Google’s Oppia Turns Programming into a Dialogue

Update, March 5th, 2014: I found the man behind Oppia! A true developer really devoted to what he is doing. He helped me to get a bit deeper insights on some things:

  • Oppia is not Google’s product, so the title of this post is a bit off. Oppia was initiated as the 20% time project, meaning the time employees can use for their own projects. Something I proposed a while ago to be included in education, too. And then found out it is already happening.
  • The fact that it is called Oppia is an accident of sorts. The team has no connections to Finland. They had to come up with a name and were going through different languages searching for translations to the word “learning”. The runner-up was Swahili word “kujifunza” but “oppia” is easier to pronounce.
  • No immediate plans to integrate with Google’s data & algorithms. For the time being Oppia is an independent system and any integration with web content (e.g. to find out that Finnish is linguistically close to Estonian) is up to the community. If someone wants to code an interface to web sources, fine, they are free to do so. But you shouldn’t expect Google itself to implement such, at least for now.
  • Community is at the core. This is the most characterizing feature of Oppia. You could compare it to Wikipedia or Linux in its ways of working. This actually brings a fresh approach to personalized feedback and learning paths. Usually metadata, semantics, and powerful computing is harnessed to perform these tasks, but Oppia relies on the community. The more people contribute to Oppia and its explorations, the better it becomes. If it works for Wikipedia, hey, why not here?

***

Last week I bumped into two interesting technology launches: Wolfram Language and Google’s Oppia. Both bring us closer to actually discussing with a computer rather than only giving it commands in a one-directional fashion. I managed to discuss Oppia with Google folks yesterday here at SXSWedu.

Oppia

Google’s search engine has long ago started to resemble the classic vision of artificially intelligent computer, which gives answers to questions humans ask it. I remember this from the comics I read as a kid in the 1970s. There are questions Google can’t answer off the shelf, though, and that’s why it would benefit from having a dialogue with the user.

Oppia is an open-source project Google has initiated. It aims at providing a convenient way for anyone to create and share “bite-sized educational explorations”. What caught my attention first when I heard of the project was its name. Oppia is Finnish and means “to learn”.

This factoid was also used in the demo the Google guys gave me. The demo included a question along the lines of “What language is the word Oppia?” The demonstrator first typed “Spanish”. Oppia gave a negative feedback in a polite way and asked the user to try again.

“Greek”, he wrote. Then Oppia replied “Closer, but not quite, please try again.” I got excited: could this system know about languages and how close they are linguistically? I asked him to type “Estonian” next. I know that Finnish and Estonian are very close to each other, hoping for an answer indicating that.

But no, it did not recognize this aspect. Bad news. The good news is that it could. We could’ve created a rule on the spot stating this fact, setting Finnish and Estonian linguistically very close. The huge news, however, is the potential.

At the moment Oppia is a separate system relying on explicitly states rules. What if it had all Google’s muscles behind when interacting with the user? I am sure there are several sources on the web where the closeness of Finnish and Estonian is mentioned.

While I am waiting for the integration between Oppia and Google’s information & algorithms to happen, I am marveling its dialogue approach of interacting with the users. It is mimicking the communication between a teacher and a student. When the user/student answers incorrectly, Oppia/teacher not only tells that the answer is wrong but tries to encourage and give a push to the right direction. Very nice.

Another phenomenon Oppia contributing to is the lowering of barrier for anyone to start programming. Like the Wolfram Language, it bears the possibility of bringing people and computers closer to understanding each other.

I have yet to locate “the man behind Oppia”, but I’ve heard he is at the conference. If I find him and get deeper insights, I’ll update this post or write a new one.

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