Courtesy: Flickr/jjorogen

September’s getting closer, and for just about everyone, the coming turn of the calendar page brings to mind thoughts of the school year ahead. More specifically, for educators and students, the new school year is just as likely to call up images of iPad tablets and smart-boards as it is to bring forth memories of freshly sharpened pencils and blackboards.

But it’s still probably true that dreams of Linked Data don’t dance through their heads as they contemplate the curricula. But that will change, especially in higher education, where online and remote learning increasingly plays a role — and sooner rather than later.  A paper published earlier this summer, Linked Data for Open and Distance Learning, provides some interesting perspective on the idea. Authored by Mathieu d’Aquin, Research Fellow, Knowledge Media Institute at The Open University, it explores how Linked Data can revolutionize the arena of open and distance learning.

How might open and distance learning benefit from the open publication of reusable, open Web data?, the paper asks. It posits three application scenarios:

  • Resource delivery and navigation: The advantage of Linked Data in this context, d’Aquin writes, is that “the navigation scheme can make use of the rich structure of the Linked Data-based description of their metadata, possibly taking benefit from external information. Another advantage is that, by abstracting from the specificities of systems and formats in which the resources might be handled, it provides a way to homogeneously integrate heterogeneous resources.”
  • Resource discovery and recommendation: Relying on Linked Data for such applications, he says, has the advantage of making it possible to obtain rich representations of the resources and of the potentially connected elements. It discusses in this context Talis Aspire Community Edition, which lets academics create reading lists organized and represented using Linked Data. “The application provides interfaces to browse and navigate in the resources, with the possibility to obtain similar, recommended resources to the ones being selected,” the paper notes. (Attendees at the upcoming Semantic Technology & Business Conference in London can learn more about these capabilities from Tom Heath, senior research scientist at Talis Education Ltd., who will discuss building a Linked Data Graph for education.)
  • Personalization and social learning: This extends the previous advantage by not just recommending resources based on the one being currently considered, but by recommending learning resources and activities based on the learner’s interest, past history, learning goals and achievements, the paper notes. And, it can tie into exploiting the social connections made with other learners while studying. “It is especially relevant in open and distance learning where the face-to-face interaction that would happen in classroom-based learning is not present and learners need other ways to connect to peers and benefit from sharing their learning experience,” d’Aquin explains.

The paper provides as another example of how Linked Data can influence higher-education efforts by The Open University itself: It publishes as Linked Data its course catalogue together with information about class availability and cost, so students can ask what courses are available in a given country, on a given topic, under a certain price, and so on.

On mobile devices, it has made available an application that lets users get information both about the courses available on a topic, and about the related resources such as podcasts – a feature that d’Aquin says is “implemented using the Linked Data platform of the Open University, querying resources that are directly related to the topic being considered, or for resources attached to courses that are related to this topic.” Similarly, the Open University’s Linked Data-based course catalog powers its Course Profile Facebook app that lets users connect through courses to others that are or who have studied the same, to help bring the social aspect of real-world university learning to online university learning.

The Open University, by the way, also has developed DiscOU, a resources discovery engine relying on a semantic index of Open University Open Content that complements BBC program pages. According to the DiscOU site, it semantically analyses the content of an online BBC program, and matches it by similarity to other existing Open University content to retrieve the most relevant pieces. So, click on BBC Four’s The Secret Life of Chaos series, and you can be directed to Open Content resources on the topic.

Additionally, d’Aquin also provides advice to the education community about how to develop or deploy Linked Data applications – both technically and philosophically. For instance, he recommends hiding Linked Data technologies from the end users themselves, so as not to deter adoption.

Another resource that’s useful particularly to academics exploring the issue is the  Linked Education site, an open platform aimed at further promoting the use of Linked Data for educational purposes. It provides lots of additional information on educational Linked Data sets, and tools and applications to use or generate Linked Data.