Saturday, October 08, 2005

Patrick McKercher

Only Connect: James Burke’s Knowledge Web

Patrick McKercher, University of California, Santa Cruz
Thursday, September 29, 2005, 1:15-2:00 pm

mp3 podcast (Right click and 'Save Target As' for manual download

While a great deal of excellent foundational work has been done to create digital repositories, and some metadata standards are emerging, much less work has been done to investigate how to access these rich sources in compelling ways. James Burke has designed and implemented an Open Knowledge exploration system, the Knowledge Web (K-Web), as a result of his alarm that the current educational regime is not preparing students to think in the systemic ways demanded of workers and citizens in the Twenty-first century, much less offering such training to those who have already graduated. The K-Web is the digital incarnation of James Burke’s award-winning books and PBS/Discovery programs on the nature and the history of innovation (his breakthrough Connections series garnered the highest PBS viewership for a documentary and was used in hundreds of high schools and universities in fifty countries). Burke’s work, which anticipated network theory, hyperlinks and even hypermedia, is perfect for the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, much of the initial premise and promise of the Internet—a community of people contributing to a common body of knowledge for free—has been somewhat lost. The K-Web is a return to this initial potential, a sort of open source 3D Encyclopedia Galactica.

The K-Web is being built by a virtual team of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world, and thus we’ve encountered, solved or avoided many of the barriers to Open Knowledge initiatives. Much of our success is due to Hewlett Foundation support, and to a brilliant advisory board including John Seely Brown, Doug Engelbart, Jaron Lanier and Howard Rheingold, among others.

The K-Web is significant in that can serve as an umbrella for any educational object or content from text, to applets to video, to simulations, even to Virtual Reality. As Harvard’s Chris Dede observes, to make education truly universally available, we must learn how to deliver high quality educational content on low cost ubiquitous entertainment hardware such as i-Pods and portable game platforms, the latter of which are becoming powerful and networked VR displays, as well as DVD players. Dede also points out that educational technology needs a powerful exemplar to help it break out of the “islands of innovation” trap; the K-Web certainly has the potential to do this, in part by its umbrella function referenced above.

The K-Web is a powerful and intuitive exploratory digital library—a learning and teaching device involving multiple intelligences and thinking in more complex systemic ways; it is also an interactive tool for understanding knowledge in context and for generating new ideas. Flying through content, K-Web users can explore a universe of data to discover how seemingly unrelated people, events and ideas are connected across time and space. Actually, the K-Web goes beyond interactivity to immersion: the K-Web not only allows students to fly through human knowledge in a compelling way, and to follow Burke on his unique guided tours of history, but allows them to create their own journeys, as well as visit historical immersive interactive environments (e.g., talk to Galileo and experiment with his inventions). This seems like the Holodeck, the stuff of science fiction, but we are already building these virtual worlds with free user-friendly software; thus we have the opportunity to move inquiry based learning to immersive experiential exploration of simulations. This means an absolutely new kind of education is now possible, one tailored to the interests and abilities of the learner. Digital technology not only makes this possible but essential: the traditional school system, adapted to the industrial age, often offers only a lockstep text- and memory-based , one-size-fits-all curriculum; the information age demands different skills: critical thinking, teamwork, communication skills, and the ability to work with diverse (sometimes geographically distributed) groups.

Though the K-Web is a powerful tool to visualize information, it’s important not to overlook that not only is it a community effort, but is also a community building tool (a bridge between learners, mentors, teachers, libraries and museums, two- and four-year schools, and even public and private sectors). Technology in schools is not like fire: proximity alone is not effective. Teachers need powerful examples of how technology can be integrated into the curriculum, and they need Communities of Practice to share and refine best practices; the K-Web provides both. For example, teachers will have access to content experts in universities, NGO’s and the private sector, but they can also use emergent intelligence to generate their own expertise, sharing
lesson plans in a searchable standards-based database.

The K-Web has complex information, but it is in no way exclusive. Because of its design, users can enter through fun and familiar things such as ice cream and follow paths to the steam engine, Einstein or Frankenstein. Or students can go into free-flight mode, flying through the time-space construct of nested globes (present time on the outside, ancient past in the center) to wherever—and whenever—their curiosity takes them. Thus the user can find and investigate (even compare) hotspots of activity, whether they be geographical (Florence or Shanghai), temporal (Bronze Age or Renaissance) or disciplinary (embryology or poetry). These journeys can be saved, annotated, emailed or posted for others to take.

The K-Web also provides powerful ways to search and filter content: for example, the system will show how any two entities are connected, or the user can search for nineteenth century chemists who were women, self-educated, French or any/all of the above. Multiple intelligence are accommodated because every node will have text, multimedia, and some will have animations, simulations and even immersive virtual reality recreations of historical places and people, in which students can interact with intelligent agents, manipulate objects and solve problems in real time with other students from around the world. These virtual reality worlds can be built by students as young as fifth grade, enabling the constructivist ideal of students
creating learning experiences for other students. As I hope this brief overview demonstrates, because of the scope of the project, we can be both contribute to and benefit from conversations with other Open Knowledge projects.

Basic info
Video overview: see link at bottom of


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