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Web Science - a new academic discipline?

Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 16 Jul, 2008
Published 16 Jul, 2008
Hearing Sir Tim Berners Lee on the Today Programme last week, talking about the Semantic Web as the next big phase of development of the WWW, made me realise that this was now becoming part of a more mainstream discussion and not just the world of computer scientists, technical developers and futurologists.

In the newsitem he also discussed the launch of a new research programme along with a new academic discipline called Web Science . This will enable scientists and engineers to put more resource into understanding and developing the Web.

In 2001 an influential article The Semantic Web was published in Scientific American which provided an interesting scenario providing a vision of what the new world of the semantic web might be like:

In this scenario a brother and sister were trying to organise a series of bi-weekly physical therapy sessions for their mother involving the brother as the chauffeur. These needed to be within a 20 mile radius of her home, but also to fit in with his workplans and avoid the rush hour. This scenario was located in the US and therefore the provider of this therapy also needed to be included within her health insurance policy.

This problem could be solved within a few minutes, using agents to carry out the tasks, because the "Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users." It's not difficult to see how, in an educational context, such an approach could enable all sorts of flexible and intelligent responses to be made to the varied needs of students, lecturers and administrators.

Research and discussion has been taking place for a number of years in the field of e-learning about the implications of the semantic web and JISC has been active in this area. An article by Mikael Nilsson on the original CETIS site in 2001 The semantic web: How RDF will change learning technology standards , provided a valuable and still current overview.

The possibilities the Semantic Web could offer education were explored at a session of the JISC CETIS Conference last year called Semantic technologies for Teaching and Learning and the site contains many position papers and links for those who are interested; and in early 2009 JISC will be publishing a study on the Potential of Semantic Technologies for learning and teaching

In April 2005 JISC TechWatch produced a report which provides an introduction to the Semantic Web and the current state of development, and at a conference on the Future of the Web in 2006, JISC considered what the Semantic - or intelligent - Web might mean for teaching and learning as it moved from specialist to more mainstream level consideration.

The annual Semantic Technology Conference took place in May in California, and Wilbert Kraan reported from there on where we are at the moment - Semantic tech finds its niches and gets productive and that although "we do not all have intelligent agents that can seek out all kinds of data on the net, and integrate it to satisfy our specific queries and desires. What we do have is a couple of interesting and productive approaches to the mixing and matching of disparate information that hint at a slope of enlightenment, heading to a plateau of productivity."

It will be interesting to see how this new discipline, Web Science, will begin to impact on the work that is currently taking place in the e-Learning Programme and the e-Framework. The vision of the semantic web is a seductive and powerful one, and will clearly have enormous impact on many areas of our lives, however it does raise many interesting questions concerning the social and ethical implications, such as security and personal feedom, and also what the relevance of earlier educational work on AI and Intelligent Tutoring systems which also shared some of this vision might be.


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