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Learning XML in Oxford

320px-Bridge_of_Sighs_(Oxford)

One question that comes up with some frequency is “how can an organization build up an in-house technical competence with XML?” This is a slightly different question than “how do I introduce my content teams to working with XML editing tools?” The latter question is a very important one but it is also one that is best addressed, in my experience, using customized training programs that are integrated into the work activities of the content teams and delivered in increments over a period of time. The question about how to build up an in-house capability that can adapt and extend XML processes and products is in fact a much harder one to answer.

There is always the “trial and error” school, which will always be part of the equation. However, by itself this can be a very risky way for an organization to establish a proficiency in getting the most from what XML has to offer. Then there is the option of depending upon product vendors and consultants to provide this expertise but that too has drawbacks – among them cost, availability and it must be said varying quality. There is also the option of attending various XML conferences but the problem here is that these events are primarily a meeting of practitioners to exchange ideas on topics that have happened to surface in recent project experiences. This too has merit but it falls short on building the solid foundation of knowledge that will be necessary if maximum value is to be taken from these conferences. So each of these answers has a role to play but there will ultimately no substitute for building up an internal center of XML expertise that is comprehensive and well-grounded. The question remains “How is this best done?”

Recently, when confronted with the question “how can an organization build up an in-house technical competence with XML?” I have admitted that I only have one answer. I refer the people to the XML Summer School that is held each year in Oxford. This year it will run September 18 to 23 at St Edmund Hall (Teddy Hall) which is part of the University of Oxford. The venue for this event would be difficult to top as Teddy Hall provides one of the most historic, and most central, locations within the city of Oxford. You can check out the environment with a virtual tour that provides immersive panoramic views. Attractive as the venue is though, this is not what is important about the XML Summer School.

XML Summer School

What makes the XML Summer School important is the fact that it combines a number of critically important threads that together contribute to building a genuinely effective knowledge of XML. For people who are new to XML, the XML Summer School provides an immersive three-day introduction where participants will get their hands dirty with XML markup, XML Schemas, XSLT, XPath and XQuery. It is worth point out that in this program, they will be learning from a team of people who together marshal decades of experience. 

Oxford Skyline

This last point about the experience and expertise of the instructors highlights a key strength of the XML Summer School. In addition to providing an outstanding learning opportunity for people new to XML, the Summer School also assembles an impressive collection of XML experts who, in parallel to the introductory program as well as following it, delve into discussions of the central trends and issues in the world of XML. These discussions provide seasoned XML practitioners and the experts themselves opportunities to advance and refine their knowledge of emergent topics. What makes this so important is that the XML Summer School, in its format and through its engaging social program (that includes punting of course), allows novices and experts to mix and to get to know each other and to share knowledge in an informal way.

Punting in Oxford

The informal learning that occurs at the XML Summer School is more important than many might think. An acquaintance of mine, Etienne Wenger has been instrumental in advancing the concept of Communities of Practices and in one of his publications, Situated Learning (authored with Anthropologist Jean Lave), a key idea of legitimate peripheral participation is introduced and explored. This concept explained, to my mind better than anything before or since, how people learn to become practitioners and in time experts within a domain of applied knowledge. Right now, the XML Summer School is the only offering available anywhere that provides a forum that facilitates a learning dynamic that enables practitioners at all levels to advance and to help others to advance. 

Now all this might be a bit much to lay at the door of this annual event. However, over the last twenty years I have explored just about every learning opportunity available to participants in the community of markup practitioners. In 2003, as a break from the grind of business, my company sent me to the XML Summer School and I was therefore able to compare what it had to offer to all other options. Quite frankly I found that the XML Summer School was genuinely unique and it effectively provided what I deem to be a key ingredient in building an XML community of practice. It provided a venue for people at all levels of XML expertise to learn new things, re-affirm some oft-forgotten basics, and see what others are doing in fields far removed from their own. In short, it provided an XML education.

Duke Humphrey's Library

So it remains my position that any organization who needs to build up its internal capability to leverage XML, and I think that this pretty much catches all organizations these days, should take a close look at the XML Summer School. The school convenes in Septembers normally, as this is still part of the summer vacation in Oxford (how civilized is that) and it happily also coincides with when most organizations are getting back to work. And I would encourage people to look past the attractiveness of the venue (especially those in management positions who might see this as a little too attractive) because the XML Summer School represents an exceptionally good value even for those who might need to travel some distance to participate.

James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary

Now having made a series of disavowals that try to minimize the importance of the venue for the XML Summer School when compared to its contents, I do need to observe that Oxford in fact provides the perfect place to delve into a new language, in this case XML. This is where one of the greatest achievements in scholarship, the Oxford English Dictionary, was undertaken and interestingly undertaken as one of the best examples of crowd-sourcing that worked marvels. Going a little further back in history, this is also where, in the mid-seventeenth century a remarkable cadre of scientists emerged as an "invisible college" and among other things put forward, and into occasional use, a universal grammar or as they termed it a new philosophical language.  

An Essay towards a Philosophical Language (John Wilkins)

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