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

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”

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

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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

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.

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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OER 2.0? Not Yet

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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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Searching for OER

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If you’ve never been to New Zealand, you have to put it on your “bucket list.” It’s the most beautiful country in the world, and it’s no surprise that the Lord of the Rings movies were shot there. They probably had to do the least amount of computing enhancement to their raw film footage than if it had been shot anywhere else in the world. The place is magical!

I’ve been fortunate in the last 14 months to visit New Zealand twice. In December 2013, I attended two conferences in Sydney, Australia, both within one week. The first was the IEEE International Conference on Computer Vision (ICCV) where I attended in my role as President Emeritus of the IEEE Computer Society; the second was the Electric Dreams, 30th Ascilite Conference where I was a keynote speaker decrying the then-popularity of MOOCs. From Australia I traveled to New Zealand’s South Island where I toured for about 2 1/2 weeks. (And yes I drove on the left side!)

This year, I attended the 2014 IEEE TALE (Teaching, Assessment, and Learning for Engineering) Conference in Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand where I was co-chair of the track on Computer Science and Computer Engineering Education. Following the conference I had the opportunity to explore the North Island, again by car, for about 10 days.

It’s been my experience, in my many years of involvement in multidisciplinary educational technology endeavors that the disciplines of Engineering and Computer Science have seemed to be less interested in the application of technology to learning and teaching than have other disciplines. It’s clear from some of the discussions in which I participated in Australia and New Zealand, that either my perception has been wrong or that the situation is changing. Regardless, it appears to me that the quality of teaching and learning is becoming increasingly important in those disciplines. And of course it’s no surprise that educational technology has an important role to play in that regard. Here are a couple of examples.

The November 2014 issue of the IEEE publication TIEEE Transactions on Education (yes, they have such a publication, and they even have one called IEEE Transactions on Learning Technologies) had a special issue on OER. It was one of the best reviews of OER that I’ve read in any discipline-based publication. It’s worth looking it up in your institution’s library to see what I mean. Most colleges and universities have a subscription to IEEE’s digital library, Xplore.

Also while in Wellington, at the TALE Conference, following a session on OER that I had organized, in which I participated, and which had exceptionally good attendance, I was approached by attendees from both India and Hong Kong about the potential for OER in their countries. I am continuing to explore opportunities with them regarding the use of OER through the deployment of MERLOT. It’s too soon to say what will come of all this, but I am optimistic that there’s a trend developing, even in the hard-core disciplines of Engineering and Computer Science. Stay tuned!

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New Survey on MERLOT OERs

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Homilies can be misleading.  “You get what you pay for.”  Or, “The best things in life are free.” Which is it?   Clearly they can’t both be right.  In the case of Open Education Resources (OER), the best things in life really are free.  I am constantly amazed by discussions and debates about the value of OER.  It’s pretty clear to me, and I can’t understand why it’s not clear to everyone, that OER is a free resource that anyone can voluntarily use, or not.  If you discover something and don’t like it or think it is inappropriate for your needs, you can just ignore it.  This is especially true if you are searching MERLOT ( where you can often tell something about the quality and appropriateness of the learning materials that you find there.

A few years ago I taught an online course for Sloan-C (now known as Online Learning Consortium).  One of the course topics concerned the use of repositories such as MERLOT’s, for instructors to discover and use OER.  When I later asked the students of the course, all of whom were fulltime instructors at colleges and universities, if they found the course valuable, almost all said yes.  When I asked them if they intended to use OER repositories in their own teaching, they were more equivocal.  They told me that the felt they didn’t have enough time to integrate discovered OER into their everyday teaching activities.  This is a pretty sad state of affairs because most of us, for whatever reasons, often cop out, and because of time constraints or just plain laziness adopt a course textbook that will wind up costing students $100 or more.  This is particularly sad, since there are so many OERs available for free that would cost the students practically nothing.  MERLOT contains, for example hundreds of Open Access textbooks that would satisfy many course requirements.  Even when a conventional textbook is adopted, the MERLOT ISBN Finder can be used by an instructor or even a student to find supplementary OERs related to an adopted textbook.

If you are a user of MERLOT OER, I invite you to participate in a new survey co-sponsored by MERLOT and the UK Open University’s OER Research Hub in which we are trying to learn about the usefulness of OER.  What are your thoughts about the usefulness of MERLOT OER?  Participate in this survey and help us to cast some light on how we can make OER more useful and cost effective for both ourselves and our students. All comments are welcome!

