– A summary of position papers for the Semantic Technologies for Teaching and Learning Session of the JISC CETIS Conference 2007.
Earlier in August when Phil and I decided to plan a session on Semantic Technologies for Teaching and Learning for this years JISC CETIS Conference we had no real idea how much interest there would be in this topic. Since then weve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response that this session has generated. We have 35 registered participants and 7 international speakers lined up. In order to make the most of the limited time available to us each speaker will present a short position statement which will summarise the main points of a longer position paper that they have prepared for this event. These position papers are now available from the Conference wiki at:
Tore Hoel, University College Olso, begins by musing on why we have had a relatively slow uptake of semantic technologies in the domain of learning, education and training and why we have failed to exploit the ability of these technologies to œtake the learning technology project to a new level as predicted by Mikael Nilsson in a report on the CETIS website in 2001. Tore suggests that this is because; a) we lack convincing tools and demonstrators, b) the Trust at the top of Tim Berners Lees Semantic Web Stack is hard to negotiate and c) semantic technologies communicate more effectively with machines than with educators and decision makers. Tore calls for a semantic infrastructure for learning, education and training and, speaking from Norway œthe stronghold of Topic Maps, goes on to present a case study of the uptake of Topic Map technologies in the Norwegian educational sector.
Echoing one of Tores points David Davies, University of Warwick, agrees that while semantic technologies remain exclusively in the hands of technologists, they will have little impact on the world of the online learner. He goes on to suggest that œbetter understanding of the needs of teachers and learners will result in better semantic technologies, more attuned to the needs of non-technical users and those that would rather pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. David also argues that we need greater use of metadata that facilitates the discovery and use of content rather than metadata that œseems a millstone around the neck.
David Millard, University of Southampton, presents an up beat summary of developments in his paper œWhy the Semantic Web hasn’t failed, and how we shouldn’t fix it. In his view œthe Semantic Web hasn’t failed, it just hasn’t succeeded enough. David points out that œwhile the upper layers of the Semantic Web Stack have attracted a lot of academic interest, it is the bottom layers that have seen the most success. Like David D, David M suggests that we should focus on promoting well-formed metadata to increase the inter-relatedness of e-learning standards, encouraging interoperability and enabling reasoning. Interestingly, David also identifies the œrise of a New Web Literacy, a preparedness amongst the new generation of students to share, trust and co-operate online, and to take ownership of their digital identity and environment. He concludes that semantic technologies must demonstrate real advantages without real sacrifices, particularly in respect to the informality of users.
Mikael Nilsson, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, also refers back to his 2001 article mentioned by Tore and acknowledges that œthe educational technology field is still not very mature when it comes to semantic technology applications. He suggests this is due to a lack of semantics in the base standards, dependence on vertical silo-type applications such as LMSs and scepticism and towards anything looks even vaguely like an intelligent tutoring system. Mikaels personal approach has been to focus on the base standards and he presents a œPlan for Semantic Interoperability in Educational Technology Specifications. This 5 step plan begins by ensuring that all Dublin Core specifications are RDF compliant, progresses through the semanticisation of other existing metadata specifications and ends with the question: which other specifications should semantics spread to?
Like Mikael, Alistair Miles, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, is also focuses on standards and specifications, in this case SKOS and RDFa. SKOS is a lightweight language for representing intuitive, semi-formal conceptual structures and RDFa is a language for embedding richly structured data and metadata in Web pages. The particular value of these standards is that they œprovide an interface between the formal underpinnings of the Semantic Web, and the more informal, intuitive ways in which people naturally express and organise knowledge. Alistair concludes by discussing the potentially interesting consequences that these standards have for leveraging the Web as a platform for delivering learning and elearning technology.
In response to the call for more user friendly tools Michael Gardner, University of Essex, and Simon Buckingham Shum, Open University, present a series of case studies of applications and systems that build on these semantic technologies. Michael provides three exemplars:
- DELTA – a system which allows distributed resources to be submitted, searched and retrieved, based on standardized meta-data.
- ResourceBrowser “ which integrates the DELTA and eProfile (social networking) toolkits into a single user-interface to allow users to view and search their social-networks.
- AUTODISCOVER – trawls a users PC automatically constructing meta-data for the documents on that desktop and enables the user to manually review and modify the resulting concept-map and meta-data descriptions.
The Open Universitys Knowledge Media Institutes Hypermedia Discourse research programme aims to œdevelop intellectual tools for structuring information that are usable without having to be an ontology engineer or information scientist. These tools include:
- Compendium “ a mature platform with a growing community of practice. Compendium supports real time knowledge construction in meetings and can also be used for personal information management and reflection.
- Cohere – a visual environment for making meaningful connections between ideas, and optionally tagging those ideas with websites.
The ultimate aim of these developments is to facilitate œnew ways of reading and writing ideas: a new literacy.
All these position papers provide significant food for thought and no doubt will provoke lively discussion and debate. Condensing summarising this session into a single slide to present at the Conference Plenary Session will no doubt be a huge challenge!