By Hugh John
Describing Autology as a search engine is somewhat akin to calling Albert Einstein "quite a smart guy", or Beethoven "not a bad musician".
Based on the ‘implicit querying’ (IQ) technology developed in Cambridge by sister company Autonomy and used by more than 17,000 government and private sector organisations worldwide – BAE Systems, Ford, Ericsson, Sony, BMW, the Ministry of Defence, and most of the world's major news channels – Autology has been attracting a lot of interest in the education world with its advocacy of fine tuned personalised learning.
Dale Lukritz is Autology’s strategic learning director and has extensive teaching experience in Australia and the UK, as well as having worked as a consultant for several London education authorities in the development of their ICT policies. “We are web based and a massive repository of content and information,” he points out, “and can integrate very easily into a school’s VLE (virtual learning environment). All we require is a link in the VLE. Schools know that the information we provide does not have to be evaluated. While there’s always a need to teach students how to be responsible in their use of the internet, Autology allows the teacher that peace of mind that ensures that if they start off in Autology the children will be safe.”
As far as Autology’s sophisticated search technology is concerned, less is exactly that. We’re all accustomed to search engines that take a single word and churn out a multiplicity of responses, the ones at the top of the results list not necessarily being the most pertinent. Type "education" into Google’s query box and you’ll be presented with about 677 million results in a blistering 0.22 seconds. And then what? Spend the rest of the lesson refining your search?
Autology works by ‘pattern matching’; it actually thrives on concepts rather than key word searches, says Dale. And the more information it's searching the better it performs. “It works in a much more powerful form if you can give it a natural search of information," explains Dale. "The more information you give it, the more pattern it has to match and the more specific resources it can push back at you.”
An interesting side effect of concept searching is that as each student enters a differently worded query so the response and resources from Autonomy will be similarly varied: “Every student is getting back different resources in a different combination of forms so they’ll all have a different point to start from.”
Autology searches and indexes locally held content as well as the internet
But here’s the really clever bit: think of it as a SatNav for essay writing. Let’s say, Dale explains, that we’re going to work on a GCSE English assignment about The Merchant of Venice. “The toolbar watches what happens on screen and is scanning to find relevant data. We type in 'Merchant of Venice, Shylock is the villain of the piece'. As soon as a dozen or more words are entered, enough to form a concept, the toolbar at the top lights up. This indicates that there are reference materials available. As we continue to write, references will continue to be updated to correspond with the ideas that are being developed."
It would, however, be wrong to think that Autology rampages, untrammelled, though the World Wide Web, plundering all the best, most relevant information for its clients. It doesn’t. Autology is tied in to some, but not all, education content providers and that material is indexed for future use. Subscribers can access information from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Heinemann, The complete Letts and Lonsdale revision guides and many other excellent products, and the list is constantly being added to. There are also links to more than 50,000 “individual relevant key websites which have been carefully reviewed and edited”. But you don’t, for instance, have access to Microsoft Encarta’s excellent and vast library of multimedia clips.
As you’d expect from such a powerful and flexible system, Autology can handle information and documents in a multiplicity of ways. Files can be made available to staff, students or both. They can be displayed for a specific period of time and they can be tagged and assembled into active folders which are available to students working on particular projects.
Visitors to BETT 2010 will be able to check out the latest version of Autology, now with added audio and video, and set, claims chief executive David Black, “to turbo charge educational learning platforms and transform e-learning”. Content from major players such as the BBC, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, European News Channels Lonely Planet, ITV and more traditional media sources including Reuters, The Telegraph and the Guardian will be ‘pushed’ to student desktops. Dale Lukritz anticipates a multimedia library in excess of 120,000 hours distributed across more than 60 channels.
While a live demonstration can quickly establish the effectiveness of Autology, the key factors in the purchase decision for schools will be price and policy on content purchase. Pricing details are available from the Autology website but expect to pay something in the region of £4 per student per year. As is becoming increasingly common with content suppliers, this subscription enables users to access the application both inside and outside school. Parents can also take out the Autology home version for £49.95 per year.
January 13-16, Olympia, London
Autology World Ltd - Stand K2