Friday, November 1, 2013

Patent Trolling WMDs

The patent reformation working it's way through Washington is too late to prevent a multi-billion-dollar collection of suits from being filed.

Make no mistake, these companies bid on the Nortel patent package with the intention of clobbering Google with it.

In the end, it is the consumer who loses. Each of these companies will spend hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars, products will be more expensive, innovation will be stifled (the opposite of what patents are supposed to do), etc. etc.

New Zealand has recently abolished patents on computer software. The theory is that, unlike in medicine or in machinery where you need a massive investment to develop and research your product once you come up with an idea, the investment between going from an idea to a working product is almost zero in software. Not only that, but consumers actually benefit when there are common interfaces across different software platforms. Example: the shopping cart. Can you imagine a website where you would have to buy something without it? You would have to purchase each product individually. A trillion dollar Internet-based economy down the drain because someone patented an obvious idea.

Luckily, in the shopping cart patent case, one company, NewEgg, decided to fight and won. They found prior art, and were able to get the patents invalidated.

I'm confident Google will be able to do the same thing here. The notion of displaying an advertisement next to information on your website so you can make a profit while sharing information for free has to predate the 1997 patent, even if the patent predates the 1998 company.

Friday, December 7, 2012

MOOCs, Flipped, and Adaptive Learning

Trying to get through a backlog of journals and magazines this weekend, I came across this excellent synthesis of several big ideas that have garnered a lot of attention in the education technology field lately. Specifically, how do MOOCs, flipped classrooms, adaptive learning (Khan Academy), and brick-and-mortar schools fit together? This article, better than any other I've read, explains a lot about the potential for these technologies, and the role that traditional schools (specifically colleges and higher education) will always play.

Carr begins with a brief background on each of the big MOOC players. They've all been started by computer science folks (and artificial intelligence folks in particular). This is not by accident. First, the subject matter is concrete and easy to break into any-sized pieces. It lends itself well to the audience (anyone taking an online course at this stage is likely a bit tech-savvy). And, most importantly, at least a few of the founders are as interested in the data generated by tens of thousands of students as they are in providing a platform for free knowledge transmission to the global population.

Why do they care about data? Tim Fish has said for a decade now that he's a "data guy." Me too. The data Tim talks about is one kind, what I'll call small data. Often this data is individualized (e.g. we can put together a dashboard to show everything relevant to a particular student on one screen, their attendance, grades, sports teams, parents' phone numbers, and thus DASH was born). Sometimes it has been lightly aggregated (e.g. our professional growth software Folio shows teachers what the average and standard deviation are for "organized" in their classroom). Sometimes it has been heavily aggregated (e.g. Folio shows our headmaster that "knowledgeable" is the number one adjective used by students to describe McDonogh teachers). This is all powerful stuff, and information that would have been hard to synthesize 15 years ago, using paper. However, all of this data is about McDonogh: our students, our teachers, our school. We can use it to help guide individual decisions on a daily basis, but it doesn't apply outside of this school.

Big data is different. Big data is hugely aggregated. Google is a master of big data. What's the difference? Big data doesn't care who you are. It can be anonymous or not, but it doesn't matter. No human being sits in Google's datacenters and types out the results of your search queries. Instead, Google knows that 10,000 people searched for "best cough medicine" or "flu symptoms" in the Maryland area this week, so it's likely that there's a higher-than-average risk of a flu outbreak in the area. For traffic, Google has built a portable data collector and installed them in hundreds of millions of cars around the world, each one sending out a small anonymous ping every few minutes (you may know these spy devices as "smartphones"). When you allow them, Google uses those pings in the aggregate to determine what traffic conditions are; if 90% of the pings on the 695 northside inner loop haven't moved much in the last 15 minutes, there may be a backup, and the computer automatically updates the traffic report for that section of highway. Incidentally, Google doesn't do this out of the goodness of their hearts: when you search for "flu symptoms" or "traffic" they can show you advertisements for cough medicine or luxury cars that make the commute more bearable.

