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MERLOT in any language is still MERLOT

July 14, 2017

merlot-in-any-other-language

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?

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Finding Even More OERs with MERLOT

December 1, 2016

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 (www.merlot.org) 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

September 21, 2016

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

September 6, 2016

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

April 29, 2016

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, http://www.openeducationeuropa.eu/en/initiative.   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 www.merlot.org or our YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/MERLOTPlace.

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2016 – The Year of OERs?  Don’t Kid Yourself.

January 13, 2016

If you think 2016 is the year of OERs, you are probably deluding yourself.  Every January for the last 14 years, OER evangelists have thought, “This is it – the year of OERs!  Finally.” And why not?  Why shouldn’t it be?  After all, all we’re trying to do is give instructors and students free and high quality learning and teaching materials that will help them to teach and to learn better.  Why wouldn’t anyone want this?

Well, the reality seems to be that 1) people simply don’t believe that OERs are really free, or 2) they think that what they find in repositories just isn’t as good as what publishers produce, or 3) they delusionally believe that they can make better stuff themselves.  Those of us who have been working in the OER “industry” for a long time understand that none of this is true.  OER’s really are free; they may or may not be as good as what publishers produce; and most people are amateurs when it comes to creating effective online teaching and learning materials. But the truth is, you can get OER’s for free!

But the real drawback to more widespread use of OERs is that people simply don’t have time to change what they’ve always been doing.  That means that while they may silently recognize the fallacies in their objections, they really can’t be bothered to explore the value of OERs.

So what can we do to convince people to change their behavior and to do that which is good for them and their students?  Probably nothing.  The situation will not change until mandates and dictates are issued by administrators who recognize the benefits of OERs, in terms of quality and in terms of cost effectiveness, to promote OER use and reward OER users.

In the meantime, we evangelists have to keep doing what we’re doing so that when the time finally comes we can say, “I told you so.”

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Beware the Use of “OER”

September 24, 2015

It’s time to bite the bullet. I’ve talked and written about the differences between Open Access, open source, and OER. I’ve said that the Open Access movement concerns free publications – journals or texts.  I’ve said that open source concerns free software. And I’ve said that UNESCO introduced the term OER more than a decade ago, and currently displays the following definition on their website:

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are any type of educational materials that are in the public domain or introduced with an open license. The nature of these open materials means that anyone can legally and freely copy, use, adapt and re-share them. OERs range from textbooks to curricula, syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, tests, projects, audio, video and animation.  (Citation

This definition is almost identical to the original 10+ year old definition. Note the use of the word “freely.”  They don’t say that OERs are cost-free.  But when you find something on the Web, and when those somethings display an “open license,” usually Creative Commons, you can see whether or not there’s a cost associated with your reuse of the something.

But, the practical reality of the definition of the word “freely” has evolved dramatically since UNESCO’s original definition.  Today, more than a decade later, and despite the vagueness of the meaning of the word “freely,” the operational definition of OER  is that this word has come to mean no cost.  That is, most everyone who uses or sees an OER today assumes that it’s completely free of cost. But it isn’t necessarily so. But where does that leave us?

Unfortunately, while most of the time OERs are free, from time to time they are not.  In MERLOT, we do not call our collection an OER collection.   That’s because there are some things in the collection that are not free of cost.  Mostly they’re there because they are really good; instructors, librarians and student should know about them.  So the materials are in the collection – with the notation that there is a cost associated with them.  But when you find things elsewhere that claim to be OERs, the situation is different.  Without a proper license, it’s buyer beware.  Misuse of a material that does have cost information associated with its reuse could have a cost for misuse later!

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The Pro’s and Con’s of Open Education

June 30, 2015

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Normally I wouldn’t promote a for-profit company when writing about OER, which by some people’s definitions means totally and absolutely free.  But sometimes something will come across my desk from one of those “evil” for-profits that is so good that I feel I just have to share it with our community.  The most recent example of this is an infographic entitled Wide Open Spaces: The Pros and Cons of Open Education from valuecolleges.com.

