Wolfram|Alpha promotes K-12 student-led research
October 11, 2009, 7:58 pm
Filed under: curriculum, learning, pedagogy, Uncategorized

In the move away from teaching that puts a premium on rote memorization, question-spotting and plug-in-type problem solving, WolframAlpha turns any classroom with internet access into a thriving lab of research-minded students, no matter the grade level. Gone are the days where students are required to lift dusty census books that seem heavier than they are. Everyday, in fact, Wolfram|Alpha goes one step further in its mission to collect all known information about the world; it’s an initiative that will save a trip to the library, allowing students to get to the most exciting aspects of learning more efficiently.

Say a student takes an interest in the city of Padang in Indonesia, which made news headlines recently due to a major earthquake. Within seconds, even elementary students become players in the world of real scholarship, navigating through primary sources that are custom delivered to satisfy a particular curiosity or question. It is the perfect counter-weight to a student’s reliance on magazine articles and books. Here are some results about Padang based on a range of queries that a k-12 student might ask, depending on what the assignment objectives are:

It is ultimately up to the teacher to ensure that accessible knowledge is being used for a greater purpose. On October 21st, Wolfram|Alpha has organized a live event called Homework Day which they will broadcast on the internet to expose how educators and students are incorporating Wolfram|Alpha into their learning routines. Go to the Homework Day website if you are interested in getting involved.

Being raised in the village: on distributed consciousness

The mobile device or the ubiquitous and real-time internet comes closer to connecting our raw thought to the network of minds, ideas and utterances. Simply speaking we have more bridges today to collective consciousness. Social media together are a clearinghouse where ideas are collected, played with, then buried, amplified, interwoven or transformed. The author and her individuality isn’t dead yet. Far from it. She must simply negotiate more frequently and in closer proximity to a massive episteme — the earth’s bazaar of interlinked ideas, the “noosphere”.

I am interested in the future of mental individualism in the face of this “distributed” or collective consciousness. Stevan Harnad points out that thought can only be “‘distributed’ within the heads of thinkers, but not across thinkers’ heads.” The global “brain”, therefore, is a metaphor, an illusion of an entity. I take this to mean that we will never become less of individual thinkers just because of some massive, inescapable sphere of mental activity that seems to overshadow everything else.

Yet we individual cognizers are being affected by the public sphere in ways we can only begin to understand. I co-founded Mindbounce, partly as an experiment, to see what happens if we accelerated the interaction our brains would have with an external hive of ideas in real-time. In the beginning there was physical and temporal distance separating our minds from the public sphere. You had to ride a horse or log into the internet to reconcile your thoughts with the external thinking public. Now the public is attached to our hip with a mobile device. Mindbounce would ideally accelerate this trend by letting a public of sorts proactively come into many separate individual mental spheres in real-time. Collective intelligence now whispers into your ear, if you let it.

See the tour on YouTube: “Text editor turned wisdom market”

Distributed Writing Mentorship: introducing Mindbounce.com
July 30, 2009, 2:47 pm
Filed under: academia, learning, mentoring, tutoring, Web 2.0

Ever wonder what it would be like if there were a button you could press to send angels suddenly swooping in to help you avoid the numerous pitfalls of writing, like being stuck on a sentence, making an idea more coherent, or identifying the most pertinent literature for your research?

To this end, Mindbounce.com launches on August 15th, 2009, offering students a space to write their papers so that select college graduate mentors can stumble upon or seek them as they earn money selling writing and researching wisdom, one piece of feedback at a time. If the mentor sees a need, he or she will provide a comment that will benefit the author of the paper. We call that comment a “bounce,” and each bounce can cost anywhere from $1-6. At Mindbounce.com it is possible to upload a paper into the system and have your paper reviewed by highly educated mentors whom you select by associating the document with any number of tags found within a universe of academic subdisciplines:

Both students and mentors can link up by selecting the same tag from among hundreds of academic sub-disciplines

Both students and mentors can link up by selecting the same tag from among hundreds of academic sub-disciplines

There are other preferences that put the author in the driver’s seat of the mentoring relationship as well. Authors can limit the money they spend to specific aspects of mentorship, so that if an author is only seeking help with language or with the substance itself, we ensure that he or she will only receive feedback in those specific categories.

