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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Taxonomies of Practice

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The College of Ste. Justine had decided to develop its own learning object repository (LOR) for faculty members across the campus. The idea sounded good, but geology professor Horst Charendon was annoyed. The proposed classification system, or taxonomy, was completely irrelevant to his purposes, he argued. Debbie Virtue, Ste. Justine's LOR project director, tried to maintain her patience.

"We are using google desktop search capabilities. Taxonomies are obsolete. Just type in a search term," Virtue said.

"Well, maybe that's okay for some learning objects, but it doesn't work at all where the discipline utilizes alternative classification schemes. Using google search will result in incomplete results. Some data will be invisible," retorted Charendon.

"That's impossible," said Virtue. She truly believed in the power of google.

"I understand where you're coming from, but as we tag the objects, or have information attached to them, if they are in one classification system, they may not be in the others," said Charendon.

"Igneous petrology is a case in point," he said. "We use three different classification schemes to describe igneous rocks."

"Each rock has three different names? I don't believe it. Wouldn't that lead to chaos?" asked Virtue.

Charendon described igneous classification schemes, or taxonomies.

Taxonomy / Classification Scheme 1. Igneous rock Color-Texture.

Taxonomy / Classification Scheme 2: Igneous rock Modal classification classifies igneous rocks on the relative abundance of five minerals they may contain.

Taxonomy / Classification Scheme 3. The Normative classification arranges igneous rocks into suites, each suite characterized by a particular chemistry.

Another similar challenge is with sedimentary rocks; in particular, carbonates, including limestone and dolomite.

"As much as we would like to use a different approach, or consolidate everything into a single taxonomy, we are prisoners of practice," he said. "It is not just something that happens at Ste. Justine. It happens everywhere."

"Do you think the same thing might apply to other areas of endeavor?" asked Virtue.

"Quite possibly. It is definitely the case with carbonate rocks," said Charendon.

"I still maintain that a google-type site LOR search will work," maintained Virtue, perversely.

"No. It won't. You will just get incomplete coverage. Or, just one term instead of all three for the same rock," said Charendon.

Horst Charendon and Debbie Virtue left the room. The atmosphere was definitely frosty.

A week went by. Virtue asked the Ste. Justine LOR committee to start investigating taxonomies, partly in an attempt to one-up Charendon.

In doing so, she made a discovery: The Living Taxonomy Project.

Forgetting her desire to humiliate him, Virtue called up Charendon. She was excited about her "find."

"Horst, you'll never believe what I found! Stacy Zemke, who is the founder of the Living Taxonomy Project, is developing a revolutionary way to accommodate competing classification schemes, without having to resort to a site search for key words," she said. Horst listened quietly, rather in shock about her change in attitude.

"How is this different from what Rory McGreal has described in his work on ontologies and taxonomies ( It is being hosted on
Stephen Downes' website (" asked Charendon.

"I consider what the Living Taxonomy Project is doing to be a "taxonomy of practice" rather than a definitive retrieval system," said Virtue.

She went on to describe the possibilities of classification. A classification system could be descriptive. Alternatively, it could focus on function (rather than form), or, it could be about origin or provenance. All depended on the practice.

"Words are inherently slippery. Think about what post-structuralists and deconstructivists have maintained - Lakoff, Derrida, etc. They claim that the word itself creates the meaning, and that taxonomies are simply agreed-upon conventions," Dean Pantagruel was eavesdropping and could not resist chiming in.

"That makes my head swim," said Virtue.

"Well, it should," said Dean Pantagruel. "The multiplicity of interpretative possibility has been around since St. Augustine and Poetics."

"What does Alan Levine of cogdogblog ( have to say? I really respect his work," said Dean Pantagruel.

"According to Levine, it's a very contentious issue. (," said Virtue.

"And, speaking of Contentious ( , what does Amy Gahran have to say?" continued Pantagruel.

"She tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive. I would say that her taxonomies are referential and built on allusions or links," said Virtue.

"Cognitive dissonance!" barked Dean Pantagruel. "The more voices, the better. And, speaking of Cognitive Dissonance, I like what Nate Lowell has to say ("

Dusk was falling on the College of Ste. Justine. The ivy-covered clock tower loomed over the shadowed campus. As the campus sank into darkness, a full moon rose and the bare branches of trees clawed the impotent sky. From the bowels of the brick and cornice building that housed the computer center and the new server dedicated to Learn-O-Rama, Ste. Justine's proprietary learning management system, a piercing female shriek rent the skies.

"Peccatores, Ut nobis parcas, Ut nobis indulgeas, Ut ad veram paenitentiam nos perducere digneris." There was a long pause and then a howl. "Through our taxonomies we know our deeds and we seek forgiveness!!"

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