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A proposal for using metadata to support the building of an educational community

Sophie Lissonnet



This paper is about the role of a central website in a distributed educational community. It is based on a case study of a fictitious multi-campus education institution planning a major web refurbishmentIt advocates using metadata about resources instead of the resources themselves to form a cohesive, collaborative educational community. It examines the advantages of opting for a minimal and decentralised model of metadata creation and ownership that supports a community with inter-operability.and user control. As elsewhere in the world, the websites of Australia educational institutions have evolved from a simple assembly of pages, partially reflecting the administrative structure of the institution, to models based on pre-defined user groups such as students, staff, visitors and prospective students. These models are centralised and dependent upon the institution's maintenance and management roles. This bureaucratic structure often frustrates the emergence of hubs of collaboration. As the burden of fees forces many students to maintain long hours of employment, they expect institutions to deliver services that fit around their work commitments. The physical connection (by way of regular class attendance) and the resulting sense of belonging to an "intellectual community" is shifting to a client to supplier relationship. The client/student expects the supplier/institution to run a 24/7 operation, where all services (kiosk, transaction centre, repository of course material, personal office space, information channel) are available via the web. With more students opting for web-based or off-campus study modes, school and university web sites have become the hub for new strategies to maintain a sense of connection and respond to a disparity of distributed user needs and expectations. The initial response of institutions to the cost of sustaining such a wide range of distributed activities for an equally distributed audience in a climate of budget constraints is to centralise systems and encapsulate resources in large, centralised data repositories. Often resources and services are served to the users via systems based on complex and all-encompassing people and data management profiles. This paper argues that it is not necessary or beneficial to take this centralised position in order to serve the needs of the modern educational community. It may be worth considering that a less costly and more effective approach is to work with a centralised metadata repository and let the metadata act as binder between distributed nodes of people, resources and systems. Finally, an option to further extend the return on the investment in metadata by introducing the "shopping mall" metaphor into the institution web site is introduced. Metadata can also be used as the backbone for services such as information channels, personalisation and customisation of personal information spaces. By adopting the portal model, institutions can (re)-create a sense of fidelity and community to their name/brand and education philosophy. They can improve the timely delivery of information to their constituents and extend their constituencies beyond the college gate. They also pave the way to adapting the e-commerce model to their business needs.

Keywords: metadata, distributed network, portal, interoperability, personalisation, multi-campus institution

Word count: 5,800 approx.

Forbidden City College (FCC): an overview

The Forbidden City College (FCC) is well established, centenary 'salt-of-the-earth' institution which has embraced technology, in part for its marketing value, but it has not dramatically changed the way instruction is designed or delivered.

FCC relies on its web presence to further strengthen its branding, visibility and reputation.

FCC is made up of 4 regional campuses: Eastgate, Northgate, Westgate and Southgate and an overseas campus 'The Celestial Gate College'.

The College community amounts to about 10,000 members made up of staff (academic and non-academic) and students, to which parents, alumni, short course students and various visitors and prospective students contribute a further undisclosed number.

There are talks of expansion and taking over a privately run language school, located near the Eastgate campus.

Each campus has a web presence under the auspices of the 'mother house' made up of an assortment of faculty pages, student pages, service-based pages and administrative pages.

There have been attempts at disciplining the generation and management of library content; subsequently, a vast number of course-based or course-related materials has been uploaded and catalogued on the library site. Still, a large number of student resources are uniquely located on faculty pages.

In its short history, FCC's web site has already been through a series of major re-designs:

Aware of emerging trends in both user expectations and technical capabilities, FCC has commissioned a third version of its web site. The underlying strategy is less about redesigning the physical appearance of the web site than to rethink the Campus-Wide Information System (CWIS) as a user-centric, transaction-oriented tool, allowing for the information it holds to be accessed, personalised and shared.

