Monday, 21 January 2008

SaLamander on the menu at the NMC Teachers Buzz

Today saw another well attended Teachers Buzz at NMC, this time with Wainbrave Bernal talking about the SaLamander project, bringing together a pipeline of three tools to allow educators to tag and catalog the best resources and learning materials in Second Life.

Let me start by saying that I can't get excited by this kind of thing. I've spent too long working on UK projects that have tried to manually catalog the best of the Web while at the same time watching Google and come along and steal the ground from under us. In this case, I suppose, the situation is somewhat different, in the sense that it is harder to see space for such a good full text indexing approach - but I'm still not convinced that asking people to manually catalog Second Life is a workable solution. Tagging is fine, but is arguably already well catered for by Sloog.

I hope to be proved wrong.

So what are SaLamander doing? In short, a HUD tool allows any resident to tag places of educational interest in Second Life using the existing Sloog engine as the back-end. So far, so good. SaLamander resources in Sloog are scraped regularly into the SaLamander wiki where the resulting record can be enhanced using an educationally-oriented metadata template. I think the project has money to pay people to do this enhancement - but presumably they will be happy to have volunteer effort as well (and that is all that will be available in the long term). Finally, descriptions of the best SL resources will be pushed into Merlot where they can sit alongside other resource descriptions.

Here's an example (unfinished) record in the Wiki.

In some ways I like the idea of using a Wiki to create metadata records - it's something that we talked about in the Dublin Core community for example. But much of the added value in the Wiki template could have been implemented as tags in Sloog where it would have been much more readily available for re-use. Such an approach would have also have encouraged use of the same tags across a much broader range of resources (e.g. users of could have followed the same approach for Web resources).

While I can see benefits of using the Wiki to maintain enriched records, I think the benefits of keeping everything as tags in Sloog outweigh them - not least in terms of simplicity. The costs of creating and maintaining a bunch of wiki pages will be too high in the long term I suspect - particularly keep track of resources as they are moved around the SL map. As I've pointed out before, cataloging a bunch of 'locations' is dangerous from a persistence point of view because you don't know what you are going to find there in the future.

I may be wrong - perhaps there is a huge community of taggers and catalogers out there just waiting to get started - but I doubt it. It's also possible that I'm under-playing the value of having a coherent record that can be surfaced in Merlot.

My other concern has to do with what is being cataloged. There is a slight danger that this kind of activity promotes Second Life as a space of artifacts, whereas the reality (for me) is that it is a space of social and collaborative opportunity. Building is important - but as a part of the learning experience. There is less learning value in simply consuming the fruits of someone else's creative activities. That's not to suggest that there aren't things worth cataloging in Second Life. Of course there are. Just that we need to be careful about the messages we give.

Sorry... I don't like to be negative and I hope that I'm wrong. I wish the project well and on balance it is probably an attempt worth trying but I'm not holding my breath.

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