This infographic, complete with citations, provides an interesting graphical perspective on topics described by its title.  I’m including the top screen of the infographic here, but urge you to link to it and view/read it in its entirety.

wideopenspaces
Also, from time to time members of the MERLOT community, myself included, add learning materials to the MERLOT collection that do in fact cost money.  We allow them and we add them because we feel that sometimes you just have to spend a little money to get the best. Whenever there is a cost involved, it is noted in MERLOT. So if you have your own learning materials or use others that are not in MERLOT, we encourage you to add them to the MERLOT collection to share with others.

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Onward and Upward: JOLT merges with OLJ

May 4, 2015

It’s sad to see an old friend go, especially one that you have become very fond of over the years. On the other hand sometimes you have to let friends go if their departure means bigger and better things for them.  So it is with our old friend JOLT – the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.

The second issue of 2015 of JOLT that will be published in June will be MERLOT’s final issue. On the one hand, while we are sad to be giving up this pioneering Open Access, peer-reviewed publication that has been part of the MERLOT family for almost 10 years, we are delighted and proud that JOLT will be merged with the Online Learning Consortium’s Online Learning Journal (formerly JALN).

You may already be aware of MERLOT’s and OLC’s joint sponsorship of the annual Emerging Technologies for Online Learning International Symposium (ET4Online). This new merger will broaden the cooperative efforts between our organizations.  The new journal will integrate editorial staffs and retain the name Online Learning Journal (OLJ).  We anticipate that the combined efforts will extend reach, improve quality, and result in increased efficiencies for both OLC and MERLOT.

So while we at MERLOT will still retain the archives of all previously published JOLT articles, all new submissions and publications of OLJ will be maintained by OLC.  OLJ will also be an Open Access publication.

The MERLOT staff greatly appreciates all the work that has been done by so many volunteers over the years, to invent JOLT and to make it the success it became.  And we intend to work together with our good friends at OLC to continue our efforts with the Online Learning Journal.

For more information on the merger or to submit a manuscript to OLJ, visit their site at http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/news_item/online-learning-consortium-merlot-merge-scholarly-journals/.

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OER 2.0? Not Yet

March 9, 2015

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A few weeks ago I and the MERLOT management team joined about 300 other people and attended the Textbook Affordability Conference (TAC) in San Diego. If you haven’t visited San Diego, it’s probably one of the nicest cities in the country, and it should be on your bucket list.

This conference was the first of its kind, and there are more like it planned starting later this year.  TAC was sponsored by a number of textbook publishers, college bookstores in the University of California System, the California Community Colleges System, the California State University System, and other government agencies. It was different than most conferences because all the sessions were sequential – no parallel sessions. This gave us an opportunity to hear from all the speakers at the conference over the 2-days of sessions. Given the title of the conference it’s no surprise that most of the speakers talked about the high cost of higher education in general, and in particular the rising costs of textbooks and support material.

One of the speakers who shall go unnamed, spoke about Open Educational Resources (OER) in the context of so-called open textbooks. In fact, he proclaimed that combining traditional Web-based textbooks together with supplementary Learning Objects is ushering in a new era of OER.  He claimed that this was OER 2.0 — his company’s contribution to the world of affordable textbooks. I have to say that I was pretty surprised to hear someone who I thought should know better be so clueless about the definition of OER and of Learning Objects. But I guess this is what sales and marketing is about. But that’s a discussion for another time.

Learning Objects have been around and defined in various environments and by a number of international standards groups for years. While there are many standards, they all have certain common characteristics. Learning Objects are describable with metadata, are all digital, Web-based, concerned with teaching and learning, etc. One of the most significant characteristics of Learning Objects is that they can be combined to form new and different Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. Online textbooks can be characterized as Learning Objects, and they can be combined with other OER support materials that are also Learning Objects. Together they can simply form new Learning Objects, but with a new set of metadata. For example, you can combine a number of course modules (Learning Objects), each with its own set of metadata, to form an online course, a new Learning Object with its own set of metadata. There is nothing OER 2.0 about this.

If we’re really going to talk about OER 2.0, we should be talking about Learning Object standards with metadata that include metrics related to the effectiveness of the Learning Object. Some LO standards already have metadata about subjective user ratings or opinions, but nothing about the measurable effectiveness of the Learning Objects in real learning situations. Certainly this is not an easy task to address, but until effectiveness metrics are a part of the metadata in Learning Objects standards, practitioners will have a tough time knowing whether or not a Learning Object might be of use to them in their own classrooms.

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