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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MERLOT is Better Than Before. Much Better.

merlot_homepage_screenshot

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 webmaster@merlot.org 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsive_web_design), 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 www.merlot.org.  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!

 

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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

KELLY:  Yes

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

KELLY:  No.

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 announces Smart Search, a significant upgrade to its searching capabilities and a new UI to Content Builder, the web development tool

MERLOT announced the release of the MERLOT Smart Search. This search extends access to online learning materials well beyond MERLOT’s curated and peer reviewed collection.  Smart Search helps to answer the pervasive and nagging question, “Where can I find OERs?”

new hitlist pageSmart Search searches the World Wide Web specifically for the kinds of learning materials that typical MERLOT users seek. It uses a proprietary MERLOT user profile design to find the newest and most popular learning materials available in learning materials libraries and also on the WWW.  While these resources are not peer reviewed or curated, users can contribute materials that show up in the hit list, to the MERLOT collection for subsequent curation and peer review by our 25 MERLOT Editorial Boards.  And materials discovered by Smart Search can be added to users’ MERLOT Bookmark Collections.  Smart Search is easy to use: just click on the tab that describes the universe of resources you want to explore, and MERLOT does the smart searching for you.

Watch for more exciting extensions to the MERLOT Smart Search in the future.  We intend to make MERLOT your first and last stop when you need to find quality and up-to-date OERs for your teaching and research.  MERLOT help provides more information on the new Smart search.

A New user interface experience for MERLOT Content Builder.  MERLOT is releasing a new interface design for its popular Web development tool, Content Builder.  Originally built and supported by the Carnegie Foundation, MERLOT adopted and integrated the system into “main MERLOT” about 10 years ago.

new CB screenshot
Since then we have refined the functionality of the Content Builder, and with this latest release, have made the user interface even more intuitive.  Join the thousands of Content Builder users and try it!  Simply click on the “Create Materials with Content Builder” tile on the MERLOT home page (www.merlot.org).  For assistance in getting started, check out the Content Builder User’s Guide.

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Innovate 2017 – A Joint Conference Presented by OLC and MERLOT

Education innovation. It’s how we, as a community, continue to thrive in this rapidly changing learning environment. It’s how we respond to and guide student success and satisfaction. Whether embracing emerging tech, incorporating intelligent learning management systems, or designing blended classrooms, now more than ever it is imperative that academic leaders, faculty, and administrators alike come together to ensure that our pedagogies are progressive and continually break new ground.

Join us at Innovate 2017, April 5-7 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  There will be a series of engaging hands-on workshops aimed at promoting interactions and collaborative cross-disciplinary problem solving.  You’ll have the opportunity to explore emerging technologies and adapted teaching behaviors aimed at informing policy, inspiring leadership, and evolving practice at all levels impacting institutions, universities and colleges. Advancing education innovation begins with you. And it all starts at OLC/MERLOT Innovate. Please be there. New Orleans, April 5-7, 2017. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/innovate/.  And if you are unable to attend, consider the Virtual option.  Find out more at https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/innovate/register/#virtual

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 (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

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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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, 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.

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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