Are there compelling use cases for using semantic technolgoies in teaching and learning?

On Monday the SemTech project had a face to face meeting in London to update on progress with the project and their survey of semantic technologies being used in education.

The day started with Thanassis Tiropanis giving an overview of the project today and in particular the survey site (see previous blog post) which has collated 40 semantic applications that can/are being used in teaching and learning. The team are now grappling with trying to make sense of the data collected. Some early findings, perhaps not surprisingly, show that there is most activity around information collection, publishing and data gathering. However there are some examples of more collaborative type activities being supported through semantic technologies. There is still time to contribute to the survey if you want to add any or your experiences.

I found the afternoon group discussions the most interesting part of the day. I chaired a group looking at the institutional perspective around using/adopting semantic technologies in respect of the following four questions:

1 what are the most important challenges in HE today?
2 how might semantic tech be part of the solution?
3 what are the current barriers to semantic technology adoption?
4 what areas of semantic technology require investing additional effort in?

As you would expect we had a fairly wide ranging discussion; but ultimately agreed that the key to getting some institutional traction would be to have some examples/use cases of how semantic technologies could help with key institutional concerns such as student retention. We came to the consensus that if data was more rigorously defined,categorized and normalized ie in RDF/triple stores, then it would be easier to query disparate data sources with added intelligence and so provide more tailored feedback/ early warning signs to teachers and administrators. However at the moment most institutions suffer from having numerous data empires who don’t see the need to communicate with each other and who don’t always have the most rigorous approach to data quality. Understanding data workflow within the institution is central to this. It will be interesting to see if any of the current JISC Curriculum Design projects decide to adopt a more semantic approach to workflow issues.

So in the answers we came up with were:

1 External influences eg HEFC, student retention, recruitment, course provisioning, research profile
2 Let us think of the questions we haven’t thought of yet.
3 Data empires, lack of knowledge, use cases, good examples in practice
4 Demonstrators to show value of adding semantic layer to existing data

The view from behind the bike sheds, joint Eduserv/CETIS meeting, 16 January 2009

Last Friday, we held a joint meeting with our colleagues from the Eduserv Foundation entitled “maximising the effectiveness virtual worlds in teaching and learning”. The meeting was a follow on from the joint meeting we held in 2007 and the presenters gave a range of perspectives on the challenges and affordances of using virtual worlds in teaching and learning.

As expected the challenges of getting institutional systems “geared up” for allowing access to virtual worlds was a theme for discussion – particularly during the discussion session during Ren Reynolds’ presentation. As with the last meeting, we as organisers had to to struggle to get access to Second Life so we could stream audio in-world. Limited wired access points, weird log-in configurations, sound card issues, emergency USB dongles etc all came into play. Although the room we used has wifi access, users can’t log into Second Life over the wireless network. In fact some of our audience had to struggle even to get any access to the internet. I suspect out of experience none of our presenters actually needed to go “in world”. But I do wonder if we will ever have ubiquitous access to the internet on campus – wired or not. Conversely we almost has a one woman fail whale situation when Lorna Campbell was kicked out of twitter for sending too many messages in one hour :-)

During most of the presentations notions of identity and presence arose. Of course one of the unique features of virtual worlds is that they allow users to experience different identities. Peter Twinning raised some very interesting points about this in the work he has being doing with school children in Second Life with the Schome Park project, particularly relating to some role play exercise the children participated in. One group of children wanted to “get married” (deliberate quotation marks) and Peter was asked to “give the bride away”. A long discussion ensued with the children about the activity and the consequences if certain quarters of the media got hold of the story. The children’s reaction to this – “but you do realise that it’s not real.” So they seemed to have a very clear idea of their real and virtual identities. However I think that this raises a number complex of issues – most of which I’m not really qualified to comment on. There are many people who are immersed in virtual worlds and are increasingly blurring the boundaries between virtual and the non-virtual worlds. I’m sure that they would argue that they have experiences in virtual worlds that in are every sense real. David White (Oxford University) also discussed this in terms of the acceptance/normalization of different types communication e.g. telephone/msn/twitter etc.

One of the best quotes of the day came from Peter when he told us about an inspection the project had. The Schome Park Second Life Island was described as being a dangerous learning environment. The children have very high level of autonomy in the environment which led one inspector to comment “it’s like being behind the bike sheds all the time.” But maybe that’s where we as educators need to be sometimes.

All in all it was a very stimulating day and thanks to everyone who took part and were patient whilst we fought with the technical gremlins. Copies of the presentations are available from the wiki.

Ada Lovelace day – sign up today.

“I, Sheila MacNeill, will publish a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire but only if 1,000 other people will do the same.”

Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Entrepreneurs, innovators, sysadmins, programmers, designers, games developers, hardware experts, tech journalists, tech consultants.

Go on – you know you want to – let’s hear it for the girls :-) More information is available here.

Semantic Technologies in education survey site now available

The next stage of the SemTech project (as reported earlier in Lorna’s blog) is now underway. The team are now conducting an online survey of relevant semantic tools and services. The survey website provides a catalogue of relevant semantic tools and services and information on how they relate to education.

If you have an interest in the use of semantic technologies in teaching and learning, you can register on the site and add any relevant technologies you are using, or add tags to the ones already in documented. As the project is due for completion by the end of February, the project team are looking for feedback by 2 February.