This is a book about a paradigm shift in Informatics in general and in technologies enhancing human learning in particular. It is not unexpected that its content is controversial: the debate between the “evolutionaries” – those that wish to optimize and refine current approaches – and the “revolutionaries” – those that support a fundamental change of approach – is quite actual, and probably no solution of the conflict will be reached in the short term. Within the Internet communities, the debate is hidden behind the words “semantic Web” versus “semantic Grid”; within educational technologists between “content/resource centered” and “conversation centered” e-learning, or either between “teaching” and “pedagogy” on the one side, and “learning” and “communities of practice” on the other. In general, in Informatics, the shift from a product-page oriented to a service-conversation oriented view may possibly impact most if not all the foreseen applications, in e-learning, but also in e-science, e-democracy, e-commerce, e-health…
The book emerges from two projects supported by the European Commission: LeGE-WG (http://www.lege-wg.org/) a thematic network within the 5th Framework Programme (2002–2004), and ELeGI (http://www.ELeGI.org/) an Integrated Project within the 6th FP (2004–2007). Both projects involved more than 20 European Institutions, therefore some 100 scientists and technologists. These projects represent the first structured collaborative effort aiming at solving crucial issues in Technology Enhanced human Learning by developing and using Grid services. Further to papers already appeared in preliminary versions in the four LeGE-WG workshops, published by the British Computer Society eWiC electronic site (http://ewic.bcs.org/categories/Gridcomputing.htm) we have invited a few eminent scientists to give a contribution to the subject in the form of a position paper, as described below.
The papers in the book may be classified according to several potential criteria. We have decided to choose a simple one: the approach to Science and Technology in the domain.
Part A of the book is dedicated to Position papers: visions about what to do and why to do it in the next years. The remaining parts (B to D) offer partial answers to “how” to do it. Part B concerns what we called: Content-centered services, i.e.: a vision of learning systems that privileges knowledge and its structures, standards and their interoperability, storage and retrieval services. The subsequent part C has been called: Holistic services to refer to more mature and integrated solutions that address not only content but more generally the creation and management of human Virtual Communities connected on the Grid in order to offer and consume different services facilitating and enhancing human learning. Finally part D is concerned with new directions in learning services: papers here propose solutions to non classical, yet stimulating new scenarios: methods, models and tools that are eventually to be realized in the medium term, in synergy with the evolution of concurrent developments on the Semantic Grid.
Hereafter, we will not review all the papers, rather come back to the initial statement – the paradigm shift – by referring to what we may learn from the six position papers (three from external colleagues, three from our project teams) and their challenging but also controversial messages that make our current ELeGI project very exciting and, perhaps, the reading of the book a stimulating intellectual adventure as well.
Bill Clancey's “Towards On-Line Services Based on a Holistic Analysis of Human Activities” introduces straight ahead his concept of Service by referring to his vision on Human-Centered Design that privileges the elicitation of services from an in-depth analysis of human real behavior, in context, rather than generating requirements from an idealized consumer's behavior conceived by the producer of the services. The most striking conclusion we may draw from his paper, is that in order to produce an useful automatic Travel Agent service, the last thing to do would be to get inspiration (or acquire specifications) from a human travel agent since the latter is usually not interested in getting the customer satisfied after a pleasant trip, rather just to sell to him/her some airplane tickets or hotel vouchers. Taking this seriously, as it deserves, one may infer that the last persons to ask for guidelines and specifications for automatic learning services are … the teachers!
Francesco Di Castri, in his “Access to information and e-learning for local empowerment” puts clearly the terms and conditions for the development of isolated, fragmented and marginal communities: bidirectional access to digital Information. He is able to demonstrate by means of several real examples, at the planetary scale, through the last 40 years, that empowerment emerges as soon as people have access to Information provided this access is bi-directional (in reading AND in writing). Learning, social and economic development, democracy, the preservation of identity, and many other ones are the side effects of access to Information and empowerment. Once more, transposing the message to human learning scenarios, Di Castri shows that “curricula” and “content” in his depicted potential e-learning contexts (isolated communities) may eventually become the final goal of a long process, certainly are not the starting point. Human communities have first to establish trust and self-consciousness, before even thinking that being connected through technologies may help to better learn, operate and develop. Di Castri reports about a change of paradigm in modern Ecology: from top-down to bottom up. It is needless to say that the main message has been taken on board within ELeGI by injecting a small effort into a quite risky, yet most promising scenario: rural development in an underdeveloped area in Europe by bidirectional access to Information enhanced by Grid services.
Rosa Michaelson's position paper: “The Challenge of Change” wisely suggests looking carefully into the reasons why so many failures occurred in past implementations of e-learning initiatives, even if well supported at a large scale. Since the final goal is to enhance human learning by means of new technologies, the message clearly indicates that any significant change for human communities with respect to traditional ways of operating is not just a consequence of performing technologies, rather of human acceptance of the change.
Foster, Jennings and Kesselman in their “Brain meets Brawn” paper present their vision for the research agenda in the years to come, concerned with the synergies between Agents and Grid services. A similar vision was adopted at the beginning of the LeGE-WG project by Stefano Cerri, who in his position paper: “An integrated view of Grid services, Agents and Human Learning” offers an historical overview of the integration between Software Engineering (Objects, Actors and Agents), Artificial Intelligence and its impact in Human Computer Interaction (Intelligent Tutoring) and the semantic Grid. Both papers seem to concretely set the scene for the subsequent parts of the book, that deal more with the “how” to realize advances within a reasonable time scale and a limited amount of available resources as it is possible in the ELeGI project.
Finally Gaeta, Ritrovato and Salerno in their paper “Making e-Learning a Service Oriented Utility: The European Learning Grid Infrastructure Project” present the challenging European ELeGI Integrated Project. Other than the description of the research challenges that will be faced and the integrated approach that will be pursued in order to define and validate a pedagogy-driven, service-oriented software architecture based on Grid technologies for supporting ubiquitous, collaborative, experiential-based, contextualised and personalised learning, they highlight the benefit coming from use of Grid for setting up the future learning scenarios.
The editors of the book wish to thank all the colleagues, within and outside LeGE-WG and ELeGI European projects, for their contribution to the Learning Grid endeavor, as well as the readers of the book for their patience in case some minor slips have escaped from the editorial correction. Yes, the book is work in progress, but if it is possible to hope for a good day from the sun rays in the early morning, we are confident that our pioneering community will reach progressively a level of maturity that will allow us in due time not just to claim the need for a paradigm shift, but to show that it is feasible and useful.
This book includes one of the last papers of Francesco Di Castri, yet unpublished. Francesco left us recently (http://www.unesco.org/mab/news/FDC/tribute.htm). His impact, among others, in Information Sciences and Technologies for human development, has been unanimously recognised as unique in the XXth Century. It is a honour to dedicate the book to his memory.
Inspired by his work, that recently linked the succeeded development of Easter Island with the potential one of isolated areas in the Mediterranean, many professionals have adopted as their primary commitment to make the vision of Francesco Di Castri happen in the years to come, for human development and peace, by means of empowerment through bidirectional access to Information.
October 2005, Pierluigi Ritrovato (Salerno – IT), Stefano A. Cerri (Montpellier – FR), Saverio Salerno (Salerno – IT), Matteo Gaeta (Salerno – IT), Colin Allison (St. Andrews – UK) and Theo Dimitrakos (Ipswich – UK)