Applied Mechanics News

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Merlot: a catalog of online learning materials for high education

Several recent entries of AMN have discussed possible roles of the Internet in shaping the future of Applied Mechanics. Shriram Ramanathan noted that the Internet can be a platform for public outreach. Paul Steif considered broadening the reach of mechanics to users of mechanics in engineering practice. I argued for initiating a Wikimechanics Project to organize everything known about mechanics, from everyday experience to esoteric theories, and everything in between.

But who has time for all this work? And how can we build an online community? Teng Li has begun to talk about these essential issues.

Perhaps a good starting point for us is to learn from successful Internet projects. I've written about Wikipedia and Slashdot. In this entry, I'd like to talk about Merlot.

Standing for Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, Merlot is a website that aggregates online learning materials for high education. Merlot was initiated in 1997 by the California State University Center for Distributed Learning. Today Merlot lists 499 items in Arts, 2407 in Business, 2052 in Education, 2257 in Humanities, 1130 in Mathematics and Statistics, 5699 in Science and Technology, and 979 in Social Sciences.

To learn how Merlot works, I clicked “DNA from the Beginning”, the fourth item listed in the category of Science and Technology. Listed on this Merlot page was an excellent website created by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. This item was added to Merlot in 2000 by a user named Jeff Bell, and reviewed in 2002 by the Merlot Biology Panel, which gave the item a rating of five stars. A total of seven users left comments, and all ranked the item with five stars. Four users created assignments to go along with the item. This item was collected by 104 users, whose personal collections I could also view.

I searched in Merlot using the keyword “mechanics”, and found 87 items, mostly on classical mechanics, quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics. I did find a number of items on applied mechanics, including ones on Strength of Materials, created by Mehrdad Negahban, of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln; and by Alan Zehnder, of Cornell University.

Anybody can view most of Merlot, but only members can submit new items, leave comments, etc. I signed on as a member, and submitted Applied Mechanics News as an item, which now has its own Merlot page. If you sign on as a member of Merlot, you can comment on this item, collect it, and submit new items.

You might want to explore the history of Merlot, and the structure of the Merlot community. To learn how to pronounce Merlot and hear a few sound bites, you might want to watch this short video.

We can learn many lessons from Merlot, but before we talk about these lessons, we ought to first spend more time to experiment with it. The number of excellent items is just astonishing, and Merlot has found ways to encourage users to participate.


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