ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Learning in the Semantic Web

By Reuben Tozman / March 2012

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

When I was asked to write something on the semantic Web my thoughts immediately turned from the initial "Cool" to "How am I going to make this understandable?" You see, for the last 10 years or so, I've been talking about the great potential for the semantic Web to drastically change the learning experiences of "learners" and truth be told, I haven't done a great job of explaining why I think that is. In the 10 years or so that I've been talking about the semantic Web, technology has evolved and surged in so many different directions that my own understanding and view of its potential has itself altered direction. Maybe that's been the issue all along. At any time, people's understanding and knowledge of the landscape is being influenced and acted upon by so many different things that to nail down why the semantic Web has such great potential is asymptotic.

As I dig in to my bag of tricks-the analogies, the comparisons, and the otherwise static and random thoughts I've had over the years-I realize how much digital waste I've produced. Ten years ago the path to the semantic Web was the unenviable task of trying to figure out how to "tag" all the content that existed on the Web. I used to present a slide of the Hulk smashing things to try to get people to understand the meaning of semantic Web. Simply, someone has to deconstruct and analyze content that already exists to find patterns in the content that is there, just hidden. I actually reused this image recently only to say that it is no longer relevant.

If we're going to talk about "THE" semantic Web, we should be talking about Tim Berners Lee, the director of the World Wide Web Constium (W3C). Berners Lee coined the term and to talk about "THE" semantic Web is to reference his definition.

I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web-the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A 'Semantic Web,' which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. The 'intelligent agents' people have touted for ages will finally materialize. (

In essence, computers will understand that Montreal is a city in Quebec, Toronto is a city in Ontario, and both cities are in Canada but in two separate provinces. Computers will know this not because we have developed a computer program on geography, but because our computers "understand content" and can make their own inferences. The purpose is to ultimately make our use of computers more efficient and more effective in our lives.

In hopes of harnessing the sheer power of a computer's processor, organizations are translating more of their systems into a digital universe. Online learning is no different. Consider for a moment all the eLearning courses created to address a business need, such as employee training. At the time of creation the information was relevant and represented, to some degree, a piece of the organizational memory found within an organization. Fast forward several years, let's apply the exponentially growing rate at which our organizations change and acquire new knowledge. How much of the once relevant eLearning that we created is still relevant? Are the images still up to date? Is the data still true? Has the organization remained static?

There are a growing number of online learning professionals talking about the idea of personalized learning, learning on demand, and social learning. If we use the technologies we have been using to create our online learning experiences here's what's going to happen:

  • Personalized learning. We will need to create and recreate courses that speak to everyone's unique needs as they change jobs, change career aspirations, change who they work with, etc.
  • Learning on demand. We will need to create courses for every moment during someone's workday that represents a moment of need for information.
  • Social learning. We will need to continually capture activity streams and update at acceptable intervals to represent the latest discussions from which we can extract "learning."

Recent statistics show the average employee spends approximately two hours a day looking for the right information they need. That's 25 percent of people's time spent trying to find what they need to do their job. If our goal in training and development is making sure people can do their job with competence and a sense of satisfaction, what good is the content and our designs if people can't find it?

But before we can make training content good we need to make sure people can find it. We also need to make sure that the content is relevant and feeds the performance of the employee at the moment in time when the employee needs it. To do this technology needs to be adopted twofold.

Technology must maintain its own relevancy and currency. Presently we make the determination of who gets what, when, and how. Instead of using technology that traps content into a package devoid of any connection to the constantly evolving body of knowledge within an organization, we need technology that enables the distribution of information to the right individuals at the right time.

And to provide the most relevant and current information, technology must be used to easily navigate this digital overflow. Instead of technology contributing to the growing store of digital waste, technology will parse the information and deliver relevancy to learners.

The promise of the semantic Web is a Web that understands content. That means the Web will know who needs what information, when, and how. The Web, not humans will create new experiences, augment existing experiences, and support old experiences by delivering content to us that is contextually relevant and always current.

About the Author

Reuben Tozman is the CLO and founder of edCetra Training. He received his master's degree in educational technology from Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and has worked as an instructional designer, a project manager, consultant, and product manager within a variety of organizations. Tozman began his own company within the learning services industry that quickly gained recognition for its ability to implement true single sourcing strategies. He has always been passionate about advancing learning technologies beyond convention and has instilled in his company a thirst for creative research and development activities around semantic Web technologies. He regularly contributes articles to industry publications and is a frequent speaker at industry events.

ACM 1535-394X/12/03 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2157652.2167476


  • There are no comments at this time.