“Everything in the entire world that you can name or address is going to need a page.”
We are almost there. Nearly everything we know in this world is represented in some way on the internet. The next step is to start connecting everything together, weaving the web into a linked database. The idea of the semantic web was proposed by Tim Berners Lee who envisioned an intelligent web in which computers could interpret information throughout the internet.
I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The ‘intelligent agents’ people have touted for ages will finally materialize.
Tim Berners-Lee, 1999
From what I understand this is could be realized using metadata; data about data. Much of the code behind webpages contains information about what the page includes. Conversely, we are increasingly able to add tags and labels to webpages to add our own collective meaning to what the page includes. These two sources of metadata make most pages quite well described, but a person is still needed to search for and interpret that information. The semantic web is a more intelligent web which will allow computers to do more of the work involved in finding, combining, and acting on information. It is proposed that this will lead to a more optimized web experience for the user.
Twitter is also providing means to add meaning to content. Alan Cann (via Steve Wheeler) proposes that Twitter is the semantic web, as in many cases people are forced to contextualize links on the web with short descriptions. While this is true, it is very loosely formed as people use their own conventions, services, and descriptions when sharing content. What I do love about services such as Bit.ly is that they maintain short links for websites. So if I create a short URL for bluelightdistrict.org, and it has already been created by someone else, I will get the same URL as the one originally created. This means that we can start seeing connections between people sharing links, and all of the statistics for the link are aggregated.
In order for computers to be able to interpret information it needs to be fairly well structured. Open formats for describing and structuring this information are emerging. Among those discussed included XML, OWL, and RDF. When you start adding structured descriptive meaning to things on webpages, you can then search across the web for very specific things. There is also an opportunity to search across websites on the internet and have the results appear in similar formats allowing the user to compare the results.
Behind all of this is a debate over whether the semantic web should be defined rigidly by few, or organically by all? The latter will result in a much more chaotic process but perhaps it will be all the more richer because the web can then be contextually defined.
Whichever method is used it is hoped that the semantic web will give us a richer web experience. The number of pages on the internet today is enormous! The laborious task of searching for the information you want, scanning the search results, and picking the most appropriate webpage is what the semantic web aims to optimize.
Query (search) engines should “find” the answers to users’ questions. For example, a use might want to “find” the lowest prices for Key lime pie at restaurants within 5 miles. The user does not want to read through thousands of websites describing restaurants to identify the local restaurant and then look for menu items by reading the text on the web pages. Instead, a query engine should be able to filtyer for the restaurants within 5 miles, access their menus, compare the prices, and return the desired price.”
The semantic web is thus about building a better web which enables us to more simple for us as humans to navigate the massively growing amount of content.
What does this mean for learning analytics?
If computers and search engines are able to use the semantic meaning of web pages and web content we may be able to optimize the content, delivery methods and interaction that we have with our students. Dragan Gašević from Athabasca University is doing very interesting work in this space. His presentation from this week shared some of the work he is doing to apply the semantic web to learning environments, social interaction and content design.
I am excited to see how the impact of the “next web” plays out in education. I am particularly interested in how students create meaning from various content on the web; combining text, images, video, people, and sound to create their own works thereby embedding their own semantic meanings into these resources.
Berners-Lee, T. & Fischetti, M. (1999). Weaving the Web. Harper San Francisco.
Lacy, L.W. (2005) OWL: Representing Information Using the Web Ontology Language. Trafford Publishing. Via Google Books http://books.google.co.za/books?id=iYBwbEd3guEC