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 https://www.merlot.org. If you aren’t a Member, you’ll be prompted to join – an easy process (or go to https://www.merlot.org/merlot/join.htm)

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 http://info.merlot.org/merlothelp/topic1.htm#t=Getting_Started_with_Content_Builder.htm.

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

 

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Beware the Use of “OER”

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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Is it Really Open?

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If you are reading this blog, you probably know a fair bit about the concept of “openness.” You may even think that an “open” item is something that you can find online that is free, and available for your use, and even for your reuse. By “reuse” I mean that you think you can change it and then “reuse” it for your teaching or research needs.

Well, that may or may not be true. In fact, the word “open” can be used in a number of contexts. For example, when we talk about “open source,” we are explicitly referring to software. Moodle, the learning management system (LMS) is an example of open source software. The source code is available for you to reuse, modify, etc. as you wish. Of course there can be other conditions related to open source software, but that is beyond the scope of this blog.

Then there is the term “Open Access.” Open Access is a movement that concerns the publication of free, online journals, journal articles, and textbooks. Material published under an Open Access policy is generally freely available for you to access without having to subscribe to a publication, or even join a society that publishes such publications. The Open Access movement started as a result of demand by various research communities to allow government-funded research to be freely available since the public (taxpayers) had already paid for it. The Open Access movement has been extended beyond journals and journal articles to now include textbooks. You should note however, that just because something is Open Access doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a copyright. In fact, such materials continue to be owned (copyrighted) by the author, the publisher, or both. And if you cite material from an Open Access publication, it must be cited in exactly the same manner as if the material were from a traditional publication.

Finally we have Open Education Resources (OERs). This is a term that was first defined more than 10 years ago at a Hewlett foundation-supported UNESCO conference, and it concerns online learning materials, sometimes called learning objects. Hewlett defines OERs as:

OER (sic) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge. (For more information, visit http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education-program/open-educational-resources)

From a practical sense, OER’s generally have a license that indicates what you can and cannot do with them. Creative Commons (CC) licensing (www.creativecommons.org) defines six possible licenses that an OER can carry. Depending on the license, they may or may not be free, and you may or may not alter them. It all depends on what the owner of the OER declares in the CC license.

The MERLOT collection (www.merlot.org) is unique in that it contains a wide selection of open materials, many of them carrying a Creative Commons license. The materials include Open Access articles, Open Access textbooks, open journal articles and OER’s. The MERLOT OER’s include learning materials as” microscopic” as simulations or animations that can be embedded by an instructor into an online course, through to complete online courses.

It’s really easy to search MERLOT II for all or any open texts, open courses, and OER’s, with and without Creative Commons licenses. I urge you to visit www.merlot.org, click on the Search tile, and explore our Advanced Search functions. While you’re at it, you might check out our Search Other Libraries tile) which allows you to search more than 20 other libraries of learning materials, all at the same time. Remember, if you’re looking for free textbooks, you want to look for the category “open texts.” Or, for free courses, look for “open courseware.” And if you need more guidance in how to do this, you can visit the new context-sensitive Help part of our new MERLOT, or you can email the webmaster at webmaster@merlot.org.

Happy hunting!

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