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9 minutes reading time (1854 words)

Technology-based Mini-singularities

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The term singularity has different meanings in different disciplines. For example, physicists consider a black hole to be a singularity. Mathematicians think about the function f(x) = 1/x and say that the point x = 0 is a singularity. (Division by zero is a “no-no” in math.)

In computer technology, the singularity is when computers become more intelligent than people. I have written about this idea in the articles (Moursund, 3/5/2015 and 2/25/2015).

Of course, we don’t know when—if ever—computers will become more intelligent than people. But, some people like to speculate about that possibility. They note that artificially intelligent computers and robots are steadily becoming more capable. They point to examples where, in an increasing number of problem-solving and task-accomplishing situations, computers and robots already are more capable than people.

Notice that in the previous paragraph I used the term  more capable rather than more intelligent. I use the term capable to refer to the ability to solve problems and accomplish tasks. That is quite different from being intelligent. A computer can accurately add a list of a million integers in less than a second. This does not in any sense say that the computer is intelligent.

A computer can read and memorize thousands of books letter-perfect. Does that mean the computer is more intelligent than a person? No, it means that in the specific task of memorizing books, a computer is much more capable than a person.

What Is a Mini-singularity?

In terms of computer and robot capabilities, I define the term mini-singularity to be a problem-solving or task-accomplishing situation in which a computer or robot can far out perform a human. We have long had machines that can far out perform humans in various manufacturing processes. And, certainly, we have cars and airplanes that can far out perform humans in these machine “areas of expertise.”

For the remainder of this IAE Blog entry, let’s focus specifically on the discipline of education. Here I consider content to be learned, teaching processes, and assessment.

Content

First, consider content. The Web is now by far the world’s largest single repository of content data, information, and knowledge. For simplicity, let’s call the combination of these three terms information. When a student does a Google search, the student is searching a database that is equivalent in size to roughly a hundred billion books. And, of course, the total amount of information accessible by Google and other online search engines continues to grow quite rapidly.

Computerized databases are an important type of mini-singularity. They change the basic nature of the content to be learned aspect of education. Rather than think about content to be learned, think in terms of learning access and the ability to make effective use of available content. The essence of this idea has been with us for a long time:

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.” (Samuel Johnson; British author and father of the English dictionary; 1709-1784.)

Teaching Processes

Children are natural born learners. Our informal and formal educational systems speed up and focus the learning processes. Oral tradition—for example, family groups and small clans telling and listening to stories while sitting around an evening fire a hundred thousand years ago— has gradually been supplanted by written language, formal schools, mass production of books, audio recordings, radio, films, television, and computer technology.

I find it useful to think about written language, along with various methods of printing and distributing printed material, as a mini-singularity. Written language is a powerful aid to human intelligence, but by itself does not have intelligence. Indeed, written language is such a powerful aid to human intelligence, teaching, and learning, that we have decided that all students need to develop a high level of written language skill. Thus, our schools have a very strong focus on this endeavor.

Computer technology is just at the beginning of producing a massive change in teaching processes. We are seeing the development of a number of mini-singularities in teaching. For example, consider the drill-and-practice components of instruction. Computers cost more but are a more capable aid to teaching and learning thanflash cards. They work much better in adaptive drill-and-practice sessions that can adjust to a student’s responses. They also can be designed to incorporate relevant aspects of learning theory.

An appropriately computerized flash card system can display video, audio, and text—and in many languages when appropriate. It can receive and process keyboard, touch screen, and voice input. It can keep cumulative records of a student’s performance over both a singe session and a sequence of sessions. In summary, this specific technology-based mini-singularity has advanced far enough so that it has become a standard component of teaching/learning in many different disciplines.

Of course, drill-and-practice activities are only a modest part of instruction. Computers can't yet read and understand a student’s essay in order to provide the level of feedback a competent human teacher can provide. Computers similarly can't yet read a student’s responses to problem-solving in math, assign appropriate partial credit, and provide good feedback that is specific to the needs of anindividual student.

However, significant progress is occurring in more sophisticated computer tutor systems. We now are developing and putting into place Highly Interactive, Intelligent, Computer-assisted Learning (HIICAL) systems.

HIICAL is no longer “new.” One of my early articles about HIICAL is available at Moursund (2002). The individualization of instruction, the research-based learning theory, and the breadth of content that can be made available through HIICAL systems is well along toward being a mini-singularity. We also now have Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that can simultaneously teach a class of a hundred thousand or more students. As MOOC-based courseware becomes more and more HIICAL-like and available, it will constitute a mini-singularity of instructional delivery.

While MOOCs were initially designed for higher education, use has spread to the precollege level. For example, (Bull, 11/17/2013) discusses 10 uses at the high school level.

Assessment

We have a steadily growing science of how humans learn, and we know that feedback is an essential component in learning. High-quality feedback, suited to the material being taught/learned as well as to the learning characteristics of the learner can produce faster, better learning.

