on context and identity

I had a discussion with King Chung Huang and Paul Pival this morning, about one of King’s current research projects. He’s working on the topic of context and identity – what it would mean from both institutional and individual perspectives, if our digital identities and contexts were pulled out of the silos of Blackboard, email, and other isolated and closed systems. What would it mean if every person, group, and place has a URL, which is aware of contexts (institutional, academic, geographical, temporal, etc…) and is also able to gather and provide lists of relevant resources.

A Person would have what is essentially a profile (name, role, contact info, interests, courses, websites, etc…), a Group would describe its type (department, faculty, course, session, club, etc…) as well as lists of relevant bits of info (uses a wiki, has a Blackboard course, meets at this location at this time, has these members, etc…). And Places would describe physical locations, knowing which resources are available, where they are, which Persons and Groups are interested in the Place, as well as scheduling information, etc… (hmm… do we need a fourth primitive type of Time?)

At first blush, it felt like a “portal” problem. Set up a personal Pageflakes or Netvibes page, dropping in some relevant widgets and links. Everyone can customize their own page, and a directory could be created to help discover people, groups, and places.

But that approach loses any real meaning of the contexts. It’s just a dumb content display utility, without being aware of the meaning of the contexts of the content, or of the relationships between people, groups and places.

We talked for awhile, and came to the realization that there is a missing fundamental concept. One that describes the identity and context, and ties the relevant bits of salient info together in a way that can then be used to build novel applications.

Currently, a prof sets up a Blackboard course. They add content to the course. They add Links to various bits. But none of this stuff really knows the context – just that it’s some text that’s been pasted into a container within Blackboard. A prof could spend a lot of time and effort building up a course site in Blackboard, only to kill it at the end of the semester. (sure, it could be cloned, but again that’s context-unaware).

What if the course was just a Group, set up with its own identity and context, and aware of various bits of information. Is Called Mythical Course 301. Has Course ID of MYTHCRSE301. Has Professor… Has TAs… Has Blackboard Course… Uses Wiki at… Podcasts available at… Meets MWF 1000-1050 at ST148…

The idea that Paul came up with is that this is related to the mythical EduGlu concept, but as a necessary first step that is currently missing. Right now, there would be much manual labour to set up an EduGlu service to aggregate activity that happens as part of the practice of teaching and learning. What if we could take advantage of the contexts of Person, Group, and Place to automate that process? We could pull sets of RSS feeds into the aggregator, apply some processing, and export different formats for use in different contexts. Map views. Calendar views. Timeline views. Analysis of individual and group contributions. Interaction analysis. etc…

But, is there some tool, application or platform that is currently able to handle this abstracted concept of context – of Person, Group and Place – that can be used to create a flexible *cough*portal*ahem* to manage and display the torrents of centralized and decentralized information?

5 thoughts on “on context and identity”

  1. –What if the course was just a Group, set up with its own identity and context, and aware of various bits of information.–

    I think WordPress MU / Buddypress will be perfect for this sort of thing. Hook that with Feedwordpress and you have a promising system.

  2. @scott WPMU/BuddyPress may well be a part of it. We got the feeling that a necessary precursor was missing, though. WPMU is great once you start publishing, but what about defining the contexts in the first place? As much as it pains me to say it, Facebook is a good model – user profiles, groups, pages… Hey! Let’s just use Facebook! 😉

  3. You might want to take a look at Elgg – it’s an open-source social network platform. You might be able to adapt it to what you’re talking about. I tried it before v1.0 and it was okay, but not what I needed. Apparently, it’s much improved since it went gold, and it might be what you’re looking for.

  4. D’Arcy,

    This is stuff we have been thinking through at UMW as well, and Patrick Murray-John in particular has been using the Simile toolset to visualize and contextual data by scraping RSS feeds, it is the beginning for us of much of what you are discussing:

    Click on some of the links in the sidebar of his blog and check out some of the possibilities. It is young yet, but I think using these semantic tools to re-contextualize content people are creating to make connections has much in common with what you are getting at.

  5. @ian – we talked a bit about using Drupal or WPMU, but decided this idea of context belongs outside the scope of a content management app. Drupal _might_ be a decent fit, especially with other tie-ins to LDAP and our institutional database. Elgg feels like a bad fit though.

    @jim – that timeline tool is fracking awesome. I. Want. It. And I want to talk with you UMW folks in depth about this. Very cool stuff.

Comments are closed.