So, imagine you are running a class, Algebra. Your content is discrete and very concrete. 1+1=2, every time. You build yourself a tool to help tutor the students in your class, offering them small quizzes and extra videos. This tool allows you to collect data (individualized or aggregated, doesn't matter). Suddenly, you find that 80% of your students failed a quiz. You investigate, and realize that you could have more fully covered the difficult material on that section. That's small data. Imagine having that for every question, instead of every quiz. A majority of your students missed the questions about negative exponents. Slightly bigger data. Imagine you have five sections of Algebra, and the morning sections got the questions right, but the afternoon sections didn't. Time for more coffee at lunch, but maybe you also taught the material slightly differently in the morning. Bigger data. Add some more orders of magnitude. Suddenly, with 10,000 students, you have a laboratory at your fingertips. Students learning with one model (the morning method) answered the questions right. Students using another model (the afternoon method) didn't. You learn, and adjust your course to use the morning model, but now with two more modifications. Now imagine you run a not-for-profit free online university with 200 courses, 400 faculty, and two million students. You can collect all sorts of data about which types of students are most likely to succeed in which settings doing which kinds of work.

This is part of why so many people have poured so much money into MOOCs in the past year (at least $60 million) — they have the potential to help us learn so much about how we learn. This data has another use, however. Imagine if the big data is a bit more personalized. The MOOC platform discovers that I am a visual learner through my interactions on a number of quizzes and questions. It knows that visual learners have tended to learn the material more quickly when given the tutorial videos in a particular order. Or it knows that a kinesthetic learner needs reminders to take a break or to be assigned different kinds of problems. The software can adapt itself to each individual learner, becoming a more powerful tutor for every student. This is adaptive learning, and this is what Khan Academy is currently focused on. Taking lessons from thousands of students, the platform learns which small morsel of information each student needs next to ensure every student is as successful as possible. Big data is turned around and used to help each student, and the process has come full circle.

So are these MOOCs going to replace universities? Not likely. There is still a powerful experience for learners involved in realtime face-to-face communication (you may call this a "classroom discussion" or a "lecture"). Many subjects can't be broken into discrete any-sized bits (I imagine my ninth grade English teacher Wright Abbot, devotee of everything Faulkner, cringing after being asked to make five-minute videos about The Sound and the Fury). Brick-and-mortar schools (like McDonogh where I work) provide the other half of the equation; learning isn't just about information delivery, mastering the content. Ironically, this is where flipped learning can come in. Flipped allows students to spend time outside of the classroom absorbing content, parsing through material, listening to "boring" lectures. When they come to class, they engage in active discussion and participate in more active learning. English classes have been "flipped" for a century. Nobody expects the students to read the novel in class. Instead, they take in content at home, and then analyze and synthesize in school with a master teacher to help guide them through the process. This is the crux of Salman Khan's new book, that there is still a place for students to gather together face-to-face.

A potential niche for MOOCs in the long term is for lifelong learning, the notion that inquisitive and curious adults are constantly absorbing new knowledge, learning new skills, and challenging themselves. A teacher came to me recently wanting to learn how to program. He wanted to learn to build software and websites. I had a few resources for him (all online tutorials) but what I wish I had offered was a link to a Computer Science 101 MOOC, a free, online course for this teacher to spend time familiarizing himself with the principles behind the art of computer science, while providing him an opportunity to practice with graded quizzes and a community of similarly-interested learners. How many times in the past have you suggested to someone (or thought for yourself) to take a class at the local community college on ... computers, finance, art history, biology, oenology, etc. MOOCs don't need to replace universities — they don't need to compete for the same students.

I believe that all of these developments are incredibly exciting, and that we are just getting started with the potential for these education technologies. Equally important, however, I don't envision these technologies decreasing the importance of master teachers or traditional schools. Instead, I think in the future technology will help with the "heavy lifting," allowing every student to help customize his or her own learning, and allowing teachers better insight into how to reach each student in the most effective way.

Monday, October 1, 2012

California's Creative Commons Textbooks


Image courtesy of user opensourceway on Flickr
This week, a tip-of-the-hat to Matt Goode for the find.

California has just passed a law that will see state universities create and distribute 50 "open" textbooks, available both in digital download format and dead-tree hardcopy if you prefer.

I think the big news here is the Creative Commons license.  Essentially, the textbooks created here are open source.  Like computer code, you can download the textbook, keep the parts you like, remove the parts you don't, and add new parts of your own creation if you wish.  A movement has been taking off in the last two to three years with this kind of open courseware / open textbooks.  The Horizon Report, an annual "what's coming next" for education technology, identified in 2010 the use of open textbooks as encouraged within one year (the report issues one, three, and five year horizons to adoption).

The software industry had a huge crisis of confidence with "open" in the 90's and early aughts.  Microsoft fought hard to kill open source competition (namely Linux).  Early arguments against open source were that "amateurs" could not develop code of the same quality as paid professionals, that without funding open source could never develop bug-free and reliable software, and that nobody would be interested in devoting their personal time to the development of open source, etc.