FCC is also aware that quality course material is developed by individual academics at all four locations. While the potential for sharing it across campuses is often lost, opportunities for duplicating effort abound. The opportunity to share the same resources with the greater educational community is also lost, mostly for lack of appropriate cataloguing and indexing.

Re-thinking web presence and function(s)

In August 2001, The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) embarked on a review of the trends and services on offer from education web portals (Lonsdale, 2001). One of its opening remarks was about the extension of the shopping mall metaphor for Internet based services to education.

The trend is most notable in the higher education sector where portals are deployed in all major US universities.

The University of Washington (UW) started rolling out its portal in May 2000. Its goal was "to manage a lifelong relationship for the end user with the institution and to provide specific, useful information to all those with an ongoing relationship with the university. Over 1 million people use the UW's web pages each month. Less than 10 percent are faculty, staff and students of the UW." (Sistek-Chandler, 2000)

The rationale, at the time, was that Education was adopting management modes and ways of thinking based on other types of business and industries with marketing and e-commerce topping the list of reasons for providing portal access.

Custom views and channel broadcast

Some FCC staff members have become interested in the general trends towards customisation and personalisation pioneered by search engines such as Yahoo! And Excite.

To further extend the appeal of the portal, FCC would like to offer its 'community users' the option to customise their views or to create "fixed landscapes for defined user groups". (Russell, Gardner & Miller, 2001) As FCC's pedagogy relies heavily on group work and collaborative process, FCC would like to "offer dynamic landscaping based on user profiles, access privileges and collection descriptions".

The CWIS should manage relationships between users and documents over:

FCC's library staff has expressed an interest in user profiling to push information to 'community members' via user-defined channels. The librarians see the advantages as:

Other staff members have set their views on a feature available from PictureAustralia where it is called a 'dynamic pathway'. The system saves a search statement but not the result. As new documents matching the initial search statement are added, the retrieved set is dynamically enriched. (Campbell, 2000)

Objectives & functional requirements

Objective 1: Enhance resource discovery at campus and college level

To capitalise on its users' familiarity with search engines, FCC requires that the new system be capable of presenting results uniformly, by way of sorting and ranking documents.

Function 1: Search and Browse

Simple and advanced search mode should be offered for those users wishing to search on multiple criteria using Boolean search statements. Users should be able to limit or filter their searches according to specific criteria. Searching and retrieving information should be possible through a single access point giving access to all distributed resources and plus external resources. A browsing structure should also be displayed that reflects the clustering of documents according to the chosen classification system.

Objective 2: Sharing resources, expanding constituencies

Design choices should take into account the future options of resource sharing and gathering. FCC anticipates that it will have to integrate its resources into larger points of access, be they subject gateways, state-based information portals or distributed catalogues. The system is first designed as autonomous, but it may develop relationships with greater integrated information systems. FCC also seeks to share and reuse resources across faculties and campuses.

Function 2a: Interoperability

The DESIRE handbook (2000) comes strongly in support on interoperability on the ground that "no single information gateway will be able to describe each and every relevant Internet resource, even if it is limited to a relatively small subject area." To enable this function, the FCC system should be built on universal cataloguing and indexing standards. The ACER research on global gateways (2001) notes "most gateways are based on internationally recognised standards, such as the Dublin Core Metadata Element Set".

Function 2b: Scalability

The system should be scalable and cater for growth (the size of the database) as well as an increase in traffic (the number of users). Besides "offering" its own resources to other information systems, FCC also has the option to further enhance its array of resources by "absorbing" sub-sets of resources form other systems.

Objective 3: Access and security

The CWIS must also manage diverse levels of security and access authorisations and blend internal and external information.

It is intended to divide the system between a public view and login/password for FCC's community members access rather than request occasional users to identify as 'guests'. The public view itself is to be divided in channels based on perceived external user profiles - this is in fact a more dynamic way of presenting the student, staff, visitor division present on the great majority of school and university web sites.

