Sharing and assessing teaching materials with MERLOT

When it comes to teaching/learning resources on the internet, it is incredible to see their proliferation, especially after the last 2 to 3 years. The possibilities in e-learning were already in constant growth before the pandemic (motivated mainly by the common intention to improve the students’ learning outcomes and to make classes more dynamic), and have exponentially multiplied since the year 2020 because of the need of keeping schools and universities functioning during such a rough time.

Most of us teaching and conducting research have searched here and there for new tools and ideas. Finding teaching/learning resources is not as easy as googling the meaning of a word or the address of a bookstore, for instance. Pedagogy comes first, and it is necessary to articulate lesson objectives, chronogram, students’ level, assessment options, and other aspects. Besides, it is difficult to find usable resources — or any resource at all — depending on the subject we are preparing to teach. Imagine someone planning a class on art in Pharaonic civilization or Indian contemporary cuisine.

There are many things to consider. Taking the subject as a comparison parameter, we may imagine that it is easier for someone teaching English to undergrad groups to find materials than for someone teaching Vietnamese, Arabic, or Portuguese, for example. We must also take into account if the goal is to study a language as a native speaker, to learn it for specific purposes, or to develop it as a second language. Finding an adequate resource to use in class takes effort, but could be streamlined if those who belong to the same field share the materials they already use. This action could save time and energy for many of us, as long as we do not neglect the ethical issues regarding this collaboration (respect to copyright being just one of them).

Collaborative platforms like OER (Online Educational Resources) Commons© represent a wonderful initiative in this direction. This database specifically is not only for children’s education, even though most of the uploaded files range from preschool to high school levels. Anyone can share lesson plans, exercise sheets, and activity proposals for any level or subject. (If teachers in higher education seem, let us say, not so willing to share their tools, well, this is another discussion). Resources are free and customizable, depending on some given criteria. OER Commons© was the first collaborative platform I found for sharing teaching materials. However, it did not show the materials I was looking for (by that time, I needed ideas related to Contemporary Japanese Literature).

MERLOT website homepage.

Last year, I learned about another collaborative platform that helped me find valuable resources. The Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching — MERLOT is a program run by the California State University Long Beach with the cooperation of individuals (mainly teachers/researchers), educational institutions, and other groups. I believe scholars that conduct research in topics related to Oriental Studies may find it helpful too. (No, I did not hear this through the grapevine). One of the reasons for this is that MERLOT‘s SmartSearch is not limited to its own database, but it also searches other similar libraries and the web. In a search for “Egypt”, there are 76 results in the MERLOT Collection:

By clicking on the tabs “Other Libraries” or “The Web”, we can find up to one hundred other entries in each, due to MERLOT‘s configuration (that limits the number of results to 100). Anyway, in the MERLOT Collection tab, it is possible to filter the results by discipline, material type (animation, presentation, video, open-access text, learning object repository, reference material, and others), and audience, as well as by other features, such as having Creative Commons License, being free (partially or totally), having comments from members or user ratings, etc.

In spite of this, it might be still difficult to find materials if our search term is not a considerably broad one — for example, if I type “art in Pharaonic civilization” instead of “Egypt,” there is only one result. We should be aware of the need to move from the general to the specific searches when using the SmartSearch, but this should not, by any means, discourage us from using MERLOT. In fact, in contradistinction to OER Commons© and other similar sources, the items in MERLOT are peer-reviewed. This means that the items in the collection have been through an evaluation process before they were made available. Of course this peer-review is not the same as the one conducted in journals or editing houses to publish research papers and other academic texts. Volunteers can join the team following the instructions given on the MERLOT Peer Review page and by participating in a series of 3 workshops called GRAPE Camp (Getting Reviewers Accustomed to the Process of Evaluation). In order to help teachers who come in search of teaching/learning resources, the items must be examined and relevant information must be displayed on the platform.  

If we search for “Indian cuisine,” for example, and click on an entry such as “Manjula’s kitchen,” a page with material details will appear. There we can find out more information about the shared resource:

Every one of us can contribute by adding or reviewing materials, or both. We can also join the Academic Discipline Community Portals and connect with other specialists. MERLOT also has a conference, organized together with the Online Learning Consortium, and is one more opportunity to share and cooperate. The last one was held in 2020 and was completely virtual. Details like this distinguish MERLOT from other collaborative platforms – it is not a case of new wine in old bottles.

The recently updated Content Builder is another feature of MERLOT that grabs our attention. By using this tool, it is possible to create a website where one can disposit resources, portfolios, and other materials, as well as create new items. While content is shared with others, it is also stored and organized.

Cooperation is transdisciplinary and is the key tool to every collaborative project or platform. Whatever discipline we chose for ourselves, it is worth sharing the materials we know and use — and reviewing them before publishing is a useful way of ensuring that a general level of quality across resources is maintained. Both sharing and reviewing a given teaching resource, and every other step towards cooperation benefits all, particularly when teaching materials seem to be scarce in specific subject areas.

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