A few years ago, MERLOT was approached by a Partner who told us that if we were really an international community, we should be able to handle foreign language users and learning objects. At the time, English was MERLOT’s only language of use.
One of the metadata that has always been part of the MERLOT taxonomy has been “language.” That meant, the language in which a learning resource was written. So if you wanted to contribute, for example, an Arabic learning material to the MERLOT repository, you could do that. But you had to describe it completely in English, noting that the material was written in Arabic. It was not possible to search the repository with any other character set than one in English. To be truly international, it was important for MERLOT to allow users to submit and search for learning materials using any international keyboard.
Accordingly, the MERLOT development team reconsidered the design of the Oracle database that had been originally deployed more than a dozen years earlier. That deployment had not taken into account the possible need to deal with non-English (US) character sets. After all, who would have thought, more than 20 years ago, that MERLOT would become so popular and useful around the world?
So, the MERLOT team undertook the redesign of the database so that all entries would use the UTF-8 character encoding standard. This meant, from a practical standpoint, that MERLOT could process all character sets on the planet – or stated another way, the characters sets of any international language. Users from any country could now submit learning resources in their native language; and users from any country could search for learning materials in their native language, using their own native language keyboard. (If you want to learn more about UTF-8, visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/UTF-8.)
While most users would not see the effort that this development required, the effect was considerable. Today, the user-base from around the world has expanded dramatically because of this seemingly trivial change in the system – one that took many months to complete and thoroughly test.
In addition to this change, at the same time, the MERLOT team deployed the Microsoft translate API (Application Program Interface) allowing users to translate any browser page to the language of their choice. Not too long after that deployment however, Microsoft withdrew support of the API, and MERLOT replaced it with the Google translate API which does the same thing as the Microsoft API. Today, MERLOT continues to provide that translate function for all the webpages in the MERLOT system, including pages users build with the MERLOT Content Builder. Interestingly, because MERLOT uses a Google function, Google functionality is blocked in some international countries. When users from those places access MERLOT, MERLOT detects that and disables that functionality in those countries.
We are all aware that the WWW is a rapidly evolving environment. Functions that could not be conceived of only 5 years ago are today considered common, and even ‘old hat.’ After all, in Internet years, a year is like a real-time decade. Today, translation to/from languages is very common and very good. The Google translate mobile app has gotten many international travelers through predicaments that years ago might have taken years to resolve. “How much is this?” in English is easily translated into any language in any foreign country. “I didn’t mean to make that (illegal) left turn,” can easily be explained to a traffic cop in any foreign country!
So as such changes evolve, MERLOT too continues to evolve. Insofar as our use of Google translate, we are now considering dropping it from our design. After all, every popular browser now detects the user’s location and asks if the browser should switch to the local language of use. Including countries in which Google is now blocked! Have you tried to translate a page in MERLOT?