Monday, May 21, 2012

Certifying Knowledge: A Business Idea

I have written previously about things that I feel need to happen in education reform and how there could be a dramatic change in higher education that some refer to as the "education bubble". There is one big thing that I see being needed to really trigger that disruption. It is something that is clearly doable with current technology, but it hasn't been put into place yet. I feel like someone who wrote this and put it up quickly could make a lot of money. The piece that is missing is certification of knowledge with validation of the person who has the knowledge.

There are lots of sites out there now which measure various capabilities/skills. TopCoder is one of the first that jumps to my mind. They have a number of different competition based metrics to indicate how fluent a programmer is at different tasks. With all the MOOCs that are coming on line and their automatic evaluation, the ranks of these are growing quickly. However, one thing to note about the biggest MOOCs, like Cousera, is that they have a somewhat limited form of recognition of completion. Some of this is because the schools posting courses there need to still have a business model. Probably more of it though is because certifying a person would require that you really know who they are.

Universities go through a fair bit of work to verify a person's identity. At small schools that is implicit in the overhead of having small classrooms. I know all my students by name on sight. If someone else were to show up on a test day I would know something was wrong. Larger schools have other mechanisms to make certain that the person demonstrating knowledge is the same person who is getting the grade and the credit. This doesn't happen online yet, but it can, it needs to, and inevitably it will. It is just a matter of who will build the system. The rest of this blog outlines my idea for how this would be built and how it could go into a useful product.

Monitoring the Tester
The key, in my opinion, is the ubiquitous spread of webcams. Having things like biometric sensors can identify that the person is present, but a webcam and microphone makes it possible to further show that person is the one doing the work which is being evaluated. The webcam can do the same type of job as other biometrics to make certain that the person you want is the one at the computer. Facial recognition, voice recognition, potentially even information on the person's iris if they get close enough or the cam has enough resolution. In fact, the more forms of identity you have, the better it is. The site should mark each test/result with which verification techniques were used.

After the initial verification, the webcam and microphone can be used to monitor the person taking the test. Eye tracking can see where he/she is looking on the screen. Smaller body movements can show that the person seen in the image is actually the one clicking on certain answers at certain times or doing the typing. The microphone can monitor what is being said in the room to make certain that the person is not being told the answers by someone else in the room. One might even consider having 360 degree webcams to monitor the whole room.

The goal here is to have a system that can be run on a large fraction of the devices someone might want to use to do work that demonstrates their knowledge of a topic, and for that system to be roughly as accurate at preventing outside assistance as a human would be. Of course, it needs to be automated so that it can scale well. You can't be paying hundreds of people to watch other people taking their tests through a webcam. That loses the efficiency.

Certification Clearing House
To make this more valuable, you have to put it together with many forms of verification of knowledge. Many things will be done with fairly simple tests, but the ideal would be that you could have a site that not only does the verification, but which can tie in with other sites so that you might be able to do something like verify the identity of a programmer competing for TopCoder without having to rewrite TopCoder.

It would also be nice if employers could submit their own types of tests. So this could go beyond basic academic areas. The goal would be to have a significant database of areas of competency/mastery and the ability to link up employers and potential employees. In an ideal world, you would eventually use the type of oral exam method I described earlier that would use a Watson style area expert to run the tests. In addition, it could be tied in with educations tools to help teachers/learning coaches to see where people are having problems to get them over things. This type of system could literally be used for demonstrating the capabilities of people going from low grade levels up through graduate level study.

Business Model and Added Benefits
If you were to create a company on this model, it might be possible to collect money from both sides. There is clear value to individuals to have a certification of what they know and what level of mastery they have demonstrated in that knowledge. In addition, there is benefit to entities that want to verify that someone knows something.

One of the interesting perks that I see in this type of approach is that employers could actually build a description of skills for various positions. Some could be hard limits. Some might be desired attributes. Still others might be things where you need to have demonstrated a combined ability in several areas with the exact distribution being fairly insignificant. HR in this world gets a lot easier on the hiring end, and probably gets downsized a bit because there isn't nearly as much use for resumes.

In addition, if you want a job, you should be able to see the metrics in some form to see whether you qualify. I see this as a great motivator for kids in school. They could actually see what types of skills are valued for specific types and levels of jobs. They could see where there are going to be ceilings that come into play because they lack depth of a certain type of knowledge.

