The Real Story Behind Google Factoid


Two weeks ago (the original post is here) I detailed what I called a ‘game-changing’ piece of kit  being released by Google. ‘Factoid’ was designed to bring knowledge and facts to the writer/learner, utilising the powerful search capacities they have developed through ad sense, linked to their huge digital repository of knowledge. The filters you could apply, would bring you relevant economic, geo-political and historical data, without you having to look for it, simply by typing key words into your document. It could provide learners, researchers and writers with a powerful, contextualised, way of bringing relevant information to you, just when you needed it, rather than wait for the classroom teacher, or professor, to decide what you needed to know. Lots of people got very excited about the radical implications that such a technological breakthrough could bring to teaching and learning.

 But  It’s time to come clean: I made it up. I’m afraid Factoid was Fictoid. The only thing that was true was that I do own a very small number of Google shares, but that was never going to get me sneak previews of new lab developments, as I claimed.

Now, I apologise to anyone who was taken in by the story, but I hope people will see that the point I was trying to make was worth the deception.

You see, over 3,300 people have viewed that post in the past two weeks, and no one questioned the likelihood of it being true. What does this tell us? That people were half-expecting it, and that it’s merely a matter of time before such apps do exist. The real story lies in how we respond to such technological advancements.

I have never agued for skills over knowledge. To my mind, they’re equally important. It’s just a shame that the fixation we now have with testing, means that what we can test the most easily (what we know) invariably takes precedence over what really matters (what we can do with that knowledge). And, despite there being no proven connection between PISA/TIMMS scores and national prosperity, industrialised countries have judged the quality of their national education systems by PISA performance, and have therefore conned themselves into believing that what can be PISA tested is what we should be teaching. PISA doesn’t test skills, so knowledge becomes everything.

Skills are acquired experientially, knowledge isn’t. You have to fathom out how to make knowledge work for you, and that, in my experience, is what teachers really want to be doing: helping their kids apply knowledge, not standing in front of them, turgidly chronicling the kings and queens of England.

Witness the surge of interest in ‘flipping‘ the conventional relationship between the classroom lecture and homework. Instead of using valuable class time lecturing 30 kids, and then setting them homework to see if they understood it, growing numbers of forward-thinking teachers are podcasting their lectures – to be viewed as homework – so that they can use class time to support students in putting that knowledge into practice. Flipping’s popularity has occurred because it appeals to teachers’ intrinsic desire to grow human beings, not fact accumulators.

So, I believe that the English government has misjudged the mood of teachers, by signalling a reversal of pedagogy, away from skills, and back to facts. Or perhaps it’s a cunning ruse to make deeper public sector cuts in the future. After all, once something like Factoid really exists, who needs teachers?

I really do hope that teachers will become more vocal in expressing the importance of head and hands, of knowledge and skills. I know that their excitement at the prospect of a powerful technological aid to knowledge acquisition was because they could see they might have more time for knowledge application with their students. And I’m sorry if I raised their hopes prematurely by perpetrating my little hoax. I promise it will be the last time I’ll attempt such a stunt.

And I do hope Google cut me in on a royalty when they eventually do create Factoid – remember, Do No Evil – you read it here first!


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3 Responses to The Real Story Behind Google Factoid

  1. Ewan McIntosh says:

    As I said when we met a couple of weeks back, with technology the assumption is always that it IS possible, it’s just whether there’s a market, an appetite for it. I do hope that people don’t think the point you’re making is really around the media literacy of some folk (including me) in checking out our sources – we trust you because we know you – but rather the more important issues around whether knowledge at great depths for a short period of time (for exams) is useful any more.

  2. David Price says:

    Ewan:I’d be disappointed if people did see this as primarily a hoax. It wasn’t intended to be. In fact, it began simply by wondering how such a technology (first intimated by Roger Schank) might look. The more I thought about it the more excited I became. But I really expected an immediate ‘don’t be silly, that’s doesn’t exist’. But, as you say, we’re not really surprised these days by the advances we can make in technology.It’s lamentable that our policy makers can’t see any other way of imparting knowledge, other then the sage-on-the-stage, and their thinking about pedagogy can’t seem to embrace some radical thinking. Thanks for feeding back. I’ll edit in the light of your comments.

  3. unpopular says:

    several years ago I started delivering the ‘how do i do this? or ‘what do I need to know?” part of my GCSE course through tutorial videos. The tutorials took time and were produced in my own time at home, but their value has more than ‘paid’ for this investment. Working time in class has become much more focused on students actually creating something, and my focus is on talking about deeper issues. My role is now much more clearly one of trusted learning guide.I do wonder though just how prepared many (most?) teachers are to move towards a similar point? I can see how it can be scary, challenging and potentially initially uncomfortable. But as I keep saying to new teachers, the most valuable moment for me in my career was the point at which I felt confident enough to surrender power… and acted on that confidence.And actually Ewan, that in itself picks up on your question of whether what we define as ‘a good teacher’ is still relevant.

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