Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Live and Interactive with Roger Schank on "Our Broken Education System"

Join me Wednesday, October 13th, for a live and interactive interview with Roger Schank, one of the world's leading visionaries in artificial intelligence, learning theory, cognitive science, and the building of virtual learning environments. He is CEO of Socratic Arts, a company whose goal is to design and implement learning-by-doing, story-centered curricula in schools, universities, and corporations.

Date: Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
Time: 5pm Pacific / 8pm Eastern / 12am (next day) GMT (international times here)
Duration: 1 hour
Location: In Elluminate. Log in at The Elluminate room will be open up to 30 minutes before the event if you want to come in early. To make sure that your computer is configured for Elluminate, please visit Recordings of the session will be posted within a day of the event at the event page.
Event and Recording Page

(This long bio, and the short intro above, courtesy of Roger's website.)  In the early 1970’s, while an Assistant Professor at Stanford, Roger Schank achieved worldwide fame when he was the first to get computers to be able to process typewritten everyday English language sentences.

In order to do this, Schank developed a model for representing knowledge and the relationships between concepts that enabled his programs to predict what concepts might be coming next in a sentence. This spawned an entire field in psychology devoted to determining how people make inferences from what they hear.

After moving to Yale in 1974, Schank worked on getting computers to read newspaper stories. His work was heavily funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, which was interested in trying to get computers to predict world trouble spots by reading the news and analyzing it. He built the first newspaper story-reading program in 1976. Five years later, Schank was made Chairman of Computer Science at Yale and ran their Artificial Intelligence lab.

In order to get computers to know enough about the world to tie sentences together, Schank came up with the notion of a script. Scripts were needed to keep the inferences that computers made from exploding exponentially. For example, a computer could understand that what you order is what you eat in a restaurant if it had a set of expectations about what happened in a restaurant (the script.) Scripts were a powerful idea that enabled Schank’s machines to read about any subject that was well structured. Psychologists began testing people to see if they operated with scripts as Schank had suggested and the evidence was overwhelming that Schank had discovered something important about people even though he working in computer science. His book with Robert Abelson on the subject, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry Into Human Knowledge Structures became a classic, overwhelmingly cited by social scientists for years to come.

While in the process of getting the computers in his lab to understand news stories, conduct conversations, answer questions, tell stories, and imitate other human cognitive capabilities, Schank began to realize that something important was missing from his computer models. They did not have the memory capabilities that humans have. This seemed odd at first, because humans would appear to be less capable than computers when it comes to sheer capacity. Entire volumes can be “remembered’ by a computer after all. No human can match this feat.

What was missing was the ability to generalize. Schank’s programs would read stories that were coming in but they would fail to notice if the same story came in twice or if one story was an update on a situation found in a previous story. In short, while the programs could answer questions and summarize what they had read, they really could not remember what they had read. They had no real understanding because they could not see events as being similar, so they didn’t get smarter as a result of what they had read. You could keep saying the same thing to them and they wouldn’t notice. Schank began to realize that understanding and memory and the ability to generalize were all really the same thing.

Schank began to turn his attention to learning. He believed that if we could understand how people learn then we could apply that knowledge to getting computers to understand more deeply. The story-understanding problem was, after all, really a learning problem. The computers hadn’t learned anything from what they had read. To get smarter over time, the computers needed to match new information to old information—in other words, they needed a clear model of what they already knew in the first place.

So, Schank began to build knowledge of real world events into the computer so that new events could be matched to that information. At this point Schank noticed two phenomena about people’s memory processes that were critical to learning: reminding and expectation failure.

People get reminded all the time. A person reminds you of another person. A place reminds you of another place. And, an experience you have reminds you of another experience you have had. Schank began to study how reminding works.  He observed that remindings revolve around expectation failure. You expect something to happen as similar situations have happened before-- and if it doesn’t, you wonder why. Schank realized that people have expectations about everything, what word will come next in a sentence, what a person is likely to do next, what things will look like, what will happen as a result of actions taken, and so on. When these expectations fail, people must make sense of what happened. They can’t continue to be surprised by the same things. At some point, they need to modify their expectations to include things that they hadn’t been originally able to predict. When a restaurant serves bad coffee, at first you are surprised. Eventually you predict the bad coffee and stop ordering it. This is learning in its most rudimentary form.

In order to get computers to learn, Schank realized, they would have to have expectations and they would have to know when new events failed to meet those expectations. They would then have to explain the expectation failures and modify their expectations.

At the same time that Schank was doing this work, psychologists at Stanford who were still following what Schank was doing from the days when he was on their faculty found some interesting experimental results. They discovered that people confuse very different events in their memories when those events have certain similarities. They argued that Schank’s scripts didn’t explain this. Schank agreed and he modified his theory in a way that accounted for the Stanford data and his new concerns about learning. He suggested that people stored memories in packages that were concerned with event groupings smaller than “restaurant.” If a person left their wallet somewhere they might not remember where but they would know that they had used the wallet in a “paying” event and they would try to reconstruct where various paying events may have taken place by seeing if they could connect them to the script of which they were a part. (Maybe it was in a restaurant they had eaten in.) This meant that people were learning and storing memories inside small packages of expectations (Schank called them Memory Organization Packages.) This accounted for the psychologist’s data and enabled Schank to begin to build knowledge into the computer in such way that learning could take place. This was the basis of his most famous book, Dynamic Memory: A theory of reminding and learning in computers and people.

