Master Clusters: Savvy Web Searches?

The number and variety of digital collections of instructional resources on the Web is growing rapidly, but not nearly as rapidly as the number of individual links to instructional resources. It is still too difficult, by far, for a typical individual faculty member to find just what he or she requires to meet an instructional need. It is still too difficult for such faculty members to be very confident about whether or not there is "anything out there" that might fit. And it is still unlikely that most faculty members will even be very confident of whether or not they have articulated their needs or formulated their searches effectively.

In my experience, the most completely satisfying and rapidly effective option is to work closely with a professional reference librarian who is already well trained in using online and more-conventional resources. Unfortunately, this privilege is not often available to most of us.

One idealistic alternative is to have someone build a Web repository of instructional resources that is comprehensive, controlled, and highly organized for intuitive searching. Of course, we want this wonderful system to be easily accessible from anywhere we wish and to be rapidly and completely responsive.

Unfortunately, we may not achieve such a system in the foreseeable future. It is a considerable challenge—intellectually, technologically, and in many other ways. Not the least of which is that most faculty have very little preparation for understanding and expressing their own instructional needs. We cannot wait until some organization or genius figures out how to create "The Ultimate Technical Solution" to this set of problems. At the same time, I'm quite skeptical that such an answer is realistically achievable in the next decade.

Today it is still likely that a search of one of these collections will produce either a list that is too long and contains too many items that are inappropriate; or a list that contains only a few items, none of which match the needs of the searcher. In both cases, the faculty searcher may worry rightly that there were a few items in the collection that would be much better than the matches he found but that he did not know how to search properly so that they would emerge.

Even Merlot, probably one of the largest, best organized, and most reviewed of these collections, is still rather daunting for a faculty member who might be working alone and looking for a quick resource.

So, what is the solution? My "modest proposal" is that we encourage more academic support professionals to develop small "clusters" or highly organized, highly focused sets of Web links to a number of selected resources. I urge these professionals (librarians and specialists in faculty development, technology support, instructional design, etc.) to develop these clusters with the needs of specific faculty with whom they work clearly in mind. I then urge them to develop these clusters without worrying much about performing a comprehensive search or including all relevant options. It's much more important that they become comfortable in exercising their own judgment or relying on the expertise and wisdom of a few of their colleagues. As the richness and complexity of the Web keep growing, judgment, selectivity, perspective, and even wisdom are becoming more valuable. I hope we will soon be able to acknowledge and make use of these qualities, which have been long available among the faculty and professionals in higher education.

At the local level, folks can be helped by local experts. To make these efforts more effective, it would also be nice if there were mechanisms for those who build these clusters to tell others about them, making them accessible for further improvement. It would also be helpful if there were only a small number of more comprehensive, well-organized, searchable, and updated collections.

Some of the tools developed by the open source software community might be helpful in moving closer to some of these goals and, especially, in sharing the workload, expertise, and wisdom. Another tool that provides an attractive model is the XanEdu system. It enables faculty members to build "digital CoursePacks." The XanEdu system facilitates the finding and assembling of previously printed articles, book chapters, etc. XanEdu has also commissioned some subject-area experts and faculty members to develop specific CoursePacks within this system based on their own insights, preferences, and teaching experience. These "Master CoursePacks" are then made easily accessible to other faculty members who have interests in teaching similar courses. The XanEdu system makes it easy for other faculty members to modify the Master CoursePacks and to share their own preferences with others.

This is a good model for what could also be done in assembling collections of instructional resources that are not limited only to print-published materials. I would be delighted to see someone integrate a tool like the XanEdu system with a valuable and growing collection of Web-based instructional resources like Merlot. Too bad the dotcom economy isn't available to provide lavish start-up funding to those who would take up this challenge!

Web Repositories and Collections

Merlot www.merot.org/home.po

A free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students of higher education. Links to online learning materials are collected here along with annotations such as peer reviews and assignments.

CAREO careo.ucalgary.ca

A project supported by Alberta Learning and CANARIE (Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research in Industry and Education). Its primary goal is the creation of a searchable, Web-based collection of multidisciplinary teaching materials for educators across the province and beyond. CAREO (Campus Alberta Repository of Educational Objects) is being undertaken jointly by the Universities of Alberta and Calgary in cooperation with BELLE (Broadband Enabled Lifelong Learning Environment), CANARIE, the University of Calgary Health Education Cluster project, and as a part of the Campus Alberta initiative.

UWM Center for International Education www.uwm.edu/dept/cie/aop/lo_collections.html

The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Center for International Education has a collection of links to "learning objects collections," related organizations, a bibliography, etc.

Educause www.educause.edu

Educause offers a set of items from its publications and other sources on the subject of "learning objects."

XanEdu www.xanedu.com

The XanEdu digital and print publishing services for faculty.

TLT Group www.tltgroup.org/opensource/base.htm

The TLT Group offers an introductory selection of MANY links to "Open Source" or "Open Course" collections of instruction-related resources.

comments powered by Disqus