This goes back the other way too. Employers can do an analysis of real performance of employees to their measured skill sets and refine what types of skills really lead to better performance in a particular job. As long as enough of the information is open, this winds up being a generative system. People will find all types of new uses for the data and new meaning that can be pulled out of it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sociology/Psychology of the Superstar Effect

The following thought hit me on the way in to work. What are the full sociological and psychological implications of having a superstar effect across many industries? This is right in line with the full theme of technological unemployment. You get technology enabling a few people to serve the needs of vast segments of the population. The result is that you can have an entire market completely saturated by a few individuals and that doesn't lead to all that many jobs being created. The most visible example of this today is Amazon servicing a huge fraction of the purchases that happen in the US and with the possibility of extending it.

None of that is new thinking. It is stuff I have written about earlier, and which I post about a lot on Google+. The new thought was something that hit me as I was driving past the local high school. How does all of this potentially impact the thinking of youth and from there spread out into society? Perhaps right now the answer is that it doesn't. After all, kids are all often blissfully unaware due to their youth. However, I don't fully believe that, and even more, I really don't expect that to be true in a few years. Teenagers don't see social change, they are social change. They don't realize that ideas they are internalizing might be things that were revolutionary to those before them. They just believe them because they are logical at the time in which their view of the world is being largely formed.

So what psychological impact does it have if you internalize the idea that whatever you decide to do with your life, there will wind up being a few superstars and everyone else is pretty much doomed to failure? Here I mean failure in the sense that you probably can't make much of a living off of it. I know that thought does not sit well with me. I know well enough that while I am good at some things, even great perhaps, I am not world-class. Of course, I am well removed from my teenage years. Anyone who knew me then knows I had a pretty high opinion of my self, and I truly expected to be world-class in some things, like math and physics.

There is also another area where the superstar effect has been in place for decades, yet it doesn't seem to phase too many kids. That is the field of sports. High dollar professional athletes make a lot of money. However, as an example, the NBA only has 360 active players at one time. That's all the big money. D-league players can make a living, but even then we are talking about ~1000 people pulled from around the world with an emphasis on the US. What fraction of kids who play High School sports will go pro? I don't know the exact figure, but needless to say, it is very small. This doesn't prevent kids from playing sports. However, I have a feeling that most are playing for the fun of it, not because they honestly expect that they will become professional athletes. Only the top 1-2 players in a school can convince themselves they will be pros. Who knows, maybe the possibility of being a superstar pushes others to keep working harder.

That's fine for sports, which kids normally do for fun. What about in everything else though? How will a kid approach a math class if he/she feels the odds of "making it" in math were the same as making a professional sports team? You can ask the same question for science or English. Does having that thought in your head drive you to work harder to make sure you are the superstar, or does it eventually defeat you when you realize it simply isn't going to happen?

I am afraid the answer is the latter option. I am also afraid that this idea will eventually sink into the heads of young people as automation of both routine, and not so routine tasks increases. If our social structure is the same then as it is today, I think that will be a significant problem. As soon as they realize that they aren't going to be superstars, they give up because only the superstars survive and everyone else gets stomped down.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Klout and Occupation

Basics of Klout
I've been meaning to write a post on Klout for a while. Jon Perry wrote a very nice blog post at The Decline of Scarcity on the topic after Wired wrote an article about Klout. The basic idea of Klout is that the provide a metric for ones influence in social media. Some people love the idea while others hate it. The Wired article shows that however you might feel about it, some places are definitely starting to use it. I also feel that Jon Perry did a great job of describing why Klout, or something like it, could very well become a significant metric in the future. In a world where material goods are abundant, the attention of people will be one of the few scarce resources. That scarcity will give it value. If an individual can command a fair bit of attention from others, that implicitly will give him/her a certain value.

Of course, we don't live in a world yet where physical goods are abundant. That doesn't mean that commanding attention on social media is without value. Indeed, if you put yourself in the shoes of a marketer, there is tremendous value in knowing who different people listen to on different topics. Instead of pitching to everyone, you can focus on the people who can complete the pitch for you and get others to listen. The companies that are giving Klout perks today are the ones who realize this and who want to see what value they can extract from it.

Your Job Today and your Klout
An idea that I haven't seen discussed in other locations, but which weighs heavily on my mind is how occupation impacts Klout. This idea hit me because of a comment I saw on an earlier discussion of Klout. The commentor said that he was too busy doing things to spend the time posting on social networks that might gain him Klout. This strikes me as a very valid comment. There are certain jobs which will not lend themselves to a high Klout. Indeed, that is probably true for most jobs. People in those jobs can still achieve a high Klout, but they must do it on their own time.

I actually spend a fair bit of time on social media. I also spend a lot of time working to keep up on current technology. In my mind the two are both related to my job and to one another. That vast majority of people I interact with through social media are current or former students. As my job is to help prepare students to enter the world in ~4 years, I feel I need to have some idea of what is coming down the pipeline for that time. Much of my activity on the social media is in the form of sharing thoughts and interesting articles with those current and former students.

In other words, there are aspects of my job description which naturally lead to me having an increased Klout score. I can think of other occupations where that would be even more true. People in PR and marketing could virtually live in social media these days, experimenting with new approaches to reaching out to people. On the other hand, I can see most of my students going into jobs where they will have a low Klout score unless they go out of their way to boost it. Their jobs will focus on producing code, not distributing knowledge on how code is produced.

What do you think? Is this link between occupation and likely Klout score a fundamental problem with Klout or does it mean that Klout really does measure what it is supposed to?

Friday, May 4, 2012

Support the "Dr. Mark C. Lewis Closet of Tears"

First, some background. Trinity is building a new science facility. It is called the "Center for Science and Innovation", CSI. You can watch the construction online. This is a huge upgrade to the campus, and the new building will house Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Psychology, Neuroscience, Entrepreneurship, and most importantly, Computer Science.

On Thursday, 5/3, I went to a meeting up in the President's office with a bunch of people who were much better dressed than I was. At this meeting faculty representatives from the different departments described how the new building is going to make a huge positive impact on how they work. The really well dressed people need that information so they can try to raise funds for the building.

From Computer Science, the biggest benefit of this move is just that we get pulled into the center of campus, and will be far more visible than in the past. We will also have beautiful rooms and student spaces. Every one of our classrooms has a wall that is either completely or nearly completely glass. One views the main walkway through the building and the other two have a perfect view out over the center of campus. (Note the big glass section at the far left in the figure above.) There are student areas right outside the row of faculty offices as well as further away for those who want to avoid the faculty. One of those overlooks a large studio area that will be primarily used as an Engineering design space, but which can also be cleared out for me to roller skate through or perhaps for other purposes.

After this meeting I had some final review sessions and I talked to students briefly about the meeting. I mentioned that three long-time faculty of the CS department are retiring this year and how it would be wonderful to have those classroom spaces dedicated to them. My wonderful students, being as caring and considerate as they are, had another suggestion. They said that in honor of my efforts over the brief 11 years I have been at Trinity, I should have a closet dedicated to me.

I was so flattered I had to run with the idea. My inspiration came from an anonymous student who wrote the following on a course evaluation last fall: "Oh dear god. Countless hours of my life spent curled up weeping on the floor ..." To honor this student and so many others like him/her, I felt it was only appropriate to write this blog post asking you to donate money to support the "Dr. Mark C. Lewis Closet of Tears". I would like to see this set aside as a private space where students can go when they have reached their wits end, and have given up all hope of stuffing more information into their brains. Or maybe for those student who are tired of banging their heads against walls searching for solutions to problems they think I picked just because they are unsolvable.

Your donation can not only support the construction of this valuable space. It can also help to pay for appropriate padded materials for the walls, floor, and ceiling. We want to make sure that future students can get out their frustrations and anxiety in a safe, supportive place.

So while you are writing out those big checks for the "Dr. Maurice Eggen Teaching Lab", the "Dr. Gerald Pitts Teaching Lab", or the "Dr. John Howland Teaching Lab" to honor their many decades of service to Trinity and their personal impact on your own education, send a note to Rick Roberts in development at letting him know you want some fraction of that to go to the "Dr. Mark C. Lewis Closet of Tears". It is only appropriate that you should remember the children. Don't make them weep on the hard concrete hallways. Give them a safe place to bang their heads.

Disclaimer: I sincerely hope that anyone who read this far realized this is largely satirical and is actually a request to support the construction of CSI, and hopefully to acknowledge the contributions of Drs. Howland, Pitts, and Eggen. I honestly don't know how tour guides would explain a plaque that includes the text "Closet of Tears". You really should contact Rick Roberts or others in the Development office about plans that are in place and how you might support them.