We're already starting to see some of the same arguments from for-profit textbook publishers versus open courseware.  Susie Scienceteacher could never develop a textbook on her own that would be of the same quality as that produced by a professional author and a team of editors, and without funding Susie's textbook will never rid itself of errors or omissions, and why would Susie or anyone like her ever want to waste her time working on a free textbook that she will never make money from?  Meanwhile, some of the big publishers (Pearson, Macmillan, Cengage) are taking the Microsoft model and are suing companies that are trying to build libraries of open textbooks.  Open threatens their business model (so they assume), so it must be exterminated.

Free open source software (FOSS) won the war.  It took 10 years, but today FOSS powers (in part) almost every device and computer you see, and forms the foundation of some of the hottest technologies out there.  FOSS is on the Mars rovers, powers every Android smartphone, and has been fully vetted and accepted by governments and businesses the world over.  FOSS powers more than 72% of web servers on the Internet.

Last year, Microsoft admitted it was wrong, and has been a contributor to open source for the past several years.  It learned that there is a place for open, and a place for closed, and it has found a balance with Linux.

In ten years will textbooks be in the same boat?  Will students be using a hybrid textbook, part written by a professional author, part written by teachers, and perhaps even part written by students who've taken the class before?  I hope so.

I am proud to say that my high school and employer, McDonogh, is as always years ahead of this curve.  Marty McKibbin worked with his students for years to develop a textbook for use in his American History classes.  When I took his class in 2000, each student got a bound textbook titled, "What If?  Exploring the Paths Not Taken in American History."  The book was published in 1994, was entirely composed of essays written by McDonogh students, edited by Marty, and was featured in the Baltimore Sun in 1995.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reddit: Community-Sourced News

I wrote the following summary of Reddit for someone I met at a party this weekend.  She is an executive producer at a local news channel, and hadn't heard of Reddit (though she had heard of Digg).  It's surprising how easy it is to get carried away with a "short summary" once you get started.

Reddit.com, which begin in 2005, now averages 35 million unique viewers and over 2 billion page views each month.  It contains more than 100,000 sub-communities, of which about 10% have more than 100 people in them.  Reddit is the 50th most popular web site in the United States, and 119th in the world.  The community is truly global, and the connections it forms are instantaneous.  The basic premise is simple: visitors to the site submit links to anything (news articles, pictures, videos) and other users vote on those stories.  The links with the most votes in a day rise to the top.  Each link also has a "comments" section, where other visitors can post responses to the link.  Comments work on the same principle as the links, they are "upvoted" or "downvoted" and the best rise to the top.

If you go to the Reddit home page without being signed in, you'll get a mish-mash of garbage.  The top 10 communities are too popular, and attract all sorts of fluff - pictures of cats, discussions about video games, all stuff that panders to the least common denominator.

Instead, if you pick and choose 10 or 15 communities from off of the beaten path and put them together, you can get a lot of really good information very quickly.  Here are 10 germane groups I picked from my list about 60.


One of the most interesting communities you'll see on that page above is the IAMA, which is short for "I Am A..." - this is a crowd-sourced interview platform.  Celebrities, scientists, and public figures come to Reddit to answer questions directly from the masses.  One of the most successful interviews recently was from Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted physicist.  The questions and the answers are very raw (e.g. "What course should everyone take in college?" Answer: "how to tell when someone else is full of s***.") but it lends a great deal of authenticity.  The community has supported young artists and filmmakers who have come to do interviews, and they have turned quickly on big stars who come just to make a quick buck (Woody Harrelson's PR company convinced him to try an interview on Reddit but didn't tell him you can't just pitch a movie; Reddit boycotted the movie).

Reddit has been making waves the past few years.  The community is the source of the Guinness world record largest Secret Santa gift exchange.  It was on Reddit that a user first came up with the idea for Stephen Colbert to hold a counter-rally to Glenn Beck in 2010, and the community rallied to make the Restoring Sanity rally a success (raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity in the process).  Members of the community have gone one to great personal success, including James Erwin, who turned a single comment he made on the site into a movie script deal with Warner Brothers.  The site has its own year-end awards for the best post, the best comment, and the best community of the previous year.