Function 3: Authentication, Trust and Standards

Following on DESIRE's recommendation, FCC should consider "mechanisms to establish the identity of users" before implementing personalised services. It should also create a bond of trust with its users that their privacy will not be infringed by accidental or wilful disclosure of the information contained in their user profiles.

FCC's Application Profile

When an institution such as FCC embarks on a metadata project with an option to share it with other systems, it somewhat enters in a quality and credibility pact, first with itself and its constituencies. The result is the creation of a small, interoperable community of trustworthy resources.

Dublin Core (DC) has 15 resource description elements harmonised accross many domains. It is due to become an ISO standard and enjoys a wide level of acceptance in many languages, countries and intellectual communitiesd.

Simplicity is Dublin Core's great selling point. It is flexible enough to be adapted to the needs of specific communities. Already, DC working groups such as DC-Education and DC-Libraries are working on the definition of their communities' application profile. An application profile is a set of elements for resource description chosen to be used by a particular organisation.

Application profiles should not be seen as locked cataloguing systems. Rather, they can be adapted or extended to accompany the user needs and the evolving information retrieval requirements. While FCC may want to start simply with the basic 15 DC elements, nothing in the future precludes this institution from increasing the granularity of the cataloguing by using extensions, or mixing elements from other application profiles.

For instance, DC-Lib (Guenther, 2001), the application profile defined by the Dublin Core Working Group onLlibraries is proposing to roll DC.Creator, DC.Publisher and DC.Contributor into one element called DC.Contributor; an alternative proposal is to use DC.Agent for those three roles. These are responses to the difficulty expressed by cataloguers in identifying the statement of responsibility for a digital resource with the same accuracy as the statement of responsibility of a printed item.DC-Lib also proposes to integrate an element from the DC.Education application profile called DC.Audience that would categorise the users for whom the resource is intended. The working group has not yet defined the encoding schemes and the element refinements. Finally, DC.Holdings is a proposed addition from DC-Lib. In this case, the organisation holding the item would be identified using the MARC Code list of organisations.

The DC.Education Working Group (Mason & Sutton, 2000) is concerned with three education specific elements:

As an educational institution, FCC stands at the crossroads of library and education application profiles. But its choice of data elements should be guided by future interoperability requirements with existing gateways. Great effort should be made to map the elements chosen to universal standards, even if some elements have to be renamed, qualified or extended to suit local needs and to be more intuitive for the user.

Managing the metadata: A-Core

A-Core is metadata about the metadata. It has been devised to designate information about "the provenance, management and administration of other sets of descriptive metadata".

According to Ianella (1999) "The objective of A-Core is to provide simple verification of the integrity, ownership, and authorship of metadata retrieved from networked resources. The A-Core elements are utilised to associate the instruments (who, what) with the events (when) of the process of metadata management".

In the context of FCC, there are a few advantages in adopting A-core element or, at least, adopting a data structure that allows for management of the metadata:

Inner Working & Network Effect

Why interoperability matters to FCC

As highlighted in the introduction, one of the issues FCC must grapple with is scalability and interoperability.

The College may have to face the problem that limited time, staffing and money may not allow the rate of resource cataloguing to keep up with the broadening of the demand (ie: new subjects, more students, etc...) Institutions cannot afford to catalogue the Web in its entirety, nor should they have to. There are at present enough projects (subject-specific or state-based or local) to guarantee depth and breadth of subject coverage.

Gardner and Iannella (2000) remind us that subject gateways "often seek to provide enhanced services by augmenting their own metadata collections with those of other subject gateways with a complementary coverage of similar quality" or they may seek to distribute their metadata collection into multiple smaller collections. And the same rationale should apply to a local project such as FCC's.

Network: centralised or distributed?

As to Web resources, as for other assets, the current thinking is geared towards strict ownership rules and protection from intruding users or preying eyes. Everything has to be centrally managed, controlled, vouched by higher authorities and access has to be restricted to bona fide users upon provision of identification.

