Use and misuse of metadata

Since Rob Daniels left Heinemann, British educational publishing has lost its best resource on metadata and related information management concepts. So I found this article Metadata? Thesauri? Taxonomies? Topic Maps! (via OL Daily) extremely useful as an overview of what all the jargon means.

It also helped crystallise my opinions on the use and misuse of metadata. I can see that within a bounded professional community, one of these formal systems can be very useful. But once you get outside that you hit no end of problems:

  • Multiple metadata systems conflict
  • Metadata creators game the system
  • Users won’t adopt the disciplined behaviour required
  • Only predicted uses of the information are supported

Thinking about the particular case of how teachers discover teaching resources, my personal experience of talking to teachers is that their three top criteria are

  1. very specific content
  2. recommended by a credible source
  3. suitable for the age, ability, literacy, gender and mood of their particular students

Looking at these in order:

1 requires so much metadata that you are better off looking at the whole text of a resource. At Chalkface, for example, this week’s top hit for the About search engine was ‘taunting and coping’. I certainly would not have predicted that combination when writing metadata for any of our resources.

2 is best dealt with through a reputation system; you certainly can’t allow the owner of a resource to write their own metadata on its reputation!

3 can be addressed to some extent by metadata but in practise it involves multiple tradeoffs. How, for example, do you code material suitable for a very bright Somali girl with limited English and a moral code way outside the norm for this country?

What all of this boils down to is an explanation of why far more teachers use Google to find teaching resources than use Curriculum Online (COL). I’d love to see COL reorganise their system as a value-add front end on Google, but I suspect that after such a huge investment they’ll be unwilling to admit that their metadata emperor is naked.

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