Rome Sweet Rome started as a comment left by James Erwin on Reddit.
With 100,000 communities, there are groups for everything.  Most major (and some minor) localities have their own groups (e.g. Baltimore and D.C.) as do sports teamsbrands, and even jokes.  There are groups dedicated to saving the environment, discussing Christianity and atheism, debating politics, and more.  There's even a group dedicated to having real-world meetups of Redditors in various places.

Reddit has been moving more and more into politics recently.  With the SOPA/PIPA fiasco over the last few months, the community has felt very threatened by politicians who simply have no understanding of how the internet works.  Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian was at the forefront of the SOPA debate, and would have testified before Congress had the hearings actually gone on as planned.  In the aftermath, Reddit formed its own PAC and has decided to launch a full-scale effort to remove Rep. Lamar Smith (the sponsor and tone-deaf spokesperson for SOPA) from office this year.

Once you recognize the little alien logo, you'll see it everywhere, including CBS prime time.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Pixar Story's Lessons for Education

If you haven't seen The Pixar Story, make sure you catch it.  It's on Netflix from now until the end of this month.

The film is wonderful for showing the birth of a new art form, the perseverance of artists like John Lasseter and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the importance of knowing your market (can you imagine if Woody had been a total jerk?), and the marriage of technology and art.  Lasseter says, "the art challenges technology, and the technology inspires the art."  What's most intriguing to me, however, are the strong parallels to education throughout the film.

Curiosity and Passion
John Lasseter describes when he was happiest, during his time at CalArts.  Accepted into the first year of a new program (along with peers like Tim Burton, John Musker, and Brad Bird), John was excited to study under Disney's Nine Old Men, brought out of retirement to run the new character animation program.  Bird says that everyone was "on fire about animation.  We didn't want to leave it at the end of the day.  When the teachers went home, we taught ourselves. "  Musker says, "we all learned as much from each other as we learned from our instructors."  It is clear that the excitement and the passion came from the instructors.  Bird says, "these guys were unbelievable masters of this art form, and yet every single one of them had the attitude of a student."  Is it coincidence that a group of talented, passionate, life-long learners inspired another generation of great artists and inventors, or is it because of their passion, the collaboration, and the inquisitive spirit that we have films like Up and Toy Story today?  Passionate students, involved in inquiry-based learning using new technologies, developed their creativity and higher-order Bloom's skills; this is exactly what I want for our students today.

Photo from http://pixar.wikia.com/File:John_Lasseter.jpg
Lasseter loved Disney.  He interned at their theme parks during his summers off and got his first job working for Disney Animation out of college.  He quickly became frustrated after budgets were slashed for his first project, The Fox and the Hound, because it affected the storytelling; there was no money to use the multi-plane dimensional features that made Disney's films successful in previous decades.  The animation department was "stagnant."  John and Glen Keane, were inspired by 1982's Tron, also produced at Disney, which was the first film to use computer-generated special effects.  Lasseter and Keane sat around the latter's apartment dreaming, "what if?"  What if they could produce a film that married the power of the new technology to create three-dimensional environments with the emotion and warmth of hand-drawn characters and movement?

Fear and Tradition
Lasseter pitched and won approval to start work on a film to demonstrate the concept, titled The Brave Little Toaster.  After 8 months, Lasseter was told to present the concept to the head of the studio.  "He walked in with a scowl on his face," John remembers.  "The only reason to do computer animation is if we can do it faster, or cheaper," Lasseter was told.  He was fired virtually on the spot.  "He got let go, he got fired, because honestly the studio didn't know what to do with him."  How many students are frustrated by the artificial constraints put upon them during secondary education, like which resources they are allowed to use for research or in what format their presentations must be?  How many students are discouraged, or underperform, because we don't recognize the value of technology to enable their creativity, to capture their passion, to feed their curiosity?

The new technology was immediately seen as a threat.  "During a lot of the early days, artists were frightened of the computer," remarks Alvy Ray Smith, "because they were under the impression that somehow it was going to take their jobs away.  We spent a lot of time telling people, 'no, it's just a tool.  It doesn't do the creativity.'  There was this fear, it was everywhere."  Disney allowed an incredible talent and groundbreaking artist to leave (kicked him out, really) because they were afraid of the consequences of his vision.  How many of our faculty are afraid (unjustifiably) that they will be replaced by computers?  How many fear being unable to keep up, and allow their fear to close their minds about the power of technology?  I was told recently by a colleague whom I respect, after a demonstration about the power of Twitter and Diigo for professional development, that she was "not interested, for any purpose."  I've heard of faculty who ban eReaders from their classrooms because they aren't made of paper.  More constraints, more fear.

