We have a second Elluminate session on XCRI-CAP data definitions and vocabularies this afternoon, so naturally I've been ruminating on the subject. Some thoughts on it were also stimulated by last week's CETIS open meeting on vocabularies too.
I've been particularly struck by the polarisation of the attitude towards data defs and vocabs. From my perspective as an information management specialist, I can often get vexed by the rather low priority that many others (with notable exceptions, I hasten to add) place on the issues - even those staff with direct responsibility for information systems that use data defs and vocabs for courses information. Usually I rationalise this as 'my problem' rather than a wider concern.
However, part of our discussion in the vocab meeting set off a running hare. We briefly touched on 'part time' and I think we deliberately avoided deepening the discussion, because most of those in the room probably understood that this type of issue can lead to more heat than light. In my career I have had frequent discussions with managers of information systems (I do not say 'information managers'), who do not appreciate that there's a problem at all.
'Part time' is one of those terms that can lead you up the garden path. From your own perspective, you probably think you have a handle on what it means. But when you examine it more closely, do you mean:
- 'part time attendance on campus'; or
- 'the student has a part time learning workload'; or
- 'this course is delivered through a number of hours that is at or below a formal threshold for statutory definition of part time study mode referring to contact hours'; or
- 'this course itself has a part time workload, but is delivered as part of a full time programme (for example a single GCE A level for a 6th former)'; or even
- 'this course is a supported open and distance learning course that most students study alongside their normal main activity, usually work' (this last one is pretty much an OU definition).
For me 'part time' as a vocabulary term without a more detailed definition is not useful. However, many information systems on the web happily use it as a search term with aplomb as if there is a common understanding of what it means.
'Part time' is one of those terms that illustrate the importance of vocabularies for the way people think. Many years ago I had a discussion with a very experienced manager of an information system who was quite convinced that 'everyone knows what we mean by part time, so we're not going to change things'. Unfortunately, 'part time' was being used in the sense of part time attendance - the first definition I referred to above. Open University courses were ghettoised in a separate 'self study' area (typically a user had to specifically select 'self study' in order to see the courses - and 'self study' is a rather problematic term too!), even though the OU competes directly against other 'part time' provision. The result was that the largest provider of part time education in the UK was normally excluded from the user's results list.
My main point (or plea!) here is that those responsible for information systems should bear in mind that vocabularies frame the way people think about information and therefore about the world. This is why I particularly dislike the use of the so-called verb 'to google' that is increasingly equated with 'to search' or even worse 'to find things'. 'To google' is a way of thinking about search and discovery that colours our way of thinking about the world, in a similar way to the use of the term 'part time'. An implication of this change in language is that information managers might get comfortable with the idea that searching is googling, and that 'part time' is 'part time attendance'. I think there are better, more inclusive and wider ways of thinking about our information that we, as information managers, should address carefully. And unfortunately it starts with data definitions and vocabularies.