Tag Archives: the information

Knewton Reads: A Data Scientist Reviews “The Information”

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here.

When a molecular biologist reasons about genes and heredity, the second law of thermodynamics is not always her second thought. As I sit here composing these sentences, I’m barely cognizant of the fact that I could leave out roughly half of the textual characters I’m typing and still my point would come across, and only mildly adulterated. Because I’m a creature of 2012, I think nothing of the miracle of this language transmitted in full fidelity across the many wires of the web — but what if I were a creature of some time earlier and my medium was the drum?

It’s a rare book that manages fantastic leaps across time and concept, and does so with such complete fidelity to the sciences and biographies of those who developed those concepts. It was a pleasure to be able to share a few hours in the mind share of James Gleick, reading his latest book, “The Information,” which explores information in all its streaming, noisy, lively, expressive, fickle, and multitudinous incarnations. It was particularly rewarding to realize that many of the connections and relationships he shares are particularly foundational to thought processes that run through an information scientist’s mind here at Knewton at any given moment.

The Information dissects the lifecycle of information itself: transmitter goes to encoder- goes to imperfect medium- goes to decoder- goes to receiver. For a data scientist at Knewton, this view of the world — this particular lifecycle of information — can be mapped to the way we model student understanding and behavior. A student’s unknowable state of understanding- goes to imperfect assessment of that understanding–goes to receiver — with the exception that the receiver in our system is really a feedback loop wherein we update both our knowledge of the properties of our assessments and our knowledge of each student that operates through this loop. This is a process-oriented description of what Item Response Theory (one of the fundamental tools we use at Knewton) provides us.

Given a configuration of messages we derive from an assessment medium, the task is to “decode” the inner state of a student’s knowledge. To me, this is just one notion of what a (probabilistic) model is — a layer of abstraction that rides just above the clickstream, the knowable answers to questions on tests viewed through an imperfect lens, that gives us a picture of a student’s state of knowledge, from which we attempt to infer a student’s optimal next course of action.

Knewton Reads: “The Information” and the Impact of Technology on Thought

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here.

In “The Information,” Gleick flies through centuries of early history, describing monumental changes in the representation of thought from oral language to pictographs, to ideographs, to written language. He presents the argument that these developments in language represent a much more significant development: changes in the representation and levels of thought. Citing Eric Havelock, Gleick argues that written language enabled conscious thought, converting experiences to a prose of ideas, which triggered a change in the human psyche to embrace abstraction. In contrast, Plato took a completely different view on the impact of the written language on human thought, arguing that the “innovation will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it… [offering them] the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.”

While they held two opposing arguments, Havelock and Plato shared the belief that there were huge implications from the development of a new technology — writing– on human thought and wisdom. As Gleick goes on to argue, the current technological innovations enable other forms of information, such as bytes, which can be seen as changes in the representations of thought. Applying this to the education space, there are many arguments synonymous to Havelock and Plato’s, on whether or not educational technologies will be effective in furthering students’ thought capabilities, or in Plato’s words, delivering greater “wisdom” to students. Havelock and Plato’s arguments provide important insights to that question, that while “educational technology” has become a term and a sector of its own, it encompasses a large span of technologies — from computers to Knewton’s adaptive learning engine, and possibly even writing itself.

In this context, it seems that the jury’s still out on the broader question of whether educational technologies are increasing our wisdom or knowledge, even for an old technology like writing. Our best bet is to narrow down that question on technology by technology basis. While we may never be truly able to resolve the debate until we delve into epistemological questions of defining wisdom, we can measure possible proxies of  student knowledge, performance, or proficiencies, and the impact of each technology on those proxies.

Here at Knewton, we’re doing our part by measuring our proxies. We are starting to see some really interesting data on the impact that our technology can have on student learning. In the process, we’re making some gains toward the epistemological question too, by continuing to refine our measurements of those proxies. For now, we’re working on them internally, but we’re excited to share these out with everyone very soon.

