If you're heading out to Baltimore for the MedBiquitous Annual Conference let me know. I'm heading off there first thing. I'm giving two presentations, one in the Virtual Patients session and a second in the Content Collaboratives session.
The problem with metadata is that it needs a technical FAQ to understand. The new CETIS metadata FAQ wiki is a great resource, extremely comprehensive and undoubtedly much needed, but by whom? Who are the people that need to know about metadata? I think there are three groups - systems vendors and tool developers, people adding metadata, and people consuming metadata.
One would hope that systems vendors and tool developers are already on top of the latest specifications. People adding metadata certainly need to know what to add in which fields but there the big issues are with controlled vocabularies i.e ensuring that what they add as individuals is consistent with what someone else is adding. What I call the 'you say to-may-to I say to-mah-to' effect. Lastly there's the consumers. Generally I guess most of these people don't care about metadata, they just want to find things they're looking for.
So what does this latest FAQ tell us about the present state of metadata in educational technology? One thing it says to me is that there is maybe more effort being expended on the technicalities of metadata and systems to create/use metadata than there is to understand how metadata enables learning and the creation of e-learning materials. The second thing it says to me is that metadata is still difficult.
Could it be that we're thinking about metadata in the wrong way, or maybe at least in way too much abstract detail? There's a school of thought that suggests that metadata should be largely invisible, not only to the consumer but also to the creator of materials. The present crop of e-learning systems can gather quite a bit of metadata automatically without the user having to do anything. I suspect there's lots more work still to be done to develop systems able to extract every ounce of metadata automatically before the user ever has to see a metadata entry form.
So I welcome the CETIS metadata FAQ but I won't be inviting any of my teaching colleagues to look at it, not unless I want them to be further convinced that e-learning is something only for technical experts.
Rob Reynolds has a good new year's resolution "My suggestion for all educators in 2005 is that we concentrate on content first. I propose that we actually pretend there is no technology available to us other than simple sticks with which we can draw in the dirt."
When does an activity become educational? Is there something you have to do to turn an activity into one with educational value? I'm not sure. If education is the same as learning then I feel as though I'm learning all the time, although I never usually think of it like that. But it wasn't always like that. As a kid I was more interested in learning about things outside of school than within. Learning about things in school was boring but the things that interested me outside, well, that wasn't learing, that was fun. The educational context of school wasn't that attractive for me. With kids, often the best way to kill their interest in something is to say it's educational. I have a standing joke with my son (now 13) that whenever anything comes on TV for instance that's vaguely educational one of us quips, 'I'm learning!'. Something from the Simpsons I think. So much for the Simpsons generation. Thankfully my son is a lot cleverer, more learned (another Simpsons joke) that I was at his age.
There's a bit of a trend to look for the educational value, the educational angle almost, in new Internet technologies. A while back there was Napster, then Gnutella, and soon after folk started wondering if P2P technology could be used to share educational materials. Take LOMster or Edutella for example. More recently Podcasting, nothing more than sharing audio (mix tape anyone?) with the extra step of loading it onto your iPod, has gone all educational. Now BitTorrent gets the educational treatment. Of course there's nothing wrong with looking for the educational angle in these things and I dare say some innovative applications will come from such speculation. I just have a suspicion that by trying to find an angle in something that in itself has already successfully formed around a shared common goal, e.g the exchange of music and other files, then you'll lose the essence of success.
An example. I was at an educational technology meeting in the summer and attended a presentation on the outcome of a trial to connect distance learners via instant messaging. How could that not be successful? Everyone uses instant messaging, right? It's the ideal way of keeping in touch, especially in these days of spam-ridden email. Well you'd think so but the trial wasn't a success and do you know why? They could get enough active participation amongst the learners. A survey discovered that the subjects of the trial didn't find using instant messaging outside of their usual cause to do so (chatting with friends and family) was something they could sustain. The novelty wore off quickly. Outside of its usual context instant messaging wasn't as valuable. There will be exceptions to this naturally but as a generalization, context is everything. Change the context and you change the meaning.
"Google Scholar enables you to search specifically for scholarly literature, including peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, preprints, abstracts and technical reports from all broad areas of research. Use Google Scholar to find articles from a wide variety of academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories and universities, as well as scholarly articles available across the web."
This is a really important and exciting development from Google. And it works! Here's something of mine from the archives. There are links from articles in Google Scholar search results to electronic copies in online journals. In terms of access to the published literature, this is potentially a great service to the public, which is important because so much of basic research is publicly funded. I say potentially a great service becuase not everyone will have access to all of the electronic journals and sources that Google searches. For accessible content use the Public Library of Science, a more established service committed to making the scientific and medical literature freely available to the public.
In related news, the UK National Health Service announced the lauch of the National Library for Health.
"The National Library for Health is the next natural step in the development of NHS library services. By developing an integrated and federated service, the National Library for Health will enable us to meet the various challenges of delivering knowledge and information services in the 21st Century."
The Programme Director is Ben Toth who maintains a weblog on digital library topics.
Sometimes basic research is needed to confirm what you thought you knew all along. The BBC is running an interesting report from the Institute of Education in London confirming a few suspicions about the importance of social interaction in learning, particulalry interaction with a teacher. Although the report focuses on school kids I think it's likely there's something in there for education at all levels and to be honest the overall message will be a familiar one to many.
"A focus on content delivery, tests and targets in secondary schools interferes with learning, young people say. Research involving children in the second year of secondary school suggests they regard the social aspect of school as highly valuable. Researcher Eileen Carnell, from the Institute of Education in London, said this could be used better to develop collaborative learning."
The BBC's write-up of the report is largely a good read but I'm not entirely convinced by the closing statement.
"The new focus on 'assessment for learning' could help - but only if the emphasis is on learning and not 'performing', test results or levels of ability."
The assessment for learning referred to is likely this strategy for 3-14 year olds from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Assessment and in particular formative assessment is important but I've never been in a meeting where someone's complained that learners today are underassessed.