Beyond the Art of Developing eLearning – It’s Time to Professionalize

You’re an instructor and have been told that next semester you must start teaching your first-ever online course.  You know that all your colleagues have been doing this for years, but you’ve managed to avoid doing it yourself.  Where do you start?

Well, if you’re lucky, your institution provides training for faculty in your situation, but if yours is like many other resource-scarce colleges, you might be on your own.  Of course you can try to pick the brains of your colleagues, but most of them are probably already overburdened with their teaching and research and don’t have much time to help you.  You could visit your LMS-support center, usually part of your school’s IT staff, and they can show you the bells and whistles of their LMS du jour, but that doesn’t really help you with the task of adapting your traditionally taught content and instructional methodologies to the world of online learning.  Finally, you do what every Internet-connected human being does these days, – you ask Google for help, and you search for “develop eLearning courses.”  Within .46 seconds, Google returns, as it did for me, 339,000,000 results!  OMG! What to do?  Why are there so many solutions to this problem?  It seems like every expert has devised his/her own approach to this matter.

It’s too bad that this is the case because there is a well-developed set of practices common among professional software developers who have for decades been confronted with similar challenges when they develop software systems and applications.  And after all, building an eLearning course really is an instance of application software development.  So why not employ the techniques of professional software developers – techniques that are well-defined in the practices of a discipline called, software engineering – for the development of eLearning instruction?  Software engineering (SE) has been evolving since the late 1950’s when companies, realizing that computers could make their day-to-day operations more efficient, began to develop software to do that.  And as computing has evolved over the decades, so too, based on many, many lessons-learned over those decades of software development, have the practices defined by SE also evolved.

Today, traditional software engineering practices are defined in an open access document entitled, Software Engineering Body of Knowledge (SWEBOK) developed and maintained by the IEEE Computer Society.  SWEBOK is the bible for traditional software development.  And the tables of content of most SE textbooks used in Information Systems and Computer Science curricula track closely to the contents of the SWEBOK document.  Major changes in traditional SE practices began to take place about 15 years ago when business entities felt that traditional SE practices were resulting in too many budget overruns and schedule delays in the development of complex software.  A second school of SE called “agile” development emerged as an alternative to the original so-called “waterfall” practices.  While the methodologies of the two schools are quite different, adaption of either to the development of eLearning instruction could provide a pathway for instructors who are otherwise lost in their quest to develop effective online instruction for their students.

Isn’t it time, after more than 75 years of programmed learning/programmed instruction/computer assisted instruction/distance education/eLearning/etc. that we stop experimenting and start to professionalize the development of online learning?  Adoption of SE principles will go a long way to making this happen. I know with a certainty this will work. The MERLOT ( development team adopted SE methodologies about 10 years ago and because of this has been able to quickly and regularly release new and better versions of the system during that time.  Without software engineering, this would have been impossible.

I propose the development of instruction-focused methodologies and tools, based on sound and proven software engineering principles, to help instructors develop online teaching and learning environments that best suit their own teaching preferences.  By ‘instruction-focused methodologies and tools’ I mean those that are devoid of the arcana of software engineering terminology, but instead are defined and directly related to the world of online teaching and learning.  Instructors need to focus on being teachers rather than software developers.  This is how it can happen.


– Dr. Sorel Reisman

MERLOT’s Best Kept Secret

Have you ever wanted to quickly throw together a website for a class project?  Or wanted to assign a web-building assignment to your students but were stymied about which tool to give them that wouldn’t require a steep learning curve? Or maybe you simply needed to create a site for personal reasons but your institution won’t host sites like that.  MERLOT has the solution.

About 10 years ago MERLOT acquired the KEEP Toolkit from the Carnegie Foundation.  KEEP was a rudimentary web development application used by thousands of educators to create web-based teaching and learning materials.

