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Vail Valley Voices: Look out for Web 3.0

Bill Sepmeier
Vail, CO, Colorado
newsroom@vaildaily.com

I recently began my fifth career, that of a part-time college instructor, when I taught my first college credit course in solar hot water system design at Colorado Mountain College.

The career actually began last winter, when I left the world of the employed and began to develop the materials needed for the two classes I am now teaching, both in harnessing and using solar energy.

I spent most of three days each week developing PowerPoint slide presentations to use as talking points during my classes. It’s a lot of material to cover and put into a logical sequence, when each class involves about 50 hours of face-to-face contact with the class.

Since I have a small house, I was immediately exiled into an unheated Tuff-Shed building on the property that,fortunately was wired for power with a UL listed extension cord connected to our nearby home solar power system years ago.

The cord easily supported my laptop computer, a printer, external hard disk drive, an 18 watt compact fluorescent desk light and, thankfully, a 700 watt ceramic heater. The heater warmed the half of my body under the desk. I also wore Carharts and a wooly hat to keep the top half in operation during February, March and April. Based on some of the mistakes my class found in the slides, the hat didn’t conserve quite enough heat.

This piece isn’t really about the real hardships of teaching, though. I have given as almost as much thought to the processes I used to accumulate and verify the material I taught as to the material itself.

Developing college-level courses involves, among many things, a tremendous amount of unpaid research and these days there’s just one place to do that: online.

While I already knew the solar design process and materials pretty well — it is what I’ve been doing for some time, after all — one still has to “core dump” it all into a format that is coherent and even one that looks attractive. (An attractive, easy to understand, logical presentation holds student involvement and that means a lot.)

But first the data has to move from one’s head into an external format, and then it has to be checked for accuracy. That’s where the research starts.

Unbelievably, once one learns how to define clear search terms, any of the Internet search engines can deliver an answer to almost any question within seconds.

Frankly, this is unbelievable to me, since I grew up in libraries – my mom was a librarian – and even a good research librarian could take hours to confirm simple facts until recently. The motto of her profession was “The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge.”

Now you don’t really have to know where to find it. You simply have to know how to clearly ask for it and how to separate the wheat from the chaff of information a search engine delivers to your screen. As a researcher who develops course material, this access to information for literally pennies a day is still both unprecedented and mind boggling.

During my first class, when I presented the materials I’d researched, I found myself going back online in real time with the class to look up answers to questions asked and to teach the class — mostly adults looking to change careers themselves — how to use the resources available online to continue their learning after class.

By using Google, Yahoo and other search engines to access data immediately and then to filter that data to obtain better results and more accuracy, anyone can remain a student forever for the price of an Internet connection.

As I went through this process, it occurred to me that unlike the professors who sparked my own education in class, teaching today seems to be a job wherein I am more a conduit for information than a source of it. Indeed, a recent article by Mike Elgan in Computerworld magazine points out that much of life is becoming fully integrated with outside knowledge, to the point nobody will have to know very much in the coming years since our cell phones will evolve with “Web 3.0” into intelligent assistants that may deliver answers to most of life’s problems.

So, what is Web 3.0? Elgan sums it up well. “In a nutshell, the Web 3.0 will function a little bit more like a human being. It will ‘understand’ how facts and ideas are connected. And it will also ‘understand’ what you’re looking for, and take your own particular context, needs and preferences into account. Your interaction with the Web will feel less like the operation of a machine and more like interaction with another human being. So, for example, you’ll be able to query the Google of the future with questions like, ‘Where should we go for dinner?” Instead of returning a list of restaurant reviews and listings, it will consider your location, the weather, current traffic, what you had last night, your previous preferences, the opinions of your preferred restaurant critics and more. It will consider a huge variety of sources and will produce, say, three specific restaurants — all great choices, all things considered, literally — all things considered.”

The only problem I keep stumbling upon, besides the complete loss of any privacy to this system and its owners, is tests.

In school, using the ‘net or a PDA to access the knowledge needed to pass a test is generally frowned upon. One simply has to learn some things, though, that too might pass. If it does and Web 3.0 becomes the way society in general gets its answers and makes its decisions, with knowledge and thinking outsourced to corporately-funded and controlled networks and databases, then God help us all, especially when the lightning strikes, the power fails and civilization has to think for itself again, even for a few minutes.

As a course developer, I could wait for the light (singular, I only had one) to come back on if the breaker popped occasionally when the little heater struggled too hard. I could walk down the hill to the house, reset the circuit breaker, have a coffee and talk with the family without having to consult the Web for instructions.

I’d posit that we all should consider the consequences of outsourcing more than the basic research portions of our lives, especially given what the outsourcing trend has done to the job market — chaos and failure, or what delivered me into my own fifth career.

Bill Sepmeier lives in Sweetwater.


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