Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The eX-Prize

It seems that the X-Prize foundation - if you've never heard of them, they're the ones who enabled this - is going to be endowing a prize for education. Via the Speculist, who overheard it at the Singularity Summit,

Over Lunch, we saw a presentation from Michael Lindsay of the X Prize Foundation. The Foundation is considering doing a prize for education. They're looking at starting out by measuring Algebra, Reading Comprehension, and Second Language acquisition. Lindsay's intent was to gather feedback from the Singularity Summit crowd. There was a good deal of push-back, particularly concerning the fact that the Foundation plans to use standardized tests to measure the results. It will be interesting to see whether an X-Prize for education ever materializes.
This is an interesting direction for engineering contests to take. Spaceships and cars that drive themselves are one thing, but trying to redesign how kids are taught ... that could be revolutionary. I have no doubt that we already possess the tools to turn every school into a genius factory by turn of the century standards; the problem is, the tools are still so new we're still floundering around trying to find a way to use them. An educational X-Prize could be just thing to focus people's minds.

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Emily said...

I listened to the X-Prize guy at the Singularity Summit, and I wasn't so convinced. They are looking at some kind of educational software or virtual world prize.

Personally, I think that the best thing we could do for education (besides privatize it, but I won't go into a libertarian rant) is to let kids study what they're actually interested. You know those kids that are obsessed with dinosaurs? We should let every kid get super interested in something. Especially at lower grade levels, kids are mainly learning how to learn and socialize. If they can study something they like, they'll do most of the work on their own and teachers will just be there for guidance.

When I was teaching English in the Peace Corps this was the biggest problem also. You'd think that a kid whose one ticket out of the village might be speaking English would not only pay attention but be excited to learn. Not the case. You can't force anyone to learn even when an education could make them the first generation not to raise pigs in a former Soviet village. There's nothing wrong with raising pigs, but if you don't get an education that will be pretty much your only option.

Keitousama said...

I couldn't agree more. Giving kids more self-direction when it comes to what to learn is crucial.

The main obstacle (aside from a government with a vested interest in a public school system designed more for indoctrination than education) is that if you're limited to teachers and textbooks, well, there's only so much one teacher can teach. She can't design thirty lesson plans for thirty students, and unless you hire enough teachers that the teacher/student ratio goes down to 1:4 or so (and that's just not gonna happen) you have to teach students more or less the same things regardless of what they're interested in.

Developing educational software is an absolutely critical precursor to individualizing education on a large scale. Of course, technology alone is necessary, but not sufficient; methods and institutions have to change, too. But without the technology trying to reform the institutions is pointless.

You taught English is the Peace Corps, huh? Wow. Where'd they send you? Somewhere in eastern Europe from the sound of it.

emily said...

First, I disagree that new technology is needed. It would be great, but it's really not necessary. Set a dino-obsessed kid loose on the internet or the natural history museum and they'll learn plenty.

I was in the Republic of Georgia, teaching English. If you're interested, you can read about it in the link I used to post this comment.

Keitousama said...

Yeah, the internet alone was plenty. I was one of those geeky kids who used to read the encyclopedia for fun (we had no internet, out in the boondocks where I grew up, at least not 'til I was about 18.) The internet would have been a kind of heaven for me.

As it is, though, the internet is mainly useful as a reference tool, at least so far as education goes. You can learn a lot of stuff in wikipedia, but you can't learn how to apply it. What's really needed is a kind of networked lesson plan that organizes the data for each student, in such a way that the student can say "I want to learn how to do x" and the network can plot out a path of precursors that will lead to the goal (of course I'm talking about vertical subjects here, such as mathematics, most sciences to one degree or another, and language acquisition ... the exact fields Lindsay was talking about.) You could do this part already in a rough-and-ready way by adding directionality tags to wikipedia entries, which would simply indicate entries that have to be understood in order to understand them, and entries that follow from them.

The next step would be some kind of evaluation mechanism, which would simply generate original questions testing students on the things they are trying to master. This part also isn't intrinsically difficult. For math, a script on something like mathematica would do nicely; it would simply generate random questions testing knowledge of a certain theorem or algorithm, and when the student started getting enough of the questions correct the student would be considered to have passed that theorem, and the next is presented. Math would become more like an intellectual game, wherein one advanced as quickly as one could.

For language acquisition, an interesting idea DARPA had (I read about this a year or two back, not sure what's come of it since) was to marry natural language recognition software to RPGs. Players would have to navigate a world in which the only way to interact with the natives is to use their language.

Reading comprehension is a little more problematic, though not much. I could imagine software being able to pick relevant questions out of a block of text, and generate true/false or multiple choice questions based on it. At a more labor-intensive but software-simple level, those questions could be written by volunteers and simply added to articles as tags; the teaching software would just grab the questions randomly and throw them at the student when they finished reading the article, and however many they got right would be their comprehension mark.

Whether or not technology is necessary for reforming education, it's going to force reform, one way or another. Successful institutions are those that are well-adapted to existing technologies; the reason we're perceiving so much rot in our schools (and our congresses and parliaments) now is that the institutions are out of whack with the technology, and growing more so with time. If the X-Prize foundation can help make clear the benefits to be gained from really utilizing technology, it'll help bring real change that much closer.