What Do You Want to Learn?

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

Brief Summary:

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.

Other info:

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/

9 Responses to “What Do You Want to Learn?”

  1. Darren Draper Says:

    Well, Dr. Wagner, this looks like a great project. I wish you the best of luck with it and look forward to seeing where it leads.

  2. Harold Olejarz Says:

    Excellent idea.

    One possible feature that comes to mind is to have a way to publish the search results as web pages. Users could decide to make their search results public or private. Users could also create a website with an index page that has links to all of their results pages. Users could invite or give permission to other users to visit and edit and comment on the results of the searches.

  3. Bill Butler Says:

    Mark,
    Looking at the business model, I like the idea of a free ad based version. If people like the site they might then sign up for the “Pro Version”. However, you might want to lower the price slightly. $5/month or $49/year might bring in more subscribers without cutting into the total amount generated.
    Overall, the idea sounds interesting!
    BB

  4. Sharon Eilts Says:

    It sort of reminds me of StumbleUpon where one can do some of the same things. How would this be significantly different? Also StumbleUpon is free.

    Sharon

  5. Jeremy Davis Says:

    Mark,

    It would be amazing if you could have your search results ranked by number of times they had been linked on twitter, marked on diigo, delicious, etc. It would be especially amazing if links from great edtech professionals were given a slightly higher percentage value in moving results up the ladder vs being linked by randoms. Would be a lot of work and a lot of updating, but it would be incredibly useful. Also, an RSS feed for each search, so when new items come into the search, the user is notified. If your coder can write a program to identify those with certain words in their profiles on twitter/diigo/etc and then check their links automatically, I want royalties :)

    Jeremy

  6. Julien Llanas Says:

    Two ideas about this project :

    - did you think about involving tutors or moderators that could offer or sell their services… like informal teachers collecting informations on topics or making their own virtual courses with this kind of web 2.0 website ? answering questions ? grading tests ?

    - did you think about making this website compatible with the elearning standards Scorm CC and let sudents or teachers sharing or selling elearning courses ?

    This website could be a good way to develop learners/teachers community structured by a good tool to gather, filter, organize and share contents provided by the world wide web.

  7. Mark Wagner, Ph.D. Says:

    Hi, all. Here are some responses to your comments…

    Darren, thank you for the encouraging words. :)

    Bill, good feedback on the pricing… I’m sure some market research will have to be done following development of an initial prototype.

    Harold. Thanks for your feedback. Some form of public sharing of resources is (I think) essential to the mature version of the site – and an index page is a good idea. Stay tuned…

    Sharon, I’m not a heavy user of StumbleUpon, but it seems very different to me. Stumble upon is all about recommendations – and finding related things in a somewhat random or surprising fashion, right? This is more of a deliberate research tool… imagine seeing the top 5 books, top 5 scholarly articles, top 5 blogs, and top 5 websites all aggregated into one place. This might also include thumbnails of the top 5 images and the top 5 (instructional) videos on a topic. That’s what I’m after – plus the ability to save, annotate, and share both searches and results. If StumbleUpon does something more like that, perhaps I’ve missed it and I need you to enlighten me before I reinvent the wheel. :)

    Jeremey, thanks for the ideas. I think RSS feeds for searches will be a critical element of the mature site. The twitter, diigo, delicious, and “edtech professionals” integration would probably be more of a phase 4 project – for finding ways to make the system smarter. Ideally, it should also learn from what users save, annotate, and share as well – thus making the results of future similar searches even better… a sort of human search element I suppose. :)

    Julien, thanks for your feedback. I’m most excited about the potential of building learning communities around this tool… and the possibility of providing a marketplace for tutors or moderators interests me as well, but would probably come in at a much later phase in the project. I haven’t given much thought to Scorm standards, but that too might also be a thought for further down the road – to start with I imagine it having a much more broad and much less formal application.

    I hope to have something usable to share with you soon, perhaps within the week!

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