’s a place for the e-book reader; it’s in my beach bag as I go on holiday.

I’m not going to give up on thinking about how digitised written material can be accessed and used by students and teachers, but for me the idea of these devices being in widespread use in classrooms, in their current incarnation at least, seems unlikely. To my mind the iPad is the best current contender for a flexible mobile device on which research materials could be viewed,. This does nothing to alter my view that the impact of what is learned and how that knowledge is acquired will not be much affected by these technologies except in specific contexts. I’ll revisit the issue in a year’s time and see how silly I Iook by being foolish enough to predict the future.

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