The Power of a Website: The MarineDataLiteracy.org Story
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dynadot customer Dr. Murray Brown, who runs MarineDataLiteracy.org, a website that maintains the largest online collection of marine data exercises on the web. Dr. Brown has a PhD in Marine Chemistry and has been working with a small UNESCO group that develops and presents training programs for young oceanographers in developing countries since the early 1990s. He started MarineDataLiteracy.org in 2010 after years of trying different ways of organizing his marine materials into a usable website format.
According to Dr. Brown, "Around the year 1999 we organized our materials into a website format, basically HTML with lots of PowerPoints (PPTs) and Word Documents (DOCs), for the students to consult after the courses. By about 2003 the curriculum had developed into a full-fledged online training forum, using - in turn - several formats. Initially there was a bare-bones HTML website. Then we tried KEWL, from South Africa, and it had too many rough edges and very clunky procedures for editing/updating. Briefly after that we tried CLAROLINE (seemed better, but not really comprehensive for all our intended whistles/bells), and finally Moodle. This all took place alongside a large Wiki that contained our background/theoretical documents. All four of the training resources (HTML, KEWL, CLAROLINE, MOODLE) were set up to bring in (by simple citation) articles in the wiki or student exercises. For several years the exercises were PDFs, with lots of links to websites and other docs in our little universe. But by about 2008 I realized that the exercises needed to be written and managed in a very fluid and easy to use HTML environment, due to its size and frequent need to update or replace text and images. The total corpus stands now at about 1000 printed pages, with well over 2000 images. The turnover rate for the items is at least 25% annually."
Although his UNESCO team favored using a content management system (CMS) going forward, after Dr. Brown tried working in Moodle's CMS environment, he found it was not very productive for what they needed. Instead, he registered MarineDataLitery.org and created a basic HTML website that was easy to create and maintain using Dynadot's web hosting. Since starting his website, Dr. Brown re-linked all of the UNESCO training program documents that called for student exercises to MDL, as he calls it. According to him, "It has been entirely successful. The only changes over the past few years have been additions of materials to MDL that I did not feel were adequately addressed by the citing UNESCO documents. And I have added some courses of my own that I can teach independently; I also continue to offer my services - when needed - to UNESCO. When materials require frequent updating and are heavily illustrated, then HTML remains the most practicable method for editing/maintenance."
After having taught so many courses with UNESCO over the years, Dr. Brown now finds that most of the questions he gets can be answered by simply citing the relevant exercise from his website. "I've been in this business long enough to recognize 90% of the questions as being old favorites that appear all the time," he says. In addition to receiving questions from people in the industry, he also receives requests for his teaching services. In fact, when I first contacted Dr. Brown, he was in Brazil teaching. He says he has his "completed courses described on the website for encouragement to potential requestors of his teaching services."
Dr. Murray Brown (third from left) and his students on his recent trip to Brazil, December 2013
MDL has become a valuable resource to both Dr. Brown's students and the industry as a whole. When I asked Dr. Brown what he thought about this, he said that "it must be doing that" because his readership is "around 1000 pages per week, with readership coming in from over 200 countries." He says he's always happy to see that, "There's always somebody there. I never check and find zero current readers. I must be doing something right if Austria, Switzerland, and Mongolia are steady users of a marine data website."
Check out Dr. Brown's website at MarineDataLiteracy.org.
Post by Robyn Norgan