Internet learning ready for priceless mark-up

May 7, 1999

XML (Extensible Markup Language) is seen as the "next thing after HTML" and interest in it is growing fast.

Last week, 1,000 of the leaders in this new field met in Granada to discuss the next generation of web-based technology and to show the products which already support it.

It will have a major impact on web- centred education, and as one of the few academics in Granada, I feel we need to know more about it.

Microsoft has included XML capabilities in its new browser, Internet Explorer 5. In a keynote speech Microsoft's Adam Bosworth showed how a custom application can be built to include both traditional "documents" and structured "data" in a completely integrated fashion.

It is the need to support electronic commerce that is driving XML and we will all benefit from the tools being developed. Bosworth showed how XML can be used in a browser environment to support the management of student records. Microsoft is committed to supporting XML in all its new software including Office2000.

The good news is that XML is a non-proprietary standard, backed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and all the big players are involved.

IBM has an excellent range of freeware ( including nice authoring software (Xeena) and many other useful tools for filtering documents. Creating your resources in XML is a big step towards "future-proofing" them.

XML can be viewed on screen like a document, and processed automatically like a database. As it lets you design your own tags, it is easy to build documents with LESS THAN STUDENT



and other relevant concepts. A LESS THAN STUDENT

can have properties (attributes) such as LESS THAN CLASS



There are already good authoring toolsf or XML, apart from those offered by IBM, including good freeware, so academics can easily create such records after an appropriate document design (known as a DTD, soon to be extended to XML schemas) has been set up.

The XML Query Language (XQL) allows these documents to be queried in a very flexible manner - we can ask which LESS THAN STUDENT

s attend this . LESS THAN CLASS

and had marks greater than 65 per cent. XSL, the Extensible Stylesheet Language, lets you present this in any format you wish - Word/RTF, say, or HTML, TeX or Postscript.

However, the major benefit for academics will be in creating your own teaching and learning-resource material in XML. I gave a pre-meeting tutorial and created my "slides" and examples directly in XML. I was able to display them in HTML, and print them out in RTF/Word.

More important, I can now re-use selected parts of the material in different situations: a public lecture, a specialist postgraduate course or a first-year undergraduate module. For example, it is easy to use XSL to filter out advanced material tagged LESS THAN SECTION level="expert"


Navigation is a critical problem in large collections of electronic documents, and although a hierarchical system often works well, it cannot support multiple "views". The conference proceedings had been produced in XML and had been analysed using "topic maps", a draft ISO standard for knowledge management. We could browse the proceedings through topics such as subject, author, industry. The World Wide Web Consortium is developing XLINK to support robust generalised hyperlinking (hypermedia) and I am confident that we shall see powerful tools very shortly.

Domain-specific markup languages are now becoming robust and vendors were displaying MathML tools for mathematics. Vector graphics, currently a standards battleground, will soon be united in Structured Vector Graphics (SVG), which allows complex scalable drawings, with embedded hyperlinks, to be transmitted over low bandwidth connections. Many academic disciplines have been waiting for something to replace the current inadequacies of internet image file formats.

Chemical Markup Language (http://www. is also completely interoperable with all XML protocols and tools.

In the Virtual School of Molecular Sciences we shall be using XML to create a CD-Rom of course material on protein structures and drug design. We shall also be converting our students records to XML and using it for our electronic submission of student work. It will make an enormous difference.

Peter Murray-Rust is professor of pharmaceutical sciences, University of Nottingham.

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