Would it be useful and feasible to have a single identifier to link together all the instances of a learning resource? To be more specific, consider a lecture that has been videoed. The video is available on YouTube, in a national repository, and from the website of the institution where it was delivered (also bear in mind that there might be an audio-only recording and written transcripts of the same lecture). Should there be an HTTP URI that relates (indirectly) to all of these versions of the same lecture?
The reason I’m asking is because we are trying to define what should be the technical and metadata requirements for materials produced through the HEFCE/JISC/HE Academy OER funding. I’m suggesting a short URI that can be used to refer to any version of a work; as I envisage this it would resolve to a list of all the known versions. I think this is important for accessibility (in its widest sense), sustainability, and for collating information about a resource that may be available all over the place. The problems centre on the difficulty of understanding the concepts involved, and are especially acute because the implementation cannot be done just by the people who currently understand the issues involved.
You can see something like this in Amazon.co.uk, when the page for on edition of a book contains information about other editions:
Why should we do this? Clearly each version of the lecture mentioned above would have its own URL by which it could be referenced, but where there is an advantage in adopting a variety of delivery strategies there is also an advantage in exposing this variety. So it may be that someone works where access to YouTube is blocked, if they learn about the lecture but only have the YouTube URL they don’t get access to it, and they may never know that other versions exist. Similarly exposing a link to a transcript of the audio part of the lecture could be important for accessibility.
Conversely, when referring to an educational resource, for example when writing a review of it, often it is the educational content that is important not the medium. Let’s assume that the YouTube, repository and institutional website versions all have the same educational benefits: why should a review prioritise one version over the others by citing the URL for that one? Or do we want always to have to cite all three (or four, or five, if the audio only and transcripts are included)? Especially when there is a chance that any one of the URLs will turn out not to be as persistent as the reviewer would hope. This is analogous to citing the ISBN for a hardcover edition of a book only to find it goes out of print and is replace by a softcover edition from another publisher. You sometimes see this on Amazon as well (“this review is from [some other edition]”)
If reviews and usage information in general do cite a single identifier regardless of the version they use then it becomes easier to aggregate this information and apply it (where appropriate) to all the versions. Remember that for an OER it will be a challenge just to keep track of where all the different versions of a resource are located.
So is it feasible? What are the problems? Well firstly this sort of thing is difficult for most people to understand. It’s not obvious why you would want to do this, or what the “thing” that is being identified is or how the different versions of a resource relate to it. Analysing the problem tends to confirm that this is complex rather than simplify it; that’s why I haven’t mentioned FRBR works, for example as in this post until now. To try to keep it simple I’m only suggesting an identifier for the work, not the full FRBR chain.
The next problem would be how to expose the work-level identifier to users of any specific item. It could be embedded in the resource itself as text “when citing this resource please use the URI http://… which relates to all available versions, unless you wish to refer to a specific feature of this version”. Or something, like I said it’s a difficult concept to explain succinctly. (If that’s an active hypertext link it would help auditing by allowing a Google search to show public instances of the resource.) Or it could be used as a tag on the host site, that would be useful, but not as good.
There are workflow issues here: the identifier has to be applied to the resource by the resource creator; the identifier needs to be assigned before the resource is published. Pretty much the same as with an ISBN, but the problem is that the people using ISBNs have a pretty good idea of what they are for (mostly). The identifier also needs to be short if it is to be usable by humans. That’s not in itself a problem, something like http://oer.ac.uk/AAAA where the Cs can be any character [a-z][A-Z][0-9], which would give over 14 million IDs, would be enough. To avoid clashes though they probably need to be generated and assigned centrally, which adds to the workflow problem.
Finally of course, something needs to be listening at http://oer.ac.uk/ and serving the lists of known versions. Technically that’s not difficult, but it relies on someone telling the service where these versions are. Maybe it’s not unreasonable to ask people who get money this was to tell the funders what they produced with it, but I have a fear of registries, it always seems hard to populate them unless there is some over-riding benefit. I guess this could be a facet of the JorumOpen service.
So, I started with a question: “Would it be useful and feasible to have a single identifier to link together all the instances of a learning resource?” Answers below, please.