To guarantee the growth (and thus the relevance) of its repository of resources, FCC will have to shift its thinking to a distributed approach to ownership and management. Some of the rewards will be economies of scale and a reduction in duplication of effort in acquiring and classifiying similar resources.

A modular approach to metadata cataloguing means FCC need not be lock in accepting others gateways' views of the world. It can re-catalogue shared resources to suit its own views and requirements. Similarly it can relate them to its local agenda, such as an events calendar or a handbook.

For example, item X about the Centenary of Australian Federation (sourced from Gateway A) can be locally flagged to be pushed to students enrolled in a related History subject, or be added to a local feature on Federation produced for the Online Alumni Newsletter. The same item can be managed locally, with A-core metadata, to be revisited (and potentially removed) after the interest in Federation as receded.

In his round-up of interoperability concerns in the United Kingdom, Paul Miller (2001) highlights the usual questions over thesaurus and audience characterisation. He also points towards the importance of document typologies: "as our portals become increasingly hybrid, accessing a wide range of physical and digital multiple media resources, useful enumerations of types become ever more important". Miller considers that the all-important list of values for DC.Type may need re-appraisal. Some gateways have gone beyond the prescribed list and developed local typologies for one, integrated the IMS enumeration and created some of its own for the other.

Cross-searching and cross-browsing

Users need to search and browse in a single place for resources distributed across the web.

The DESIRE handbook (2000) defines the challenge of interoperability as follows:

Cross-searching places additional demands on metadata repositories. One of the greatest challenges is the selection of information retrieval protocols, as it is not feasible for all subject gateways to support them all..

The implementation of these protocols will also affect the satisfaction of end-user queries. "If the number of information providers in the system is high, then distributing a user request to each information provider can be slow."

"Query routing is the process of redirecting and replicating queries through a distributed database system towards servers holding the desired results." (ROADS, 2000)

Users make a search in a dataset and retrieve part of it via a data access protocol. Existing protocols include LDAP, Whois++, HTTP and Z39.50.

In the case of PictureAustralia (Campbell, 2001), each participating site stores its original images and thumbnails locally, but the metadata is held in a central repository at the National Library of Australia. The search protocol is Z39.50 with Boolean searching and right-hand truncation being supported.Campbell explains that Z39.50 could support the metadata being held in distributed repositories (presumably where the images are stored), but PictureAustralia has found it to be more efficient to provide centralised access, in terms of both cost and search response times.

The Isaac Network (Lukas & Roszkowski, 2001) is an extension of the research on distributed metadata conducted by the Internet Scout Project at the University of Wisconsin. It is made up of geographically disseminated participating agencies (referred to as nodes). The architecture of Isaac emphasises the ability to make multiple collections searchable as a single entity. The Isaac Network is "built on the shared index capabilities of the Common Indexing Protocol (CIP) and the query routing capabilities of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP)." Each node comprises a metadata repository, a LDAP server and CIP client and server and provides a common search interface as well as knowledge about the other nodes. The user searches all nodes via a single query from a common interface. The original three nodes use different metadata schemes and controlled vocabularies, which make searching on DC.Subject difficult.The administration, creation and maintenance of the metadata are distributed. The nodes are free to contribute to the Isaac Network while sharing with other subject gateways.

The Victorian Education Channel has chosen an entirely distributed model, with ownership of the metadata remaining in the hands of the participating institutions. However, these institutions need to conform to VEC's application profile.EdNA has adopted a more centralised approach, with a central repository, central administration and surrender of ownership.

Increasing the number of database (and therefore items) available for cross-searching will affect the precision and recall of a query.

Going Portal?

Howard Strauss, Manager of Academic Applications at Princeton University (Watson, 2000) defines a university portal as a "Customised Personalised Adaptive Desktop (CPAD)" with the following characteristincs:

What is their potential?