The idea is to have students set their preferences whenever they feel like so that they can concentrate on the writing. As they write, they will see the appropriate feedback trickling in on the left hand side of the text editor as illustrated here:

Each bounce in the margin on the left carries customized feedback that could be coming from dozens of different mentors

Each bounce in the margin on the left carries customized feedback that could be coming from dozens of different mentors

By letting various mentors into your document, you allow for a diversity of voices to weigh in on your project’s needs and requirements. It is a completely different experience from handing your paper to one person who looks at it in your absence. Use Mindbounce if you are looking to establish a tight back-and-forth dialogue between you and a ready-made, but customizable community of qualified mentors who can approach your document from various angles at all hours of the day.

Early stage testers can have their writing projects mentored at half price starting August 15th. Our service is invitation-only to ensure that we always have the right number of documents and mentors interacting inside our system. Interested customers can request an invitation by filling out a short questionnaire.

For more information about the types of academically friendly mentoring services we provide, please visit our about us page.

Individuating student work in a collective think space

More and more, we can imagine an internet that is used daily by students to harness the powers of  “collective” or distributed intelligence for producing intellectual work of a higher caliber. The idea behind it is to plug oneself into a network of thinkers.  Ideas will be enriched by the dialogue of interweaving minds thinking and co-operating over universally shared academic problems. This process can be found in many peer-to-peer student networks strewn across the internet. Sometimes, the cooperative activity will be limited to the exchange of pre-packaged thought/”intellectual property” (tips, copies of old exams) in which case the project becomes perceived as a free, web 2.0 version of the internet paper mill.

Yet this type of peer-to-peer setup in itself does not tell us whether students are offloading intellectual labor (practiced by the “freeloader” in any student group) or actually assuming even higher cognitive responsibilities that can be associated with dialogic thinking activities (one who includes greater inputs into the ultimate analysis).   Either scenario could be the case since more cooperating inputs or voices in a room could lead to both more or less cognitive activity being performed by any individual thinker. Once again, it becomes helpful to see particular internet activities as a neutral tool that can yield both positive and detrimental pedagogical outcomes, depending on how they are used.

The perceived problem may stem from the fact that these collective student activities are performed away from the educator’s gaze.  These spaces existing outside the institutional sphere create yet another obstacle preventing the educator from assessing the individual’s contribution within the network. Moreover, since educators don’t typically have the time or means to monitor the cognitive progress of its individual students,  schools can only afford to create an even larger rift between the old and the new spaces of learning.


Clearly, the problem lies more with the limits to academia as an institution as it is a problem with emergent technologies on the internet. Since schools may not know how to interact with spaces and processes that lie beyond the scope of its control, they often address the problem with an inadequate, but easy-to-implement solution: all back-channel communication between students is to be perceived as suspect and subject to disciplinary measures.

So a question for educators and academic administrators: Do you really think that you will gain in the long run by continuing to shove these fecund  and technologically neutral spaces of student activity into the “cheating” box? Will there/should there be an intervention at some point to incent these popular websites to ban academically unpopular practices such as the wholesale transfer and exchange of pre-packaged ideas that don’t inspire cognitive follow up? How does one evolve the university-outside technology relationship to include oversight within these spaces given the economic and resource contraints of overseeing cognitive processes (as opposed to cognitive products)?  I have begun to see some universities, like UNC-Chapel Hill, partner with a start-up to create spaces of intellectual collaboration across departments. This may be the mayor’s equivalent of setting up a space for graffitti offenders to practice their craft within an approved space. The fact that these academically approved spaces haven’t opened up to wider audiences is beyond me.