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Collections, Convections, and Confections

Every once in a while a faculty member discovers the perfect fit—an instructional module on the Web that fulfills the teaching or learning needs that inspired the search. These matches are like getting just the kind of confection you wanted from a new box of chocolates.

The experience of these occasional successes raises expectations about the Web. But searching alone is more like playing a well-programmed slot machine than working your way through the box of chocolates—even if you’re allowed to touch them and put back the ones you don’t want. Slot machines are purposely rigged in favor of the house. The Web is a different kind of challenge.

The Heat is On
Perhaps a few years ago we could believe that information about the "really good stuff" on the Web would be passed along effectively and naturally the way heat from a burner evenly fills an oven. When there were only a few educators using the Internet, the number of resources and volume of e-mail were small enough to rely on a kind of convection process. However, now we don’t have the luxury of simplicity—there are too many choices and too much information. We can’t keep the oven closed—we can’t even control the heat.

As a result, many bright people and respected organizations are trying to bring order to this chaos. They are developing well-organized sets of learning objects, systems of categorizing instructional modules, and ways of applying processes like peer review to provide better evaluative information. These emerging collections help, but alone cannot solve the underlying problems.

The underlying problems may even be getting worse. Expectations continue to rise for what can be done to engage faculty and students in using information technology to improve teaching and learning. Also, resources available to support this kind of change are being reduced as many colleges and universities are pressed to cut budgets more painfully than any time in the 1990s.

Most educators are now recognizing a growing flood of new instructional options based on using computers and the Internet. These options include not only changes in the underlying content for courses, but also new ways of finding, organizing, presenting, accessing, comparing, and exchanging information.

New Kinds, Change of Pace
Faculty and academic support professionals have been badly prepared for the rising expectations and proliferating options they now face. Educators have had decades to adjust to accelerating change in many academic fields while instructional changes proceed at a glacial pace. Changes in subject matter have happened much more rapidly, frequently, and widely than changes in the processes of teaching and learning—until the 1990s.

Most faculty in higher education have been well-prepared to deal with new ideas about organizing subject matter—integrating new approaches about a subject or re-organizing content based on new educational goals. However, most faculty have been prepared for few, if any, different ways of teaching and learning. And that is what they now are urged to embrace in a confusing array of poorly organized new choices.

Playing Catch Up
Many educators would like to halt the development of instructional resources, or at least hold back information about new instructional options while they catch up with what is already available. But the impact of rapid technology obsolescence and the all-too-human desire to discover new tools ensures a continuous stream of new instructional options. What’s more, competition among publishers and academics eliminates the possibility of a moratorium on new instructional materials, making it almost impossible to develop standards for building these items.

In fact, efforts to develop standards (e.g., metatext) for instructional objects can be helpful both to resource developers and users. However, the process of developing standards is so much slower than the current pace of innovation that such standards may function more realistically as a set of guidelines. In addition, because most higher education faculty have no formal training in pedagogy or instructional design, it is doubly difficult to provide a taxonomy of instructional resources that can be directly useful to faculty and most academic support professionals.

No Self-Service
Unfortunately, none of the new collections can yet operate with the ease of, say, a self-service gas pump. Even the best instructional resource collections are not devices that can be learned in a few minutes. They are also not devices that provide a simple, faster direct replacement for a well-defined service that its users were already accustomed to depending on.

No matter how hard the builders of the collections work, only a small minority of faculty are likely to be able to use these resources without assistance. As budgets get squeezed, more faculty members and academic support professionals bear increased responsibility and often accountability. Their discretionary time is reduced and more precious. Only 10 percent or 15 percent of the faculty who are deeply committed to instructional innovation are likely to take the time to learn how to use these collections effectively. And most faculty aren’t really sure what they might find will be directly useful to them, or that they will have the time, self-confidence, and skills to master new ways of teaching and learning.

Lifelong Learning
How can the connections between individual faculty members and the right "confections" be made more easily, cost-effectively, and frequently? By improving every part of the currently messy and primitive structure. Better collections; more widely understandable and useable taxonomies of instructional options; improved ability to assemble and distribute customized sub-collections; better support services; better training and professional development for everyone.

But perhaps most important is the recognition that the idea of "lifelong learning" is for everyone. The structural implications are profound.

Selected Collections, Repositories, and Related Resources

Collections and Repositories

Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC)… largest education database in the world—containing more than one million records of journal articles, research reports, curriculum and teaching guides, conference papers, and books."

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for International Education
A collection of links to "learning objects collections," related organizations, a bibliography, etc.

National Science Digital Library
"The comprehensive source for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Funded by the National Science Foundation."

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL)
"… an informal national alliance working to build strong learning environments for undergraduate students in mathematics, engineering and the various fields of science."

Resources for Chemistry Educators
"This site provides annotated Web links to instructional materials and other resources of interest to Chemistry teachers and course designers … Special emphasis is placed on CAI lessons, digital text, Web-based tutorials and similar materials that can serve as alternatives to traditional methods of instruction."

Instructional Resources

A free and open resource designed primarily for faculty and students of higher education.

A project supported by Alberta Learning and CANARIE that has as its primary goal the creation of a searchable, Web-based collection of multidisciplinary teaching materials for educators across the province and beyond.

Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction
Lots of resources organized for (but not limited to) faculty and students of Maricopa Community Colleges.

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

The digital and print publishing services for faculty—in fact, a collection of publications intended to be used as part of digital coursepacks.

TLT Group
Offers an introductory selection of many links to "Open Source" or "Open Course" collections of instruction-related resources.

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