In their paper on Higher Education Portals, Looney and Lyman (2000) review the process that led to the 'college.com' frenzy that seized US universities at the resumption of teaching in autumn 1999. They describe this frenzy as an attempt to apply to the education sector the e-commerce business models that was already operational elsewhere on the Web. Typically, the e-commerce metaphor can be summed up as the delivery of information in a secure, personalised manner through a portal-style page. At the time, 20% of US retail e-commerce was already portal based. Also, executives at Excite were claiming that users were five times more likely to return to a customisable site such as MyYahoo, MyUCLA than to those providing generic information and services.

Looney and Lyman (2000) argue that "e-commerce business models might serve as useful examples for economically sustainable Web-based educational services" and citing digital libraries, alumni relations or lifelong learning. Their argument is that a portal is also a home base and a community base. Its value to a campus is that "it can be used to engage constituent groups, empower them with access to information resources and communication tools, and ultimately retain them by providing a more encompassing sense of membership in an academic community."

Looney and Lyman (2000) define the basic ingredients for success as mix of several portal approaches: The Portal has to be user centric in order to serve all constituents (not just students). It must include elements of consumer portal (such as news feed to non-school information for parents, alumni, etc ...). It must also be a community portal in order to maintain and strengthen lifelong relationships. It has to publish targeted (ie: personalised) information. Further options include the ability to conduct user polling as well as using the Portal as part of the outreach and public relations strategy.

Bernard Gleason (2001) of Boston College also supports the idea of an all-inclusive portal in preference to earlier solutions aimed at serving a specific community, usually students, or delivering specific content, such as library content. (Melbourne University's Buddy service is a local example of content specific portal). In recent times, the definition of the service has been extended to a single, institution-wide point of access to a variety of content types, from public resources to secure enterprise systems.

Extension of metadata capability


In her paper on personalised Web services, Bonett (2001) proclaims that "the notion of a 'personalised' interfaces to Web content has become commonplace. There are challenges involved in the creation of such interfaces, but these typically share a common component: personal profiles. As used here, 'personal profiles' refers to the practice of describing individuals and various of their properties in a database for the purpose of improving their access to networked information resources."

"Personalisation involves a process of gathering user-information during interaction with the user, which is then used to deliver appropriate content and services, tailor-made to the user's needs. The aim is to improve the user's experience of a service."

User satisfaction and loyalty through recreation of a one-to-one relationship are the main aim of personalisation.

Bonett and Strauss's definition of personalisation (and customisation) differ on the basis of user control. For Bonett, customisation is user driven and controlled, as the user decides which layout and services are desirable. Her concept of personalisation puts the user in a passive situation and it is the system itself that gathers intelligence about the user's behaviour, analyses his needs and adjusts the provision of services accordingly.

Towards the perfect match

There is probably no need for FCC to adopt a 'Big Brother' approach as defined above. To an extent, web logs and student enrolment details already provide a solid base for market intelligence. Users could volunteer further information about their needs and wants through fill-in forms. Alternatively, subscription channels could be offered. Equally, librarians, academics and content providers are gathering and ordering a vast array of electronic resources. Personalisation is one way of improving the chances of encounter between the resource and the user.


The Argus Centre for Information Architecture (ACIA) has proposed a framework for discussion and implementation of personalised Web services in a commercial context (Instone, 2000) :

Instone divides the framework into three layers:

The context in which users and content intersect is defined by a set of 'personalisation rules' (or business rules).

Typically, for an FCC user this could be:

There are many ways of implementing this framework. Instone's method presents the advantage of further exploiting the benefits of cataloguing with a controlled vocabulary. Controlled vocabulary can serve as leverage for interoperability between the user and the content profile. It can be used to align or translate the profile information into terms matching the subject classification of resources.

