Stephen Downes on PLE at MIT

The following is my interpretation gleaned from an audio recording of a conference at MIT attended by Stephen Downes to explain some of his thinking (apologies for any misrepresentation) about how the www could develop.


The challenge
The ability to access a resource (person, document, learning object, software etc…) can be used as a measure of how efficiently the www is functioning. If this is to be optimised, a “powerful” network is required that can perform the function of connecting people to resources based on their personal needs – a ‘best fit.

If this were to work really well, rather than searching for resources the system ought to have a predictive capability in which “the resources present themselves to you”.

The design paradigm
Fundamentally, this is an egalitarian position that values autonomy and diversity rather than the ‘authoritative’ voice of the relative few. To achieve this, the vision is for a domain-centric rather than a person-centric culture on www. A relativist approach that values knowledge as a localised constructed/co-constructed reality created through transactions.

How it works
Fundamental to this egalitarian approach is the ability to capture the ‘contextual experience’ of a resource from its inception through its complex life cycle; its use, modification, connecting those with common interests or purposes, etc.

To achieve this three types metadata would be collected:
– biographical metadata (who created it, title, location, journal source, etc.)
– resource experience (automatically accrued data, what it was used for, who used it, etc.)
– third party metadata (categories, descriptions, evaluations, etc.)

The third party metadata is added in the form of a ‘regular expression’, that is a description but not according to a semantic web schema. This enables automatic categorisation into topics and as a consequence feeds back out into the www. See Edu-RSS for more detail.

The above systems approach relies upon individual nodes accessing resources (via something like RSS), and then re-broadcasting out onto the www resulting in the accumulation a richer set of non-hierarchical metadata. Of particular importance being the contextual information about how something was used and by who. For this to work will, it will require individuals who are prepared to become a node and re-broadcast onto the www.


The new ‘richly connected’ www will promote the essential characteristic of connectivity that developing knowledge is an emergent process better propagated by a well organised network, but ultimately requiring perceiving by humans to create the knowledge.

1 thought on “Stephen Downes on PLE at MIT

  1. Richard Millwood

    “If this were to work really well, rather than searching for resources the system ought to have a predictive capability in which “the resources present themselves to you”.”
    This is seductive, but what about the process of enquiry and the formulation of question, sifting of results, evaluating of results etc.? Agreed information should be accessible, but if it presents itself (as though the information or the system actually understood anything at all! – another source of sceptism on my part) – who made the learning decisions?


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