Is Siri the One and Only?

Apple’s Siri, the personal assistant software that uses elements of artificial intelligence, received multiple accolades from the media. But is it the only software that is able to maintain general conversations and understand commands based on speech recognition?

Iphone rulez
Back in the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT created ELIZA, one of the first computer programs (chatter bots) that could maintain a meaningful conversation with humans. ELIZA was created to help patients in need of psychotherapy. ELIZA software responded to patients by using pattern matching techniques – providing answers based on similar keywords. The name ELIZA was inspired by Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, who learns to speak as a member of the elite society.  After some interaction with ELIZA it was possible to discern that ELIZA was a program, however some people believed that ELIZA was a real person.

A Turing test is usually used to evaluate how well a software program imitates humans. Created in the 1950s by Alan Turing, the test helps differentiate between humans and computer programs that imitate human intelligence. During the test, a human judge is assigned to chat with a human and a machine. If the human judge is able to guess who is who, the software program fails Turing Test. The test is implemented in an annual Loebner Prize competition that evaluates the most sophisticated chatter bots.  One of the winners of Loebner Prize – A.L.I.C.E.  is able to maintain a conversation, however in spite of receiving three Loebner Prizes, it still fails to pass Turing test. Another chatterbot Cleverbot won Machine Intelligence Competition in 2010  and passed Turing Test by only 42 percent.

A recent trend is to apply artificial intelligence for the development of personal assistant programs in mobile devices. Dragon Dictation software types down everything you say, and a Genius Button imbedded in hardware of some Android based phones is at your command at all times – finds locations, replies to your emails, calls your contacts and performs other routine tasks. Personal assistants can send emails, post to social media sites, take notes, translate, look up weather, update calendars, find directions and talk to their owners. While Apple’s Siri received a lot of attention in the media, there are similar programs available on Android Market, such as SpeakToIt and Jeannie. To help understand accents, a Singapore company SingTel created DeF!ND, software that understands Singlish – English spoken with a Singaporean accent.

While the use of Artificial Intelligence in mobile applications is on the rise, how this technology will develop? The usage of such applications in academia is also intriguing. For example, can students benefit from using “personal assistants”? Will it be possible to create technology that looks up references, helps in doing homework, or automatically creates and posts assignments by the deadline?

Talons: A Case Study in DIY Educational Technology

On June 9, 2011, students in the music program at Gleneagle Secondary School, a high school in Vancouver suburb Coquitam, BC, played its spring concert to a packed house in a 450 seat auditorium. A first in Gleneagle history, the performance was broadcast live over Internet radio to listeners all over the world. And while  that might sound like a huge undertaking requiring serious AV and IT infrastructure, it was not. Not at all. In a brilliant feat of do-it-yourself EdTech (or what some folks might have once called edupunk), the concert was streamed live by Bryan Jackson, a Music and English teacher in the school’s TALONS program, and graduating senior Olga Belikov, with a Macbook, some free software and a USB microphone. That’s it. That’s all it took to broadcast the spring concert to anyone anywhere who wanted to hear it. And it sounded great.

Gleneagle’s Principal was aware of what was going on but wasn’t entirely clear on the details. During one point in the concert, he  walked backstage where Bryan explained all the moving parts: the unremarkable laptop and microphone, the free software, the web radio station (DS106Radio — read about it in my last post and herehere, here, herehereherehere, and here), how he and Olga used Twitter to build a live audience of listeners from from all over the US and Canada, and  that the broadcast was being recorded and would be posted for posterity to Soundcloud, a free audio sharing site, so that anyone in the Gleneagle community or anyone else anywhere could listen to and respond to any part of the performance. Bryan also explained how he had been using various other social media tools at Gleneagle including YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, blogs, and web radio to enhance lessons, to share performances, and to communicate with students and colleagues. His Principal was duly impressed. The administration had been aware of and supported Bryan’s and other teachers’ use of social media but had never up to this point fully engaged their potential to increase engagement, promote programs, and share and interact with parents, teachers, students, and district administrators or anyone else. While they had an inkling of what teachers were doing with free web tools, this broadcast, its recording, and the new interest at the school in webcasting were, according to Bryan, probably the first tangible outcomes of Gleneagle teachers’ experiments with creating and sharing on the web. Here is a one minute audio clip of Bryan describing the Principal’s visit backstage:

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I love the irony here: Bryan tells us that he was able to experiment with various social media and web publishing tools and explore how their use might benefit his program and school only because one of the school’s IT people gave him his computer’s administrative password, which he really wasn’t supposed to have. It’s fairly common practice for IT departments in companies and educational institutions to withhold admin access to computers from end users for fear that they will go messing where they shouldn’t and damage the computer, contract a virus, install unauthorized software, or do things on their machines of which the IT department or the institution does not approve. This also ensures that end users have to rely upon IT personnel to perform simple maintenance tasks, modify configurations, and to update or install software. This is the traditional model where IT is in control of who has access and who does not while the end users are disempowered and must rely upon IT to make any changes to their machines. Here’s a wonderful example of a teacher who was trusted with full access to his computer and was able to use it to break new ground without hinderances imposed from above. When creative teachers have the latitude to experiment with the technology that’s readily available to them, wonderful things can happen. If there was ever an argument in favor of rethinking the model of how and to whom administrative access is granted at educational institutions, this is it.

I don’t know much about the general feeling at Gleneagle toward the privacy and security implications of web publishing and social media in instruction and for promotional purposes so I can’t speak to that. But it seems to me that, generally, there’s still quite a bit of trepidation about such things among educators. That trepidation, I’ll argue, tends to grow out of 20th Century notions of public exposure and our relationship with mass media and their roles in our lives. Privacy and security are certainly real concerns (FERPA exists for a reason), but it does appear that the discourse around them is often animated by outdated ideas about the production and consumption of media. It used to be that if you appeared on TV or radio, or in print, you had done or were involved in something a small group of editors and producers felt it was their imperative to broadcast. It had to be fairly remarkable, for good or for ill, to make the papers. Having your image or story broadcast to the world via a mass medium like radio or television, was special — something fairly unusual in the “look, Mom, I’m on TV!” sort of a way, unless you were among the relatively few who made a living in front of a camera or microphone.

Now, when anyone can shoot a video on a mobile phone and upload it immediately to YouTube, where it can potentially be seen by thousands, if not millions of people within just a few days, there’s a real banality to this sort of exposure. Most of our students share their lives on the internet in some way  every day. More and more of them live their lives in both physical and virtual space — this is something that those of us in their 30s and 40s who teach and administer programs are just now getting our heads around. Whats more, the means of media production, it has been said again and again by new media thinkers like Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky and a host of others, are now in the hands of everyday people, no longer just media professionals. With relatively little effort and technical expertise, anyone can publish to the web. Anyone can broadcast audio or video to the internet on a mobile phone and an application that costs almost nothing. Heck, a bunch of us edtechhers built an open community radio station out of nothing more than a $25/mo server and a desire to play radio DJ.

Bryan Jackson and his colleagues at Gleneagle understand this well and are making amazing use of it. Thanks to a leadership that seems to appreciate the possibility the new media order offers educators, they have been empowered to use a combination of social media to do on their own what once was the province of AV professionals and marketing departments and required substantial infrastructure. While we’re by now used to seeing inklings of this sort of thing on the post-secondary level, it is encouraging and inspiring to see in happen in K-12. Bravo, Gleneagle Music! Bravo!

[This post is cross posted at my personal blog,]

Blogs@Baruch Semester in Review: Part Three, Course Blogging

Blogs@Baruch was used in approximately two dozen courses this semester, in disciplines that included Fine and Performing Arts, English, Sociology/Anthropology, Journalism, Library Information Systems, Communication, History, and Management.

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WPMu continues to provide a flexible platform for our faculty members to structure and explore online communication and composition in their courses. Course blogs this semester have been used to aggregate individual student portfolios in a Do-It-Yourself Publishing course, for students to share and comment upon Shakespeare Scene Studies, to blog about journalism internships (password protected), to write about food and sustainable agriculture, and to show off their multi-media reporting. Students have debated current events on a blog devoted to reading and discussing the New York Times (password protected), blogged about blogging as journalists, and added stories to Writing New York. Some faculty members have been using Blogs@Baruch as their course management system, while others have used it to try to create public writing opportunities for their students.

For a full listing of course blogs, see our “projects” page.

One project in particular embodied the excitement some faculty members and students bring to their work on Blogs@Baruch. Professor Shelly Eversley, in the English Department, had her American Literature students produce pod and vodcasts that analyzed texts they had encountered over the course of the semester. Buoyed by Cogdog’s “The Fifty Tools”, I did an hour in class on free digital story telling tools (including Voice Thread, Yodio, Gabcast, and Podcast People), and also gave some advice on how to construct a story that balanced narrative, analysis, and style. The students produced amazing work, which they collected here in advance of their voting for the initial American Literature Podcast Awards (the ALPs). They ended the semester with an awards ceremony, and have continued to post their thoughts about the class to the blog in the week since.