Profile Layer (Student) Vocabulary Layer Business Rule Content Layer (What's new)
  • Jane Smith
  • Year 12
  • 17 year old
  • (Eastgate Campus)
  Deliver by e-mail, by channel, by web login, etc...
  • at the library this week
  • in communication studies
  • for students enrolled in Art987
  • for self-confessed film buffs
Enrolled in:Art101, Com567; Art234; Art238, Art987 Studio arts, textile, graphic design, communication Match student subject content to resource content, filter by user level The Age -VCE Communication Resources (online)
Areas of Interest:Cinema (Asia, Europe); Film noir, westerns 791.43'0944 (DDC 20) Motion Pictures - France - History (LCSH) New book notification is sent to students after teacher's approval loan period. Susan Hayward "French National Cinema" London: Routledge, 1993
  Motion Pictures - France (LCSH) Video items available to students according to national classifications rules (OFLC) Place Vendome [video], Rated MA

FCC will need to adopt one (or more) schemes to categorise both users's interests and CWIS content. The scheme can be homegrown and include obvious categories such as level of education or age groups. Once again, consideration should be given to national or standard schemes.

The Australian education system has developed schemes such as KLA (key learning areas) or CSF (Curriculum Structured Framework). IMS has developed Learner Information Specification (LIP) articulated around 11 core date structures. It is probably too complex and detailed for FCC to adopt in full, but it can be tailored.

One to one, many to many

Data about people gathered in user profiles can also be used to connect people to people. The same principle of filtering can be applied to (re)create communities of interest or working groups. The system should be able to grant access to collaborative workspace or places of exchange (forums, chats) managed on the basis of subject enrolment, assignment syndicate membership or personal interest and even skills. It can be worth noting that the Dublin Core element DC.Relation could be exploited to this end, especially in its extended form "Is part of". The same element could be use to associate and extend resources.

DC.Subject and DC.Relation can be associated to create clusters or items and manage the relationship between items

CNAV, the College Navigation system implemented at Gettysburg College, offers an opportunity to move from a controlled and hierarchical information structure to a dynamic and evolving environment where information is accessed through a filter based identification, membership or interest. CNAV "treats the web as a series of puzzle pieces that can be assembled into different views. CNAV allows each user to describe the items with as much detail as possible. For example, a faculty member who teaches a course can associate a course homepage, syllabus, reading list, faculty web page with the course; add their own course description to the official description; indicate who might me interested in the course."

To build or to buy

Portal technology is becoming increasingly affordable and building from the ground up may not be necessary. When faced with this problem, Gleason (2000) opted to form a consortium with like-minded institutions and develop a Common Portal Reference (CPR) framework each participant was then free to adopt and adapt. The choice was led by a need to retain individual identities and control over content. None of the colleges wanted to accept banner advertising or vendor logo on their web pages.

In the context of FCC, the idea of handing over a captive audience of underage customers to banner advertising in exchange for a gift of free technology is possibly unacceptable. The college has a responsibility to protect (mostly underage) students from pushy advertising and an even greater responsibility to protect the personal data of its constituents.


Faced with the exponential growth of its resource base and with the similarly endless chorus of user expectations, FCC cannot be content to simply provide a refurbished look and feel to its constituents. It has to accept that a revised information architecture may be a long-term investment. FCC's web can only become a tool and a focus of attention if it support efficient and timely resource discovery. Architectural options are many, but they all revolve around the adoption of recognised standards for resource description and indexing. The College also retains the option to be as exhaustive or as minimalist as it wants to be in the roll-out of these standards. The same modular approach can be taken when building the architecture of the actual network and FCC may want to consider the advantages in building a truly distributed network. It should consider cost, duplication of effort and change management for staff. The FCC project is not about building a model web site and applying standards to the Nth degree of detail. Rather, it is about modulating the standards and redeveloping practices to enhance resource discovery and usage at local level. By doing this, it will also be able to enhance its own resources by sharing and cross-searching with other similar entities. While the initial investment may seem exorbitant, FCC is encouraged to look at this exercise as the necessary and healthy foundation to an extension of its online service delivery capability.


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