I’ve just spent the afternoon trying out Google’s latest experiment from their Google Labs: ‘Google Factoid’ is set to be the best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) writer’s aid ever seen. I should say that not everyone can access it yet – one of the perks of having a grand total of 5 shares in the company (hey, they’re expensive) is that I get a sneak peak into the hidden corners of the Google Lab – but the Beta version is due to be released imminently.
I guess we should have seen it coming: marry the search capability that have made Google’s sidebar ads increasingly targeted and sophisticated, to their process of digitising the world’s collection of books, and you have a tool which can, potentially, bring up all the facts you could ever want, as you type. (Currently it only works with Google Docs, so it will no doubt massively increase their user base, until the developer communities ensure its ubiquity.)
Of course, too much information becomes counter-productive, so it works by using a number of filters, which you can switch on or off. I decided to road-test these filters through a blog post I’m writing on the UK National Curriculum Review, announced yesterday by UK Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove and his Schools Minister, Nick Gibb.
Significant Dates searches for historical relevance, so typing in ‘UK Curriculum Reforms’ brought up, in a discrete sidebar, the information that there have been 12 major reforms to the UK National Curriculum since its introduction in 1988 (together with the parent URL, so I could investigate further)
Connecting Countries looks for geographic relelvance. Writing the phrase ‘impact of national curricular reform’ brought up the much-vaunted Finnish system, highlighting a phrase from an academic paper recently published, noting Finland’s ‘ shift from implementing national curricula to support for individual learning and locally based ingenuity and implementation based on fundamental social trust has demonstrated exemplary results.’ (One might have thought that the current coalition might have wanted to emulate this policy shift, given Gove’s belief in allowing teachers more freedoms, but apparently not)
Quotable Quotes searches for quotations related to the topic you’re writing about (in all filters you can set it to be word, sentence or paragraph-specific – the latter improves appropriateness significantly). So when I typed the words ‘Google’, ‘Gibbs’ ‘game changer’ and ‘invention’, it brought up Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg describe it as ‘the most important invention since Ptolemy’s Triquetrum”. (Nick Gibbs, the UK schools minister, attributes the setting up of Facebook to Zuckerberg’s study of Ancient Greek, in this video):
Perhaps there’s still some inherent bias in the searches, because immediately below this came a quote from Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin – the one where they both attribute their success, not to their MSc’s in Computer Sciences, but to their elementary Montessori experiences. Incidentally, Factoid further threw up another bit of news – that Facebook are under pressure to integrate Factoid into its messaging system to ‘enhance the level of debate’ among high school students.
There are more filters which I don’t have space to describe (most are self-explantatory, like Illustrative Examples and Add It Up) but I’ll close with the one that is potentially the most powerful : Analyse It. This scans gazillions of articles, academic papers and books to provide a series of Twitter size views (graded for relevance in For and Against columns) according to the argument you present. Quite how it does this is no doubt a part of Google’s alchemy but, writing the concluding paragraph in my post, up popped, first Mike Bakers BBC blog precised as ‘Gove brings power for curriculum into DoE, making National Curriculum a Nationalised Curriculum, quickly followed by the Guardian: ‘Govt seeks return to facts-based approach, rooted in public school tradition, irrelevant to employer needs’. Of course, there were analyses in the ‘For’ column too, but lack of space, etc…
I have rarely experienced anything quite so revelatory, because here, for the first time, I no longer had to find facts – they found me. That’s why this piece of kit has such huge implications. Some (not least the aformentioned ministers of education) might have to question their insistence on a facts-based curriculum, whilst others (perhaps the teaching unions) may see Factoid as a threat to their professionalism. But, as a parent, I’d want it in every school in the country by Monday morning.