Creativity and Flexibility
Meanwhile, Ed Catmull, after acquiring a Ph.D. in computer graphics, was hired by the New York Institute of Technology to "make computer graphics usable in film making."  Alex Schure, the president of New York Tech, said "we were creating a revolution, and the older techniques were really going to [become] passé.  We were impacting the conventional industry."  Schure could see the power of Catmull's disruption, and gave him the freedom and support to turn his ideas into reality.  Catmull began working with Industrial Light and Magic, and after Lasseter was let go by Disney, Catmull hired him to work with the technology folks at ILM.  This team later became Pixar (with some funding from Steve Jobs) and went on to revolutionize the industry.  Will our schools be like Disney, afraid to embrace change and subsequently be left behind when the rug is pulled out from under us?  Or will we be like New York Tech, adapting to the times in which we live and riding a wave of innovation and promise?

Change came to Disney in the end, despite the early protestations of the technophobes.  However, by the time Disney bought Pixar in 2006, it was Disney Animation that was in trouble and Pixar that was the star.  As the saying goes, "first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, and then you win."  Wouldn't it be great if edtech could skip the middle?  I'd rather not rage a war with my colleagues over the demonstrated, well-researched benefits of teaching with technology.  Instead, I'd like to figure out how to open their minds to the possibilites.

One bonus story: Andrew Stanton (writer/director of WALL-E among others) tells a story about how he was unprepared for the new technological age into which he landed coming right out of college.  "I had never used a computer, never even done any word processing."  Are we graduating students who will spend their time with us learning to use outdated tools (pencil, paper, encyclopedias) only to enter the "real world" unprepared for the jobs that await them?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Google+ Coming to High Schools Near You

It was announced this week that Google+ will soon be available to teens beginning at age 13.  This puts Google+ on the same page as Facebook and Twitter, both of which abide by the letter and the spirit of COPPA.

When the service was first launched this summer (I was lucky enough to get my beta invite while I was at ISTE in June) it was initially assumed that the age limit of 18 was to encourage more intelligent discourse.  I bought into this argument, even though a Google employee posted the day the service launched that it would eventually open up to teens, once the "right teen safety features" were in place.

Smart move on two fronts.  First, as Mr. Moore-Jones points out above, allowing the adults in first sets the tone.  Facebook started with college students (pictures of red Solo cups and keg-stands) and then added high schoolers and finally the general public.  MySpace began with bands, but was quickly adopted by teenagers and became a blaring, blinking mess of unintelligible blathering.  Google+, on the other hand, emphasizes long-form discussion, threaded comments, and public sharing (+1's).  For the past 7 or so months it has been occupied by the 18+ set, and even more so by journalists and technorati.  The level of discourse is high, even if it doesn't yet enjoy the traffic of Facebook.

Second, however, is even more important.  Google had in mind all along that teenagers need better privacy protections than adults, and they have now fully baked those protections into the social network.  Teens are encouraged to "think before posting" if they intend to share publicly.  Strangers are prohibited from contacting them or interacting with them unless they are added to a circle.  Google even built in something as simple as muting the teen when a stranger joins a hangout.

All of this is consistent, in my mind, with a company that is being thoughtful about teen safety, privacy, and "not being evil."  Google has taken a lot of flak this week about their new privacy policy, undeservedly so.  Others have explained why the new policy isn't really new, and isn't nearly as "bad" as folks seem to think it is.  I won't rehash those arguments, except to say that I assumed Google was already doing this (and in some places they were).  We have waiting for Google to consolidate a lot of disparate products into a single unified platform for our benefit.  Simplifying and consolidating privacy policies, especially after notifying the public in advance of the change, is a welcome break from other companies who make changes and announce them afterwards.

Schools are going to have to deal with Google+ for teens just as they have with Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace before them.  Some schools will block Google+, in a knee-jerk, outdated, Draconian response in order to "minimize risk" from online bullying or to "keep students focused."  For years we have heard how social media can positively affect students in the classroom, and how, if done right, social networks can actually give all students a voice in the classroom.  Any school that is blocking these sites has their collective head in the sand, in my opinion.  Instead, we should be teaching students to be well-behaved digital citizens.  When our graduates leave us and enter the real world, they will either have years of experience dealing with adults on these social networks in respectful and constructive ways, or they will have years of experience bypassing filters and firewalls.