Even computers need context

I was reading an aricle in Wired about machine translation and was struck by the connection to learning theory. The upshot was that new, much more accurate translation software is being written by creating context for the language being translated. The software takes a section of text in Spanish, say 8 words long, generates a list of possible translations in English and looks on the web for the frequency of each translations appearance in English as a measure of likelihood it is the best translation. It then moves one word ahead and repeats the process with seven words from the last set, plus the next one in the sequence. It continues like this selecting the most likely candidates for each set of 8 words and then produces a translation based on the most likely of all possibilities. Essentially what the algorithm does through brute force is create an understanding of language in context.

The reason that I think this is so interesting is that it supports the idea language is contextual. As language is the primary tool for learning, by extention this means that learning (or knowledge) is contextual as well. If you can’t learn the word “bank” without having a context for the word, then you can’t learn about sedimentation collecting on the bank of a stream without that taking place in a context. The context of the learning is as critical as the content. For me this shatters the idea that is fundamental to so much of how we assess learning (e.g. NCLB & standardized tests) — that knowledge out of context has meaning and that measuring knowledge out of context is a meaningful way of understanding what a student knows. If a computer cannot understand things well without a context, must it not be even more true of people?


~ by sbmcdon on December 17, 2006.

2 Responses to “Even computers need context”

  1. With the growing interest in situated perspectives on learning, you’d think we’d be further along in considering context in relation to assessment. With that said, I am so impressed — you are out there doin’ it! Very cerebral and dark (sleek, minimalist, etc.).

  2. Cerebral and dark, that is me.

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