The Search Engine that Changed Everything

OK, that’s pretty big — and it is certainly an exaggeration (?).  But a quick Google blog search reported 73,621 hits, with 1,409 blog posts mentioning Wolfram Alpha in the past 12 hours.

Flickr Photo by Brian Del Vecchio

Created by Stephen Wolfram, who brought us Mathematica and wrote A New Kind of Science, WolframAlpha reportedly reaches the holy grail of a (natural) question-asking World Wide Web.  Described as a computational knowledge engine (( Wolfram, Stephen. “Wolfram|Alpha is Coming!.” [Weblog Wolfram Blog] 5 Mar 2009. Web.4 May 2009. <>. )), Wolfram reportedly has figured out a way, using the tools of Mathematica and the concepts from A New Kind of Science to curate (his term) much of the content available through the web.  I understand little of the explanations I’ve read about the book, but it seems to say (and this is a gross simplification) that everything can be factored down to a set of interconnected simple abstract rules that can be expressed algorithmically.  It appears that he’s figured out how to make the content of the Web computational, and can make a natural question computational, resulting in, well, a computational search engine.  Kick me if I got this completely wrong.

On March 5, Wolfram wrote in his blog:

A lot of it (actual knowledge that we as humans have accumulated) is now on the web—in billions of pages of text. And with search engines, we can very efficiently search for specific terms and phrases in that text.

But we can’t compute from that. And in effect, we can only answer questions that have been literally asked before. We can look things up, but we can’t figure anything new out.

So how can we deal with that? Well, some people have thought the way forward must be to somehow automatically understand the natural language that exists on the web. Perhaps getting the web semantically tagged to make that easier.

But armed with Mathematica and NKS I realized there’s another way: explicitly implement methods and models, as algorithms, and explicitly curate all data so that it is immediately computable.

I’m a bit skeptical and people who have seen it already give it less than an A+.  And I’m not sure I am ready to relinquish the questions I pose to the web (i.e., “wolfram alpha” +reviews to an algorithm.  But still, this is intriguing.  According to Wolfram, as reported in a recent Independent article:

If you ask it to compare the height of Mount Everest to the length of the Golden Gate Bridge, it will tell you. Or ask what the weather was like in London on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated, it will cross-check and provide the answer. Ask it about D sharp major, it will play the scale. Type in “10 flips for four heads” and it will guess that you need to know the probability of coin-tossing. If you want to know when the next solar eclipse over Chicago is, or the exact current location of the International Space Station, it can work it out. (( “An Invention that could Change the Internet for Ever,” The Independent 3 May 2009. INM. Web.4 May 2009. <>. ))

What I find so interesting about this is the sense of a conversational body of knowledge.  The ability to have a conversation with a global digital library.  The implications of that are astounding to me.

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How Open is Open Curriculum?

Interestingly, as I searched Flickr for bookbags, I found that there is a craft to decorating them

Last week, I attended an online conversation organized by The Future of Education‘s Steve Hardagon. A master of community forming, Steve’s smarts and ability to be perpetually on the edge of the web’s social potential have earned him the respect of many educators, including the audience of listeners that night, who had the privilege of  hearing Anne Schreiber (Curriki), Karen Fasimpaur (of Handheld fame and K12 Open Ed), and, contributing to the conversation, Rushton Hurley (NextVista).

I find the whole notion of teacher generated and shared educational materials and content to be absolutely fascinating. This is not just because of our emerging capacities to generate, organize, and distribute these resources, but also because of the progress-stifling nature of our prevailing textbook publishing industry. One of the panelists  said, in the conversation, that

“The textbook industry is almost the enemy of education today…”

There are a number of projects out there that are trying to build and promote a willingness among educators to share the materials and strategies.  It was one of the key points of the conversation, the question, “How do you get teachers to share.”  It’s interesting that on several occasions at the Pennsylvania One-to-One conference this previous week, people were talking about the eagerness with which teachers share.  But many perceive a resistance among teachers to collaborate, which is likely a throwback to teaching as a solitary endeavor which took place in isolation in your room. Could it be that One-to-One initiatives are raising a school culture, of which sharing is a component?

Six Open Content Projects Compared by OER Commons 1

  • CurriculumNet (Uganda)
  • Curriki (U.S.)
  • Free High School Science Texts (South Africa)
  • Training Commons (India)
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (U.S.)
  • Teacher’s Domain (U.S.)

That aside, one element of the open content conversation that I have to take some exception to is the repeated urging that repositories of teacher-submitted resources be vetted by a higher level of authority.  I understand why this line is being delivered — why it is perceived as a selling point.  As an institution, we are still tied to the stamp of authority that the publishing industry seems to represent — psychologically addicted to pre-packaged content with a users’ guide.
I’m not entirely against packaged content for classes or even published textbooks — when they are the most appropriate and relevant resource.  What I would promote is a resource repository that bases its authority on the teachers who contribute to it and the teachers who use it.
Whether you consider it part of contemporary literacy, as I do, or information skills, the ability to evaluate information, select, and fashion products of value is now a basic skill, which our students must learn.  Shouldn’t teachers be modeling these skills, and wouldn’t the selection of resources for the classroom give them an ideal opportunity to say, “This is why this reading is appropriate for our goal.”
I would like to see an open content services that acts kind’a like a set of Legos, where a variety of pieces are submitted by practicing teachers (and even pre-service teachers), vetted and rated by the community of participating educators, and then carefully assembled into learning products by teachers for their students.

“Creating, Doing, and Sustaining OER: Lessons from Six Open Educational Resource Projects.” OER Commons. Sep 2008. OER Commons. 4 May 2009 <…>.

Embedding Cooliris

2¢ Worth with Cooliris Photo Gallery

I got up this morning, fully intending to do some serious work.  Instead, I found that several of my Firefox plugins needed updating, including Cooliris — and scanning through the subsequent Cooliris “Here’s what’s New” page, I discovered that you can embed photo galleries into your web pages and include the cool swishing functions.  This may not be new, but it’s the first that I’ve run across it — and I’ve been tweeking my blogs since.  I really do need the rest from “serious work.”

So you can click here to see my travel photos and here to see my conference photos.

Maybe some serious writing soon…

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