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Where are we heading with web semantics and who's at the helm?

I've just finished a slice of holiday reading involving "New technology trends in education: Seven years of forecasts and convergence" by Sergio Martin, Gabriel Diaz, Elio Sancristobal, Rosario Gil, Manuel Castro, Juan Peire and felt like reflecting on this. The group conducted a study on the the technologies most likely to impact education in the near future, by looking at technology metatrends from 2004 to 2014 - the report was based on the technologies highlighted in the NMC Horizon Reports.

The main trends highlighted were;
  • Social web 
  • Mobile and ubiquitous devices 
  • Augmented reality 
  • Semantic web 
  • Immersive environments 
  • Learning objects 
While most of the trends highlighted receive quite a bit of exposure I was interested in finding out a bit more about the Semantic web - from more reading I see it as a trend well worth watching I also I feel that we should not only focus on the technology but also the organisation of information to enhance learning. 

Overall I think this trend has eventuated naturally - as the web has grown there is a huge amount of data available on every subject imaginable - we now need to harness this information and create the best versions possible to use in education - the raw data needs to be made available so it can be used to create a better web experience and fulfil learners needs. As Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the WWW who also coined the phrase 'semantic web') claims that this linked data will be how technology will advance the information revolution he began with the World Wide Web, changing everything 'from how users set up their online address books to how they pay their taxes' - people have started referring to this as web 3.0. Rather than listing information in tree structures, it will create a Web based on the relationships of people, places and things as they exist in the real world. When it comes to its application in education I can see that it would be extremely useful to filter out lots of the irrelevant information that students are faced with every time they open a web browser and create a more organic experience. Web semantics also relate to learning analytics where educational 'big data' is used to optimise learning and the way it occurs - from the subjects or courses that are available to the environment and method they are presented - Learning analytics become more meaningful and ubiquitous with semantic technologies. The khan academy has revolutionised learning by opening knowledge to anyone with an internet connection, and 'Knewton' has taken this a step further by using learning analytics to customise courses and methods for students. 

Although to me as a teacher this sounds absolutely amazing and could create the perfect curriculum for any student, I also consider that by allowing intelligent software to act on this descriptive information and follow logic paths based on it, the Semantic web could be reducing learning by making it too customisable and specific. Are we limiting our learning capabilities and the journey we are starting when we want to try something new - if the software becomes so advanced that it knows what we are looking for before we even think it (google now) will we be reducing creativity and exploration in students? Is learning about the journey you take or the destination? 

I am an avid user of gmail and google drive/apps for education and have ended up slowly (and reluctantly at first) allowing them to see all the data/documents/searches/web history on my computer/profile, although this has customised the web experience for me and the benefits of using google apps for education far outweigh the small worries I have about it - I am sometimes still occasionally anxious about the collection of data and is it somehow going to be manipulated and used as a revenue creator in education (or is this even happening already?) I also wonder who is leading the 'organisation' of data to create the Semantic web and is it for our benefit or theirs? In Eli Pariser's TED talk he highlights that the web is becoming a very personalised experience but are these 'filter bubbles' good for us and our own journey of discovery and learning? As an educator in New Zealand I also think about about our culture and if web semantics will take that into consideration, or will our web experience be overshadowed by a global culture that weakens community and cultural links rather than strengthens them. Plenty to think about until I get back to school next week!


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