This is going to sound a bit like one of those motivational books targeted at business managers, but I was struck by a couple of points in a recent article in Wired magazine on Google’s search algorithm (“How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web“). It’s got me wondering how I can Google myself: not in the sense of searching for my phone number and website, but in the sense of approaching my work in the way that people at Google have approached theirs.
Many people know the story of Google’s original innovation in web search, namely ranking pages by the number of links to them. But this article details many tweaks that have been made since the original 1997 version. These tweaks include weighting links from experts, personalizing results, and universalizing the search across many media including blog and Twitter posts.
In addition to some of interesting linguistic challenges Google is presented with in its search queries (note the differences in meaning in each word in New York, New York Times, and New York Times Square, for example), Google is using the data it gathers in searches to tweak its algorithm and constantly make improvements. If someone searches for dogs and then searches for puppies, the algorithm learns that these words have a similar meaning. If these words are found along with leash, fetch, and train on enough pages, the algorithm learns from that association as well. Even more impressive is that Google is working on making many of these improvements all at the same time without shutting down. One of Google’s coders likens this to changing “the engines on a plane that is flying at 1,000 kilometers an hour, 30,000 feet above Earth.”
Granted, few of us have the technical expertise or vast resources of a corporation like Google. But, and this is the business-book-like part I promised, what are we doing in our personal spheres of influence to assess and improve what we are doing? Is there data we can gather about our students’ experience? How can we manipulate that data and what might it reveal to us? How are we acting on the information we find?
I was recently talking to a student about the perception that students’ time is better spent on preparing for standardized tests than classwork. My explanation that the best way to improve test scores is to do the classwork often falls on deaf ears. But the good news is, we have the data to determine if that’s true. If I can pull those numbers together and present them to these students, will I change their minds? Maybe not, but it’s worth a shot.