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Each month, nearly two million teachers, parents, and school administrators visit the Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM) on the Web to find learning objects (resources) quickly and effectively. [1] However, few visitors to GEM are aware of the research and development (R&D) that both define what GEM is today and chart where it will be tomorrow. In this article, I will talk about the current work of the GEM R&D team and show how that work will improve how GEM functions for teachers and learners around the world.
At the heart of what makes GEM work is what is called structured metadata. The term metadata has been defined quite simply as “data about data.” The notion of metadata is not new. When we search the bibliographic records in a card catalog or in an online public access catalog, we are searching metadata records. Each record or card consists of data describing some other data—like the data in a book or on a CD. Another example would be a manual or electronic address book. Each record in an address book consists of metadata (or statements) about a person or organization.
The difficulty with finding educational objects (or any particular object) on the Web has been the fact that no one has bothered to create concise structured metadata statements about those objects that would make them easier to find by search engines. One of the mandates of the GEM project is to facilitate the creation of such metadata by GEM Consortium members distributed around the world. That means designing tools to both catalog learning objects by generating metadata about them and to gather (or “harvest”) that metadata to build an easily searchable database. Much of the R&D work at GEM focuses on making the metadata creation and metadata searching tools more powerful, more efficient, and more effective. I will discuss several of these R&D projects in the following paragraphs.
Today, in the Web world in which we find ourselves, a useful system for retrieval of geographically distributed educational objects consists of certain fundamental components: (1) repositories of both the digital learning objects themselves and the metadata that describes those objects; (2) registries where information about the nature of metadata statements made about those objects are defined, maintained, and published; and (3) metadata tools necessary for the creation of the statements made about educational objects that will be stored in the metadata repositories and the metadata tools to search across those repositories for objects that meet the needs of the searcher.
Since the metadata record describing an educational object consists of a set of descriptive statements about that object (e.g., author, title, subject, and grade level), success in searching across those records is increased when the descriptive statements made are carefully and consistently constructed. One way to increase the level of search success is to use statement terminology drawn from carefully developed controlled vocabularies, thesauri, and taxonomies. For example, drawing subject terms to assign to a metadata record from well-known thesauri such as the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, the Art and Architecture Thesaurus or the NASA Thesaurus or from a controlled vocabulary such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings increases the chances that objects that are topically similar will be consistently retrieved.
However, for both the person creating metadata records using terms from such controlled vocabularies and the end users wanting to search for useful educational objects across repositories of those metadata records, having digital access to the vocabularies, thesauri, and taxonomies is critical in order to assign terms to records and to select terms for purposes of searching. To date, there has been no consistent, standardized way for the creators and searchers of metadata to interact with digital repositories of these various forms of controlled vocabularies. One of the R&D goals of GEM is to develop a standard mechanism that will permit metadata creation and searching tools to interact with such repositories. The R&D effort is developing a set of standard communications protocols and schemas that define: (1) the content and sequence of the various messages traveling between the digital metadata creation and search tools and the geographically distributed digital repositories that contain the controlled vocabularies, and (2) the data structures that format the content of the messages for consistent interpretation by digital tools. Such standardized protocols and schemas will make it possible for a tool and a repository to communicate with each other even if they were unaware of each others' existence prior to the communicative act. As humans, we are able to communicate with total strangers because our speech acts consist of fairly well defined, although somewhat fuzzy, sets of socially acquired communications patterns (protocols) and data structures (languages and syntactic bindings). Unlike humans, machines cannot deal very effectively (if at all) with fuzziness; therefore, the protocols and data structures in machine communication must be very precisely defined, consistently structured, and be well-known among the machines wishing to communicate effectively. The GEM R&D team is developing the protocols and schema for such machine communication and designing a prototype called ThesaurusBrowserTM to demonstrate their utility in the metadata generation and metadata search processes.
Another major line of GEM R&D consists of designing a second set of protocols and schemas for effective machine communication of academic and process standards. With increasing frequency, teachers in K-12 are being required to design instruction around established national, state or local content standards. As a result, creators of metadata for educational objects want to be able to map those objects to particular content standards. In like fashion, teachers want to be able to find education objects by searching on standards. To accommodate this need, the GEM element set contains an element for making statements about academic standards. However, to date, there is no simple way for the creators of metadata to include such standards in metadata describing objects in a sufficiently consistent manner to support effective searching.
In many ways, developing the protocols and schemas for the effective assignment of content standards to educational objects shares many of the assumptions and characteristics of the problem addressed by ThesausrusBrowser and its underlying protocols and schema. It assumes the existence of geographically distributed digital repositories of content standards accessible over the Web. While a few such repositories exist today, large-scale deployment of creation and search tools assumes that ultimately all significant academic content standards will have a Web presence. Given such a presence, a metadata record for any given educational object may contain one or more statements that “point to” specific content standards by embedding uniform resource identifiers (URI) for those standards in the metadata record. This process would be analogous to assigning a Dewey Decimal Classification number to a metadata record that points to the textual string for that number stored somewhere out on the Web. Just as the assignment of the Dewey number “612.014” to a resource might point to the textual string “Human physiology—Biophysics” in a repository out on the Web (or that textual string in any number of different languages), assigning the URI “M.S1.2.2” from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education [3] might point to a Web accessible repository for the Compendium and the following statement:
  • Discipline: Mathematics
  • Standard 1: Uses a variety of strategies in the problem-solving process
    • Grade Level: 3-5
    • Benchmark 2: Represents problem situations in a variety of forms (e.g., translates from a diagram to a number or symbolic expression) [4]