In education, we make use of formative, summative, and residual impact assessment. See Chapter 7 of Moursund, (2005) for a quick overview of these three types of assessment. All three can be built into a computerized drill-and-practice system and into HIICAL. I find it interesting to watch the current Common Core State Standards project struggle to computerize a summative assessment system. I find this to be an interesting example of the birth struggles of a potential mini-singularity.

Adoption or Acceptance of Mini-singularities

The occurrence of a technology-based mini-singularity is dependent both on the development of the technology and on the widespread adoption and use of the technology. There has been considerable research on the diffusion of (adoption of) innovations. This research literature presents information about four categories of adopters—early, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

The adoption diffusion process is dependent on the unit of adoption. Thus, for example, compare the adoption process of individual people deciding whether to buy a Smartphone versus the diffusion process of whether a state will adopt CCSS and its online summative evaluation system. In the former case we have millions of individual consumers able to make an adopt/not adopt decision. In the latter case, we have 50 states and the District of Columbia each making an individual adoption decision.

Final Remarks

Content, instruction, and assessment are interwoven in education. We already have technology-based mini-singularities in each of these areas.

Typically, an early adopter of computer technology in one component of education—such as sophisticated drill-and-practice software —is actually making an across-the-board adoption of a change in content, instructional processes, and evaluation. Thus, some of the potential educational mini-singularities are sneaking up on us. The large number of individual parents and students making decisions on computer use in education are paving a road to eventual massive adoption of computer technology throughout curriculum, instruction, and assessment. The result will be a “large” mini-singularity in our education systems.

What You Can Do

Introduce your students to the general idea of technological singularity and to specific examples of mini-singularities. You and your students can work together to discover and explore mini-singularities that are relevant to the content, instruction, and evaluation for the course material they are learning from you. See Moursund (2015) to learn more about self-assessment and to access a number of self-assessment instruments available free on the Web.

If your students have reached a level in which they can make effective use of self-assessment instruments, use such materials as an example of a mini-singularity that is developing in the assessment component of education. You might try the following assignment.

In this assignment, students are asked to select a topic or area that is personally interesting to them. If you think it is necessary, then add the requirement that the topic or area must be in some way related to the course you are teaching.But be aware that this requirement may damage intrinsic motivation on the part of your students to take the assignment seriously!

Select a topic or area that interests you. Decide on ways in which you can measure your own current knowledge and skills in this area. Then decide on a plan of action to improve your knowledge and skills, and carry your plan out for a “reasonable” period of time. Then assess yourself to see what progress you have made. Finally, produce a written or oral report on the overall process you carried out and the progress you made.

Note that developing skill in carrying out such as assignment—and gradually incorporating use of this skill into one’s overall life routines—can be thought of as developing a personal mini-singularity.

References

Bull, B. (11/17/2013). 10 uses of MOOCs for high school students. Etale–Digital Age Learning. Retrieved 5/16/2015 from http://etale.org/main/2013/11/17/10-uses-of-moocs-for-high-school-students/.

Moursund, D. (2015). Self assessment. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Self_Assessment.

Moursund, D. (3/5/2015). Education for the coming technological singularity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/education-for-the-coming-technological-singularity.html.

Moursund, D. (2/25/2015). The coming educational singularity. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/the-coming-technological-singularity.html.

Moursund, D. (2005). Introduction to information and communication technology in education. Retrieved 5/16/2015. Microsoft Word http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/18-introduction-to-information-and-communication-technology-in-education-1.html. PDF http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/17-introduction-to-information-and-communication-technology-in-education.html.

Moursund, D. (2002). Getting to the second order: Moving beyond amplification uses of information and communications technology in education. Learning and Leading with Technology. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://pages.uoregon.edu/moursund/dave/Article&Presentations/second_order.htm.

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (2015). Brain science. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Brain_Science.

Moursund, D. (2015). Self-assessment instruments. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://iae-pedia.org/Self-assessment_Instruments.

Moursund, D. (5/12/2015). Improving precollege education: Don’t just complain—do something positive. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/improving-precollege-education-don-t-just-complain-do-something-positive.html.

Moursund, D. (3/5/2015). Possible futures of PreK-12 education. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/http-i-a-e-org-iae-blog-entry-possible-futures-of-prek-12-education-html.html.

Moursund, D. (2/13/2015). Robots are here and lots more are coming. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/15/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/robots-are-here-and-lots-more-are-coming.html.

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Comments

Guest - Bob Sylwester on Saturday, 16 May 2015 23:10
Are We Covered With It?

Seems like we've always had technological mini-singularities: chalkboards, pencils, books, etc. Is a desk an example, since it's a bummer to stand up all day in school? Are styles of teaching also an example (of a technology)? Or does this kind of musing finally suggest that everything in life is a mini-singularity?

Seems like we've always had technological mini-singularities: chalkboards, pencils, books, etc. Is a desk an example, since it's a bummer to stand up all day in school? Are styles of teaching also an example (of a technology)? Or does this kind of musing finally suggest that everything in life is a mini-singularity?
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