In the class I teach, the students have to do a group project which combines a lot of the skills they acquire during the semester. It requires them to create outlines in a word processor, make spreadsheets, utilize a database (well, access), make a Powerpoint presentation and create a web 2k+ word web page for their project. The entire thing is basically a research paper gimmick, and they are only allowed to use web resources they find and evaluate using search engine strategies we discuss in class. Since I know from experience most students are going to half-ass this thing anyway (my course is an annoying Gen-Ed requirement everyone has to take, but no one wants to) I don’t require them to write their papers about technology. I figure that if they were not enjoying the class, they are not going to put any effort into the project, and then we all will have to sit through a boring presentation, full of miss-pronounced terms.
One semester I had two girls give a presentation on history of computing, and between them they pronounced ENIAC in about seven different ways, none of which were right. Another semester I had a guy who did a pretty decent job talking about mobile computing but… Well, his resources were at least 5 years out of date somehow. He never mentioned the iPhone or Android and his presentation implied that things like localization, and high-def phone cameras, ubiquitous data coverage and augmented reality apps will be things of the future. I ended up giving him full credit, because he technically fulfilled all the project requirements – only docking few points for failing to check date relevance of his data. Oh, and there was also that one girl who claimed that hackers have been messing up the internets since the 1800’s. Granted, that example is mostly a typo but a rather funny one.
I generally don’t mind when students do their projects about non-tech related stuff. Especially since the entire thing is more about the process rather than the content. And it sometimes it actually works quite well. In the past I listened to a passionate presentation about the literary works of Kurt Vonnegut, an in depth study about the causes and treatments for Malaria, and amusing insights into the elusive worlds of competitive river dancing and cut-throat whiffleball pitching competitions. That said, I usually encourage people to write about technology, and provide them with a near little file called project_topic_suggestions.pdf which outline a 20-odd different interesting topics that could be worth looking into.
Everyone’s favorite topic from that list is of course social networking. Everyone wants to do that one, and I usually end up parceling it out into chunks on a first come, first serve basis. The first group to approach me gets to talk about facebook itself. The second gets to write about social networking in general. The third has to focus on internet privacy issues but go beyond just social networks and etc..
I also have topic suggestions that suffer from the opposite problem. No one ever wants to touch them. For example, at some point I added software patents as a possible research area, but no one ever took this bait. I suspect that my students simply don’t care about that issue as much as I do. And why would they? They are not programmers, so in theory the debate on validity of software and process patentability does not involve them, even though it really does. The legal blackmail, and patent licensing deals have direct impact on software prices, and solvency of small indie dev shops – and the customers will feel the impact of these back-room deals deep in their wallets. But the whole thing is so abstract that it does not even register on the radar of non-programmers.
Future of computing is also one of the avoided topics. I basically ask students to look into things like quantum computing, bio-computing, developments in artificial intelligence, progress in robotics and etc… You would figure that at least one per year, there would be a futurist in the classroom who would jump on that. But no. No one cares about my pet “trawl singularity hub for bleeding edge stories about computing and see which ones stick” project.
Then there are topic suggestions that are no longer relevant or interesting, even though they once were. Here are couple of examples:
Back in the mid 00’s I added topic called “Software Monoculture” suggesting that students take a long hard look at Microsoft’s dominance in the OS market and their impact on software ecosystem as a whole. I wanted them to see how smaller companies can be completely wiped from existence on Microsoft’s whim, how they embrace and extend open standards into oblivion, and what do these things mean for the industry. This was a big thing in the last two decades, but as I mentioned the other day, we are in a much, much healthier place right now. Microsoft is no longer the 800 pound gorilla able to bully the entire computing world, and the explosion of mobile and web services made platform independent design the norm rather than the exception. So the entire topic is slightly outdated – more of a historical footnote than anything else at this point.
Another extremely topical subject: folksonomies. Remember when this was a thing? It exploded in the early 00’s and revolved around the neat idea that you can add a semantic layer to your web services, by crowd sourced tagging systems. The expectation was that once the system has enough users, some sort of tagging consensus would emerge from the initial chaos. Back then it seemed like a huge thing and a lot of companies jumped on the bandwagon. Technorati became the leading tagging service for the blogosphere, Flickr became the folksonomy hub for picture sharing. In 2007 an empirical study on online tagging systems was published, proving that the idea was actually sound. In most large folksonomies and ontological consensus did emerge, even in the absence of centralized vocabularies. Crowd sourcing categorization and organization of your data turned out to be a valid, albeit chaotic and unpredictable approach to semanticizign the web. But by that time no one cared anymore. Tagging and tag clouds became a standard feature in most web services and by extension ceased to be a hot buzzword. I have not heard the actual term “folksonomy” uttered in years. So this topic will likely get nixed by next semester. No reason to include something that is no longer relevant.
What topics should I add to my list? What would be topical, relevant and interesting research topics for today? What kind of things could I give to non-techies that would be both relevant to their mundane analog lives, but also would trick them into learning more about the wonderful digital garbage dump of awesomeness the rest of us live?