In a few weeks I'll be going to Singapore to address an educational convention at Singapore Polytechnic. As part of my visit I'm also meeting with a group of primary and secondary school principals and teachers. Both engagements awe me somewhat as I'm stepping outside the comfortable world of HCI and computing.
So I've been doing my homework, reading the Ministry of Education's web site, which includes detailed lists of expected outcomes at all levels of education. When I started to read these I expected to see something like the attainment targets in the UK National Curriculum: abilities in language, numeracy, etc. In fact the closest the Singaporean outcomes come to pure academic statements are things like "seek, process and apply knowledge" or "have a lively curiosity about things".
Instead, the Singaporean outcomes focus on growth of personal character, tolerance and patriotism: "have moral integrity", "be culturally rooted yet understanding and respecting differences", "have compassion towards others", "love Singapore".
Now in my teaching, public speaking and indeed this column, I often highlight ethical issues. Within a UK educational setting even to discuss morality is treading the borders of propriety and good taste (not done old boy), but to go so far as patriotism would be risible.
Where is this difference in national attitude? Is it simply Western individualism? Clearly not: one of the things Europeans find surprising, and sometimes shocking, when visiting the US is the ubiquity of the flag and emphasis on being 'American'. Possibly it is lingering memories of extreme nationalism, but recent French protest marches after Le Penn's election success show that the majority in France regard it as a matter of national pride to denounce racism. Perhaps we are simply being 'British'?
One of the things I'll be talking about in Singapore is teaching innovation and creativity. I've mentioned this before in this column and I believe it is particularly important in a technological design area like HCI. Recently with my own students I was dealing with this material and with more general research methods. When looking at literature searching, the two sites I most strongly recommend are the ACM digital library and CiteSeer (NEC ResearchIndex).
For those of you who haven't come across the latter I must rave. CiteSeer deals only with online material. It trawls the web for publications and performs textual analysis to find the bibliographic details of the paper itself and its reference list. This is used to build an increasingly comprehensive citation index of online material (and papers referred to from online sources) including links to the online sources. Although it has the occasional glitch the citation analysis seems at least as good as the best available manual citation indices in computing.
ACM digital library I love! Not only is the text available to subscribers, but the abstracts citations, etc., are all publicly available. Whereas I never link to subscriber-only sites, I do link extensively to DL pages as they are of (different) value to both subscriber and non-subscriber an excellent web model from both an information and business perspective.
Perhaps I should say I used to love the ACM DL and link extensively to it.
As an academic I wish that the breadth of coverage of CiteSeer could interface more effectively with the authoritative referencing in proprietary digital libraries such as ACM and IEEE. This would pose technical challenges and more problematic the design of effective business models, but surely must be the way ahead for a richer web.
However, it seems that the real barriers lie deeper than technology or economics. I was deeply shocked recently when I found the vision statement on the ACM DL site: "about the ACM Portal". In this I read "…it is a reasonable presumption that if not one of ACM's many authors ever cited a given work, that work is likely to lie beyond the periphery of core computing literature." In other words, if work isn't in or cited by the ACM it is no good and there is clearly no need to create alliances of knowledge when ACM has the monopoly.
Now am I being terribly 'British' here or do these words send a chill into the hearts of all academics? To voice such sentiments in private would seem like overarching pride, to publish them is either extreme arrogance or ignorance.
Again from a European perspective, coming from smaller countries where the national boundaries are physically and conceptually closer, we are used to watching with wry amusement the apparent parochialism evident when visiting the US, especially on the television. This was perhaps reasonable in a country of such cultural and geographic diversity that many citizens never leave American soil, and of such economic and military strength that the rest of the world seemed hardly to impinge on everyday life. However, in the current situation, reading such sentiments from the organ of the computing industry does not admit excuse so easily.
Whilst promoting critical thinking and appreciation of diversity to my students can I continue to direct them towards ACM DL?
At a recent UK HCI community meeting in London it was clear from various points that our focus on real people doing real things gives HCI practitioners a special viewpoint and responsibility within our field. HCI is the conscience of computing. In a period that has seen the best and the worst of national pride, perhaps it is time for SIGCHI to be the conscience of ACM.