Yesterday morning I took my first concrete steps toward a prototype of the web-based learning tool I’ve been working on. I wrote a bid request on Rent A Coder. Happily, I’ve already had two responses, including a bid to complete the job for $299… gotta love outsourcing. :)
I’m also interested in feedback on the idea and features, so I’m posting here as well. I hope some of you will offer comments in return. Here’s a few excerpts from the bid request:
Search, Learn, Share: A Learning-Focused Metasearch Tool
This project is a prototype for a learning focused metasearch tool. The product is unnamed, but the tagline is: Search, Learn, Share.
Phase 1: The user will be presented with the question “What do you want to learn?” and an empty search box. Entering something into the search box and hitting return will result in resources being returned from several sources, including books, scholarly articles, news, blogs, and the web in general – with each type of source in its own section of the page. Other sources might include images and videos. This saves the user from having to visit multiple sites for multiple types of information.
Phase 2: The user can then annotate and save their search – or their individual results. This way they can return to useful searches and results again in the future. Results can also be grouped into projects or “folders.” Naturally annotations include keywords or tags to allow organization via folksonomy.
Phase 3: In addition, if users choose to share their results (publicly or with their “friends” or “co-learners” in the system) then others will be able to benefit from their annotations. Users will also be connected with others who are learning about (and sharing) the same thing.
For the prototype this could be built primarily on existing Google APIs – and the app itself might be built on Google’s App Engine.
Modeling another site:
addictomatic.com – This site has much of the functionality described in Phase 1. Items from different sources are displayed in separate boxes. Users can decide how to arrange the boxes and which sources to include or exclude. This prototype will draw from some different sources and will (in phase 2 and 3) allow saving, annotating, and sharing of valuable sources.
questia.com – This research site provides users with results from books, journal articles, and news sources. The sources provided in these searches come only form Questia’s online library of full text documents. This prototype will perform a similar function, but will draw from all over the web. As mentioned above, this prototype will also add the function of saving, annotating, and sharing valuable sources.
The most important sources to include in Phase 1 are: Google Books, Google Scholar, Google News, Google Blog Search, and Google Web Search. Other sources can include Google Images and Google Video. Other non-Google sources can be added in the future.
Ultimately, this is one home page for users to visit, but once they login there are many features available:
- Top Center: The single search box described in the description, which asks “What do you want to learn?”
- Center: Boxes for Books, Articles, News, Blogs, and Web – as well as Images and Video. Each box includes items (with descriptions or thumbnails) from these sources.
- Left hand column: Saved searches and results, organized by project folders and by keywords or tags.
- Right hand column: Social features, including a box for “friends” or “co-learners” with an outline of what others are learning. For instance under “What’s Mike Learning?” the user will see a list of the newest three saved searches made by the user’s friend Mike. Below this will be a box displaying other users who have made searches similar to the most recent one made or viewed by the user.
If you’d like more detail (or are interested in coding this), please click through to the bid request.
In the future, I see this software taking on more of an active role in users learning. For instance, if a user enters certain search terms (in response to “what do you want to learn?”), the system might rewrite the search to better return results that will help someone learn about what they searched for. For instance, the system might add “how to” or “explanation” or something like that to the search terms… or add helpful quotes. Ideally, the system could learn from other users searches and annotations (or ratings) and thus provide a “human-powered” search element not unlike mahalo.com too. Also, from a pedagogical perspective, I’d love it if the system could help guide users through an inquiry process in addition to returning results – it might also suggest additional questions to ask or additional things to learn about – either in search of greater detail/understanding or in search of related knowledge.
Of course, there is a business model behind this, too. I imagine a hybrid of advertising and membership revenue would work well. I think contextual ads (and perhaps banner sponsors) would be appropriate for free accounts, and a premium (ad free) version would be available as well – and would include some features missing from the free version. Something like $9.99 a month or $99 a year might be reasonable. Premium features might include additional project management features (or anything above that isn’t required to be free based on the API licensing agreements with Google and others). Of course, when users aren’t accustomed to paying for search – or community – sorting out which features will be premium will be a challenge. I’d love feedback on this business model as well.
In any case, the target audience (and advertising target) would be “learners” – which I’m told is a bit too broad. So, who would use this? I’m interested in it because I would. But who would we market to? Students? Teachers? Adult learners? It seems it makes search (and social bookmarking) potentially less geeky since it makes it all so easy in one place. On the other hand, it might just be a fringe geeky sort of thing. (Incidentally, I was surprised to find sites like Google Scholar have monthly unique users in the order of 2 million, while delicious.com has something more like less than half a million.) Again, I’m interested in your thoughts about who might use this.
Thanks in advance for any feedback you can offer. :)
Also, if you’d like to join a mailing list about this project, click here: http://groups.google.com/group/search-learn-share/