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From the Forum: The Internet and the History Classroom in the May 2003 Perspectives

A Taste for MERLOT: The Multimedia Reference for Historians and Others

William A. Paquette, May 2003

It has been more than 30 years since I completed my bachelor's degree and entered the profession of teaching history. I went on to earn both master's and doctoral degrees while teaching. My undergraduate and graduate degree programs emphasized the mastery of content and teaching methods to actively engage students in the learning process. After 25 years in the profession I felt secure with my teaching methodology. Then along came computers and the challenge of developing and using online resources for classroom instruction and web-based courses. A revolution in education had begun. Where did I fit into this process?

For a number of years I toyed with a variety of ideas about using web sites as an extension of my classroom instruction. Each web search overwhelmed me with hundreds of possible sites created by academia, nonprofits, museums, archives, television stations, and corporations. A review of each site involved hours of work. Some were too commercial, hawking items related (and not) to the subject of the site. Other web sites offered too little information for use within a college transfer course. A few looked good, but were literally dumping grounds of archival documents and information without any format review. I found myself challenged by the amount of time spent screening sites, which prevented me from reading the books and journal and newspaper articles relevant for continued mastery of course content. It was easy to just consider shelving web site use. However, my professionalism compelled me to look for a better solution. And, then, along came Merlot, an open-source collection of more than 3,000 web-based learning materials in 14 disciplines. The very name appealed to my French heritage. I hoped it would be—and it has indeed become—an intoxicating educational experience.

Merlot (www.merlot.org) is the acronym for Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. The site was created in 1993 and funded by the Center for Distributed Learning of the California State University (CSU) system as well as institutional partners from the United States and other countries. While many universities fund faculty to create programs for web-based instruction, CSU initiated a comprehensive planning process to review how technology was being implemented and supported within its 23 campuses enrolling 340,000 students. The review process considered increased personal productivity, support for excellence in learning and teaching, assured quality of the student experience, and increased administrative productivity and quality. The results both encouraged and surprised CSU. What the study revealed was that online learning and teaching lacked a viable evaluation mechanism to assure web site quality and a strategy to disseminate that information.

Merlot addresses two major challenges facing higher education—accessibility to, and the usability of, high-quality, web-based, interactive learning materials. Faculty in the profession frequently lack the training and experience to judge the content quality, usability, and potential use of web-based materials for effective integration into a comprehensive pedagogical context. Faculty are not always sure who in their profession can offer the best advice about the operation, uses, and assessment of digital materials. Time and workload demands within the profession limit opportunities to effectively integrate technology into student learning. But Merlot offers an efficient way of utilizing available electronic resources both through the content provided on its web site and through the organizations of this content.

The Merlot site has learning units, which are modules or learning objects that faculty can integrate into their course curriculums to enhance the learning experience for both the student and the faculty member. The Merlot database of searchable URLs offers web sites with description, peer reviews by professionals in the discipline, learning assignments, user comments, and technical tips. The Merlot member directory is a searchable database of member profiles containing information about the member's area of expertise, projects, and contributions to Merlot.

Merlot membership is free and registration on the site is easy. As an open source, Merlot is designed to become a dynamic repository serving an online community. Merlot wants educators to become active participants in the online community by sharing and reviewing learning materials and human resources to improve education. Members review existing sites, add web sites and learning assignments, and can become external peer reviewers. Most important, members gain access to web sites peer reviewed by an international team. Peer reviewers are selected from among Merlot's institutional partners. Peer reviews (which are different from member reviews) are crucial elements in the Merlot project and are, therefore, conducted with similar rigor across the various disciplines that the Merlot project encompasses. I take history as an example to describe this process in some detail.

History was added to the Merlot list of disciplines in 2000. The history team developed a system to classify the learning objects (web sites) in the history collection. The team developed criteria for determining which sites should be peer reviewed, which sites should not be reviewed because they lacked learning objects (but kept, nevertheless, because they are archival collections), and which sites should be removed from the site altogether. The team also developed a detailed peer review process that is based on assessment of content quality, potential effectiveness for teaching and learning, and ease of use.

Assessment for content quality focuses on whether or not the learning materials present valid concepts, models, and skills and if the learning materials present educationally significant concepts, models, and skills for the discipline. Potential effectiveness for teaching and learning is determined by the peer reviewers on the basis of their experiences as teachers and whether or not the materials are likely to improve teaching and learning that benefit both teacher and student. Ease of use is evaluated on the basis of how easy (or not) it is to use the site. Emphasis is placed on technical requirements for site use; download issues, and the ability to move within and without the site. Two history team members who are experts in the subject area review each web site. The two reviews are then given to one of the team's two history coeditors who combines the reviews into a composite for posting on the site. If there is a significant disparity in the two reviews, a third history reviewer—perhaps an expert from outside the history discipline team—is consulted. Before the composite review is posted, the site author(s) are contacted and informed about the review process. The author receives a copy of the composite review. The history discipline team members review any concerns about the web site peer review before it is posted.

The beauty of Merlot is the ability to enhance a course using an entire site or "hunks" of knowledge from the site either directly in the classroom or for student use independently from the classroom. Web enhanced interactive assignments help my students learn better. The history URLs provided by Merlot free history faculty from using costly electronic texts or sites requiring a user fee. For instance, the three history survey courses—U.S. history, Western civilization, and world civilization—that I developed provide a topical listing of Merlot history sites appropriate for each course. Among these, sites that have been peer reviewed and are accompanied by learning assignments are so designated. The listing offers Merlot history members a reference that facilitates their use of Merlot materials.

Merlot also encourages sharing and collaboration among colleagues in the discipline. The sites are periodically checked to see that there are no broken links or dead sites. Using digital hunks makes costly copying and additional texts unnecessary. Other discipline sites within Merlot offer learning objects that historians can use for interdisciplinary approaches. Currently there are more than 200 learning objects on the history site. Over 25 percent are currently peer reviewed with the expectation that we will reach 50 percent by the end of the summer 2003.

Being a part of Merlot has brought new excitement to my teaching and professional growth. I review history web sites, work with web site authors, create learning assignments for specific sites that I use in my courses, and also undertake training sessions for faculty at my college to introduce them in the Merlot collection and discuss how they might integrate Merlot learning objects into their teaching.

Join me in the Merlot Tasting Room. Become as educationally intoxicated with what is new in the profession as I am! And it's free!

—William A. Paquette is professor of history at Tidewater Community College in Portsmouth, Virginia. He also serves as history coeditor for Merlot, which he joined in 2000. He can be reached at wpaquette@tcc.vccs.edu.