Semantic Web Technology and the Future of Learning

by Staff Writers

What is the Semantic Web
What's the next big thing? The Semantic Web is, according to some tech insiders (including Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Internet), the next big thing on the Internet. It is also, by extension, one of the innovations likely to dramatically affect virtual learning. The problem with the Semantic Web, or Web 3.0, as some are referring to it, is that it is still mainly conceptual, so practical implications are all conjecture. That said, the revolutionary potential of this change in the way the Internet functions makes it worth considering, particularly in regard to how it will affect education and online learning (2011 Horizon Report).

You are probably already familiar with some of the database-driven baby steps that will eventually lead to a full-blown semantic interface. You can see this for example, when you look up a book or movie on Amazon and six suggestions of other books or movies you might like magically appear on the screen, or when you conduct a Google search for Disney World and suddenly Disney-related advertisements appear around the periphery of your email interface. These are early examples of Web 3.0 technology, though they are merely a shadow of what is to come. More sophisticated Semantic Web applications will be able to access, understand and make associations between all of the data on the Internet, compared to current browsers which can only read metadata, and cannot connect that information to other different types of information. Berners-Lee explains the importance of data for next-generation Web technologies:

The basic concept behind Web 3.0 is that the Web browser (or Web agent, since it is far more than a simple browser) of the future will be intelligent enough to customize itself to your interests based on past preferences (Digital Inspiration). But the concept of Web browser in a Web 3.0 world is not what we currently think of as a browser. According to researchers, such as Berners-Lee, the browser will become something more akin to a personal assistant that keeps track of the places you've been and infers likes and dislikes from that information, suggesting new and (for you, at least) unimagined associated things that you may also be interested in. This is beyond what currently happens at Amazon, for example, where a simple database query lists recommendations based strictly on what others who purchased the same item also purchased. Instead, the semantic Web agent will be able to analyze the content of individual items and make much more informed suggestions. For example, if you have browsed 20 websites with scattered and seemingly unrelated information about topics related to cryogenics, without your realizing the connection, your browser might begin pushing you further information about cryogenics or other topics related to cryogenics. This article from EDUCAUSE Quarterly features a clear explanation of how this technology will work. It is a fascinating (and somewhat frightening) concept, but one that could have a significant impact on education, in particular on instructional design (ID).

The Semantic Web and Education
As the article from EDUCAUSE indicates, the primary areas in which Semantic Web technology will impact education are:

  • Knowledge construction – Rather than placing the burden of searching for and evaluating information on the learner, the Semantic Web will do that work for you. Conducting a search will return, not a random list of Web pages, but rather some sort of organized report based on all of the information available. This report could include relevant video, opposing positions on related issues, analyzed data, and information about other sources of knowledge in your immediate geographical area.
  • Personalized learning – The idea behind Personal Learning Networks (PLN) is that, rather than subscribing to one institution or entity (a single online university, for example) to provide the basis for your education, your Web agent would intelligently pull from all possible sources of educational content. Based on information about you and everything that is available online, your browser will craft a custom designed educational experience that takes your interests, goals, personal finance, and geographic location into consideration. The implication of PLNs is that institutions themselves will have to adapt to accommodate a model in which students are free to access educational experiences from a variety of providers. It is unclear how this will happen, but each individual will have the ability to customize their learning opportunities based on information about them and the opportunities available.

When Semantic Web technology finally arrives in full-force, it will revolutionize education, from accreditation, to what a diploma signifies, to who your classmates are (there is no reason that middle and high school children, traditional college-age students, and adult learners couldn't all be in the same class under this model). It is clear that institutions of higher learning will have to adapt to new models of learning, but how will these changes affect the instructors who actually develop and delivering courses. 

How the Semantic Web Will Affect Online Teaching?
It is possible that Semantic Web technology could have minimal impact on instructors. Online courses could change very little in their design, with the exception of creating ontologies, which would allow course content to be semantically searchable. This would, in theory, make the course more widely appealing simply because more information would be available about it. However, the most successful online educators and their home institutions will want to take advantage of the capabilities of these new Web 3.0 technologies to ensure that their course materials are the most desirable for the largest possible audience. This can be achieved by addressing some or all of the following possibilities:

  • Customizing course content for individual learners – Based on prior knowledge and individual interests, course materials will be chosen specifically to meet each individual learner's goals and needs.
  • Customizing presentation of information to accommodate different learning styles – Past experience of a learner's success rate in understanding and applying information from various styles of presentation will influence the ways in which current information is presented.
  • Easy facilitation of homogeneous or heterogeneous groupings – Background knowledge, intellectual capacity and current understanding can be leveraged to group learners so that they can help each other learn best depending on their own prior success.
  • Providing information about student background knowledge and how to activate it – Instructors often struggle with understanding the prior knowledge of all of their students. This technology makes it possible to adjust course materials to accommodate for specific previous learning experiences.
  • Customizable assessments based on current and past educational experiences – If students have demonstrated previous proficiency in an area, assessments can account for that and change themselves to match a student's current level of knowledge. With smart tests, there would be no possibility of testing students on information that they have not previously been exposed to.

These changes in course organization, resource management, design, and teaching are significant and, from our current technological perspective, may seem overwhelming. However, we must not discount the potential power of semantic Web technologies to simplify or even automate many of these processes.

What Will This Mean for Course Design?
Ultimately, the primary change for educators will be in thinking about their course and its components as raw data, rather than as finished content. This concept of "raw data" when applied to course design means that every individual component of a class needs to be designed as a separate piece of data. Each test question, every topic in a video lecture, every word in a required reading will need to be viewable as a unique piece of information that is searchable and, most importantly, linkable to other pieces of data. What this means is that "courses" as we know them may well be broken down into their smallest pieces and re-purposed by Semantic Web agents beyond the boundaries of that course or institution. The Web agent will be capable of creating new content by intelligently searching the entire Web for relevant information and putting all of those pieces together in a presentation based on the student's learning style, previous experiences, and intended educational outcomes.

From a human perspective, this concept seems completely overwhelming. Individual instructors cannot be expected to craft elaborate ontologies for every element of a course they are designing. Perhaps courses as we know them will become irrelevant as these smart technologies custom design educational experiences which pull from hundreds or thousands of different sources. For the average instructor, their role could change significantly. Course design itself may become more automated and instructors could become content designers and facilitators in knowledge production. Essentially, some instructors may fulfill the role of subject-matter experts, responsible for the design of innovative presentations of the knowledge that they possess. Others might be responsible for providing a human touch to help with the incorporation of this customized content at the individual level. It is a shockingly different model from our current system, but one that does have the potential to arrive soon and change the teaching profession as we know it.



Image: digitalart /