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”

End online plagiarism with dialogue (its free!)

Curbing student plagiarism doesn’t have to involve purchasing expensive software that detects academically suspicious writing. A simple curriculum design precludes the entire problem without having to spend money.  Simply divide the writing assignment into small sequences, having students write more frequently, in shorter bursts. Pair students together and have each student respond to the other’s latest writing. Evaluation of the ensuing dialogue now focuses on the ability for students to grasp and analyze concepts in an intellectual environment that is dynamic and modal. Not only is this a pedagogically interesting exercise in itself, as it efficiently maximizes critical thinking skills, but think about how difficult it would be for a student to plagiarize or outsource this type of an exercise to an online paper mill. The millers don’t have time fabricate verisimilitude in writing assignments that are contingent upon what another mind will be saying every other day.

Plagiarism and low-integrity writing thrives in a student-controlled soliloquoy. With zero human interaction as the typical writing assignment unfolds, the plagiarist is free to concoct a hermetically sealed system of claims and counterclaims, lending the document an air of intellectual rigor. In this game students can encrypt their plagiarism strategies with varying degrees of success, the most sophisticated attempts requiring the most sophisticated software to detect.

Yet, personally, I wouldn’t spend time blaming or punishing plagiarists when there is simply so much to reform in undergraduate programs that exploiting the writing assignment as a way to contain the frightful demand that huge numbers of students pose on a limited group of university instructors. That’s right, writing assignments don’t cause the instructor more work, they create the least amount of work possible because they position and reduce the role of instruction to  evaluating final products (instead of intermittent coaching + evaluation).

So often, and sadly, academia will respond by embracing an American Idol model for evaluating student performance. In it, the student is asked to present the intellectual work that is rehearsed in isolation and away from the evaluator’s eyes. In American Idol, it is only after the performance has been rehearsed to its fullest potential that the judges will observe the final product and voice their ephemeral feedback and stamp of judgment. It is the same in academia and, for lack of a better term, I call it the “product-over-process model” of academic correspondence. This model in academic evaluation conveniently eliminates the valuable, but costly moments that could be exploited between a student and a teacher as the writing assignment undergoes its formation. Also, it is a system that begs to be gamed. If teachers are going to continue to only ask for “final” and “processed” writing, then they risk being fed everything and anything. As a consequence, the liabilities and software detection bills keep piling up.  Let’s face it, undergraduate academia, with its emphasis on evaluating intellectual products over processes, is guilty of embodying and propagating  a system that values singular impressions instead of socratic experiences and as a consequence of that, deserves any mess that this would put them in.

Luckily, an undergraduate program that shrewdly exploits the peer-to-peer writing exercise proposed above can continue to preserve its evaluator resources in the face of large student populations and simultaneously maintain a pedagogy that upholds sustainable thinking.