Through the acquisition, Carnegie provided MERLOT with the KEEP open source code, the KEEP user base, and the database of all the KEEP-developed teaching and learning assets.  Initially, MERLOT worked with Carnegie programmers and users to transition the system to MERLOT’s IT infrastructure. The newly interfaced system was renamed the MERLOT Content Builder (CB).  MERLOT provided users with single sign-on capabilities to both MERLOT and CB.  Legacy KEEP users continued to have access to their old KEEP web materials, but now accessible in CB as well as the ability to create new ones.

Over time, MERLOT refined the Content Builder with a better “MERLOT-looking” user interface as well as improved user functionality.  One of the early additions to the CB was the requirement that all CB-developed assets that “go public” must have a Creative Commons (CC) license.  (MERLOT does not dictate which license a user must declare.)  Any user can create a web page or site in Content Builder but until they make it public with a unique URL (and CC license), it is “private.”

Another early addition was the integration of Common Cartridge and HTML functionality to enables user to transfer their CB-developed websites/pages to almost any Web-based application that supports Common Cartridge technology – notably all popular learning management systems.

Over the last 10 years CB has become more and more sophisticated, providing users modern, accessible, and easy-to-use functions and controls that truly enable ‘quick-and-dirty’ webpage/website construction and deployment.  Today thousands of MERLOT Members have submitted more than 2,000 CB-built public materials to the MERLOT collection, with many others using MERLOT to develop thousands of uncatalogued websites for private classroom and other uses In fact, the California State University’s Cool4Ed Affordable Learning Solutions (AL$)  project and the Course Redesign project have both used CB to build hundreds of web pages to showcase their project’s objectives’.

The Content Builder is an essential part of MERLOT’s strategy of promoting the use of OERs around the world.  Accordingly, MERLOT will continue to refine and redefine how users can easily use CB to do that.   To access CB, select ‘Create a Material’ in the middle of the MERLOT homepage at If you aren’t a Member, you’ll be prompted to join – an easy process (or go to

Remember, CB is free, and all the websites and webpages you build with CB are hosted by MERLOT, including all the images and files related to your work – all with unique URL’s.  What could be better?

For more information and how-to instructions on using MERLOT Content Builder, the user’s guide can be found at

If you’re already a happy CB user, share your thoughts and comments with us. 



MERLOT is Better Than Before. Much Better.


As I promised just last month, get ready for another new MERLOT, but this time with an old label.  We are returning to our roots and dropping the “II” from our name, calling it just “MERLOT.”  But there’s nothing old about this new MERLOT.

Available as of March 14, 2018, the newest version of MERLOT has a completely new user interface, modeled after the most popular Web search site on the face of the planet.  (Guess what that is!)  In our continued effort to make it easier and easier for you to find online learning materials, we are providing an even more familiar and simple way to access our powerful search engine to find useful OERs anywhere on the Web.

And while it’s unlikely that you’ll need assistance to find what you need, or to access MERLOT’s rich function set, we have completely redesigned our context-sensitive help to guide you through any issues that arise while you’re using our newest MERLOT.  Of course our webmaster will continue to be available at in the unlikely event you need even more help.

In our last release we introduced our proprietary Smart Search to automatically help focus search results for the kinds of specific needs you might have.  Given the limitless ways a search can be constructed, it’s possible or even likely that you might not conduct a search using the best set of parameters possible to meet your needs for specific learning materials.  Our new ‘recommender’ infers your search objectives and provides additional results relevant to your original search.  Don’t be surprised, when you see the recommender’s recommendations, to hear yourself say, “Hey, that learning material is a good recommendation. I never thought to search that way.”

And in keeping with the growing trend towards mobility, MERLOT has been reengineered using responsive web design (RWD) which, according to Wikipedia (, is an approach to web design which makes web pages render well on a variety of devices and screen sizes.”  So if you are out and about and suddenly have a craving for a new OER, just grab your smart phone or tablet, launch your browser and go to  And lo and behold, depending on the speed of your network, the new MERLOT will be immediately recognizable as if you were working on your laptop or desktop computer.

So here we are, in our 21st year, not as good as ever, but a whole lot better.  And we intend to keep getting better and better!



