I spoke today at the NSF Workshop on Social-Computational Systems (SoCS) on Mike Pazzani‘s Computational Models and Techniques panel with Tuomas Sandholm, Lise Getoor, and Tina Eliassi. We were asked to address the questions of what computation can teach us about socially intelligent systems, and what problems are encountered when applying existing technologies to such systems.
I focused on two key SoCS challenges : impedance mismatch, and research-at-scale. Let me explain.
What can computation teach us about SoCS? If we begin with technology, we’ll encounter the key challenge of “impedance mismatch” between people and technology. The technology, however good, may not address people’s needs. Instead, let’s reverse the question: What do socially intelligent systems teach us about computational technology?
Consider, as a case study, the problem of education: building a SoCS system to help students learn. Our first pass was a collaborative learning site with a state-of-the-art collaboration platform, a kind of “Google Docs meets WebEx meets Etherpad meets Skype on steroids”. While the site was useful, we learned that students didn’t use most of the features we had built. The issue was impedance mismatch: the technology did not address education problems from a student perspective.
What, then, are these problems? There are two: Access (scale) and engagement. To tackle the impedance mismatch, we need to design technology that provides the right affordances (in the Gibsonian sense) for student behaviors that address those problems.
We created a vision for Open Social Learning that blends, not Google Docs and WebEx, but Facebook and World of Warcraft. With funding from NSF, NIH, GRA, and Gates/Hewlett NextGenLC, and partnerships with MIT, Yale, NYU, and many others, we rethought the site from Education to SoCS to Learning Theories to Design Principles to Affordances to Architecture to User Experience (UX) to Mechanisms. (See slides and references below.) This process resulted in a fundamentally disruptive idea, one driven not by technology but by the SoCS it was to support.
Only then did it make sense to think about Computation: really real-time collaboration technologies for a highly interactive experience; intelligent recommender systems to help learners connect with relevant content and other learners; mining and analytics to assess learner outcomes; and reputation techniques to establish social capital.
The new OpenStudy.com is an Open Peer-to-Peer Social Learning Community, a place that matches learners studying the same things into live “massively multiplayer study sessions“. The problems of access (scale) and engagement are addressed through two mechanisms: A Luis von Ahn approach where the social community scales itself, and a kind of gamification in which everyone is on the same team.
Great idea—but how do we know it works? The education literature is full of great ideas that don’t work in practice. SoCS data research involves studying large-scale communities; the same applies to SoCS technology design. This is the research-at-scale challenge. Laboratory studies don’t prove much; the research fundamentally requires scale.
After 9 months, OpenStudy has grown into a vibrant community that both provides value to its users and serves as a “living lab” to study and validate the ideas. We’re continuing to research how new technologies can be combined to address the problem of education in a manner that is highly scalable yet interactive and engaging.
To understand what socially intelligent systems teach us about computation, then, requires a new methodology comprised of old ideas about design thinking brought into the new world of Social-Computational Systems at a massive scale.
P Adams (2009). Designing for Social Interactions.
Terry Anderson (2007). Distance Learning: Social Software’s Killer App?
J Daniel (1996), cited in JS Brown (2007). Minds on Fire: Open Education, The Long Tail, and Learning 2.0.
R Friedrich, M Peterson, A Koster (2011). The Rise of Generation C.
Gates Foundation study: JM Bridgeland, JJ Dilulio Jr, KB Morrison (2006), The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts.
D Thomas & JS Brown (2011). A New Culture of Learning.
More readings at: Massively Multiplayer Online—Learning?