Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why do I Think Brainify is Important?

This is really the conjunction of two questions: why do I think Brainify can help in education, and why do I think education is important?

How Do I think Brainify Can Help?

The web now is an amazing educational resource. Universities, companies, professors, students and other individuals publish everything from short presentations of academic topics all the way up to complete and open courses and degree programs. There is no shortage of great sites that can be of help in pretty much any course a student could be taking.

Sometimes, though, there is difficulty in finding the appropriate sites. Google can help tremendously here. But the searches and metadata are not specific to academia and therefore attributes like relevance, domain, academic level and correctness cannot be accommodated in the searches. Likewise, there is no good mechanism that supports the formation of global academic student communities and allows their members to connect, ask questions and learn from one another. One of my goals when I started WebCT was to help in the formation of course-based communities – but we now have an opportunity to remove the course border.

Easy Access to Academic Web Sites

The core of Brainify is the ability for students to build their own collections of academic websites. A by product of adding a site to their collection is that it makes that site searchable within Brainify – allowing others to easily find it and possibly add it to their collection.

When a site is collected, the student is asked to say a few things about the site – to rate it, to tag it, to indicate what academic level it is aimed at, to comment on it, to describe it, etc. These bits of metadata, taken together with those of others who have collected that site, allow Brainify users to perform powerful, focused searches for what is arguably the best available academic content.

In addition, when an item is collected, the student is asked to place that item into an academic discipline hierarchy (or ontology). I will describe the formation and details of this community-based ontology elsewhere, but what this means for the student is (hopefully, eventually) a complete, browsable ontology of all publicly accessible web based academic content. What an amazing resource that would be for students – or for any kind of learner for that matter. I cannot tell you how much the prospect of this excites me.

A Community of Learners

I recall that when I use to travel around the world speaking about WebCT, the idea that students would help each other by way of the bulletin board was met with skepticism. Many other professors felt that students were in it for themselves and one way to help improve their prospects was to avoid improving the prospects of others. Perhaps some students feel this way, but the vast majority do not – and are keen to help and get help.

As such, Brainify is meant to provide a place where a broad student community can form. All the usual things are there – profiles, friends and groups of special academic interest. In addition, there is the ability to “watch” what other users are doing. If there is a respected student in a particular academic discipline, others can watch him or her and see when he or she finds a new bit of content or makes a new comment about some item or topic. In addition, students can ask questions tied to particular academic disciplines. It is hoped that other students will answer and everyone will benefit from the result. We can all learn from one another – all we need is a forum in which to do so.

What Does This Mean for Students?

It means, if Brainify succeeds, that students will have a place that will help them in their studies. If they need a question answered, they are likely to find a resource that will answer it here. If not, they can ask it. No one person or even company could possibly build the kind of collection that I am hoping Brainify becomes. But the global community of students, working together, can.

Why Should We Care About Education?

I hesitate to say much about this here because if you are here you probably already care. But let me give you my reasons for being in this field and caring so much.

I feel that education is at the root of – or at least influences - most of the positive accomplishments we make as a society. Not all, but most. And not only accomplishments – but also attitudes we hold such as tolerance and charity. So anything we can do to make education more effective or more accessible will result in more and better accomplishments and a more community oriented society. If we help one generation of students learn better, learn more, or have better access to learning, then they will become better doctors, scientists, architects, artists and so on. Possibly most importantly, some of them will become better teachers. Those better teachers will, in turn, better educate the next generation of students who will also become better doctors, scientists and so on – including another generation of better teachers. With each successive generation every small incremental improvement we make to education now will be passed along and amplified – improving nearly every aspect of the world. We all have our own reasons to be excited about improving education, but those are mine.

It is my sincere hope that Brainify can do its own small part in helping improve educational experiences and outcomes for students.

Take care - Murray

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