It’s a little disconcerting when your own words from months ago are quoted back at you from a distance. That’s the trouble with the blogosphere, it is so easy for connections to what you have said to be linked in to the conversation in ways you never expected. Trouble? – No it is one of its major benefits – disconcerting or not!
Recently Mark Dahl quoted something I said a while back. I was discussing how we must stop developing destination applications and start delivering the information and functionality that users want, to where they are working – for instance inside the Learning Management System/eLearning System/VLE (or whatever you call them down your way) – apparently I boasted that the new Reading List (Course Reserves) application Talis are working on "doesn’t even have a user interface". The reason I gave, at the time, was that students don’t need yet another destination to go to to find the information they need – so why build one.
Providing the functionality to link resources to courses in a way that adds value well beyond the simple attempts to be found in ILS/LMS systems, and their course management system counterparts, is an obvious development. What is less obvious, at first, is that you don’t need to build a user interface for it – the student is already in a library system, or a learning management system, or a portal, or FaceBook, or whatever – why can we not deliver the functionality directly in to that environment? Well today the answer to that question is that those applications are not very good at embedding Web Services directly in to their interfaces.
This is why Talis development team member Julian Higman (featured in the February issue of the Library Platform News) was very quick to comment on Mark’s post "I’m working on the reading list application at Talis that you mention, and it certainly does have a user interface!" – Having calmed Julian down (I jest), we both agreed that the fact it was necessary to build a user interface for this product is symptomatic of the inability of most applications, in the University domain, to consume web services and usefully integrate their functionality in to a user’s work flow.
As I commented previously, the online university today is a collection of many silos that the user [student, professor, researcher] is expected to know how to navigate, let alone be able to identify the connections between data in those silos. I expect that this comes as a bit of a shock to the average new student. - I thought I had come to this university to learn about my chosen subject, not to spend a significant amount of time and effort becoming an expert in the use of a multiplicity of different applications and services that are supposedly here to help me.
Peter Brantley was on the money for Mark in his post, about building a Flickr-like system for academia, when he said "However, what will make the application ultimately successful is the availability of open services that permit re-use: mashups that encourage integration with other services and content."
I heartily agree, but only as an interim step. Most of today’s systems are not integrated in any way, so mashing their outputs, exposed via APIs, together in a Web 2.0 way will be a major step forward. Doing this still misses the underlying links that are usually only apparent as connections in the eye of the user, if they happen to appear on the screen together. When we can follow those links between data across silos we will remove the false barriers, imposed by technology thus far, and expose our users to the world of linked data.
Below is a diagram I am working on to hopefully help people visualise what I mean. Utilising Web 2.0 technologies we bring together [mashup] the output from various application silos in to one interface. A great improvement over Web 1.0 where each application would present its data on it’s own independent, and different, screen. Utilising Web 3.0 [Semantic Web] technologies, links between data in separate silos can be identified and presented as connections and relationships in a single Web of Data – much closer to a representation of the real world.
I would be interested in feedback on this diagram. Does it help, or does it make things more confusing?
Megaphone picture published by Paul Keleher in Flickr.