A Post by Michael B. Spring

(A list of all posts by M.B. Spring)

Educating for the Future (July 30, 2008)

I received a note recently from a 1991 graduate of our program. Michal was a great student, and wrote a great article on anticipatory standards while he was here. He has worked in corporate positions, in a startup, as a consultant, and most recently as a government contractor. His note made reference to the things he recalled from his education that seemed bogus now, and things that seemed to look forward. In part he wrote: "I can recall creating a DOS-based hypertext program for your document processing class and on demonstrating it seeing some of your students understand for the first time what hyperlinking really meant. Now’s hypertext surrounds us!"

I also recollect those early years with DOS machines and all the fun we had with wrting programs to: control the color registers for the monitors, directly manipulate the ports, edit the FAT tables and so many other things. Given the work at Xerox PARC, and other places, on hypertext, it was only reasonable for us to look at the technology. In the mid eighties, Xerox gave me several 8100's with both the office and development software to build our own systems. Notecards was a sophisticated hypertext system and a thing of beauty to work with. The knowledge provided by Xerox about what was possible coupled with the accessibility of the DOS machine made it easy to build a simpler but nonetheless functional series of hypertext systems.

Michal's note makes me wonder whether I will get another note two decades from now reflecting on something we are doing today. I would like to think the work we are doing on the social periphery in collaboration systems, or ontology development, or aggregate annotations will have some impact. At the same time, I am at a point in my career where I grow fearful that I am losing touch with the direction and shape of the technology trajectory. There is so much happening and I find it hard to see the themes and the directions. Sometimes, as I think is the case for most old curmudgeons, it appears that we are breaking no new ground, but simply revisiting, out of ignorance, what we learned many years ago.

In responding to Michal's observations, I tried my best to think about what we should be teaching today to educate our students for the coming years. In part my response said "I have taken a good portion of this summer to work on some ideas about where we are going. Two things keep banging me on the head, and I have been trying to think about what they mean.

This summer, I spent an inordinate amount of time writing programs that analyzed RSS feeds I like to read. As a result, I now have a prototype feed reader that analyzes what I read, statistically clusters it, breaks out important words and topics, makes them into weighted anchors that "attract" incoming news articles and visualizes my information space to let me know if I want to think about something. Statistical inferences, aggregate annotations, and visualization of ad hoc information stores in real time all seem to offer endless vistas for development.