Sunday, May 23, 2010

Learning Objects on Shmoop

For my Learning Object report I choose the website Shmoop. My reasons for doing so are purely selfish. I have been meaning to take a closer look at the website for a while and have not had time to do so. I was primarily interested in the Literature resources they offered. I don't work with any programs which offer a lit course but I do enjoy poetry and prose. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a closer look.

What is Shmoop?

Shmoop is a website which promises to make you a "better lover of literature, history, life..." (Shmoop homepage). The student resources are broken down into 9 categories: literature, poetry, Shakespeare, bestsellers, US history, civics, biographies, and AP exams. With the exception of AP exams, each of these categories offer free study resources for students at the high school and undergraduate level. All study guides are written by people hired by Shmoop University Inc. and most of the writers are teachers and graduate students.

The idea behind Shmoop is to make topics in subjects like literature, civics and history palatable to the 21st century learner. The study guide I viewed on The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock breaks the poem down stanza by stanza and explains it in a breezy, easy to understand style. This study guide includes web resources and study questions. Each study guide also includes a section called Why Should I Care which points out the cultural relevance of each work studied.

Open or not?

Our project parameters did not stipulate whether the Learning Object project had to be open or not. In an earlier post I defined open as an object which is easily available, freely usable, and customizable.

Shmoop is easily available. Most resources can be viewed without an account on their website. They also have study guides available through iPhone, Kindle, B&N Nook, and the Sony Reader. These mobile resources are not free however. At the time of writing, units from Shmoop cost $1.99 each on iTunes.

Resources from Shmoop are not freely usable both in terms of cost and copyright. Although the Shmoop Teacher Resource How to Use Shmoop page suggests teachers can freely copy assignments and activities into their own webpages (using copy and paste or HTML code provided by Shmoop) the Terms of Use page paints a different story. Under section VI User Conduct and Licenses to Use Shmoop Services it states:

"User may download copyrighted material for personal use only, unless User obtains express permission in writing from an authorized Shmoop University, Inc. representative, and the copyright owner, to download copyrighted material for other uses. Thus, except as otherwise expressly permitted under copyright law, User may not copy, redistribute, retransmit, publish or commercially exploit downloaded material without express permission in writing of Shmoop and the copyright owner." (Section VI of Terms of Use Shmoop)

In the US teachers would be allowed to copy and paste information from the website under Fair Use. In Canada and other countries this is not the case. I expect that it would be easy to obtain permission from Shmoop to use content in this manner since they seem to encourage it.

Shmoop also does not allow alteration of their content. It is use-as-is content. This means that they do not meet my criteria of open in terms of customization.

Shmoop maybe easy and cheap to use but it is not open.

Where is Shmoop now?

Shmoop is still in Beta mode so it is still being tested. To gain user feedback Shmoop offers a suggestions link which takes the user to a page where they can rant, rave and request. Users can also vote on ideas they like. The page categorizes ideas based on popularity, and allows users to see which ideas Shmoop is working on and which ones are completed.

An interview with the President and CEO of Shmoop, Ellen Siminoff, explains that the site makes money through advertising and sales of exams, teacher resources, ebooks and apps (transcribed interview). Because Shmoop charges for their apps as long as people are using the apps they should keep making money.

Prognosis for Future

I see no reason why Shmoop might fail in the near future. They collaborate with their Beta users through an interactive suggestions page, Facebook, Twitter and a blog. They have a system to make money for the company. Siminoff has stated that Shmoop is close to actually making money and she doesn't see an immediate need to spend in the near future (transcribed interview).

I am not sure how useful this site is outside of the US though. Many of the video clips I tried to view are not available outside of the US which is a problem for international users. The language and cultural references used are also specific to a western audience. I expect there could also be arguments made which narrow this audience even further demographically. There is also the fact that their entire history and civics sections are about the US alone. I expect their target market is the US student though.

Although they are not an open initiative Shmoop seems to share some of the same ideals. They are passionate about their subject matter and attempt to make it accessible (at least intellectually) to many in the US and Canada. If they focus on the subjects they already cover and continue to develop and offer mobile services I see no reason for them to fail.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Library Critique

This week we were asked to look at a library website and determine whether the library under review is a repository or a referactory. If we define repository and referactory in the same way as in in the Educause report we read then my institution's library is a repository.

The Northern Lakes College Library offers a traditional library search engine, learning guides / tutorials for students, a database of electronic resource, and a collection of web resources organized by topics. Although the site does not have any terms of service laid out like we saw in Schalk's example, I believe these issues are meant to be understood. The college has a standard plagiarism policy and copyright in Canada is covered widely on the library's Moodle site accessible to college staff and students.

I think you could have a library that was both a repository and referactory. I am sure I have seen examples of this as well although they escape me at the moment. I wonder if a library as referactory is taking away from the classes offered at an institution. From the articles we read I understood what differentiates a referactory from repository is that the former offers guidelines on how to use a resource. If this is true then doesn't that restrict how it is used within the context of a course? Are we back to the reusibility paradox or am I missing something?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reuse of Educational Objects

This week we looked at the Reusability Paradox. Basically this paradox explains that educational resources become more valuable pedagogically the more context they have, but the greater the context the less it is possible to reuse those resources. The greater the context surrounding an object the less likely it is to use that object in another context.

I looked one evening at three institutions who offer open content for courses to see how the content was being reused. I searched using a backwards link search in Google's advanced search function. The institutions I looked at were Capliano College (Canada), UC Berkley (USA), and The Open University (UK). I looked at a variety of different courses offered.

The most common form of reuse I found was a simple listing on a resource based webpage. For example, I searched some art courses at Caplilano and found this page listing many online art courses for free. I found one course which had a specific recommendation on a blog for a webclass offered at UC Berkley. I had an interesting find which I am not sure would count as reuse. When doing a link back for a course offered through The Open University I found a link to an article written in the OU's newsletter with an add linking back to the course I was searching. I thought this was a nice form of advertising. The topic of the article related to the course offered. Is this reuses though?

All in all my results were fairly disappointing. I really thought I would find more examples, especially recommendations on blogs.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Learning Objects and OERs

Learning objects are something I don't know very much about. The first time I heard the term learning object (LO) I remember picturing a 3 dimensional object in virtual space and I couldn't figure out how you would use it for learning.

I think the name is part of the problem with LOs. What constitutes a LO? Is it a lesson, a set of exercises, or an entire unit of learning? The name learning object doesn't really tell you much about what it is and there doesn't seem to be a clear definition of what LOs are in learning communities. As I mentioned in a previous post this also is the case with OERs.

Another feature OERs and LOs share is the fact that both are spread-out all over the place. There are a few repositories of LOs and OERs but there are many out there which are difficult to find.

Answering the question regarding critical success factors to open initiatives is difficult. The issues I mentioned above while possibly contributing to the lack of success in LOs are also important in maintaining flexibility in open initiatives. While a clear definition would help in identifying what an OER is it would also limit what is considered to be an OER, so I believe it is important to maintain a broad definition. Collecting all OERs to one location would also be extremely limiting. If everything is kept in one location the potential exists for stagnation of ideas. These are both issues of control and freedom.

One advantage OERs have is the potential for customization and I think this is where the secret to success lies. The ability to take a resource and change it to suit your needs while keeping the original intact is a vital step in encouraging the growth of ideas while maintaining a map of where ideas came from.