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September 7, 2011 / carlispina

Free Online Learning and Curation Tools

I have compiled a collection of online classes for learning a wide variety of topics from computer programming to the humanities. Most allow participants to proceed at their own pace, making them easier to fit into a busy schedule.  And, they are all free.

Since I was already collecting a list of websites, I decided this was also an excellent time to try out some of the popular Web 2.0 curation tools that are available. So, I used three different applications to collect the same list of 19 links to allow me to compare how these tools work for the same task.

First, I collected all of the links as a list on Diigo. Diigo is easy to get started with and has a simple, plain user interface. It also offers a variety of browser add-ons for a variety of browsers including Chrome, Firefox and Safari. I used the Diigolet add-on and found it easy to bookmark, tag and annotate websites. They were automatically added to the list that I selected and I found that it made Diigo very easy to use. Users have the option to make lists public or private and there are options to share lists on a wide array of social networks and by sending it to specific individuals. Lists have a fairly plain look and feel (for example, no representative images are included for the websites), which may be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the intended purpose. Overall, I found Diigo easy to learn and user-friendly. And now, anyone can see my list of free online learning resources.

Next, I decided to try a new service I had heard about from a coworker, Scoop.it. It also offers a browser add-on to make it easier to “scoop” a website into a curated topic. I found the add-on quick and easy to use. As with Diigo, it allows websites to be selected, tagged and annotated in one step. This makes it fast and easy to create a curated collection of websites. Scoop.it distinguishes itself in the presentation of the selected websites since it automatically culls images from the websites for inclusion in the collection where possible and also arranges the items into a two-column display that has the look of a newsletter. While I think that this is a more visually engaging display, it can also look a bit cluttered and busy, particularly if there are a lot of websites on a single topic collected. Sharing options are currently limited to just Twitter and Facebook, but since Scoop.it is still in beta, this may change in the future. Another minor drawback is that the service does not allow you to create a curated topic with a name that has already been used by another user, which can be limiting and is likely to become more of an issue as more curated topics are created. Despite these minor issues, I found Scoop.it easy to use and really liked the look of both the browser add-on interface and the final product. Here is my final collection of free online learning resources on Scoop.it.

The final curation tool that I tried was Curated.by. With Curated.by, users create “bundles” on a topic of interest to them. As with the other curation tools I have discussed, Curated.by offers a browser add-on to make adding websites to a bundle easier. However, this add-on only selects the website and does not provide the option of tagging or annotating the website at that stage. Instead, any annotations have to be added to the bundle after the website has already been imported. This second step can be somewhat cumbersome, but I didn’t find that it actually slowed me down too much once I became more familiar with it. The final Bundle has a look that is somewhere between the final products in Diigo and Scoop.it. Websites are laid out as a list, but small icons for websites are included where available. I didn’t like the layout of individual entries in the Bundle as well as the other services since annotations are included above the website, which can be visually confusing in a long list of websites. While all of the content relating to a single website is contained within a bordered rectangle, I still would have preferred the ability to include the annotations beneath the website. Also, I found that I had less control over which images were displayed for a website and whether any additional content associated with the website, such as descriptive text, was included in my Bundle. Bundles can be shared in a variety of ways, including through a simple link, through Twitter or Facebook, or by embedding a widget on a website. As an aside, Curated.by was the only curation tool where I had difficulty setting up my profile. I kept getting an error when I tried to upload an image for my profile picture, but since Curated.by is still in private beta, this may be fixed soon. Despite some drawbacks, I found Curated.by to be intuitive to use and easy to share. Here is my final Bundle.

All of these services have other aspects, such as ways of following or collaborating with other users, that I haven’t discussed since they were not relevant to my current curation project. However, I did feel that I used each service enough to get a good sense of what was available for creating a curated collection of resources on a particular topic. Each of these options had advantages and disadvantages, and, as with so many things, I think that a decision of which service to use would depend on the specific needs of the project at hand. I could see myself using more than one of these tools in the future depending on the type of product I wanted to create.

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