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Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

Search Engine Powered Courses…

How can we use customised search engines to support uncourses, or the course models used to support MOOC style offerings?

To set the scene, here’s what Stephen Downes wrote recently on the topic of How to partcipate in a MOOC:

You will notice quickly that there is far too much information being posted in the course for any one person to consume. We tried to start slowly with just a few resources, but it quickly turns into a deluge.

You will be provided with summaries and links to dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe even thousands of web posts, articles from journals and magazines, videos and lectures, audio recordings, live online sessions, discussion groups, and more. Very quickly, you may feel overwhelmed.

Don’t let it intimidate you. Think of it as being like a grocery store or marketplace. Nobody is expected to sample and try everything. Rather, the purpose is to provide a wide selection to allow you to pick and choose what’s of interest to you.

This is an important part of the connectivist model being used in this course. The idea is that there is no one central curriculum that every person follows. The learning takes place through the interaction with resources and course participants, not through memorizing content. By selecting your own materials, you create your own unique perspective on the subject matter.

It is the interaction between these unique perspectives that makes a connectivist course interesting. Each person brings something new to the conversation. So you learn by interacting rather than by mertely consuming.

When I put together the the OU course T151, the original vision revolved around a couple of principles:

1) the course would be built in part around materials produced in public as part of the Digital Worlds uncourse;

2) each week’s offering would follow a similar model: one or two topic explorations, plus an activity and forum discussion time.

In addition, the topic explorations would have a standard format: scene setting, and maybe a teaser question with answer reveal or call to action in the forums; a set of topic exploration questions to frame the topic exploration; a set of resources related to the topic at hand, organised by type (academic readings (via a libezproxy link for subscription content so no downstream logins are required to access the content), Digital Worlds resources, weblinks (industry or well informed blogs, news sites etc), audio and video resources); and a reflective essay by the instructor exploring some of the themes raised in the questions and referring to some of the resources. The aim of the reflective essay was to model the sort of exploration or investigation the student might engage in.

(I’d probably just have a mixed bag of resources listed now, along with a faceting option to focus in on readings, videos, etc.)

The idea behind designing the course in this way was that it would be componentised as much as possible, to allow flexibility in swapping resources or even topics in and out, as well as (though we never managed this), allowing the freedom to study the topics in an arbitrary order. Note: I realised today that to make the materials more easily maintainable, a set of ‘Recent links’ might be identified that weren’t referred to in the ‘My Reflections’ response. That is, they could be completely free standing, and would have no side effects if replaced.

As far as the provision of linked resources went, the original model was that the links should be fed into the course materials from an instructor maintained bookmark collection (for an early take on this, see Managing Bookmarks, with a proof of concept demo at CourseLinks Demo (Hmmm, everything except the dynamic link injection appears to have rotted:-().

The design of the questions/resources page was intended to have the scoping questions at the top of the page, and then the suggested resources presented in a style reminiscent of a search engine results listing, the idea being that we would present the students with too many resources for them to comfortably read in the allocated time, so that they would have to explore the resources from their own perspective (eg given their current level of understanding/knowledge, their personal interests, and so on). In one of my more radical moments, I suggested that the resources would actually be pulled in from a curated/custom search engine ‘live’, according to search terms specially selected around the current topic and framing questions, but I was overruled on that. However, the course does have a Google custom search engine associated with it which searches over materials that are linked to from the course.

So that’s the context…

Where I’m at now is pondering how we can use an enhanced custom search engine as a delivery platform for a resource based uncourse. So here’s my first thought: using a Google Custom Search Engine populated with curated resources in a particular area, can we use Google CSE Promotions to help scaffold a topic exploration?

Here’s my first promotions file:

   <Promotion id="t151_1a" 
        queries="topic 1a, Topic 1A, topic exploration 1a, topic exploration 1A, topic 1A, what is a game, game definition" 
        title="T151 Topic Exploration 1A - So what is a game?" 
        description="The aim of this topic is to think about what makes a game a game. Spend a minute or two to come up with your own definition. If you're stuck, read through the Digital Worlds post 'So what is a game?'"
        image_url="http://kmi.open.ac.uk/images/ou-logo.gif" />

It’s running on the Digital Worlds Search Engine, so if you want to try it out, try entering the search phrase what is a game or game definition.

T151 CSE promotion - game definition

(This example suggests to me that it would also make sense to use result boosting to boost the key readings/suggested resources I proposed in the topic materials so that they appear nearer the top of the results (that’ll be the focus of a future post;-))

The promotion displays at the top of the results listing if the specified queries match the search terms the user enters. My initial feeling is that to bootstrap the process, we need to handle:

- queries that allow a user to call on a starting point for a topic exploration by specifically identifying that topic;
- “naive queries”: one reason for using the resource-search model is to try to help students develop effective information skills relating to search. Promotions (and result boosting) allow us to pick up on anticipated naive queries (or popular queries identified from search logs), and suggest a starting point for a sensible way in to the topic. Alternatively, they could be used to offer suggestions for improved or refined searches, or search strategy hints. (I’m reminded of Dave Pattern’s work with guided searches/keyword refinements in the University of Huddersfield Library catalogue in this context).

Here’s another example using the same promotion, but on a different search term:

T151 CSE - topic 1a

Of course, we could also start to turn the search engine into something like an adventure game engine. So for example, if we type: start or about, we might get something like:

T151 CSE - start

(The link I associated with start should really point to the course introduction page in the VLE…)

We can also use the search context to provide pastoral or study skills support:

T151 CSE - pastoral

These sort of promotions/enhancements might be produced centrally and rolled out across course search engines, leaving the course and discipline related customisations to the course team and associated subject librarians.

Just a final note: ignoring resource limitations on Google CSEs for a moment, we might imagine the following scenarios for their role out:

1) course wide: bespoke CSEs are commissioned for each course, although they may be supplemented by generic enhancements (eg relating to study skills);

2) qualification based: the CSE is defined at the qualification level, and students call on particular course enhancements by prefacing the search with the course code; it might be that students also see a personalised view of the qualification CSE that is tuned to their current year of study.

3) university wide: the CSE is defined at the university level, and students students call on particular course or qualification level enhancements by prefacing the search with the course or qualification code.

Written by Tony Hirst

September 15, 2011 at 2:03 pm

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  1. [...] Search Engine Powered Courses… How can we use customised search engines to support uncourses, or the course models used to support MOOC style offerings? To set the scene, here's what Stephen Downes wrote recently on the topic… Source: blog.ouseful.info [...]

  2. [...] Search Engine Powered Courses…, I took an initial, baby step to demonstrate one way in which a promoted link might be used be [...]

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