Around this time something happened that changed Schank’s focus permanently-- his children went to school.

While he was trying to get computers to learn, the school system was trying to get Roger Schank’s children to learn. Schank noticed that both the methods and the content used in each case were completely different. Schank was concerned with how a computer would acquire scripts and other kinds of procedural knowledge. He could, of course, simply put them in the computer, but then the issue was how to get them to understand what to do when a script failed. Scripts change over time after all. Schank realized that computers needed to be able to fail and to explain their failures in order to learn. In order to do this, they would need goals that they were trying to pursue that they might fail at achieving and the ability to figure out what to do so that they would succeed next time and realize the goal. His job therefore was to give the computers the ability to have experiences and to analyze their failures. Teaching, he believed, was best done when the computer was stuck and could take advice from an outside observer.

On the other hand, schools seemed to hold the collective belief that the essence of learning was the acquisition of new information about facts, rather than improving and expanding one’s own internal processes and abilities. Schank realized that he needed to expand his children’s horizons as the school wasn’t going to do it. (He later wrote a book for parents on how to do this.)

While talking to educators about the source of the problem, Roger discovered that there were various vested interests in education that were committed to things staying the way they were. Predicting that computers might serve as a vehicle by which changes might be accepted, Roger began to seek funds for building a computer curriculum where these issues could be dealt with.

In 1988, Andersen Consulting decided to give Schank funding to further experiment with his ideas if he was willing to shift his focus to training their employees. Schank believed that there was still much to be learned before he approached the schools, so he was happy to begin with adult learning. In 1989 he moved to Northwestern University where he was given a chaired professorship and established the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS). In short order, ILS had nearly 200 employees and had attracted various government sponsors (the Army, the EPA, the National Guard) and other corporate sponsors (IBM, who sponsored software for children, Ameritech, and others.)

The premise of what ILS built was based on learning through simulation supported by just-in-time story telling. The software that was built allowed a student to play a role in a simulated world. For Andersen this might mean managing fictional employees (played on video by actors). For the EPA this meant running a public meeting and dealing with an angry populace. For the Army this meant convincing fellow officers of your plan of attack. For children he built programs that allowed them to travel the country in search of places where movie events took place (to learn geography) or to play the role of anchor and writer on the evening news (to learn about modern history.) ILS built hundreds of these kinds of simulations.  World experts on every topic were videotaped and when a student ran into trouble in trying to accomplish something they listened to advice (sometimes contradictory) from the best and brightest about what they had done in similar situations.

This kind of software (one student, many recorded experts, simulations of all possible situations and responses) is very expensive to build. During the 1990’s, money was available and some very high quality programs were delivered. Andersen Consulting was so excited by what ILS had built that they decided to enter into the business of building it for their own clients. Many ILS graduates started or joined a wide variety of companies to build simulation-based learning by doing software.

But by the time universities were ready to try out on line degree programs that could instantiate Schank’s ideas in a real school, there was little money available. So, he developed a much less costly version of his educational model, which he called the Story Centered Curriculum (SCC). In an SCC students inhabit a fictional world which is analogous to one which they hope to enter in real life.

In 2001, Schank agreed to run Carnegie Mellon’s new West Coast Campus, offering Masters degrees in computer science. The curriculum consists entirely of projects—students work in teams, one project at a time, mentored by experts. Each project leads naturally to the next, and taken all together, they embody the story of life in this fictional world—in CMU’s case, the life of a software engineer or e-commerce consultant.

That same year he founded Socratic Arts, a company that is devoted to making high quality e-learning affordable for both businesses and schools, and Engines for Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to designing and building new curricula for primary and secondary schools.

In 2006, Schank called a meeting of people who shared his desire to change the nature of how education is conceived. Together they came up with a game plan for the creation of a Virtual World Academy, an online school offering an alternative to traditional education with international standards. Engines for Education then went on to create VISTA, the Virtual International Science and Technology Academy. Thanks to a generous grant from The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the first full-year curriculum in Health Sciences is complete and now available.

In 2008, Schank and the president of La Salle University at Barcelona re-created the Institute of the Learning Sciences at the Business Engineering Institute at La Salle. It will offer four online Masters degrees in Business Administration, eBusiness, Business Technology, and Learning Sciences. Enrollment began in March 2010.

1 comment:

  1. The hard question is whether Schank's model can function in a cultural environment which does not encourage open exploration and provide the safety net for those who may fail or fall through the cracks. This includes global situations such as East Africa, inner cities where crime is the model of success or barriers such as age, race, sex and economics loom large.

    The related issue which Schank glossed over is the cost. His efforts are not eleemosynary and the cost per student to support this in human engagement as well as direct monetary investment are staggering and depend on supportive communities.

    Finally, the idea that a child will choose a nutritious menu from a table filled with food is an urban legend. The idea that a child will pick interests that allows him/her to participate as an active citizen given the larger environment may not hold in spite of studies on altruism being a survival characteristic.

    Selectively funded and implemented it makes sense but that may not be a world model in the near term


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