Posts Tagged ‘Collective Intelligence’

The significance of TED

August 12, 2010

I’ve embedded a few videos from TED in blog posts. After all, why try to explain the content of a talk given by someone when I can simply relay the talk itself? I’ve just come across this online article (How TED Connects the Idea-Hungry Elite) that explains the background and significance of TED. Unlike YouTube, TED organizes its own annual conference, and then makes the presentations freely available online. The Open Translation Project has further extended the reach of these cutting-edge ideas. The significance of this for education need hardly be spelled out. Here’s a key extract from the article:

if you were starting a top university today, what would it look like? You would start by gathering the very best minds from around the world, from every discipline. Since we’re living in an age of abundant, not scarce, information, you’d curate the lectures carefully, with a focus on the new and original, rather than offer a course on every possible topic. You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?

If you did all that, well, you’d have TED.


Technological Acculturation

May 21, 2010

Here’s an excellent post from the ‘teacherstream’ blog on WordPress. The video is well worth watching. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The benefits of technology for enhanced student engagement and student achievement are endless and without boundary. I truly believe that we can use technology as a key tool to differentiate our teaching / learning process and to meet the individual needs of students within any diverse classroom. Not only can we better serve the multiple intelligences of students, but we can serve them within the world they are so familiar. As excited as I am about the digital revolution and its role in education, I have found that there are equally as many that are skeptical, and some that are just downright intimidated or afraid.

Much as I enjoyed this post, the grammatical error in the first paragraph (second clause of the third sentence) was a bit jarring. Ironically, perhaps, it points to the need for attention to traditional literacy alongside digital literacy. At least it will be easy to correct the error, given that this is not a print medium. By commenting on the blog, I’ve also provided an instance of Social Constructivism (Collective Intelligence) in action. Perhaps by the time others read my words here, the original will have been updated!

The video makes its point about digital text in a very graphic way, but it is slightly misleading in a historical sense. It implies that the separation of form and content associated with XML (the eXtensible Markup Language) is something that postdated HTML (HyperText Markup Language). While it is true that HTML was first specified by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990, and the first specification of XML dates to 1998, XML is actually a subset of SGML (the Standard Generalized Markup Language), which has its origins in the 1960s. XML and SGML are different to HTML in a very important respect, but in order to explain this I need to take a short historical detour.

The term ‘markup’ comes from publishing. Traditionally a manuscript was ‘marked up’ in order to indicate to a typesetter what typeface, size, etc. was to be used for printing. With the arrival of digital documents, it became necessary to devise a computer-readable code that would allow the sharing of documents between computers. Documents produced with an application on one computer might need to be interpreted by a different application on another computer. SGML was designed to make this possible, and it was based entirely on the separation of form and content, all the way back in the 1960s, long before HTML and XML.

SGML is not so much a language as a metalanguage: it allows the user to create any number of markup languages. The creation of a markup language involves the definition of ‘elements’ (or tags) that describe content. For example, I could create an SGML language for use in medical publishing. I might create a tag for a ‘unit of content’ (such as a traditional chapter), and a tag for specialist medical terminology. Once the tags are defined (and stored in a separate document), the content can be marked up and processed by any computer for ‘rendering’ into print.

HTML is basically an application of SGML. It is a markup language rather than a metalanguage. Its tags were created in order to make possible the rendering of content by any computer (using the browser software designed for the purpose). It is not very flexible because its tags have all been defined (by the W3C), and they mostly relate to visual presentation (i.e. form).

XML, on the other hand, is a metalanguage. It is in fact a subset of SGML, designed for ease of use on the Internet. Like SGML, XML allows the creation of limitless markup languages. As long as the tags are defined somewhere, then software can be devised to interpret them. It does postdate HTML, but the principles on which it is based (separation of form and content) pre-date HTML by a couple of decades, in the form of its parent metalanguage, SGML.

Wikis and Collective Intelligence

March 22, 2010

Wikis are a preeminent example of Web 2.0 technology, as well as of the underlying social constructivist pedagogy. Named after a Hawaiian word for ‘fast’, a wiki is a website that allows the posting and editing of content by multiple users. Wikis can be for personal use, but they come into their own as collaborative project-based sites. The best known example is Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, by now one of the most popular websites on the Internet.

Wikipedia is an interesting case, because its exponential growth and popularity have raised all sorts of issues, including reliability and libel. In order to deal with these issues, Wikipedia has evolved complex protocols governing editing procedures (such as No Original Research and Neutral Point of View), a caste of administrators (Admins), and an Arbitration Committee (Arbcom), which is the closest thing to a ruling body.

Wikipedia is perhaps the closest humanity has come to fulfilling the dreams of the 18th century French Encyclopédistes, who aspired to a universal compendium of knowledge.

But what are we to make of the notion of ‘collective intelligence’? Does the term make any sense at all? Intelligence is normally something we ascribe to a person, although we may also describe someone’s actions as intelligent, just as we do the material or institutional products of human endeavour. In other words, something can embody intelligence, or exemplify it. We may, therefore, describe a website as embodying collective intelligence, in the sense that it contains information that has been gathered and organised in a collaborative and intelligent manner.

There are several advantages and disadvantages to such ‘collective intelligence’, and we find all of them in the case of Wikipedia. Among the advantages are the sheer volume of information, the rapidity and frequency with which it can be updated, and the constant checking of facts.

The primary disadvantage is a lack of editorial control, making it difficult to rely on the 100% accuracy of articles. Vandalism is an issue, as is libel in the case of biographies of living persons (BLPs). Although many topics are non-controversial, where controversy exists there is a tendency for edit-warring to occur, as opposite camps jostle to ensure the representation of their views. The protocols have evolved to deal with such issues, as have the Admins who are supposed to ensure adherence to them. The result is that everything is ideally arrived at by consensus, although the ideal is not always actualised.

One particular problem with the system is the culture of anonymity that is endemic in Wikipedia. Anonymous editing is not compulsory. There are sometimes good reasons for it, however, for example where privacy is essential. The problem with its widespread use is that it effectively removes any real accountability for one’s writing or editing. Traditional writers (novelists, academics and journalists) put their name to what they write – they stand by it and take responsibility for it. Anyone with an online computer can edit Wikipedia, whether or not they create a Wikipedia account. Even when they have an account, the chances are that they will use a pseudonym. They can also create multiple accounts, and fall foul of the Sockpuppet protocol. (For an extended treatment of my own experience of problems with Wikipedia, see Wikipedia and Kevin R. D. Shepherd.)

Having said that, research has shown Wikipedia to be about as reliable an encyclopedia as Britannica, which is no mean feat given its vast extent. It ought perhaps to be seen as an ongoing social experiment, or perhaps a continuation of the revolution initiated by the introduction of print in the 15th century. Debate within the loose-knitted Wikipedia community continues, as exemplified by a recent discussion on the Talk Page of an experienced editor and Admin.

I believe there is unquestionably a role for wikis in education. In the primary school, they could be used by the teacher to gather online resources before beginning a project. Students could then be given access to the wiki, to make use of the resources, communicate questions and ideas to one another and the teacher, share further resources that they discover, and begin to formulate solutions to problems. Not only could this be highly engaging, students could access it from anywhere with an internet connection. Those unable to attend school for any reason could avoid getting behind in their work. Students in remote locations would be another obvious group to benefit. Most significant of all, however, is that the work is collaborative, allowing collective learning, and it is also more likely to reflect the world of work or higher education that 21st-century children will enter on completion of their schooling.

Thanks to Matthew Outred for the following: