November 18, 2007


Ever since I caught William Gibson reading aloud "there's no there, there" on a late night, BBC2 cultural review show, I've been enthralled by his prose. I finally succumbed to temptation last night and started reading his latest novel, Spook Country, which I had been saving for the Christmas break.

Gibson is a redistributor of a future that is already here, in nascent form at least. He's also inventing the future by proxy, articulating visions of technology that his "geek readers" can go away and build. Space opera is too far away - Gibson's worlds are rooted in the labs and early adopter communities of today.

If the cyberspace of Gibson's earlier work is just too much like science fiction for you, even with the explosive growth in persistent, online 3D virtual worlds over the last couple of years, you can find glimpses of the future in filings to the world's patent offices.

SEO by the Sea blog has become essential reading for me - every couple of days, a patent from one of the search companies is described in narrative form, or a commentary is made about patent trends.

One post that particularly caught my eye this week was Google and Personalization in Rankings. It describes a scenario in which:

a search engine might expand your queries based upon other things that you may have searched for in the same session based upon a language model centered around the queries themselves.

That kind of model created for queries could also be created for searchers, who could be clustered together with other searchers who seem to choose similar results for certain queries...

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the behaviour across a "network of like minded peers" - who may or may not know each other - might be used to provide support and recommendations to a learner connected into a social platform that can identify such networks.

If I want to learn about a topic, I come to it with some base level of understanding which may be quite different from yours. In an OU context, you may have studied a recommended precursor course, for example, but I may not... The way I use course materials, and maybe search around them for additional supporting material, may be different to the way you approach the course, but may resemble the behaviour of other students. The language I use to construct queries on a topic may also be indicative of my level of understanding about the subject.

By clustering my behaviour with that of others at a similar level to me, several things become possible. Firstly, I can be paired with other people who are currently 'in the same boat'. Secondly, I can have materials recommended to me that are appropriate for my current level of understanding, based on the aggregate behaviour of people who have previously been 'at my level'.

My thinking is this - can behaviour of individuals across a widely spread social learning network be mined to fulfil the role of the 'more competent peer' that plays an important role in Vygotsky's description of the Zone of Proximal Development?

And can more competent peers be introduced to me through that network, who can help mentor me through a learning topic on the one hand, and provide a 'teach on' opportunity for them in return, which may help improve their understanding of the topic in question?

PS to what extent is My Facebook Friends Do My Work For Me an example of one sort of 'more competent peer' discovery process?

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Posted by ajh59 at November 18, 2007 01:34 PM