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I’ve Seen the Future and the Future is Us (Using Google)

The past couple of weeks have been full of new technology announcements. Three in particular are notable because of the splash they received as “pre-releases” and how different one of them is from the other. I’ll readily admit that in these observations I have a particular bias, or at least a very narrow focus–I’m looking at the potential of these new technologies to transform and dramatically improve learning. By my count, one of the releases has the potential to do so. The other two? Not so much.

First, WolframAlpha launched amid buzz that it was the “Google killer.” It promised to revolutionize search by beginning to deliver on the much awaited “semantic web.” In their own worlds, Wolfram’s objective is to “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” This ambitious vision is intended to make better sense of the data accessible via the web to help us answer questions, solve problems, and make decisions more effectively. In the end, though, the tool is in reality “a variation on the Semantic Web vision . . . more like a giant closed database than a distributed Web of data.” It’s still early to be drawing final conclusions, but Google is not dead. Life goes on much the same as it did before. And, most importantly from my perspective, it does not appear that learning will be dramatically transformed, improved, or even impacted by the release of WolframAlpha. (BTW, I loved @courosa’s observation that “the Wolfram launch was like that group that claimed they were going to reveal evidence of UFOs a few yrs back.” After the hoopla died down, there wasn’t all that much “there” there.)

The second big product announcement, and the month’s next contestant for “Google Killer” status, was Microsoft’s Bing, Redmond’s latest attempt to reclaim its Web relevance. Microsoft is spinning Bing as a “decision engine,” also aimed at dramatically improving search. Beginning with the assertion that “nearly half of all searches don’t result in the answer that people are seeking,” the Bing team promises to deliver a tool that will yield “knowledge that leads to action” and help you “make smarter, faster decisions.” (By the way, is it still 2009? A product release website with text embedded in SilverLight that I can’t copy & paste? Really?) Again, it’s early–Bing isn’t even publicly available yet–but even if MS delivers on its lofty claims, this sort of technology doesn’t seem poised to transform learning.

Maybe I’m missing something, but better search doesn’t seem to be our biggest barrier to dramatically improved learning. And both WolframAlpha and Bing are coming at the problem of data overload with better search algorithms, better data processing tools, and intelligent data sorting / presentation tools. I think all of this is great. But neither of these approaches touches the fundamental, core activity of learning–making sense out the world’s complexities in communities of learners. In my “Post-LMS Manifesto” earlier this month, I observed:

Technology alone cannot save us or help us solve our most daunting societal problems. Only we, as human beings working together, can do that. And while many still long for the emergence of the virtual Aristotle, I do not. For I believe that learning is a fundamentally human endeavor that requires personal interaction and communication, person to person. We can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of human interaction with technology and communication tools, but the underlying reality is that real people must converse with each other in the process of “becoming.”

Having seen WolframAlpha and Bing, I’m even more firm in this belief. Advanced, improved, more sophisticated search and data sorting technology is much needed and wanted. I’ll be the first in line to use the search engine that proves itself more effective than Google Search. But, as the MLIS students at UBC understand, “without the person, the information is just data.”

A People Problem, Not a Data Problem

Enter Google Wave. In striking contrast to the Wolfram & MS attempts to surpass Google’s search predominance, Google itself announced that it had reinvented e-mail. It’s no coincidence that the reigning king of search hasn’t been spending all of its time and resources on reinventing search (although I don’t doubt that the Google brain trust is spending at least a few cycles doing that). Google has instead focused substantial energy on improving the tools we use to collaborate and communication around data and content.

In it’s Bing press release, MS notes that there are 4.5 new websites created every second. Two years ago, Michael Wesch noted that the world was on pace to create 40 exabytes (40 billion gigabytes) of new data. And the rate of data creation is only accelerating. More recently, Andreas Weigand contends that “in 2009, more data will be generated by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008.”

On the surface, this might seem less substantive than improved data search and analysis tools and, therefore, less relevant to the business or learning. But dealing with data overload and making sense out of it all is a fundamentally human problem. Again, we can extend, expand, enhance, magnify, and amplify the reach and effectiveness of our access to and analysis of data, but making sense out of it all requires individuals, groups and crowds to have conversations about the origins, interpretations and meanings of that data. That is essence of being human. We can outsource our memories to Google, but we cannot (should not!) outsource our judgment, critical analysis, and interpretive capacities to any mechanical system.

