Monday, May 16, 2011

When Databases Ruled the Earth

When people think of computers and technology taking over civilization, they often think about armed robots, or robots with super human power such as in the Will Smith movie “I, Robot.” If technology and robots due take over it will be much more subtle than that. In a similar plot line, many people feel that education, and teachers in general, will be replaced by technology and computers. We do not have to worry so much with the threat of super human robots taking over, but what we should be cognitive of is the degree to which computers can store data, analyze data, compare vast amounts of data, and synthesize new information in just a blink of an eye.

In education we have evidence of tools like this in place right now. They are still rather crude, but they do provide a simple model of how this technology may work. Many of you have probably heard of Vantage Learning and their product, MyAccess. MyAccess is a web based writing tool for students. Students write to a specific prompt using the web based application and when they are completed with their writing the web application will fire back suggestions for how they can improve their work. This web based application is able to make recommendations to students based on the thousands and thousands of other writing assignments written to this same particular writing prompt. It has stored what qualities a good essay possesses for this prompt, and the qualities of a poorly written essay. It is then able to compare the student’s writing to this huge database of writing samples, and can then provide the student with recommendations based on what is missing from their work.

So let’s take this up a notch. We have had the ability to map the human genome now for what seems like an eternity. The genome is essentially a map that describes all of our individual genes. Each individuals genome is unique. However, there are also many similarities in genome maps. Currently we have been using these similarities to identify things that we have found common among individuals, whether that is health related similarities or physical similarities. When we ge to the point of having databases consisting of thousands and thousands, say millions, of individual human genomes and the technology to compare, analyze them; we then have the ability to synthesize new information from these comparisons. This information can then be provided to individuals with likely scenarios for their futures based on their genomes.

Now take this genome information and compare it to data stored in other databases. What other data you ask, essentially everything about us that is not related to our genome? We are the culmination of our experiences. These experiences are all stored in databases. The key word being “databases,” plural. Everything you purchase is stored in a database. Evey thing you eat, whether it’s purchased at the grocery store (think of your grocery receipt) or at a restaurant (think of your credit card receipt) is stored (potentially) in a database. Every television show you watch, every movie you download, every trip to the doctor is all stored in a database some where. The people you talk to on your mobile, the people you text, the people you “follow,” are all stored in a database.

Your children’s information is also stored in databases. Their grades, their assignments, their awards, the books they check out from the library; it’s all stored in a database. The friends that they hang out with and communicate with, and the places they hang out can all potentially be stored in a database.

If we begin comparing an individual student’s databases with thousands of other student databases, could we not provide recommendations to the student, or the parent, for improving their well being (learning, health, etc.) in the same way a web based writing application makes suggestions for improving a student’s writing skills?

If you then throw in the advances in technology as it relates to I/O (input and output) of “computers,” you can begin to see a time when this synthesized data can be delivered to the individual at anytime and on any device. For example, Google last week introduced a technology on their upcoming Android platform that will allow the camera on a hardware device to track a persons iris and provide information to the individual based on the location of their iris. Imagine eating dinner with your child at a Chinese food restaurant surrounded by beautiful Chinese paintings. Each one of those paintings is actually a “computer” and the canvas is actually a digital display device. The “picture” could recognize you (based on data stored in a database) and your child as you eat dinner; and then almost simultaneously compare the databases for each of you, your friends, your child’s grades, and within a split second provide you with information along the lines of things to discuss at the dinner table to help your child’s slumping ancient civilizations history grade. This information would be provided to you confidentially on your mobile you have resting on the table by your plate. Or it could be displayed on the digital canvas of the Chinese print on the wall behind your son’s head, held private by the constant measurement of your iris as you look at the framed picture, angling of the message’s pixels so that they are only visible to your eyes. What kind of information? How about talking points based on your child’s teacher’s current and upcoming lesson plans in his history class. Or, maybe you have a business associate in another state that you converse with regularly through social media who is going to be taking a trip to Mexico and will be staying near ancient Mayan ruins.

The true power of technology is the data that is stored within it. Someone will come up with the algorithms to take advantage of disparate databases combining what makes us who we are and to our experiences, providing us with a map of possible “learning” suggestions that are constantly updated and modified. This technology will change how we learn, and how we think of school, and who we consider our teachers.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Classroom Badging System - Re-Evaluating Assessment Part II

Time afforded me during the second to last week in April, while the family was still in school, (spring break did not start until the following week for them) provided me with uninterrupted computer work time at home. There were not telephone calls, no interruptions, and except for the occasional land line call, and those I gave up answering years ago; it was great!

During that time I managed to scrape together a working beta, draft, “first-try” ...what ever you want to call it, badge assessment management system. Rather than restate what I said in the previous post all over again, this system and idea were the result of discussions that had taken place in our school district’s Innovative Schools Planning Committee in the preceding weeks. The discussions centered around student assessment, and the concepts we felt would be valuable in a effective student assessment system. The badge assessment ideas, and the resulting management system, are a working model of some of the concepts we discussed.

The committee realizes that there can never be just one assessment, but multiple measures should be used to gauge the successful learning of students. A badging system could easily fit within a total assessment strategy, and would provide some of the concepts that our current assessments systems lack. Some of these concepts are:

  • No ceiling on achievements.
  • Graphic, pictorial representation of achievement ideal for display and sharing.
  • No ceiling on what can be measured.
  • Any person with a stake in the success of the learner can contribute assessments, including the learner themselves.
  • High degree of assessment relevance for learner.
  • Assessment system can be deployed in multiple environments/formats.
  • Graphic, badge/display focus lends itself to a development of learner culture with emphasis on emotion, beauty, desire, creativity, etc.
  • Assessment system fosters intrinsic motivation.
  • Assessment systems fosters greater degree of “buy-in” from learner.
  • Assessment does not expire or is limited by a specific time period.
  • Assessments can be tied to real-world experiences.

The fun and challenging part for me during my uninterrupted computer time was to create a tool using technology that would help teachers to manage this type of assessment system. I decided to create a little web based system, and used a mySQL database as the backend and PHP to glue everything together. It was a great opportunity to dust off some skills I had been neglecting for awhile. In addition to these technologies I learned a little bit more about Spry objects in Adobe’s Dreamweaver , and very nice system called Smarty that provides a templating system to separate your html, or css design, from you PHP code. I nabbed Smarty out of the most recent version of Wicked Cool PHP Tricks by Steinmetz and Ward. The books a nice resource for other handy PHP recipes needed in the creation of basic web apps. As this was, as every time it is a learning experience for me, this little project gave me many new learning opportunities. (Actually, the project was also the basis for some ideas I was kicking around in my head related to the development of some Android and iOS applications using LiveCode . The LiveCode User Conference was the following week in San Jose. More information about my experience at the conference will follow in a later post.)

As with many things I put together fairly quickly, the code behind the system is poorly commented and the design is rather utilitarian. However, if you are interested in looking at how this thing works, or are interested in looking at the code that makes up the site, just shoot me an email.

You can access the site at:

You will need to log in with the following credentials:

Teacher - username: teacher password: password

Student - username: styler password: password

As I mentioned earlier, this site is very rough. There is no documentation or “help” screens. I’m hoping someone like yourself though won’t have any trouble figuring it out. Also, if you visit more than once, you are likely to see changes.

Let me know what you think!