Here’s two of my favorite videos from the class:


Prof. Eversley’s project exemplifies the useful energy that multimedia tools can help students invest in their coursework. These projects are not substitutes for the critical engagement with a text or a canon that some might argue can only be attained through writing an essay; rather, they are additional paths towards that engagement. These students were excited about showing off their work, used the city as a laboratory and an archive, helped each other master the technology, and showed deep engagement with their chosen texts. This is good teaching and learning, and we’re happy to support any faculty member who challenges herself and her students to use a variety of tools and literacies in their effort to produce knowledge.

Kudos to all of our intrepid faculty and their students for providing us with yet more examples of innovative pedagogy on Blogs@Baruch. We look forward to Spring 2010, and in particular two film courses that will be taught on the system. Blogfessors, come on down!

The Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool and the Question of Openness

It recently occurred to me that in the almost 4 years of this blog’s existence very little has been said about the Schwartz Communication Institute’s most ambitious and potentially most promising project, our Video Oral Communication Assessment Tool, or VOCAT. I have presented on VOCAT a number of times over the years (most recently at the 2009 Computers and Writing conference in June), but have not yet written about it here. So it’s high time to remedy that.

VOCAT is a teaching and assessment web application. It is the fruit of a collaboration between the Schwartz Institute and mad genius code-poets at Cast Iron Coding, Zach Davis and Lucas Thurston. It is still very much in development (perpetually so) but is already in use in introductory speech communication and theater courses as well as a number of assessment projects. Our career center used it effectively a few semesters ago as well. To date, approximately 3200 Baruch students have used the tool.

VOCAT was developed in recognition of the principle that careful, guided review of video recordings of their oral presentations (or of any performance, for that matter) can be remarkably effective for aiding students in becoming confident, purposeful and effective speakers. It serves as a means for instructors to easily provide feedback on student presentations. It enables students to access videos of their performances as well as instructor feedback and to respond to both. It likewise aggregates recorded presentations and instructor feedback for each user and offers an informative snapshot of a student’s work and progress over the course of a given term or even an entire academic career. Presentations can be scored live, as students perform, or asynchronously once the videos have been uploaded. (Our turnaround time at this stage is between one and seven days depending on how many sections are using the tool at once — once some of the key steps happen server-side, turnaround time will not be as much of a concern.) Built on the open source TYPO3 content management system, it is a flexible, extensible and scalable web application that can be used at once as a teaching tool and as a means of data collection for research or other assessment purposes. (Screenshots are available here. I am also happy to share demo login info with anyone who would like to take a look — please email me at mikhail [dot] gershovich [at] baruch [dot] cuny [dot] edu.)

While VOCAT is quite feature-rich at this early stage, especially when it comes to reporting, data export, and rubric creation, we are always thinking about ways in which the tool can be made more robust and flexible. Currently, we are playing around with adding a group manager feature for group presentations, tagging for non-numeric assessment, moving from QT to Flash video, video annotation, as well as server-side video processing and in-line video and audio recording. We are also considering allowing users to choose to enable social functionality to take advantage of web 2.0 tools for sharing and commenting on one another’s work. And since, at its core, VOCAT is a tool for aggregating and responding to anything that can be uploaded, we’re thinking about other uses to which it could be put. It could easily, for example, be adapted for writing assessment. And someone once suggested that it could be useful for teaching bedside manner for medical students. Adapting VOCAT for these purposes is hardly a big deal.

The platform on which VOCAT is built is open source but the tool itself is not yet open. Right now, it is Baruch’s alone. Whether it should stay that way is a question much discussed around here. Here at the Institute we face several critical issues around open education, not the least of which is conflicting views on student access of Blogs@Baruch. In regards to VOCAT, however, the one thing constantly on my mind is the tension between an internal drive to share the tool as an open-source web application and build a community around it (there are no shortage of interested parties) and the pressures (or maybe a pernicious institutional common sense) that seem to compel us to keep VOCAT proprietary and use it to generate as much revenue as possible. I have heard arguments that VOCAT should be Baruch’s alone — that we should charge for its use and seek private funding for its deployment and development. This is a business school, after all, and I’m sure promoting and marketing VOCAT could be an interesting project for an upper division Marketing course.