Welcome to MERLOTs Third Decade

Well, we are at it again.  No sooner do we release a new and improved version of MERLOT than we start working on an even newer and even more improved version.  Last year we improved your access to more and more OERs with our Smart Search.  Smart Search expanded MERLOT users’ search for useful online learning materials beyond our own extensive and high quality repository of over 80,000 materials.

Smart Search now offers a quick and easy way to search about a dozen other, ‘related’ learning material libraries as well as a focused search of the World Wide Web – right from within our own website. And if you find something you like, you can add it directly to the MERLOT repository for our discipline editors to consider reviewing.  While these features have really broadened MERLOT’s utility for our 1,000,000+  annual visitors, we are soon going to make things even better.  In the next few months we will once again be updating MERLOT’s user interface (UI), incorporating new UI concepts that have evolved since our last update only 3 years ago.

It’s interesting to note that in the 21 years of our existence, we will have changed/improved/modernized that UI more 7 different times, while continuing to add more and more easily accessible features.  Remember when MERLOT was available only for English language users?  Today our system is accessed by members of an international community from more than 25 countries!  And remember when we only had a handful of academic discipline editorial boards reviewing content.  Today we have 25, each with its own community of subject matter experts, in 2017 adding two new ones – Computer Science and Information Technology.  A short while ago we added the recommender feature that offered: “People who viewed this material also viewed …”  Look for a release this year that will be even smarter, recommending materials appropriate to individual user profiles as well as materials similar to ones a user discovers in an initial search.

So don’t go away.  We’re working on our third decade and will be making things better and better, and more useful than ever before.  Thanks for being a member of the MERLOT Community.


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Hey MERLOT, “Can you hear me?”

So you’re looking for OERs and don’t know how to do it.  I’ve written about this elsewhere in this blog –  it’s not hard to find OERs these days, especially as repositories, ostensibly like MERLOT’s, are popping up all over the Web.  More and more, as OERs become the essential building blocks of course content, it will be easy to search for them, but not so easy to find the ‘right stuff.’   But…

… with Siri and Cortana now inhabiting our phones, tablets, and computers, and with the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant invading our homes, it won’t be uncommon for instructors to engage MERLOT in dialogues like the following, between Kelly, an instructor, and MERLOT:

KELLY: Hi MERLOT; I need OERs for a new course that’s been assigned to me.  Can you help me?

MERLOT: Hi Kelly.  I’d be pleased to.  Is this a search we’ve done before, or a new one?

Kelly:  A new one.

MERLOT:  OK. Please tell me more about the course.  For example, what’s the academic discipline, what grade level, etc.?

KELLY: It’s a freshman math course.

MERLOT: Is this for high school or college?

KELLY: It’s college level.

MERLOT: Are there any specific math topics that you will covering in the course?

KELLY:  It’s essentially an introduction to calculus

MERLOT:  I presume you would like the OERs for your intro calculus freshman course to be in English


MERLOT:  Do you want these OERs to be available only for mobile devices


MERLOT: Do you have any preference for the kinds of OERs you want?

KELLY: What do you mean by the kind of OER?

MERLOT: I mean things like e-texts, online courses, animations, etc.  Or I could show you a list of all the possibilities.

KELLY:  I would like only e-texts and animations.

MERLOT:  Any particular format for the e-texts and animations?

KELLY:  What kinds of formats are there?

MERLOT:  For e-texts the most popular are PDF and Microsoft Word.  I could show you a list of all the possibilities.  For animations there are lots of possibilities.

KELLY:  PDFs for the texts, and just find animation OERs.  I will pick what I want.

MERLOT: Will you want to modify or customize any of the materials?

KELLY: I’d like the option to do that.

MERLOT: Do you care if the materials have a cost associated with them?

KELLY: Yes. I’d like them to free.

MERLOT:  OK.  I will search all relevant OER sources, starting with my own repository which is far and away the best one available, and then I’ll generate a list for you. I will display that list, including relevant hyperlinks here, and if you want, I can also email the list to you.

