Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading With the Machine

It is an interesting debate.  Especially when it is with a librarian who is passionate about books, the conventional paper-based type.  I’ve listened to (and read about, on a machine) the arguments for paper-based books, the cognitive advantages, the feel, the humanity of it.  Education Series (sky high books)I think this is a case of hanging onto a long tradition and it repeats itself over and over through history.  Even when the Gutenberg press was invented, the religious leaders of the day tried to paint it as a tool of the devil.  I suspect that was to protect the vocation of the tireless monks copying texts and to protect the political leaders power and control over the spread of knowledge.  Or, how about when the oral tradition was shifting to a written one, albeit using stone tablets.  There were fears that peoples ability to remember would be lost.  With any change in tools, there is a sense of loss and a sense of wonder and gain.  Reading is one of those practices that is under siege from the perspective of the old ways are being significantly challenged.  I wrote a few years back about the Future of Books.

I was in an elementary school last week and the vice principal, who teaches 0.7 of which a good chunk is library, took me into the library for the ‘reading block’.  All students in all classes were involved in some form of reading activity at the same time and it occurs every day.  In the library she had kids (grade 2’s in this case) grab laptops (works on Windows, Mac, iPad, iPod, etc.) from a cart, sit around round tables, put on head phones and use a reading program called Raz-Kids. They logged in using the class ID, found their profile (a folder) to get to their selection of books and progress information.  They have access to hundreds of books that are age / grade relevant.  Each student chooses which book they wish to read or picks up where they left off.  They also use this tool from home. 

With Raz-Kids, the learning work flow is something like this:

  • choose book
  • listen to an engaging human voice read it while it high lights the words, presents photos, drawings, and background sounds and music to support the storyline
  • once they are confident they can read it, they will read aloud to the machine, there is a record button to record them
  • once they are confident in their understanding of the content, they take an online comprehension quiz – the machine will redirect them back to parts of the book for sections they do not pass the threshold on
  • once the machine ‘feels’ (the teacher is involved too) the student is ready to level up, it presents more advanced books to choose from

The teacher has access to all the students reading information such as which books they have completed, how they scored on comprehension, and to their recorded self-reading.  Think about the efficiency alone in this approach.  The teacher would never have enough time to observe, listen, assess in the way the machine does.  The machine is making possible the impossible in supporting and evaluating these kids.

Importantly, the kids’ parents can access the same information.  iStock_000008573353SmallParents are encouraged to read along with their kids, to listen to their kids read with the program, etc.  Now, the extra amazing part of this is the school and community population is 75% ELL (English Language Learners)!  What a fantastic way for the kids AND their parents/grandparents (many multigenerational families living together) to learn English together. 

So what might the future of reading with machines look like.  What if the machine analyzed facial expression, eye movement, pace, etc. and connected that to the point in the book the reader was at.  It could correlate content type, word complexity, background sounds iStock_000010007327Largeand music, machine reader voice tone, gender, etc. to how the human reader reacts.  When the human reads out loud, it could correlate their pronunciation, pace, flow, etc. to the content.  The machine could pop up meanings of words, offer to explain context, etc. when it ‘notices’ the reader struggling.  Perhaps the machine could offer a rich 3D immersive experience of the content to the reader.  The reader would put on some 3D immersive equipment and ‘enter in’ to the book to experience it with all their senses.  The machine would learn their readers preferences, nuances, ‘intelligence’, etc. and tailor assistive materials and experiences to the reader to maximize enjoyment AND comprehension. 

You might be thinking, ‘you are crazy Brian’.  If you are, you are falling into the trap on using the past and the present to predict the future.  Let your imagination run out on an exponential change scale and what I am describing is most certainly possible, probably within 10 years.  Through the massively parallel connections between human brains through the Internet and the mass collaboration on ideas, research, and inventions, new technologies are arising faster and faster every year – exponentially faster that is.  So, I get that we like our own traditions and experiences, i.e., ‘the book’, but we will need to get over it and take advantage of the new possibilities.  We are holding back the potential of people when we limit their access to new technologies.  I’m not naïve in thinking all technological progress is good and healthy, but I do believe we should leverage the good aspects where possible.