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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Google-powered Educational Courseware [Google University]

Yesterday, while browsing through the Internet, which I do a fair amount of, I was struck by this realization. Our Internet experience would have been so much poorer & exceedingly dreary & tedious without the invaluable service provided by the Google search engine. Its bots, crawling through the near-infinite maze of web pages on the Internet, indexing them, categorizing them & then, making just the relevant pages available to the user in the form of search results, when the user keys in a particular search string. Such ease & convenience in accessing information has, thus, made it possible for a much greater number of people to gain the knowledge & information they seek, without having to encounter brick-walls in the form of protocol, hierarchy, red-tapism, or even prior knowledge in the field in which the information is sought, at each step of the way, as is the prevalent practice in the traditional stream of knowledge dissemination.


It is indeed true that the Internet, itself, has made possible for dissemination & acquisition of knowledge in a manner & scale far greater than traditional means introduced earlier. However, without the help of a search engine to bring it all together, & inform us that various portions of information we seek are actually available at different locations, our search on the Internet would be akin to groping our way through the dark, in the hope of getting lucky. It would have lead to the Internet being a network of disparately located islands of information, virtually isolated from one another. A person, who is aware that information about a topic is available at a given location [web site], may not also have known that additional information could also be accessed at another website, without the help of a search engine to point that out, as would be the case today. Data ghettos we would end up with, as opposed to the ocean of information that the Internet is today.


The Internet, enabled by Google has, expanded the scope, horizons & possibility of learning that is limited only by an individual's own desires to acquire greater knowledge. Today, it would be no exaggeration to state that Google is becoming has come to become the custodian of our collective knowledge gained through time. In fact, so profound has been the impact of Google & the convenience it provides for accessing information, that our brains too are getting re-wired, changing the manner in which we recollect information.

One may, quite rightly, argue that what I am attributing to Google, a brand is, in fact, a manifestation of the evolution & development of search engine technology, in general. While this is indeed true, yet when one tells another of a need to run a query through a search engine, the term most likely used is "Lets Google it". Then, the search engine used is the one by Google. One is unlikely to hear someone say, "Let Bing it" or, "Lets Yahoo! it" or, pray, "Lets Wolfram Alpha it" [although, the last engine has some uniquely nifty tricks up its sleeve].

As evident, we now have a popular term of reference, where the name of the company whose service is to be used to perform a task has become synonymous with the task itself. Today, to an average, moderately technology-aware person, Google is Search Engine is Google. Period. This is reflected in the ranking of search engines, where Google towers high above the second placed in terms of percentage of people using it.

A 2008 estimates puts the amount of data Google indexes each day at 25,165,824 Gigabytes. Three year past, their capacity is only expected to have been increased. With such a gargantuan* volume of information accessible to a user via Google, it needs no emphasis to state that a person, if he or she so desires, can undertake learning about absolutely any topic that catches ones interest, unconstrained by considerations of prior qualifications & expertise. As a result of this endeavor, it is also within the grasp of the person to attain a level of proficiency equaling or even exceeding that of a person who undertook learning the same via the traditional system of education currently in place.

However, such Internet-enabled, Google-aided, approach to learning will have some inherent drawbacks & difficulties. Firstly, this approach to self-learning is likely to be unstructured in nature, where the student himself/herself would have to determine what is to be studied, thereby increasing chances of learning wrongly. While being unstructured [rather the aim should be modular] in nature, much more than traditional system, would be an advantage over traditional means, letting it get out of hand could actually hamper the process of any meaningful learning experience. Another critical aspect of learning would be the actual selection of Internet content to be used as reference material for studying. Vastness of the Internet & the extreme variance in the quality of content available, would act a detriment to the learning process, if wrong selections are made. Finally, by taking up self-learning, one would end up missing out on the fraternal bond formed between people in traditional system of educational institutions. Interaction & discussions with peers, as witnessed in the traditional system, plays as important role a in the actual process of education. Besides, interaction with peers also serve as a push to the individual to aim & perform better than the peers in the chosen course of study.

How would it work out?

Google, itself, is well-positioned to roll out a service that could help address the needs for a flexible guiding framework within which one could take up this type of learning off the internet. In fact, the necessary building-blocks needed for such a service already exist within Google's expansive offerings of web-enabled services. The challenge, therefore, lies in consolidating the benefits of these services towards ensuring a productive & focused online learning environment. Google, has undertaken some projects, marking its forays into the education domain. A popular example would be YouTube's Education channel, that has a vast collection of neatly categorized educational videos, based on subjects, that one could watch & learn from. However, this is an isolated undertaking serving limited, even if invaluable, purpose. At best, its current ventures serve to augment the existing traditional system of education.

What is needed is an all-encompassing approach towards educational course material, incorporating freely available online knowledge with Google's various services to serve a consolidated end purpose. We could call this service Google University.

Let us take an example to understand this proposed idea. Assume, I wish to learn about Automotive Engineering. Looking through the courses offered at the Google University, I learn that courseware for Automotive Engineering has been prepared & is being offered at Google University. Bingo! I immediately sign up for this course, using the ubiquitous single-point of entry Google Account login.

After completing the initial formalities that would be used to gauge [automated, perhaps] what exactly I would like to learn & how much of it I am interested in learning, I am presented with a suggested curricula, which would include topics I should study as part of this course. Each topic would come with a suggested time-frame, within which I should ideally complete studying. The time-frame or schedule of learning could be displayed via a module powered by Google Calendar. Thus, I could sync this schedule with my handset's calendar, keeping me reminded all the time. Upon completing a particular topic, I update my status in my Google University account. Depending on the date when the update is made, the schedule for completing study of subsequent topic is automatically calculated & updated in Google Calendar, thereby syncing with my cellphone's calendar.

