Visionlearning is a product of years of individual and collaborative effort towards improving science education. This document summarizes the process that led to the public launch of the site in August 2000 and the ongoing effort to refine and enhance the Visionlearning resource.
In 1997, Anthony Carpi, then a first-year faculty member within the City University of New York, was asked to teach an interdisciplinary science course at John Jay College. Though the course was a core requirement for all students at the College, it suffered from high failure rates and widespread student dissatisfaction due to a number of factors. First, though created as an Introduction to Science in Society, the course had devolved into a basic chemistry class, mainly due to the lack of an appropriate textbook. Less than one-third of the chapters in the required textbook were used in the course and the text was prohibitively expensive for many students. In addition, the dry and static presentation of the textbook provided little in the way of contextual resources and virtually no interactivity. Finally, the multicultural student body at the College struggled with the English-only course content. Professor Carpi had come to personally experience what has been summed up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061; many textbooks are a mile wide and an inch thick, providing too many topics and technical terms while paying little attention to either the historical relevance or modern research context of scientific principles.1
For several semesters, Professor Carpi and his colleagues experimented with multiple texts but found little improvement in student performance or satisfaction. Having some background in web programming, he began to create a series of online tutorials as a supplement to the course. These tutorials, launched in August 1998 as The Natural Science Pages, took advantage of several known strengths of the web.2 First, they were created in a concise, modular format to allow students to navigate through the content without searching through a 30 to 40 page textbook chapter. Second, they integrated animations, simulations, and interactive material directly into the modules to enrich the learning environment. Third, they incorporated reviewed, external links at the end of each module to add historical context and current research results to the course.
The Natural Science Pages quickly became a huge success. Within 3 months of launch of the Pages, more than 80% of students in the course had used the tutorials despite the fact that they were only recommended as additional readings and a separate textbook was still required for the course. This high rate of use was particularly striking since the undergraduate population of the College, and thus of the course, falls on the wrong side of the Digital Divide and has only limited access to the Internet.3 One student summed up this success, I think the website is an excellent idea. It should replace the book! I have the book, but I don't have a computer. However, I've visited the website more times than I've opened the book. Even more impressive than student acceptance was the impact these materials had on student performance and interest in the sciences. Within one semester, average exam grades in the course increased significantly and course failures decreased from over 11% of enrolled students to 5%.4
Although the Pages were written with students at John Jay in mind, it was realized early on that instructors from across the country were linking to and accessing The Natural Science Pages in droves. As a result, an extensive evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the project was undertaken. Several design changes were implemented including the use of web publishing design standards, the categorization of external links on learning modules, and the separation of animations to linked pages allowing for more user interactivity. The redesigned site was launched publicly in August 2000 under the name Visionlearning. In December 2000, the project won its first round of funding from the National Science Foundation's Educational Materials Development Program.5
Visionlearning 1.0 had several core features. It included a library of interdisciplinary learning modules that contained categorized links and animations and were available in both English and Spanish. It had a simple MyClassroom system that allowed individual instructors to create an online classroom using a custom set of modules. In addition, it had a Teaching & Technology section that provided links to external resources on education technology.
During its first year, the Visionlearning site underwent extensive evaluation. In a controlled design experiment, students using the Visionlearning modules for a semester were evaluated relative to their peers who used a textbook for the semester. When tested for science comprehension, the students using the Visionlearning materials outscored their contemporaries by an average of 15 points.6 Students were also questioned to assess which of the site resources they used and which additional resources were needed. This data was compiled and to address the needs raised during this evaluation, quizzes and Questions? links were added to all modules.
In February 2002, partly as a result of the extensive evaluation that had been completed on the site, the project won a second round of funding from the National Science Foundation's Educational Materials Development Program to fully develop the site for national use.7 In preparation for national use, several new staff members were brought on, including Alfred Rosenberger, an anthropologist, who joined Visionlearning as the life sciences editor, and Anne Egger, a geologist, the earth and environmental sciences editor. In addition, a professional programmer was hired to further develop the site infrastructure and expand the MyClassroom system.
Over the next year, extensive developmental work refined the MyClassroom system by implementing user registration, increasing teacher customization, and incorporating student-to-teacher communication features. In July 2003, Visionlearning 2.0 was launched. This new site retained all of the strengths of Visionlearning 1.0 with several notable additions. A significant number of new modules in the life and earth sciences had been added. A new category of links titled Research provides real data and articles to convey the ongoing process of science to students. An extensive scientific glossary supports the lessons. Teachers could now add notes directly to modules, communicate with their students, and review student quiz performance. The Teaching & Technology section was expanded to include resources on the use of technology in the classroom as well as links to external resources about educational technology. Finally, the site now hosted an extensive Help section to guide users through the site and allow them to contact our staff with questions. This last feature allowed us to meet a major goal of this project - the continued improvement of our resource based on user feedback.
The Visionlearning website continues to grow with new modules being added monthly. In January 2004 we began a Special Events in Science feature in which we highlight a key date in scientific discovery once a month and honor this occasion with a specially designed logo. In August 2005, Visionlearning 3.0 was launched. This new version of the site streamlined many of our menus and made the site easier to navigate. In addition, a dynamic site tour was added to provide users more information on how to use the site, and the News & Events section of the modules was expanded to include a link that provides current science news stories. Finally, new MyClassroom features were launched. The most significant of these allow users to download a pdf file of an entire classroom with a single click, and a feature that allows instructors to create custom quizzes associated with modules in their MyClassroom. Additional features soon to be added to the site include a system that will allow instructors to create custom modules, and a series of teaching tips associated with the modules that are publicly available on the site.
1 Roseman, J. E., Kesidou, S., Stern, L. (1997) “Identifying Curriculum Materials for Science Literacy,” Project 2061, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC.
3 U.S. Department of Commerce (1999) “Falling through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide,” National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.
4Carpi, A. (2001) “Improvements in Undergraduate Science Education Using Web-Based Instructional Modules: The Natural Science Pages,” J. Chemical Education 78(12):1709.
5Carpi, A. (2000) “Visionlearning: An Education Web Portal,” National Science Foundation, Division of Undergraduate Education, Educational Materials Development Program, Proof-of-Concept Proposal (#0088851).
6Carpi, A., Mikhailova, Y. (2003) “The Visionlearning Project: Evaluating the Design and Effectiveness of Interdisciplinary Science Web Content,” J. College Science Teaching 23(1):12-15.
“Visionlearning: An Interdisciplinary Science Education Web Portal,”
National Science Foundation, Division of Undergraduate Education, Educational
Materials Development Program, Full Development Proposal (#0127246).