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Provocation: The Future of the Web

Chris Stein’s post on the “Future of the Internet” was incredibly thorough and thought-provoking, leaving me to simply share my thoughts (and a few videos) that I hope highlight how these technologies may change our work as scholars, and how we can view them as functioning in the classroom of the future.

First, I believe the semantic web holds considerable potential for improving scholarly research. Yes, it is fun to consider that in the future your e-mail could alert your alarm clock that your boss moved your meeting up an hour (wonderful), or that the traffic camera could start your car a few minutes earlier if there is a delay on the highway, or for your milk to send you a text message when it has expired to remind you to buy more….yet all of these are also terrifying. Issues of privacy and control MUST be addressed before companies are allowed to purchase and manipulate this information. The links Chris provided lead to similar discussions. For an entertaining and easy-to-follow explanation of the semantic web and its potential in the consumer market watch this video:

But let’s get back to the world of higher education. As I said, I believe semantic web technologies will fundamentally change the way we conduct research. For example, at a THATcamp panel I attended earlier this year a group of knowledgeable librarians and archivists expressed the need for archived information to be encrypted with Web Ontology Language, which would provide a description readable by humans and machines, so that the work completed in one location would not be replicated at a different location. If databases and archives could communicate with each other, the same set of texts – documents, images, etc – would not need to be digitized multiple times in order for users to locate them from different access points. While this would certainly alleviate a great deal of monotonous work, it also requires a high level of expertise and trust (See the “Semantic Web Layer Cake” on slide 7). The archivist who initially encoded the text would need to write a reliable, authoritative description. This calls into question who can and should be in charge of digitization and encoding – Google? Librarians? Grant-funded interns?

However, if we idealistically assume that we will have reliable editions, then we can look to the potential in data mining the metadata encoded in digital texts using RDF query languages –  we discussed on examples of this, SQLR and SPARQL, earlier in the term. To offer a concrete example, I am currently working on a project in which I must identify which eighteenth century texts have prefaces, and will examine similarities and differences in their form and content. This project would be significantly easier if I had scholarly digital editions that were expertly encoded with both TEI for character recognition, and RDF for more sophisticated descriptions. What potentials do you see for semantic web technologies in your field?

The next topic I would like to discuss concerns communication technology, specifically translation tools. Translation has a direct impact on all of our fields as individual disciplines (I’m looking at you Chad and Jared), but more importantly it is incredibly vital to teaching (especially at CUNY). I am sure many of us, myself included, already have a favorite translation program (software or web based) or translation app(s) for your mobile device. I personally use Google translate (great mobile app as well),, and the Green Life translator apps. Recently, Quest Visual released their app Word Lens which is incredibly exciting :

As of now the program can only translate a few languages, but it is easy to see the potential. Speaking of which, this youtube parody of a Microsoft commercial brilliantly captures the possibility of translation technology in true “blow our minds” style:

There are of course dangers lurking here as well. How will these technologies change the way we learn foreign languages? Will language programs lose funding in favor of supporting tech solutions? Will these technologies benefit or harm ESL students? My ESL students already trust translation programs to an alarming degree, which results in poorly constructed papers and dissuades them from learning the rules of Standard Writing English. Even more upsetting are my students who use translators to understand what is being said in class – either what I am saying to the class (or to translate my notes) or what their fellow classmates are saying. This further marginalizes the student, ostracizing them from their classmates and the college community,  and puts them at a considerable disadvantage in terms of comprehension, which ultimately leads to plagiarism or failure. The author of the much talked about and highly circulated article from The Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Shadow Scholar”  specifically identifies ESL students as his customers. Driven by fear, lack of resources, or laziness they pay someone to write customized papers for them – even at the Ph.D level! Of course, ESL students are not the only ones drawn to these services. This leads me to an obvious, and by no means novel question – how will the future of the Internet redefine academic plagiarism?

Finally, I am deeply fascinated by augmented reality, and am curious to hear your thoughts on possible iterations for classroom use. Universities are already contributing to the development of augmented reality by creating tools for use in both on and off campus. For example, the good folks at UVa aided in the creation of Old Map App for the iPhone (an app I covet as a Droid user) and they took that technology and applied it to the UVa campus  This technology seems applicable at every level of education.  I immediately think of James Gee and educational games  – imagine systems through which students can experiment, invent, build, manipulate, travel, and explore through augmented reality technology. The darkside of this may lie in the same fears that have always surrounded video game use (one of many articles citing evidence can be found here ) – will game play in an enhanced reality increase violence, sexual misconduct, and hate crimes in our world?

And the last word is…..addiction! This week in the New York Times there was yet another article about how the Internet is addicting. As the Internet becomes more ingrained in our daily lives, the less capable we are of living without it! How can we avoid Internet addiction in the future?

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3 Responses

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  1. Amanda Licastro says

    As a follow up to the dangerous side of the web, here is a Chronicle article discussing online racism. The video links are worth checking out as well.

  2. Jared Simard says

    A propos of our discussion last night, Dr. Michio Kaku, award-winning Theoretical Physicist at City College, discusses the future with DemocracyNow!’s host Amy Goodman.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Footenotes » Blog Archive » Round-Up! 4/6- 4/13 linked to this post on April 14, 2011

    […] for all of us on the open-source side of the internet.  Amanda Licastro @Alicastro followed up with another post dealing more explicitly with changes and growth with the semantic web that’s started a […]

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