Each topic for studying would be further expanded upon by providing a list of suggested online reference material that I could make use of to study. The reference study material would be neatly categorised depending on the nature of material. The selection of the suggested reference material could be made by a combination of Google's own search algorithm, later vetted by human experts.

Under one category, it would provide me with list of freely accessible websites & point to corresponding pages where the necessary information can be accessed & learnt about. Under yet another category, it would list out a suggested books related to the topic. These books could be accessed & read from Google Books, which has plans to scan & index all of the printed books published so far. Thus with the click of a mouse, I would be able to read & learn from the  collection of suggested books.

In another module of my Google University account, powered by YouTube, I would be provided with a list of recommended videos to watch, which would help improve understanding.

A Google News module would be updated with the latest news relevant to the topic of study. This would keep me updated & raise my awareness about the topic. The news items would also serve as context for the content I'm studying. It would remind me that what I am studying has been applied in the development being reported in the news. Google University would provide me with a customized RSS feed URL which would pipe in the news through Google Reader, which will therefore enable me to get the latest news each morning when I read through my feeds.

A Google Scholar module would give me a list of recommended peer-reviewed research papers related to the topic I am studying. This would help me keep myself updated on the latest trends & research being done in the field of my interest. A Patent module, powered by Google's Patent Search, would correspondingly list out note-worthy recent patents granted in the the field of Automobile Engineering.

Integrating Google Docs & Bookmark with Google University would enable me to annotate, take notes & prepare reports online, based on what I have been studying. A better service than Bookmarks would, in my opinion, have been the Google Notebook service, now discontinued. A web-based module of Google SketchUp, would enable me to draw sketches & prepare models myself. Perhaps elements of Google Picnik could also be also be added to it. Diagrams & models created here could be ported for use in my reports & presentations, as also Google's Picasaweb album. By drawing out the diagrams myself, my own understanding of the working of the system being studied would improve.

Google Picasaweb album, accessible from the Google University interface would allow me to save relevant pictures & diagrams for future reference. Pictures, as it is said, is worth thousand words, or something to that effect.

Those who have taken up a course related to Computer Science would have a module integrating Google's App Engine, allowing them to host & run codes. Google Code would allow them to access & view codes compiled by other individuals. Looking through codes of experts, understanding the cleverness in which they managed to shave off lines from the code, without diminishing functionality, would be invaluable for developing own skills.

One important aspect of learning & education is interaction & communication with peers. To make this possible, Google can develop an online platform for fostering a community of students studying the same course, which would allow them to interact with one another, share ideas & solve each other's difficulties that would arise during the course of study. It would also include an option to conduct video-conferencing for face-to-face interaction. Google Plus, with its concept of circles, could be adapted & integrated into Google University for developing such a community. A better platform, in my opinion, would have been Google Wave, that had better features in place for collaborative efforts. Also a variant of the now discontinued Google Answers could be incorporated into the University for receiving answers to doubts and queries that a student may have.

A Profitable Service

Any venture Google gets into, must be profitable. It, after all, is a publically listed company & is answerable to its shareholders who demand that it earn them the maximum profits, even while it stays within the bounds of laws. Perfectly legitimate demands. Google Adsense could be weaved into the Google University interface, thereby earning them ad revenues via this service. It has a good potential for earning revenue, as working professionals, who are unable to find time to join a traditional educational institute would be more likely to take up studying via the Google University courseware.

Google, in lieu of payment, could make arrangement for a student to have interactions with teachers and professors, subject experts. This correspondence could be in the form of a video-conference, textual chat conversation or an arrangement where the student puts forth a problem to the expert & he/she helps the student solve it. A portion of the payment made by the student would be shared with the expert. This would be a good incentive for more such experts to sign up to guide students of Google University, allotting some of their time for this purpose.

Course material, I would like be made available free of cost to students who sign up, with the integration of Adsense ads, if needed. Any way, the course material I suggest be provided, be from vast amount of the open source data Google indexes - more than adequate for most purposes. Students could be charged for the additional add-on facilities & modules. Say, for example, at the end of the course, if some one wishes to receive a certification, an examination could be conducted for that purpose - a paid feature. With better thought being put into monetizing the service, surely a model can be developed that can address the triple need of providing quality knowledge while at the same time being accessible to all, and also generating revenue for Google.

Another big offset, from this venture would be the huge amount of data that would be generated by the students within the Google University eco-system. Indexing them would be that much easier & of a level approaching scholarly. Targeted ads too could benefit from such generation of data.


Thus, as seen, what Google needs to do, in essence, is to develop an integrated environment that seamlessly brings together its various online services, enabling smooth cross-communication between them & providing an online interface that aids the process of an individual's learning. Google, with its iGoogle service, has done something similar, but it is not specific to structured education & learning. What Google University proposes is, in some ways, to port this concept & adapt it for online education.

The platform would have the flexibility to be scalable & modular, catering to the user's individual learning requirement, collating & using the vast reservoir of high-quality data & information, it indexes on the Internet, to formulate an appropriate courseware. Google has what it takes to become a game-changer in the domain of education making it accessible to more & fulfilling an individual's search for information. By indexing the Internet it is already catering to this requirement. What it needs to do is present the same in the context of educational courseware. A great initiative it would be, if it does so.


Earlier: An Iranian aboard India's manned Space mission - AA Me, IN

image source: Google学生アンバサダー公式ブログ