Is Google +1 Really Positive?

Yesterday Google announced the +1 button, widely compared to Facebook’s “like” button.  By clicking on a +1 icon by a search result, you can let your friends and the world (or no one, if you set your privacy settings accordingly) know that you recommend it.  Right now, your friends include your Google contacts, but they may expand to encompass Twitter connections as well.

Interesting.  Very, very interesting.  Critics have been quick to point out the flaws: you need a Google Profile (what is that?), Google has limited knowledge of your friends (Facebook ain’t sharin’!), and by the time you know you like a page, you probably won’t want to go back to your search results and +1 it (new verb) (Google hopes to change this by putting +1 buttons on websites).

But consider the following:

In short, +1 becomes the new PageRank. OK, that’s kind of catchy, but more accurately, +1 recommendations can become an important new signal for Google to use as part of its overall ranking algorithm, during a time when it desperately needs new signals.

And this I’m afraid of. Honestly, I don’t want the opinions of the masses (or the scheming of those trying to cheat the system, which will inevitably occur) affecting my Google search results.  I know some elements of Google’s algorithm are already “democratic” in that sense, like the importance of linking.  But people’s behavior seems a more reliable indicator of quality than their randomly chosen +1’s. Am I wrong?

The Future of Education?

In a recent TED video, Salman Khan talks about his Khan Academy, which evolved from a few YouTube videos into a whole library of videos plus resources for teachers to track student progress. The idea is that teachers can assign video lectures for homework and save classroom time for more individualized guidance.

The amount of data available is truly impressive. The program tracks how well students are doing on a host of concepts (e.g., fractions or decimals), and teachers can even see how long it took a student to answer online test questions and which ones he got right.

A lot of the comments on TED.com question whether Khan Academy is truly a reinvention of education, since it uses a common technology (video) and common practices (like focusing on one-on-one tutoring and remediation). What strikes me as interesting is that the teacher role, though changed, is not eliminated. But visions of futuristic education usually involve students learning from online video, and not going to school. Is that realistic?

Khan’s talk suggests that it might be. In addition to teachers helping struggling students, his program can facilitate interactions between students. Students could connect with peers who have mastered a subject and even view their “reputation” (which I assume means comments or ratings from other struggling students who have learned from them). An education system that went fully online would require such peers—young or old—to provide help to those who have trouble learning from video content alone.

Would this be a good thing? I once spoke with someone who was starting a college, and asked her about online education. She replied that in-person interaction is vital for students because it allows them to witness the teacher interacting with others, demonstrating virtues of character in action. It gives them a role model. This relates to a broader view of education as growth as a person, not simply growth in knowledge. Fully online education may mean that parents have a greater responsibility for this aspect of their children’s development.

Why Zoning Laws are Anti-Innovation

With governments abuzz about promoting innovation, one easy solution would be to simplify zoning laws.  In talking with a friend yesterday, I realized that zoning laws discourage innovation in at least three distinct ways:

  1. Zoning laws require you to assign your business to one of the categories that government regulators have devised. (My friend, for example, had to call his dance school a “dance hall,” although they never held receptions there.) This gives business owners an incentive to stick with traditional types of businesses, lest they face unnecessary delay or failure in obtaining a license.
  2. Zoning laws make it difficult to change categories.  If your business is failing and you want to try something new, you are discouraged from doing so by all the necessary paperwork, fees, and time. Plus, depending on your location, the new license may not even be available.
  3. Obtaining multiple licenses makes the process even harder. And again, it may be difficult to find a property where all the licenses are available.

So while I appreciate that there isn’t a hip hop club blasting music at 3 a.m. near my apartment, I’d be happy to see looser zoning regulations that don’t create headaches for our business owners and innovators.