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Friday, November 23, 2007

JISC CETIS Conference 2007

This week I went to the JISC CETIS Conference in Aston as a panelist in the Semantic Structures for e-Learning session. After my bleak interaction with the e-learning community back in ICALT, I was pleasantly surprised to find a really progressive mood.

In particular Mark Stiles gave a characteristically candid closing keynote that was uncannily like my own talk on Web Literacy a few weeks ago. Mark came at the problem from a policy angle (rather than a technology one), and asked the question of whether VLEs were the new orthodoxy, constraining and limiting student learning rather than promoting it. He lamented the control and manage culture in HE, and pointed out that students were breaking free of controlled institutional e-learning systems and beginning to use public applications and sites (to which they occasionally invite a lecturer - but only if they like them!).

There is definitely something in the air...

The Semantic Structures panel was a similar pleasant surprise. I came prepared with what I thought was a fairly outlandish position - that the Semantic Web was already happening in the real world, and that we needed to stop speculating about applications in a far semantic future and start worrying about how semantic applications might have an impact now.

For me this raises a number of key questions about how we articulate the advantages of RDF and OWL over XML and XSD for Web 2.0 style mashups - after all they both enable encourage well-formed metadata and interoperability, so why use RDF?

I was therefore surprised to find myself emerging as the hardest Semantic Web person on the panel (at Southampton this is rarely a position I find myself in!), so perhaps my main point was lost somewhat. I invoked the characters from the Wizard of Oz as examples of people who get so wrapped up in the journey they don't realise what they already have - my point was that in some ways the Semantic Web community is like that, so concerned with the technological upper levels of the layer cake that they miss the significance of the emerging data web that is already out there.

The other panelists gave very interesting position statements which introduced me to a number of new things, including Cohere, GRDDL and RDFa. The audience also raised some interesting questions, but mostly they boiled down to the same one that I had raised. Why use RDF when XML gives you so much for so little effort? Alistair Miles described this as a variant of the Tragedy of the Commons - in that RDF only shows real advantage when there are already many people publishing it, and the conclusion of the session was that to push this work forward in our world we should all becoming semantic extroverts - hoping to achieve some sort of viral effect.

I had the chance to run this past Wendy Hall yesterday. Wendy was head of group when I was studying for a PhD in Hypertext, and is now a co-founder with Tim Berners-Lee of the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI) based at MIT and Southampton. Wendy was pretty robust in her defence of the Semantic Web as a means to interoperability, and pointed out the semantic standard's advantages over POX (that RDF/OWL is more shareable, more flexible, and encourages general rather than bespoke solutions). I think that the advantages at the top end of the Semantic Stack (i.e. the ability to automatically exchange ontologies and the functionality that this unlocks) is rather secondary to Wendy - a bonus if you like - and that the main goal is still to create a machine readable web using the best language that we can (and in most terms that is RDF/OWL).

Her approach is 'Build It and They Will Come' - which takes us back to Mark Stile's keynote. Mark mentioned this as one of many strategies to encourage students to use e-learning systems. Actually he followed this with a 'But Of Course They Wont' based on some of his past experiences. Mark encouraged us to think about how we can engage with students without trying to control what they are doing, and I wonder if that's not the best message for the semantic web as well: to engage with Web users, find the best ways in which to help them express and exchange their data, and introduce the Semantic Web quietly, as and when the real needs arise.

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