Archive October 2012

A big data approach to learning? Robert Hickson Oct 29

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Ericsson is promoting a “big data” approach to education with its Future of learning video  and report [PDF]. They have a vested interested in promoting mobile-enabled learning, but there are  interesting concepts in their report.  They highlight how analytics can be used to tailor learning for each pupil (or staff member), drawing on adaptive learning platforms developed by firms such as Knewton, and the on-line teaching resources being provided by the likes of the Khan Academy and iTunes U.

Firms selling adaptive learning programmes report very good learning improvement, but they also don’t appear to be able to assess long form answers or creativity well. One blog post also notes that such approaches focus on developing tools to improve passing existing tests. No doubt technologies will improve, but it would be wrong to think that technology will single handedly create a bright new learning future. Data and analytics help, but the fundamentals of the education system, not just the tools, also require refinement.

One of the commentators in the video gets too carried away by declaring “knowing something is probably an obsolete idea”. Sure the current education system may not be well aligned with today’s employment needs. But finding out stuff when you need to know it is a purely utilitarian view of knowledge, and seems to leach out the creativity that education commentators like Ken Robinson identify as being what is lacking in the current system.

Dale Stevens was interviewed on Nine to Noon, and he makes some good points about how US schools at least are under performing.  His book Hacking your education is soon to be published, and he founded UnCollege. He is someone who consciously dropped out of the American school system and taught himself – unschooled rather than home schooled – because he found the system didn’t meet his learning style or needs.

Dropping out of the system can work for a small well motivated and affluent minority. But the future of learning and society would be better served by changing the system rather than making it easier to opt out. As NZ’s Secretary of Education rightfully indicated, we should have high expectations that the school system works well for all.

How we learn is changing. Better technology has a place, but so too do people with a passion and skill to teach. We are inspired more by people than technology, and that seems to be the key to learning.




Future Postcards From The Past Robert Hickson Oct 17

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The Singularity Hub shows some 19th Century French Postcards (relax/sorry, nothing risqué) that depicted life in the year 2000. I’ve seen a couple of these previously (the blog site Paleofuture posted a few of them several years ago), but Singularity Hub shows a more extensive set, along with comments about how accurate some of them seem to have been. Robotic machines feature frequently.

The postcards were created after, and presumably inspired by, some of Jules Verne’s stories. The cards (originally 50 in total) weren’t apparently distributed – they were intended to be included as inserts in either some toys or cigarette packets, according to Isaac Asimov who rediscovered them.

One of the striking things about the postcards (and other attempts at sketching the future) is not the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the predictions, but how the environment and clothing in the pictures usually remains unchanged. So not a fancy Roomba-like vacuum cleaner, just a semi- autonomous good old fashioned scrubbing brush (wireless not yet invented). And 19th Century clothing and parquet flooring.

Jean-Marc Côté’s vision of the year 2000

That illustrates some of the traps in foresighting – extrapolating from the current situation, and focussing on the technology rather than also considering how the environment in which it will sit will also change.

The postcard of the school of the future is also a delight – not quite what Google has in mind, I hope, for digitising books. Or how National Standards will play out.


Most of the postcards appear optimistic about the future. Not unsurprising, given Jules Verne’s techno-enthusiasm. These days popular culture (or at least things that end up in the cinema) tends to have a more pessimistic future outlook. Paleofuture also shows how some US children in 1976 imagined what 2076 would be like.

If my drawing was any good, I’d think about doing some postcards showing “solutions” for the National Science Challenges. Maybe some schools, and others, may like to give that a go to help inspire creativity in framing what the biggest issues facing NZ are and potential ways of overcoming them.

007 Billion – Crowdsourcing Intel Robert Hickson Oct 11


A few years ago DARPA’s little sibling IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) sought to improve the forecasting of future events through crowdsourcing. It established the Aggregative Contingent Estimation Program to “improve accuracy, precision and timeliness of forecasts for a broad range of events”. [Crowdsourcing refers to tapping into the insights of any and everyone with an interest to solve a problem, or tapping into their wallets to fund projects as Siouxsie has blogged about here at Sciblogs]

Following an earlier trial this program has developed into the Global Crowd Intelligence website (run by Applied Research Associates Inc., which has the scent of “Universal  Exports” that a certain Mr Bond allegedly worked for). Here crowdsourcing is combined with “gamification” (see my earlier blog posting on this). You get to select missions (be it predicting the likelihood of a future conflict, when the iPad mini will be launched, or whether Kim Kardashian’s divorce will be finalised before December).

An article on the BBC’s website advises that “Forecast topics are not related to actual intelligence operations.”

Should you choose to accept them, the more missions you take on the more experience you accrue, the better your reputation becomes and the quicker you advance on from being a humble analyst to something perhaps more suave and sophisticated.

The BBC report notes that earlier experiments indicated an 25% improvement in predictions compared to a non-crowd sourced control group. Not spectacular, but progress, which I’m sure IARPA will be seeking to improve upon. I’d be interested in what were their stunning failures as well as the successes. I’m not sure if the latest trial has a control. What would be good to see would be to pit crowdsourcing against data mining and experienced intelligence operatives for some scenarios to see which may be better and under what circumstances. A few sensible and knowledgeable heads may be more prescient than wishful or ill informed thinking from a host of others.

Crowdsourcing predictions about defined events or scenarios is becoming common – see NZ’s iPredict. [The just announced proposal to trial a system to track the most vulnerable children isn't crowdsourcing, but it has elements of it]. Success varies, and like fortune tellers, will often be influenced by how precise the scenario is worded. One problem with scenarios is that if you are just fixed on predicting their likelihood you may miss other things going on. I’m sure those smart folk at the CIA, MI6, and our own GCSB & SIS will have that covered though. Don’t you think?

Another issue is the signal to noise ratio you get when gathering lots of data. An earlier crowdsourcing challenge run by DARPA – to find a set of red balloons [PDF] scattered across America – illustrated how some strategies work better than others, and that a lot of effort is required to be able to verify or discount some of the incoming information. The latest project is designed to be able to detect rogue elements attempting to distort the outcomes.

I expect IARPA will learn most about what types of scenarios are more or less successful at predicting via crowdsourcing, and they’ll get some useful insights in how to analyse information more effectively. Whether we could all be part of the GCSB in the future seems doubtful.


The shift toward corporate farming Robert Hickson Oct 11

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A quick follow up to my last post. Kathryn Ryan had an interesting interview with Hamish Gow this morning. He is the Director of the Centre for Agribusiness Policy & Strategy at Massey University. Hamish suggests that greater attention needs to be paid to the marketing of food products in other countries to help gain access to new markets and have more control over value. He is of the opinion that current marketing strategies have considerable room for improvement. Currently there is more focus on processing.

He also notes the changing capability requirements for farmers – advocating for greater international experience for young graduates before they return to help run corporate farms. There are increasing numbers of students enrolling in agri-economics, which is encouraging. Farming syndicates are becoming more common – see MyFarm.

Hamish also talks about his involvement in helping improve food safety and small scale farming in developing countries.

You can listen to the interview here - Nine To Noon interview with Hamish Gow


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