… Pause for a second or two …

MERLOT: I’ve found 44 e-texts and 54 animations in the MERLOT collection.  If you like, I can broaden the search to other relevant collections and even to the World Wide Web.  Would you like me to do that?

KELLY:  No. Just show me the MERLOT list.

MERLOT (Displays the 98 items):  Is there anything else you need now?

KELLY: No thanks

MERLOT: Would you like me to save this search?

KELLY:  Yes please.

MERLOT:  OK, it’s saved. Next time, just ask me retrieve your last “math” search. Talk to you later Kelly.

KELLY:  Thanks, MERLOT. I can’t imagine what I’d do without you!


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MERLOT in any language is still MERLOT


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

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?

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Finding Even More OERs with MERLOT

In one of my previous blogs I wrote about people who complain about not being able to find OERs.  If you read that, you’ll know that I haven’t a lot of patience for that kind of laziness.

When MERLOT ( was first launched in 1997, we were the only show in town where you could find online learning materials. In fact, the acronym “OER” hadn’t even been invented when we started.  That was to happen 5 years later.  But over the years, many different kinds of OER repositories have come (and gone) and now it’s possible to find lots of online ‘stuff’ that you can use for teaching and learning, and depending on the licenses associated with the stuff, some it might even be classifiable as a real OERs.

The MERLOT repository itself has grown over the years, and today contains about 75,000 materials, almost all of them suitable for online teaching and learning.  We often say that MERLOT should be the first site you visit to find OERs. But we know that 75,000 is a tiny fraction of all the potentially useful learning materials you can find if you do a Google search, and then spend limitless hours going through the hundreds of thousands of hits to find the right stuff.

But guess what?  MERLOT is soon going to help you with those Google searches.  In a few months we are going to release new MERLOT functionality that will intelligently search the entire Web for your keywords, and then filter out most of the noise, focusing mostly on the kinds of hits that you, a MERLOT searcher would care about.

Our next MERLOT release will let you continue to search our own repository as you’ve always done, and will also allow you to use our new “Extended Web Search”  to search the WWW.  This extended search will generate a few hundred hits from the hundreds of thousands you would get from a traditional Google search, and those hits will likely be of teaching and learning value.  You’ll then be able to filter those hits even more, to focus on materials even more relevant to your discipline.  This search has been developed based on a “secret sauce” we’ve invented that emulates (we think and at this point we hope), the profile of a typical MERLOT Web-searcher/user.

At first we don’t expect the search to be 100% perfect, but based on our testing so far, it’s been pretty accurate.  Most of what it returns is quite relevant to online teaching and learning in higher ed.  And as we gain more experience with this extended web search, we’ll be fine tuning it even more, to return even better results.

It won’t be long, so stay tuned for the Newer MERLOT!

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Get Off Your Duff and Use The Google

I am tired of reading reports of surveys of instructors who are asked if they know what OERs are and whether or not they use them.  I’m also tired of reading that people who know what they are don’t use them because they don’t know where to find them, they don’t know if what they find is any good, or a million other silly excuses.

First of all, if your colleagues don’t know what OERs are (and I’m assuming if you’re reading this, that you do), then they are either retired on the job, or they should be.  I can’t understand how anyone these days doesn’t know what OERs are.  They are reported on everywhere – including the popular media – except maybe on media like Entertainment Tonight, who only talk about the Kardashians – whatever they are.

About a year ago I set up a Google Alert to send me emails when Google picks up a press comment about OERs.   I get at least one email daily showing me press reports that somehow refer to OERs – in the US, almost exclusively talking about the adoption of free e-texts.

After all these years since OER has been around, and after all the education that most of our colleagues  have, it’s a mystery to me that some of them don’t know what OERs are, where to find them, or how to know if they’re any good or not.   Haven’t they ever heard of “the Google?”

This business about where do you find OERs, is ridiculous.  All you have to do is type “OER collections into the Google search bar.  Guess how many hits you get?  I just got 379,000 hits while I’m writing this blog.

Now there’s the question of how good or how bad OERs might be.  Even that’s an easy one to discover.  If an OER collection is legitimate, like MERLOT that has been around for almost 20 years, where there are lots of reviews and user ratings, it’s easy to say what’s good and what’s not good.

