We’re on the road to…

Erik Duval, Katholieke University Leuven, Belgium

Department of Computerwetenschappen
Another keynote, and with such a simple title to the presentation, it deserves a simple answer.

Well, there was one, but it was a circuitous route. Despite relatively easy to understand content, this session was anything but simple. …

… It was held as a conversation between someone who never introduced himself (or I missed it), and Duval, who responded to prepared questions from the mystery person. They said they would play “idiot-savant” with interviewer playing the “idiot” and Duval playing “savant.” That set my teeth on edge, as those of you who know me might guess. Why do these kinds of hurtful labels continue to flourish in a world that is so sensitive to the powerful influence of language on other groups? I somtimes worry that people with intellectual disabilities will never escape this kind of unintentional, but damaging, ridicule. But let’s put that aside and get on to the content of the session.

His lead-off was that we’ve made progress, but we don’t really know where the road is heading.

He described the ADRIADNE Knowledge Pool System – a european knowledge object project www.adriadne-eu.be.
It is growing (currently 5000 objects in the system donated since 1997), but we need objects that number in the millions in order to make the system really powerful. Duval argues for reaching a tipping point, where object growth becomes exponential instead of linear. One method he advocates is tying together repositories from among member countries, by joining major national initiatives such as MERLOT and EduSource.

Usability is a big challenge, however. The tools for submitting objects, for example, are really off-putting, and we know that great numbers of people just aren’t going to use them. Elaborate submission forms that help standardize submissions are ugly, clumsy and require too much expertise or patience for common users. In order for most people to submit objects in great numbers, forms must die. Submissions need to be done simply and all of the tagging/metadata functions need to be done invisibly.

Duval suggests integrating artificial intelligence agents into course development tools like Blackboard (and I assume WebCT) that will generate the metadata forms automatically. He’s already doing this at his university. In essence, if you give a PowerPoint presentation and hit “save,” the presentation will be automatically tagged and added to a repository.

Easy enough, and Duval demonstrated some ways to accomplish this. And one of the ways to retrieve everything is to make everything (email, computer directories) searchable. Instead of developing our own systems of directories for storiing information (think of your email inbox and the subdirectories you use to store important messages). Duval’s vision would do away with all folders/directories and use robust searching tools to find the information you’re looking for.

Well, I think this is a positive general direction, and a useful thing to pursue. Indeed, many of our applications are already moving in this direction, and Google has demonstrated how a powerful search tool can operate relatively transparently.

I’ll be more convinced when I see WebCT agree to incorporate automatic metatagging into its structure, and makes it work. I’m still waiting to synchronize my DreamWeaver files with my WebCT courses, aren’t you?

But his main point was valid and welcome. We need to make the machinery of contributing and then retrieving learning objects transparent (or invisible) to the users. And we have the technology to make it happen. All of this sounds like an instructional design/information design problem to me — but then, what doesn’t?

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