As We May Interact?

I know this reads more like stram of consciousness than something well organized. But I had to dump something out here… it’s getting cramped inside my brain.

I hope you’ll forgive the reference to the Bush who’s vision we all respect. I think there’s something big about to happen. Actually, it’s already started. I won’t manage to sketch the whole here, but hopefully enough of it for the flavor to be distinct.

You will recall Adam Bosworth’s amazing keynote (audio). Joseph Hardin recently pointed me to a great commentary on another of Adam’s posts about the platform of this decade.

I’ve been struggling to understand what we do with the next generation of social software. Of course, I’m interested in facilitating formal and informal learning interactions, but I’ve come to believe that no piece of social software targeted primarily at education is ever going to have a significant impact. There are currently some discussions about centralizing where social software (esp. for open educational resources) will go next.

Think about the social software systems people are actually using in numbers these days:

Blogging, like wordpress
Social bookmarking, like
Photo sharing, like
Social networking, like friendster
Social search tools, like
Mapping tools, like frappr
Comment tracking, like CoComment
Question and answer software, like Yahoo Answers

With the number of users of these tools, and the others in each of these categories, why on earth would we create a new tool in any of these spaces? When critical mass is the single most important part of a network, why would we build another ‘walled garden’ collection of applications? Why would we trade tens or hundreds of thousands of users in existing systems in favor of an “integrated” collection of these tools?

Lost Boy’s lists as social content engines (thanks againg to Joseph for pointing this out) comes really close, but falls down on the rebuilding issue. He says:

However for really serious use I believe we need something more: a service like that allows storage of arbitrary properties against web resources. And it seems obvious to me that such a system would be based around an RDF data store. Jo Walsh has already created an RDF version of the API, and this tutorial on creating a social content engine in RDF provides some additional thoughts.

(Now a PhD student and I are working on a system sort of like this, but you’ll have to wait another week or so to start playing with that. But he and I are clear in our belief that this system is only one part of this larger framework I’m describing here.)

The RDF part of Lost Boy’s statement is a key insight that I’ll return to in a moment.

I don’t think we need new systems in spaces where there are already incredibly popular tools. We have lots of existing systems that people already like and use. It’s worth asking – what are people doing when they use these various systems? They’re creating what Mimi Recker and I called “nonauthoritative metadata” (hey – it was 2001 and I wasn’t tenured yet! =) The advent of social software and tagging systems have turned all of us into metadata creation engines. And what did Mimi and I recommend one do with nonauthoritative metadata? Make recommendations.

Many of us already aggregate this data via RSS and ATOM for viewing and reading. Maybe you even use one of those newfangled web 2.0 desktops to read many of your feeds in the same place. Having access to all that data in one places is, granted, more convenient than having to chase it all over the web. However, these systems generally only show you the data from a remote location. Why don’t we store all this data in one spot?

Then why don’t we provide easy access to this data as RDF? There is admittedly some work to do here for each service, but nothing insurmountable. Then you, and me, and everyone else in the world can start writing agents to make (lowercase) semantic web-like uses of this data. Sure, the semantic web supposedly runs on a high octane mix of controlled-vocabulary-ontology-taxonomy mayhem, but who says we can’t run a useful system on folksonomic data? Sure, it will be a much more “interesting” problem. On the other hand, since you’re never going to have a large collection of non-folksonomic metadata to play with, what choice do you have?

A collection of information of this kind will provide amazing data for agents to recommend new content and new people to you. This seems like the future, so we’ve started working on it at COSL. Someone else may do it better, but I think we’ll have a blast along the way, and hopefully make sure that the things we need to support learning stay in there, just far enough beneath the surface that they won’t scare people off.

7 thoughts on “As We May Interact?”

  1. I don’t see any direct connection with actual content existing inside of open educational collections like OpenCourseWares. I understand that we hope that users would refer one another to these materials, but is there a way to make the resources more visible? Is that a task you intend for the agents? Don’t misunderstand me- I’m not downplaying the role of the community in ANY way- people rule here as they should. I’d just like to see us offering them educational materials directly. There is metadata around open collections. Perhaps we could go gmail-esque and scan messages (in a benevolent manner- if that’s possible) in order to provide targeted offerings of openly available educational materials.

  2. I _think_ you’ve misread Dodds’ (Lost Boy’s) intent here, David, because my reading of it, and the larger article, leads me to the kind of diagram you have. He is basically advocating what Clark is in where Clark ends up with the rallying cry of the semantic web 2.0: “The developer(s) of every Web 2.0 app/service should seriously consider exposing their data with a SPARQL query service.”

    That said, I am not sure what you are suggesting in that big can in the middle of your diagram. I think maybe it’s a personal aggregation and recommendation (tagging) system with RSS feeds (SPARQL query entry points would be good too, as Clark points out, better in some ways) from the social content systems/sites you list, that then could have its own feeds (RSS, or maybe SPARQL query-based, or both) to the world. That it? Is it Or is it a tool like Piggy Bank that I can keep locally, and maybe then use to publish to a (progressively, given my tastes) public semantic bank? Is that public RDF store the Or a community of them?

    I think this is great stuff by the way, as you know, and am thinking about how we make some of the currently less social systems (like learning management systems) become sources of RDF data and metadata, and how tools in them could use such services as the semantic web 2.0 folks describe. Systems like Sakai are big engines of educational objects, after all, and we want to see those objects move into other systems easily, with as much metadata associated with them as possible. Some of that metastuff will be pretty authoritative, some less so, all could be useful in various contexts. I’m much more happy to think of folksonomies as on a spectrum that runs to folksologies (where some realtions have been specified in OWL, say) and then on to more formal systems. We will all be playing together, in educational fields, especially. Figuring out how to make a system that has lots of users in big ed institutions generate, ingest, and facilitate tool building for education using these techniques makes for an “interesting” problem, and a potential way to develop and harness some of these methods for common use, and fun experimentation.

  3. I like the sentiment but do not exactly see where this is going (eaager to see what you are building)… but can we do more than be a resource recommender? I find such things mildly useful and interesting, but do not wholely rely on recommendation engines. Are there other things such “agents” can do?

  4. “When critical mass is the single most important part of a network, why would we build another ‘walled garden’ collection of applications? Why would we trade tens or hundreds of thousands of users in existing systems in favor of an “integratedâ€? collection of these tools?”

    In a school context, perhaps particularly an elementary or primary school, there seems a need for a closed community of trusted users, perhaps extending to parents and other schools, but not, in most cases anyone and everyone. This way, younger children can learn to use and reap many of the benefits of creative, social software, without they, their parents, or their teachers worrying about a whole range of child protection issues. I think a strong case can be made for internally hosted web 2.0 applications in this area at least, and perhaps also in a number of corporate settings too.

  5. Without addressing security issues in K-12 education, I’ve thought often how nice it would be to see social software services (I wrote about this in the context of bookmark/link managers) “federated” so that every new entrant into the pool didn’t dilute it, but could instead participate on the strength of features and interface rather than by trying to capture some segment of the (essentially zero-sum resource) participants. Every time I see a new social bookmark tool– including some really elegant and featureful ones– I get a little irritated as more of that valuable user base (valuable to ME in the sense that I get more and better results) gets fragmented.

    We need more coming together– if any of these Web 2.0 slogans are true (it’s about the data, the data is the app, etc) then we would all benefit if we could see loose federations. I don’t care if one prefers or furl, blogger or wordpress as their interface for personally accessing data as long as that data is shared! It seems like it would be a win for everyone, including those hoping to make money because the mored comprehensive data resource would attract more users, page views, RSS accesses, etc… there is still a potential revenue stream.

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