Monday, 17 September 2007

ALT-C, Peter Norvig's keynote

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, gave the closing keynote at the ALT-C keynote. For his background reading, he spoke to Hal Abelson, who happens also to have been involved in the Intelligent Book project my PhD came out of. So, of course I was ever so interested because there was lots of common ground with my research and I had a personal link to the background. And I thought it was an entertaining talk. However, talking to a two other attendees (with backgrounds in education) in the cab on the way to the train station, they surprised me by saying they didn't find it very relevant. Well, of course you can't please everyone, but I had to ponder what it was about the talk that left them unenthused and me entertained.

I wondered if perhaps by keeping the talk non-technical, Norvig maybe ended up focusing on material they already knew. Like many AI researchers when they look at teaching technology, Norvig took Bloom's "Two Sigma Problem" as his cue. This is the "problem" that tutoring students one-to-one is much more effective than teaching them in a traditional classroom (specifically, a 1980s US high school classroom) but is also much more expensive. Rather than focus too much on technical matters, he unpacked the outcomes of Bloom's research and what it means for teaching pedagogy, and where technology might fit. This is all interesting stuff for technologists looking at educational technology, even if I'd already come to similar conclusions from reading Bloom's Two Sigma Problem paper myself. But this made me wonder -- the teachers and education researchers in the audience are probably already very familiar with Bloom and his research: he's one of the biggest names in the field. And perhaps, seeing that the keynote was by the director of research at Google, they expected to hear more about what new kinds of technology might be around the corner, how it could benefit teaching, and how to prevent technology from chewing up all their time in learning how to use and administer it?

Or maybe the two people I spoke to were just having a bad day.

1 comment:

AJC said...

The problem was that expectations were so high for Norvig's talk he just couldn't live up to them. It wasn't a bad talk, just not up to the amazing standard of Dylan William the day before.