Curriculum Online and the Semantic Web

The World Wide Web Consortium officially launches the Semantic Web tomorrow. The Semantic Web project has been a topic of hot debate for several years now and I’ve been trying to apply the well-honed arguments from that debate to disentangle my concerns about Curriculum Online.

The Semantic Web has the endorsement of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor. The idea is to clearly categorise each piece of information on the web (pages, links, names, products, places…the list is very, very long) so that each piece of information can be more correctly found and used. Its proponents imagine a world in which you can take for granted that you can always find the information you need quickly and easily, and in which computers combine that information in new ways to reveal knowledge that was previously hidden. The best exposition of the dream I’ve come across is this very entertaining piece of future-fiction.

The project also has its detractors. This article by Cory Doctorow focuses particularly on the difficulties of getting web authors to enter the required data in an unbiased way – or even enter it at all. If you really want to get into the theory (again from a critical perspective) I recommend you read Clay Shirkey. An oft-cited example of metadata’s failings is the triumph of Google over all other search engines. Unlike its competitors, Google completely ignores the hidden metadata traditionally built into web pages to help search engines. Why? It is too easy for webmasters to ‘game’ the system by putting half the dictionary in there, thus polluting search results.

So how does this relate to Curriculum Online (COL)? First because it’s easier to understand the COL dream if you think of the current system as the first step towards instant, easy discovery and use of a huge range of educational resources. Second, because it’s also a lot more obvious why nobody’s using it.

Curriculum Online suffers from several of the problems enumerated in Cory Doctorow’s article.

  1. The amount of information about each resource that’s demanded is huge; the workload of generating this information is so great that many resource owners have simply not done it.
  2. The system is easy to ‘game’. Spend any time on COL and you’ll see the same resources popping up again and again in almost whatever search you try.
  3. Despite all this data, teachers don’t generally search by the national curriculum metadata. A random browse of the Chalkface search log revealed these typical searches, none of which returned any results on COL:
    • examples of oxymorons in romeo and juliet
    • causes of the russian revolution student examples
    • pictures of people using legal drugs

I remain completely in favour of the goals of the Curriculum Online project; for one thing it’s role in policing the ring-fence around eLearning Credits is essential. I do think, though, that COL’s masters at the DfES could serve teachers better if they were familiar with both sides of the Semantic Web debate.

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