Tagging educational material

For anyone who has ever spent time teaching in front of a classroom full of teenagers, you know how difficult it is to find pertinent and interesting material to demonstrate a lesson objective.

Sure, a National Geographic video on avalanches can get the point across but, for many students, it has been done to death. But a home video of a monster avalanche taken during a trek high in the Himalayas, which elucidates the real fear felt by those near avalanches, hits the nail on the head. A student goes away with the sensation: “It coulda been me!”

Problem is how do you find something like that, if indeed it exists?

Though the World Wide Web is supposed to make searching for and finding this sort of information a lot easier, the reality is that it hasn’t. Information is badly and inconsistently meta tagged, and for the most part designed for text based documents. Tagging multimedia objects is, at best, a stab in the dark.

A growing group of Canadians are involved in a nation-wide project to create, among other things, a new meta tagging protocol for educational material to help teachers, educators and students track down elusive information be it a video, a photograph, a lesson or an entire course.

The Canadian Core Learning Resource Metadata Specification (CanCore) is a collaborative effort involving people from coast to coast.

Designing and implementing this protocol is extremely important as a greater and greater percentage of course material is pushed to the Internet.

“The majority of courses taught in Canada and the United States today have an on-line component,” said Rory McGreal executive director of Tele-Education New Brunswick and the Tele-Campus, in Fredericton.

calling a spade a spade

Though there are other meta tagging systems designed with the educational environment in mind (IMS is one) they are not specific enough, according to McGreal.

“The problem with IMS [is that] the fields are there but there is no standardized vocabulary to go in,” he explained. “There is no agreement to the actual meaning of these fields.”

If you were to search for “course” information on meteorology, someone may have entered “module” in the field designated for course.

“All of these words are used and they are used differently by many different people,” McGreal explained. There is no consistency, thus making accurate searching an understandably difficult task.

“What we did was standardize [designations] and say this is the vocabulary we are using and this is what is means,” he added.

For example, a lesson is defined as less than 90 minutes and a module is defined as less than 10 hours.

The goal is to create a protocol somewhere between the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative, seen as too limited, and IMS, viewed as having too few core elements, too many optional elements and not enough guidelines.

joining forces

“CanCore arose out of a number of repository projects that are going on in Canada,” said Sue Fisher, electronic services librarian at the University of New Brunswick, in Fredricton.

Project participants include Portal for Online Objects for Learning (POOL), Broadband Enabled Lifelong Learning Environment (BELLE), the Electronic Text Centre at the University of New Brunswick and the Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects (CAREO), to name a few. Industry Canada and its independent branch CANARIE, are helping with some of the funding.

Of course one key in the development of any new meta tagging system is to make sure it is compatible with other existing systems.

“We are not setting out in a whole new direction,” said Jamie Rossitier, director of CANARIE learning programs in Ottawa. We need to develop something that can be effective for Canada and Canadian, but is still fully compatible with the international standards, he added.

Fisher sees the next few steps as drafting up the schema (available on-line) bringing a few projects on board to actually prototype (indexing of real learning objects) and then reviewing to see how well the schema is working.

Needless to say it is no easy task. In the beginning of June there will be a meeting in Calgary for participants to discuss issues and take the project forward.

The ultimate payoff will be huge if educators have a vastly increased repository of information to use in order to educate future generations of Canadians.

Since the cost of developing rich media is quite high, there is a need for collaboration, Rossitier said. In addition government cutbacks are handcuffing educators.

“We are sort of starving the cow and expecting it to give better milk and that doesn’t work forever,” Rossitier said.

end goal

Once a meta data system is in place the next step is the creation of actual information repositories. Where and how they exists is one of the discussion points at the Calgary meeting.

Douglas MacLeod, project manager of BELLE in Calgary said one idea is to create an umbrella organization. In the future, a teacher could ship a set of slides off to this organization, they would digitize and meta tag the material, he said. It would then be accessible across the country.

“If you take all of that extra work off of the teachers and do it through a centralized organization, you will have an economy of scale (as well as) not putting as much of a burden on the teachers,” MacLeod said.

“We are very optimistic, we feel this is the way of the future because any institution can not afford to develop all is own lessons and modules,” McGreal added.

It will take a few years for the protocol and entire process to roll out, but once done it will last.

“Keep the meta tagging and do it well and you have got a resource that should last for a very long, long time,” MacLeod said. “Any citizen could potentially be a donator that could be critically important to Canadian education.”