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Comparing OER Repositories Part 3 - Writing Diagnostics

blendedlearning's picture

Our previous Comparing OER Repositories post explored how to find basic economic video lectures. There was a clear best option: Khan Academy, whose focus on video lectures made it the easy winner. With this post, we are going to run a similar series of tests, looking for thorough and extensive libraries, finding resources at college level (not just K-12), making sure that resources are reviewed. To get a sense of what’s available and where to find it, we will write a series of posts combing through four different OER repositories – OER Commons, Khan Academy, Connexions, and FREE – looking for three very different sets of material and evaluate the results as well as ease of use.

1)      Interactive materials for chemistry students reviewing volume-related concepts
2)      Video lectures on introductory economic concepts
3)      English grammar and style exercises that faculty can use to evaluate and target students’ specific writing issues

This particular post is going to test both the OER repositories and my own ingenuity in coming up with search terms because of the content that we’re looking for. When I describe something “English grammar and style exercises that faculty could use to give college-level writers targeted extra help on specific writing issues,” it’s easy for a person to understand what kind of material I’m looking for – diagnostic exercises where instructors can look at the result and know what the student’s writing strengths and weaknesses are. However – one of the limitations technology forces us to cope with – it’s harder to translate that common-sense idea into useful search terms. With our last two posts about chemistry and economics it wasn’t always easy to get the rights results, but there were only so many possible options to search. For this case especially, it will be tricky to find the correct terms to get the appropriate results. I’m thinking about it as an experiment within an experiment: not only are we testing the repositories, but we are also testing to see what searches or combination of searches gets us the results we need when looking for this kind of humanities resource.

OER Commons:
Since we’re dealing with a  case of difficult search terms, it makes sense to try and narrow down the field of results as much as possible before we start trying terms. With OER Commons, that means scrolling down to the “Browse by Topic” section and selecting “Humanities.” When we bring up the full list of options under Humanities, one of the categories is “Reading & Writing,” which seems promising. Unfortunately, that leaves us with 2885 results. Somehow, the results have widened – we need to limit back to “Humanities” and “Post-secondary.” Finally, we get to the trickiest category: Material Type. Several options seem possible – Activities and Labs? Assessments? Games? Homework and Assignments? Interactive? Other? Since those topic names alone are too vague to be sure, let’s try and run all of them. This narrowed search still leaves us with 336 results to sort through. An examination of the first one hundred hits reveals nothing along the lines of what we need. The only writing “exercises” are for English language learners, primarily for students learning English as a foreign language. Clearly, this basic search was inconclusive. Instead, I’ll attempt the “Use Advanced Search” option at the top of the page. This allows us to sort by a number of additional fields. For example, we can limit the “Educational Use” field to specify “Assessment” and the “Primary User” to “Teacher.” This turns up 17 results. None of them are exercises, but some of them are usable rubrics and assessment techniques, mostly from University College Dublin’s “UCD Teaching and Learning” collection.


Khan Academy:
Our search of Khan Academy, for this particular subject, will be particularly short. Scrolling down to the Humanities section, we see three categories of resource offerings: World History, Art History, and American Civics. None of these options will have the material we’re looking for, so it looks like we can skip Khan Academy altogether.


Searching modules on Connexions presents even more specific challenges, since their search engine leaves very little room to define specific search parameters. For example, searching for “English writing,” which is about as general as we can get, yields 1199 results. “English writing diagnostic” yields nothing of apparent use. “English grammar” yields 399 results, which might be a good place to start looking. Unfortunately, a closer examination of the results shows that they seem to be for English language learners, rather than English speakers looking to improve their writing skills. “English writing college” yields 245 results, but these results do not appear to be relevant either. I’ll try another strategy – limiting my search to collections, rather than searching individual modules. Searching just “English” here returns 36 results, almost all related to ELL courses. The results for “Writing” are slightly more on topic, but still not really what we’re looking for. Before we spend too much time looking, we should probably stop and consider whether or not Connexions is likely to even have what we’re looking for. Modules on Connexions are primarily informational. Because their content-creating mechanism isn’t particularly well suited to diagnostic tools, nor does it have any reporting mechanism that instructors administering a test could use to track results. We could spend a lot of time looking, and I’m sure we could find something of some use, this is probably not the best place for us to look.


FREE, as we’ve found, has two primary mechanisms for sifting through materials – the basic search, and sorting by topic. To narrow by topic, in this case, we probably want to select Language Arts. This returns a whopping 5,940 results, with no real way to narrow the field, except for the four Filters. Unfortunately, the Filters are “Video,” “Primary Doc,” “Animation,” and “Photo,” neither of which are particularly helpful. It looks like we’re going to have to use the Registry search. Of course, that returns us to our original dilemma of finding the right search terms. Since the new FREE is still undergoing beta testing, there’s frankly no guarantee that the search will be effective – or even run, frankly, until FREE is really up and running. As a backup plan, we can revert to the old FREE and check the options from there. The 23 resources that appear do not seem particularly relevant.  Once again, it looks like we don’t have any successful finds.

Conclusions: This search has been a harsh reminder of exactly how important it is to be able to describe what you’re looking for – and for content creators to be using the same language as searchers. We found almost no resources that exactly matched what we wanted. English materials, perhaps, fall into the same category as chemistry: you might be better served by looking in sites that specialize in writing resources than trying to sort through broad-base aggregators.