Just as with the Dewey Decimal number, the “intelligence” for the example standard from the Compendium rests in the number and not in the specific textual strings that the URI references. Thus, like the Dewey number, the standard URI can reference the same content in any language into which it has been translated.
Given such Web-accessible repositories of content standards, one of the R&D problems is developing the appropriate protocols to support communication between metadata generation and search tools and those repositories. In other words, given a communication “session” between a generation/search tool and a repository, what is the sequence and purpose of individual communicative acts. The second R&D problem is to develop well defined means of encoding the content of those acts for purposes of machine reading and processing. In other words, how can we take a set of statements like the example standard from the McREL Compendium and encode them in a standard way for transmission from the repository to the generation and search tools. The GEM R&D team is developing the protocols and schema for such machine communication and designing a prototype called StandardConnectionsTM to demonstrate their utility in the metadata generation and metadata search processes.
Just as there is a team of managers, information specialists and technology experts at ERIC/IT in Syracuse handling the daily operations of the GEM initiative and the metadata repository and its supporting systems, so there is an R&D team of information scientists and systems developers in The Information School of the University of Washington addressing the next generation of the GEM system. GEM's future is dependent on a careful balance among GEM as a production system, GEM as a standards body, and GEM as a research environment. If we can characterize “research” as the process of managed change, we can characterize “standards” as managed stasis—a state that allows for the standard diffusion of the innovations borne of the processes of research. If GEM as an information system is to serve its constituencies well, it must carefully balance these notions of change and stasis as GEM evolves as a real world system serving the nations teachers and learners.

Notes & References

  1. The Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM)

  2. For examples of a variety of content standards, see Putnam Valley; see also, McREL Compendium.

  3. John S. Kendall and Robert J. Marzano. Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education, 3rd Edition. Aurora, CO: McREL, 2000.

  4. A URI for the English statement of this standard might look like the following: “http://www.mcrel.org/compendium/ed3/english/mathematics#S1.2.2”

Biographical Information

Stuart A. Sutton is associate professor in The Information School of the University of Washington where he teaches and does research in the areas of organization of information and metadata systems and the law and policy of information and information practice. Dr. Sutton also serves as a Senior Research Scientist with the Information Institute of Syracuse and leads the GEM research and development efforts. He also serves as co-chair (along with Jon Mason from Education Network Australia (EdNA)) of the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative Education Working Group that is defining metadata standards for describing educational objects on the Web. He holds masters degrees in theatre arts, library and information studies, and in intellectual property and a J.D. from Golden Gate University. He is a member of the California Bar. Dr. Sutton earned his Ph.D. in Library and Information Studies from the University of California at Berkeley in 1991.

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