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Lecturing to the Choir – An Abuse of Instructional Technology

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If you were to define a continuous scale of worst to best teaching modalities, I suspect that at one end, and you can figure out which, you’d probably find large lectures.  At the other end (the “best” end, in case you missed it), you would find something like personal tutors.  The characteristics of each are pretty clear, and the pros and cons of each are also pretty clear, but let’s recap some of them anyway.

Let’s start with the “bad” end – the lecture end.  Clearly, the best part of lectures is that on aper/student basis, the costs are relatively fixed, and in many ways relatively low.  By ‘costs’ I mean the cost to the institution delivering the instruction.  In fact, the larger the class, the less the per/student cost.  Of course that cost is totally unrelated to the cost to the student.  That cost, normally called tuition and fees, often doesn’t seem to be related at all to institutional instructional delivery costs.  Sometimes, depending on the institution, it might even seem that student costs are inversely proportional to instructional delivery costs.  But that’s a topic for another day. 

So, by some ridiculous reasoning, considering only fiscal matters, it behooves an institution to deliver as much instruction as possible via large lectures.  But what about quality of instruction, or perhaps we should ask, what about student learning outcomes?  I would argue that we don’t really know.  Aside from those ridiculous student evaluations, based on our cumulative millions of person-hours of experience lecturing, most of us, both instructors and students probably agree that this instructional mode belongs at the “bad” end of our spectrum. 

So let’s look at the other end of our spectrum, the “good” end.  That’s where a single tutor teaches a single student in real time, for however long it takes for the student to learn whatever is being taught.  In general, and aside from idiosyncratic matters such as personality clashes between student and mentor, this is probably the best way to ensure that a student will learn what is being taught.  After all, in a private, personal and individualized instructional setting, a good tutor should be monitoring, understanding, and adapting the instruction in real time, depending on many, many different factors, most of which are a function of student behavior in the instructional setting. 

Now from a fiscal standpoint, it’s just common sense that one-to-one instruction for any particular instructional objective is much more costly than the one-to-many model of lectures.  So all in all, the “good” end of our spectrum is characterized by better learning at higher costs, and the other end, at best, by questionable learning at lower costs,

Now if we were in the business of delivering instruction in the least costly manner possible, without real concern for learning outcomes, certainly we’d choose practices and methodologies that characterize the ‘bad’ end of our spectrum.  On the other hand, if we were in the business of delivering the best instruction possible without much concern for fiscal matters, we’d focus on the other end of the spectrum.

So if that’s the case, why are so many institutions that are charged with educating and preparing our citizens of the future, jumping on online technologies that are characterized by the ‘bad’ end of the spectrum, and not selecting those that characterize the good end?  It’s not like they don’t have what to choose from.   Let’s consider the biggest, “bad” end, lecture bandwagon of them all – MOOCs.  Delivering online instruction to hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of students at a time is clearly the worst imaginable instructional practice.  If it weren’t, we wouldn’t have such incredible drop out and failure rates.    So what’s the alternative, at the “good” end?  It’s something called adaptive learning, or what online teaching and learning was meant to be in the first place.

When all this online stuff started in the middle of the 20th Century, all of it focused on the individual as a learner.  In fact, it was called “individualized instruction.”  Why would anyone want to use technology to emulate the worst teaching model available?  But through the decades, and because of the huge and complex effort required to do a good job designing and delivering individualized online instruction, we got lazy and began to opt for group-oriented LMS-delivered lectures.  And now with MOOCs, we’ve taken that bad model and made it even worse – using technology to lecture to thousands and thousands of students at a time.

The argument in favor of MOOC’s that seems to be prevalent is that at a relatively low instructional delivery cost,  if we enroll a class of 1,000,000, and get a 3% success rate, then 30,000 students will have been successful.  But what about the other 970,000 students?  Oh right.  Those students have now been exposed to the brilliance of the lecturer(s) responsible for the course, and without the MOOC, that would never have been the case.  On the other hand, as data are becoming available, we are learning more and more about the so-called successful students.  It turns out that most of them are nothing like the kinds of undergraduate students’ colleges and universities should be trying to reach.  In fact, most of those ‘students’  already have degrees, and have somehow managed to be academically successful before they signed on to their first MOOC lecture.

