metaberkmanI’ve spent today in sunny Cambridge, MA attending the OER Search Discovery 2009 workshop at Harvard’s Berkman Center. But what’s it all about?

First off, what’s OER?

Open Educational Resources are a litle tough to really define to everyone’s satisfaction, but we can defer the details. :) We’re generally talking about pedagogical materials (something that could be put to use in the classroom to teach students) available under some sort of open content license.

Secondly, what’s OER search?

Creative Commons’ ccLearn project has put together DiscoverEd, a prototype search engine which includes some relevant metadata (subject matter, language, target age range, license) as well as metadata about which collection of resource links it came from. This is rather clever, allowing teachers or students to limit their searches to what’s relevant as well as what’s trusted.

Third, what’s OER search discovery?

Traditionally, most electronic educational resource collections have been walled silos. Even if the materials themselves are open and redistributable, the collections’ searches are separate, and often there’s been confusion over the openness of the metadata as well which has held back federated searches on a larger scale.

With major search engines like Google and Yahoo now starting to index metadata embedded in web pages (RDFa and/or microformats) and make them available for searches, this a great time to start pushing more active and integrated semantic search data. (Note: here we’re talking about metadata about the actual materials, not about the subject of the materials. That’s a matter for another day!) Content creators — if enabled by content management tool developers — can start actually getting some concrete benefit from embedding semantic data into their web sites. These’ll be picked up by the general search crawlers, but will also be available to targeted repositories collecting links and metadata about educational materials on the web.

How can we benefit?

There are two sides of this which Wikimedia can work at:

  • On the content creation side, we can provide more ways to add useful metadata to our pages, making it easier for teachers and students searching through educatinoal-themed portals to find them. MediaWiki already provides basic language and license information, but projects like WikiBooks and Wikiversity (as well as other MediaWiki users like WikiEducator) could definitely benefit from a consistent way to specify the subject and target audience of lesson modules.
  • On the consumer side, we want to be able to find and use free/open media resources from elsewhere on the web to supplement the ones we already have on Wikimedia Commons. The in-development Add Media Wizard can currently search and fetch from a few hardcoded repositories like and Flickr, but editors could benefit a lot from having either broader (whole internet search like Google Images with license limits) or narrower sources (a particular educational resource repository desired by a given site or community).

How can we help?

  • We’ll want to find a good, clean, maintainable, and easy to use way for wiki page authors to add resource metadata to their pages, which can be exposed to spiders and repository crawlers. RDFa vs microformats vs XHTML vs HTML 5 needs some resolution on the output format, but more interesting is making sure we have a clean user interface/workflow in the edit window without cluttering up the wiki markup.
  • If/when folks standardize on a search query format as well, we can make it absurdly easy to add specific repositories to the MediaWiki media picker. In the meantime, we can target some whole-net search engines that index license and subject metadata such as Yahoo’s SearchMonkey, which will provide relevant indexing of web sites which have provided for metadata autodiscovery with embedded RDFa etc.
  • We might also think about acting as a repository ourself — Wikipedia and our sister projects are full of references to excellent resources both online and off. Can we record what we know about them and make that searchable internally and externally?

Folks at the workshop are also hoping we can agitate for similar moves in other tools… I know I would benefit from a free media picker for WordPress!

Brion Vibber, Lead Software Architect