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MS patent claim redefines the Three Rs

Reading, writing and, er, royalties?

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Although students and pupils who use computers show "sizeably and statistically significantly worse" maths and literacy skills than those who don't, an international survey reported last week, education has provided the tech lobby with a valuable gravy train over the years. A patent filed by Microsoft last week could be seen as a bid to claim some more for itself.

The patent application, which originated from Microsoft's Tablet PC group, is entitled "System and method for providing instructional feedback to a user", and it seeks to protect a wide range of interactive classroom activities. At its core, it claims that providing feedback from unstructured information is an invention. But the application has far broader uses, as the inventors note:

"The user's input information may be compared, or evaluated, to previous efforts, or to other user's efforts, in order to determine progress or relative performance in relation to others," which it can be argued, covers almost any kind of real-time performance monitoring including classroom tests and examinations.

The authors of the patent application, filed December but published on Thanksgiving Day, have such situations in mind:

"If a teacher, monitoring a student's input activity, realizes that a particular student may be in need of additional instructional feedback, the teacher might alter the parameters for generating instructional feedback for that student, as well as the type of instructional feedback, such that, for example, appropriate instructional feedback is provided more frequently and immediately (i.e., as soon as a mistake is detected)."

The validity of the patent application may hinge on interpretation of the word "unstructured input". The filing claims "unstructured input may take on many other forms, including, but not limited to, oral/audio responses and visually captured responses."

Microsoft has greatly accelerated its patent filing program this year, with 1,500 pending reviews, ranging from "knitwear modeling" to "Radio station buttons". However, as we noted when we discussed how Microsoft might use these, the explosion of filing activity doesn't necessarily correspond to an increase in creativity.

One of the patents filed in Thanksgiving week was by one Mr William Softky of Menlo Park. Readers with really good memories will recall that Mr Softky has never even worked for Microsoft: Redmond acquired the Intrinsa static code analysis tool which he helped develop, in 1999. This software has since been credited with "saving" the launch of the bug-riddled Windows 2000, which, while still bug-riddled, contained fewer fatal errors than it might otherwise have done. We trust that another gong is on its way.

Perhaps we can add a fourth 'R' to the current, known three of reading, writing and arithmetic. Royalties, anyone? ®

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