I think the only reason that people don’t use OER is that they are just simply too lazy to change how they’ve been teaching for however long they’ve been teaching.  If instructors are really interested in doing the best job for their students, they have an obligation to learn more and to use OERs.


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New MERLOT/IEEE Cooperation

MERLOT, working together with IEEE Computer Society volunteers, is currently in the process of developing two new Editorial Boards (EB) – one in Computer Science, and the second in Information Technology (IT).   These new EBs-in-formation are called Task Forces as they develop editorial board members, grow their respective collections, peer review materials in the collections, and acquire IT and CS MERLOT members from around the world.

The Computer Science EB is being led by Professor Henry Chan of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and IT by Professor Edmundo Tovar from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.   Anyone interested in serving on either of those boards should contact Chan and Tovar.  If you’re in either of those disciplines, you’ll be interested to browse the collections for OERs that you might use in your instruction.  The taxonomies for each of the collections have been modeled after the CSAB curricula used by almost every accredited CS and IT undergrad program in the world.  CSAB is the lead ABET member society for accreditation of programs in CS, IT, and Software Engineering.

Chan and Tovar are working closely with IEEE and the Computer Society to promote their boards through a number of IEEE-sponsored events.  These include 1) a special issue call for papers on Learning Technologies in IEEE Computer Magazine; 2) a call for papers for a Special Track on Computing Education at the IEEE TALE 2016 (Teaching, Assessment and Learning for Engineering) Conference; and 3) a call for papers on Computing Education and Learning Technologies at the IEEE Computer Society COMPSAC (Computers, Software, and Applications Conference) in Turin, July, 2017. All these have been posted on the MERLOT Computer Science Community portal.

These two Task Forces must fulfil certain criteria to be declared Editorial Boards. With the guidance of Minjuan Wang from San Diego State University, we expect to be able to welcome Chan and Tovar into the community of MERLOT editors this coming semester.

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All Those OERs, and eTexts Too

Open Education Resources (OER) is all about free online textbooks, right?  If you subscribe to Google Alerts and use the keyword “OER,” that’s the impression you get from the alerts Google sends.  Every day I get G-alerts about “OER” from clippings that appear in online news.  Mostly, it seems, from US news.  And almost every one of those alerts, supposedly about OERs, is about eTextbooks and how a school board or college is promoting the use of OERs (i.e., free eTextbooks) to make education more affordable.  But it seems from the wording of those press releases that most don’t understand that there are many kinds of other OERs that they also could be supporting, which would also help make education more affordable.

For those of us who practically live and breathe OERs – sad as it is to admit – it’s very disappointing to read these announcements and feel that these institutions are missing the opportunity to promote more widespread use of OERs, beyond just eTextbooks.  This is particularly true when you compare these American promotions of OERs with the Europeans who for years have seemed to really understand the breadth of OERs and the opportunities they can offer – see, for example,   And then there’s Taiwan and Africa and even the UN which also appear to be able to organize government-level policies and programs geared towards a broader definition of OERs than just eTextbooks.

But don’t get me wrong.  Policies related eTextbooks as one kind of OER are definitely worthwhile and can pay off in very measurable ways.  But it’s kind of disconcerting to read the results of surveys of US instructors who don’t use OERs because they can’t find them, don’t trust their quality, don’t know how to use them, or simply don’t know what OER is.

We in MERLOT don’t really like to encourage Google searches for learning materials, mainly because we think that our collection is superior, being curated by subject matter experts who ensure the quality of the learning objects there.  But it’s hard to believe that instructors who don’t know about MERLOT can’t just do a Google search on the term “OER.”   Try it and guess how many hits you get.  One million? Five million? Ten million?  You’re not even close.  How about 23,000,000!!   Or if you need your hit list to have an element of entertainment, try YouTube where you’ll get more than 400,000 hits.  Or if you need your hit list to have an element of quality for teaching and learning, just visit or our YouTube channel at

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