The Future of Learning and Learning Technology

<melodrama>I’ve seen the future. And the future is us.</mellodrama>. As we use–and even more importantly appropriate, adapt, and repurpose–tools like Google Wave, we can leverage technology to preserve and enhance that which is most fundamentally human about ourselves. I appreciated Luke’s reminder that teachers and learners should “take ownership of online teaching and learning tools” and, accordingly, “not be shy about reminding our users of their responsibilities, and our users shouldn’t be shy about asking for help, clarification, or if something is possible.” This is precisely what many users of Twitter have done. My startling realization about my Twitter activity is that it has become an indispensable component of my daily learning routine. It’s become a social learning tool for me, giving me access to people and content in a way I never imagined.

Based on an hour and 20 minute long video, Google Wave appears poised to dramatically improve on the Twitter model. Accordingly, the possibilities for enhanced interactions between learners are encouraging. And the ripples of the Wave (sorry, couldn’t resist) have profound implications. With Wave, entire learning conversations are captured and shared with dynamic communities of learners. Lars Rasmussen (co-creator of Wave) noted: “We think of the entire conversation object as being a shared object hosted on a server somewhere” (starting at about 6:22 into the presentation). The ability for late-joining participants to “playback” the conversation and get caught up is particularly intriguing. Elsewhere:

  • Jim Groom asserts that Google Wave will make the LMS “all but irrelevant by re-imagining email and integrating just about every functionality you could possibly need to communicate and manage a series of course conversations through an application as familiar and intimate as email.”
  • David Wiley wonders if Wave might “completely transform the way we teach and learn.”
  • Tim O’Reilly observes that the emergence of Wave has created a “kind of DOS/Windows divide in the era of cloud applications. Suddenly, familiar applications look as old-fashioned as DOS applications looked as the GUI era took flight. Now that the web is the platform, it’s time to take another look at every application we use today.”

All of this continues to point to the demise of the LMS as we know it. However, I agree with Joshua Kim’s observation that the LMS’s “future needs to be different from its past.” As he notes, he’s anxious to use Wave for group projects, but he wants his course rosters pre-loaded and otherwise integrated with institutional systems. This is, as I have previously noted, the most likely evolutionary path for learning technology environments–a hybrid between open, flexible cloud-based tools like Wave and institutionally managed systems that provide student data integration and keep assessment data secure. And this is bound to looking something a lot more like an open learning network than a traditional course management system.

As we adopt and adapt tools like Twitter and Google Wave to our purposes as learning technologists, we have to change the way we think about managing facilitating learning conversations. We can no longer be satisfied with creating easy to manage course websites that live inside moated castles. We have to open up the learning process and experience to leverage the vastness of the data available to us and the power of the crowd, all the while remembering that learning is fundamentally about individuals conversing with each other about the meaning and value of the data they encounter and create. Technologies like Google Wave are important, not in and of themselves, but precisely because they force us to remember this reality and realign our priorities and processes to match it.

I’ve seen the future of learning technology, and the future is us.

When the Lining of the Cloud ISN’T Silver . . .

November 24th, 2008 jonmott Comments

Google’s free SecondLife clone, Lively, is going away at the end of the year. As Google notes on its official blog, “not every bet is going to pay off.” Google’s recommendation for preserving what you’ve built on Lively? “We’d encourage all Lively users to capture your hard work by taking videos and screenshots of your rooms.” Hmm. Too bad there aren’t any 3D-world standards that would allow virtual environment creators to export and redeploy what they’ve created . . .  

The more pertinent note, at least for the subject matter of this blog, is that the lining of the cloud isn’t always silver. As Kyle Matthews noted in a post today, this should remind us all that free cloud-delivered software has an obvious and–depending on how much you rely on it–potentially devastating downside. Say you had built a rich 3D environment for a course you were going to launch in Lively next semester. You’d be out of luck. I’m thinking the “videos and screenshots of your rooms” would be missing some of the interactivity you had in mind when you set it up.

While PLEs are big part of the future of education and a world in which learning is more learner-centric, some caution is in order when we rely heavily on cloud-based apps. I’m not suggesting that Google Docs or Blogger are going to disappear anytime soon, but educational technologists run a decided risk when they rely on free cloud apps for mission critical teaching and learning functionality. One alternative is to deploy open source versions of these apps on servers we control on our own campuses, but that misses some of the promised efficiency and elegance of the Web 2.0 promise.

With economic hard times ahead, we might see several promising cloud apps disappear. Here’s hoping that the natural selection process won’t be too brutal. In the meantime, learning technologists must come to grips with the sometimes harsh economic realities of the Web 2.0 world. If our favorite app doesn’t prove economically viable, it will eventually go away. Then what?