Knewton Reads: “The Information” in Today’s Classroom

James Gleick’s “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” was the pick for this month’s Knewton book club. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll be posting reviews throughout the month; read others here

One of the most impressive things about “The Information” is how dynamic it feels as it covers the same ground again and again. We see a wide variety of characters (including Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer and Ada Byron, the world’s first programmer), scattered through history, briefly grasp an aspect of the nature of information, and use it to tremendous effect. The epiphany is almost always a variation on the same theme: when we separate the sign from the signified (the symbol from what it means), the former becomes light, swift, and malleable and lends itself to experimentation and discovery.

These ideas have ramifications for the field of data science, which is concerned with testing and analyzing data. On the adaptive learning team here at Knewton, a lot of what we do is abstraction. As we work, we ask ourselves questions like the following: in what ways are a video about fractions and a paragraph about analogies different versions of the same thing? Is the relationship between a book and a chapter similar to the relationship between a quiz and a question? If we use data to recommend study groups in which students teach each other, where exactly do we draw the line between a student and a teacher? These questions could come off as trivial, esoteric, or even disruptive, but for us they are the key to linking, comparing, and understanding the huge range of learning experiences with which our work puts us in contact.

At the same time, it’s possible to take abstraction too far. The last 10 years are full of examples, from the financial crisis to no-fly lists, in which separating data too completely from the reality it represents has caused great harm. As we begin using our models to help shape the learning process, one of our top priorities is to maintain close relationships with the students and the educators affected. With their feedback, we can strike the right balance between freeing information, so that it can be used in new ways, and keeping our feet on the ground regarding what’s actually happening in the classroom.


Knewton Reads: “The Information” and Data Visualization

Last month, we started a book club at Knewton to jumpstart discussion on tech, education, and management ideas related to our work. Every month the whole company is invited to nominate and vote for a relevant book. “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick was our winner for the month of April. The book covers the history of information — from the invention of scripts and alphabets to the Morse code and the arrival of the Information Age. We’ll post a few reviews of each book on our blog each month; stay tuned for more reviews of “The Information” in the weeks to come! 

In “The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,” James Gleick explores some of the most groundbreaking scientific revolutions in history through the lens of the concept of “information.” The first anecdotes depict English anthropologists investigating the mechanism behind drum talk, a communication system based on drumming used by certain tribes in central Africa. It is a simple and brilliantly clear way to introduce the concept of information. Throughout the book, whether he’s writing about Ada Byron or Samuel Morse, Gleick builds on this theme like a composer at work on a grand symphony.

Gleick argues that the flood of information we have today will transform every single field in science and business. For example, Gleick describes the discovery of an informational basis for the genetic revolution, which turned biological sciences into strong information sciences, with codes and instructions defining the way we think about life and the role of individual beings in evolution. Later in the book, we learn about the birth of the information-based sibling of psychology–cognitive science–which approaches the understanding of the mind through information.

“The Information” is open to interpretation. One could argue that the book does not question the vision of a completely data-mined society. However, I think Gleick has a more nuanced aim in mind. “The Information” reminds us of the past, so we can understand the future in a broader context and be fully cognizant of the dangers, wonders, and possibilities of our age.

The third and final part of the book–the “flood” part–deals with the current work being done in the world of information: finding patterns, understanding them, and communicating them effectively. Gleick describes how there is a newfound need for additional layers of symbolic framework in order to make sense of the information rushing towards us. In other words, there is an increasing need to rapidly pack and unpack information as “the flood” shapes our society, our businesses, and the very foundations of our knowledge.

Data visualization is part of that abstraction. First of all, there is a need for understanding and describing the patterns behind data. Secondly, it seems natural to describe those patterns through visual relationships rather than linguistic ones. Thus I predict a much greater emphasis on the visual going forward (hence the burst of interest in infographics and interactive visualizations). To some extent, we need the visual to make sense of the data flood; we’ve entered an entirely new plane of reality where we’ll need to explore new ways to communicate the knowledge we possess. At the same time, we’ll continually need to draw ourselves back from the brink of total abstraction–back to the limitations of words and physical experience itself, so that we stay grounded enough to understand the tangible reality of the symbols that reflect that reality.