Controlling Chaos?

Scott Leslie comments on the recent release of the CETIS Vocabulary Project, which includes two reports and a series of recommendations [my emphasis added]:

But the 121 pages that comprise the first two survey reports, the Pedagogical Vocabularies Review and the Vocabulary Management Technologies Review, seem hardly to justify the tepid 7 page ‘Recommendations’ document that follows. Study study study, disseminate, more study, pilot a bit, repeat. Sorry guys, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this; I want to take succour in the belief we can control the growing chaos, find sense through old patterns and methods, but you know what, I can’t do it anymore, I have seen the light, and this is not it.

I’m not an expert on ontologies, the semantic web, metadata or controlled vocabularies, but I’ve had enough conversations with enough experts to know that more control will not address our information management needs. Recent conversations with people smarter than me have me concluding that Smart Search is (will be) an excellent tool and that the RDF standard seems to be quite useful with its minimalist approach. From the CETIS Report (MS Word Doc, page 23):

What really sets RDF apart from XML and other things is that RDF is designed to represent knowledge in a distributed world. This means RDF is particularly concerned with meaning. Everything at all mentioned in RDF means something, whether a reference to something concrete in the world, an abstract concept, or a fact. Standards built on RDF describe logical inferences between facts and how to search for facts in a large database of RDF knowledge.”

I recently asked if metadata was dead and received some good advice:

  • From Anol: "Problems with folders and metadata – that’s a closed system, somebody else define the taxonomy. Theory of entropy proves itself when the closed system of folders and metadata goes into a complete chaotic mode."
  • and from Keith, "Maybe metadata structures are dying, but there’s a distinct difference between metadata and metadata structures. If you’re going to ask, "Is metadata dead?" why not also ask, "Is tagging [with METADATA!] dead?"

After perusing the 121 pages of the two CETIS reports [I didn’t read every item], I came away with the feeling that trying to control chaos is a losing game. Instead of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it’s time for the learning industry as a whole to shift its effort to more pragmatic solutions, because the answers from CETIS et al are not very clear. Having watched the enormous efforts ($$$) that the military, academia and corporations have put into metadata and controlled learning structures, without any measurable improvements in learning or performance outcomes, I have to ask if this is worth the time and money. My suggestions:

  • like Lego, use the simplest of basic structures (RDF?)
  • build better search into online learning applications
  • only build taxonomies, ontologies & controlled vocabularies based on a specific user need, not "just-in-case"
  • give learners and facilitators more tools to manage their information (tags, tagclouds, smart search, etc)
  • focus on tools to surf the chaos, not control it

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