Is this a responsible approach to delivering quality instruction? Is this what higher education should be focusing on?  I don’t think so.  How are we using technology to improve the learning of undergraduate students?  We aren’t.  We are simply delivering instruction without much consideration of what it’s achieving.  And all that is because it’s easier to lecture than to tutor.

Who ever said that teaching and learning should be easy?  Difficult as it is, I think we need to return to where online learning started – to technology-based individualized, self-paced instruction.  We need to use technology to emulate the best of our teaching methodologies – the tutor, rather than the worst – the lecture.  Thankfully to help us, we still have brave frontiersmen who are fighting the fight with the development of adaptive systems.  These systems use new technologies such as cloud and big data to adapt, in real time, online instruction to suit the learner and the learning situation.  This stuff isn’t easy, but it’s got a better chance of doing the job right – especially if we care more about quality than cost.  I welcome your comments on this subject. 

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Open Access – Continued and Revisited

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Open Access – Continued and Revisited

In my previous blog about OA, I was trying to be as succinct as possible, providing information about the topic – which, as I have noted before, should not be confused with Open Education Resources (OER).  I was aware when I wrote the blog, that because the definitions of Green and Gold can be a bit “fuzzy” around the edges, that I might get responses regarding the simplified definitions that I had provided.  Sure enough, I did receive a couple of personal and friendly emails, and the folks who sent them have kindly agreed to allow me to republish them verbatim, both rectifying and clarifying some of what I wrote.   It’s thanks to our shared philosophies of “openness” that we can all benefit from the interplay of ideas, comments, and suggestions such as these to help us to build an increasingly strong, shared intellectual community.

1.  From Seb Schmoller, Sheffield, UK

I picked up on because when I was CEO of the UK’s Association for Learning Technology I was responsible for transitioning our journal Research in Learning Technology (RLT) from conventional to Open Access.

I must say I was surprised not to see Research in Learning Technology listed in your post.  But that is not the main point of this email. More importantly, I was much more surprised to see journals listed in your post e.g. and that are not Open Access journals in the currently understood sense of the term.

Essentially, these journals have recently started to allow authors if they wish to pay a publication fee, resulting in that particular article being openly available. In contrast, Open Access journals proper, like RLT, make all their content freely available usually under a Creative Commons license, in RLT’s case using the most open license, namely CC-BY.  The do this either by requiring all authors to pay a publication fee, or, as in RLT’s case by not charging a publication fee in the first place.

Kind regards, Seb

2.  From Caroline Sutton, Co-Founder/ Publisher, Co-Action Publishing

As the Past President of OASPA (Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association) and as the co-founder of Co-Action Publishing, an Open Access Scholarly Publishing house, which publishes Research in Learning Technology, UNIPED, Education Inquiry, Medical Education Online and Journal of European Continuing Medical Education, I hope you won’t mind my reaching out to you.

Your blog item confuses hybrid offerings and open access publishing (gold). Gold is free access as well as re-use rights (at least for non-commercial purposes) immediately upon publication. The author retains copyright, or at least the non-commercial copyright in the case of a Creative Commons Non-Commercial license being applied. Open Access publishing (gold) entails making the article/journal freely available immediately upon publication. This is the final published version. This can also be re-used according to the license conditions.

For some journals this is financed through article processing charges (APCs), also known as publication fees. In this case the author would receive an invoice. In some cases an institution will have an agreement with a publisher and the bill will go straight to an institution or funder.  In other cases, authors receive no invoices. This might be because the journal is supported by a grant, or for Research in Learning Technology, for instance, the society pays the full costs of publishing the journal. In this case the journal is both free to use and free to publish in (and free to re-use as long as the original source is attributed).

In contrast, the journals you list offer a “hybrid” solution. This means that an author can choose to pay a fee to free up that specific article, whilst the journal otherwise is under a subscription or licensing situation. What one buys when paying this fee can vary from the article being published under a creative commons license that allows free re-use in addition to use, to the article simply being available immediately to be read. These conditions vary from publisher to publisher.

Co-Action Publishing is a firm believer in making educational research open access. Our journals provide immediate free access and re-use of content upon publication.  Thank you for your time in reading my comment above. I am happy to answer any questions you might have about open access publishing.

Kind regards, Caroline

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