Anna Taylor (Gorevanova), formerly at the British Council, Uzbekistan
Review of the Open Culture Website (http://www.openculture.com)
Taylor, A. (2010). Review of the Open Culture website. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 1(2), 155-157.
Today’s learners have become so tech-savvy that to catch up with them and maintain their interest, teachers have to be a couple of steps ahead. It is mind-boggling how in the age of Facebook and Twitter, there are still many great websites out there just waiting to be discovered. To me, Open Culture (http://www.openculture.com) was such a discovery.
Let me talk about what attracted my attention and what I believe makes the Open Culture website stand out from the crowd. As a Learner Services Manager at the British Council in Tashkent, I was responsible for developing services and looking for resources to meet the needs of the customers of Learning Centre, which included adult professionals, IELTS candidates and ELT professionals, to name but a few. Uzbekistan, the country where I come from, has similar problems to many other countries when it comes to teaching/learning English. The Centre has been helping learners to get access to the materials and get equipped with self-study skills through learner training workshops and seminars. However, among other challenges, I found that my students lacked the following two opportunities which I am sure are shared with learners in other contexts.
First, my students lacked the availability of authentic resources, especially for developing listening skills in English. The Centre offered a wide range of authentic reading materials, such as newspapers and magazines. However, I often heard from learners, that they needed to listen and/or watch authentic TV programmes/lectures/films aimed at educated native speaking audience to help them prepare for the IELTS exam (Listening and Speaking, in particular) or improve their English for career purposes.
Second, my students lacked the availability of quality materials for professional and personal development opportunities in English. The Learning Centre in Uzbekistan was also attended by adult professionals with good English skills, but who wanted resources in English that would help them acquire certain skills to become more successful professionally as well as personally. For instance, these students were interested in materials that would assist them with improving their leadership skills, strategic thinking, and time management.
Thus, I believe that Open Culture can help kill these “two birds” with one stone.
Open Culture is basically a great compilation of excellent resources, which can be used for personal and professional development. It has 6 main sections: Audiobooks, Online courses, Movies, Language lessons, e-Books and Textbooks.
“Audiobooks” offers hundreds of “talking” books (mainly classics) that can be downloaded on a computer or MP3 player. The beauty of this resource is that you can also watch and/or listen to the lectures given by professors from the world’s leading universities regardless of where you live in the Online Courses section. “Movies” consists of an excellent collection of world films (old classics and contemporary works) and documentaries. “Language Lessons” provides access to downloadable foreign language learning materials. “e-Books” is a collection of mostly classic books which one can read on modern electronic devices, such as a Kindle, a smart phone or a computer. “Textbooks” offers access to 150 books written by renowned scholars in various subjects ranging from art history to physics, and from education to business and management.
Now, let’s talk about strengths and challenges of this Internet portal. First of all, it’s FREE! Considering the quality and usefulness of the resources, this is hard to believe. It’s user-friendly and has links to other Internet resources and social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which can help learners share interesting materials. Also, they can subscribe to RSS feeds and receive podcasts/MP3 files on topics of interest.
First of all, it is obvious that good connectivity is crucial to take full advantage of the resources on the website. Secondly, although the website is pretty user-friendly, before you introduce the website to learners, educators need to make sure that students practice downloading podcasts, for example. Luckily, for those who are new to the world of podcasting, there is a comprehensive podcast tutorial at http://www.openculture.com/2007/03/podcast_primer.html
Also, learners might get overwhelmed with the abundance of materials and information, so a teacher or learning advisor’s guidance and pacing might be necessary, especially in the beginning. In the self-access learning environment, I would suggest counsellors pair up old-timers with newcomers to promote learner support.
There are so many ways the Open Culture website can be used to benefit learners. Below are a couple of quick suggestions:
1. Start an “audiobook” club. Book clubs have been tremendously popular with people all over the world, so perhaps an audiobook club will catch on as well.
2. A common interest club is another option. Learners who share the same interest, say, in history, can get together to listen to a lecture in the media room in the Centre and then discuss it thus practising English as well as expanding knowledge in other areas.
Open Culture is an excellent resource for generating topics and starting points for Conversation clubs, as very often facilitators search for new, interesting, and intelligent issues to discuss. Many IELTS candidates (especially young ones) often struggle to get ideas for IELTS Writing task 2 or IELTS Speaking, so Open Culture can help them with that. The Ideas & Culture part http://www.openculture.com/2006/11/arts_culture_po.html will be especially useful.
To sum up, I think Open Culture is a great website to be explored by teachers, self-access learners, and SAC facilitators/counsellors alike.