Yet, I am inclined to believe that VOCAT should be shared freely and widely with other institutions and that other developers should be encouraged to develop for it. A great many more students would benefit and development would certainly be accelerated as more and more schools add features they need that could then be adopted for use here. Were VOCAT open, in other words, it would evolve quickly and probably in ways we haven’t even imagined. And that is very exiting.

In the coming months, I hope to continue to present on VOCAT and to gain insights into the roles it can play in communication intensive courses or in a communication-focused curriculum of any sort. More importantly, I would like to move towards opening it up and will work with our developers on the features and functionality that facilitate sharing. I hope also to draw upon the tremendous expertise of my friends and colleagues involved in the open education movement and learn from those who have worked with and developed various open source tools for teaching and learning. Listening to others’ ideas for VOCAT has been invaluable to thinking through what this web app could ostensibly do with the right sort of development. could be and how to best realize its full potential as a teaching tool — both in terms of deployment, training, and development.

Is There a Class in this Text?

phone thief
Creative Commons License photo credit: beret claire

Two recent experiences really illuminated for me the possibilities of computer-mediated communication.

As I was walking down the street the other day, my 10-year-old nephew texted me from his mom’s cell phone. Now, leaving aside for the moment the ramifications of using “text” as a verb ( I think I like it, but am not 100% sure yet…), I was delighted for two reasons. First was the element of surprise: Expecting some information my sister had promised to send me, I opened my phone to find a very sweet message (the first ever) from Max. More importantly in this context, the texts (there were ultimately three) revealed a slightly different Max than the one I thought I knew. Or, perhaps not a different Max exactly, but rather, more of him. The first message was brief, a sort of test message, but when I wrote back he sent a longer message asking what he and my sister should buy for a dinner I’d be having with them.

I gather my sister was playing Cyrano for the first two, but I the last message was pure Max. Despite (or, as I suspect, because of) the compression enforced by the 160 (??) character limit, Max managed to explain which Star Wars Lego sets he wanted for his birthday (and why) with the precision of a New Yorker critic. Most interestingly of all, getting my nephew to write anything, much less a critical evaluation, is ordinarily like pulling teeth, and here he was waxing eloquent in (albeit in abbreviated form) in 160 characters! When I got to the Toys-R-Us in Times Square (fertile ground for a million and one sociology/economic/gender studies dissertations-but I digress!) I was amazed by the keenness of his assessments and preferences.

Now, before you dismiss me as just another doting aunt (I confess), I’d like to return to my larger point, the possibilities for real-time communication technology (or whatever rubric best contains texting, tweeting, instant messaging, Skyping, etc…) to broaden students’ (and in fact everyone’s) writng, and perhaps, for that writing to broaden us. I think there’s something about powerful motivation to communicate (whether to score the best Star Wars Lego or avoid a social gaffe) coupled with constraints of time and space, that, paradoxically, free the writer of other kinds of constraints like correctness, “smartness”, and formal requirements.

My exchange with my nephew only underscored this notion; I’d experienced this odd ‘freedom’ Skyping with my husband a few weeks before. He was out of the country, and we’d agreed to talk to each other via Skype. For some reason, my headpiece couldn’t receive calls, and the two of us ended up using the messaging feature instead. I’m know I’m revealing my lack of tech-savvy here, but it was my first experience with real-time messaging minus the character limitations of cell-phone texting. Here too, I was delighted to hear a slightly “different” version of my husband’s voice, and was struck by the ways in which “Skyping” was both more and less like our in-person conversations than e-mail: The speed of transmission allowed us to joke around as we do in person (and the medium of text made us even more horribly punny than usual), while the time constraint (the idea of the other person waiting for an answer) and time difference (fewer opportunities to communicate) forced us to pack maximum content into minimum time and space. Rather than worry about typing, spelling and diction, we were wholly focused on conveying information and meaning. This freed me from a tendency to over-explain (apologies for this post!) and my husband (it seemed) from the opposite, a tendency to minimal descriptions of his experiences, insights,thoughts and interactions with others. In short, I felt “allowed” to be quieter and simpler, and in turn, had the privilege of “hearing” more of my husband’s very sharp, funny, and very personal take on his experiences.

In short, it seems to me that communication software like Skype, texting, and Twitter offers far more than a means to transmit information. Rather, in their strict confines, we might find freedom.