Resource Image

VISABLI - an RCN-UBE for Visualizations, Interactive Simulations, and Animations for Biology Learning & Instruction (RCN-UBE Introduction)

Author(s): Susan L. Keen1, Jodie Jenkinson2, Gael McGill3

1. University of California at Davis 2. University of Toronto 3. Harvard University

205 total view(s), 61 download(s)

0 comment(s) (Post a comment)

Our network improves instructional multimedia design for biology education by fostering communication and collaboration among members of three communities: undergraduate biology instructors, creators of scientific visualizations, and education…


Our network improves instructional multimedia design for biology education by fostering communication and collaboration among members of three communities: undergraduate biology instructors, creators of scientific visualizations, and education researchers.

Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International according to these terms

Version 1.0 - published on 30 May 2023 doi:10.25334/XE1N-7656 - cite this


Project Website

We seek to address an acknowledged gap between the communities responsible for the design and evaluation of scientific visualizations, and those who use the materials in teaching. Our goals are to:

1. Facilitate access to and production of curricular material for biology instruction, thereby improving learning outcomes for students;

2. Support the educational research community with the availability of higher quality research stimuli;

3. foster and sustain interdisciplinary communication and collaboration between the three stakeholder groups through the establishment of best practice guidelines.

To assess the needs of our stakeholders, we interviewed 22 participants from the three target communities of biology instructors, visualization designers, and educational researchers. Analysis of interview data suggested that the stakeholders could work together to identify and develop shared resources through a virtual multi-day co-creation workshop. Co-creation participants included 6 educators, 8 instructional designers, and 6 educational psychologists from institutions in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, and Australia. Educators represented community colleges and research institutions; designers were employed at institutions such as HHMI, Harvard, and private companies. Most educational researchers worked at research institutions and universities. Our group discussions were facilitated by five professional media designers and educators employed at the service design consultancy Bridgeable.

Delving deeper into the resources desired by each group allowed us to understand why the three stakeholder communities rarely interact successfully. Reward systems and research goals are very different. Faculty frequently identified context and course appropriateness of the visual materials as the most important criteria for inclusion in their teaching materials. Length, scientific accuracy, and a desire to select modular portions of the material were also discussed. One of the most important results that continues to appear in every discussion with faculty is the significant time spent searching for appropriate visual materials on Google or YouTube. There is a need for an access and annotation system, perhaps centered around learning objectives, that would help instructors find visual materials with the correct focus and depth for their classes.

Educational psychologists frequently identified the absence of visual stimuli that they can modify as experimental tools as a key need for their work. This work often focuses on the proximal value of the stimuli when students observe them; they ask questions about the complexity and cognitive load associated with a particular stimulus in a particular context. With a few exceptions, they do not assess whether students achieve a measurable learning gain as a result of observing an animated or simulated process.

Professional media developers generally create educational materials under contract for a particular project. They are very rarely hired by universities or public educational institutions and do not seek contact with classroom instructors for large university classes. There is no pathway by which they would know about educators’ needs nor is there a funding stream that would support the creation of short focused visual objects for use in a classroom.

One example illustrates the deep differences in approach to visualization for instructors and media developers: educators wanted to source quality materials targeted toward students at different levels, annotated with learning goals, and subject to crowd-sourced critique and feedback. For professional developers, this would be tantamount to sharing their work for free and happily receiving criticism from non-paying clients, a feeling exacerbated by the fact that few, if any, visualization projects include funds for post-completion edits. Educators often want to re-package visual media to suit the needs of a particular lesson plan, shortening and rearranging content. Media designers were justifiably proud of the content and design of their products and were not interested in seeing them repackaged, even if that increased accessibility for educators.

We envision two resources of value for educational psychologists, one on the sourcing and use of visual stimuli and another on how learning goals might be included in educational psychology research projects. Fostering closer collaborations between educational psychologists and visual designers would not only improve the quality of the visual stimuli used in learning research but also facilitate the ongoing modifications and adjustments needed to optimize such materials.

Most recently, we have been honing our understanding of faculty needs through targeted survey instruments. The surveys focused on different aspects of the materials that faculty use in teaching: Topic 1: Short animations for teaching; Topic 2: Using multiple representations for a single topic; and Topic 3: Appropriate multimedia for teaching resources. Interactions with another RCN network, BioMolViz, helped us identify survey participants. Survey outcomes were used to create topics for upcoming in-person network workshop (July 2023) where participants will explore two resources under development: the Visual Science Communication Toolkit and the annotation tool.

The “Visual Science Communication Toolkit” is a collection of e-learning modules teaching communication design as it applies to the life sciences. Modules are formatted as an overview with learning objectives, a set of static, animated, or interactive materials that educate students on the topic, an on-line activity that allows students to demonstrate their learning, and a summary of the topic. This resource will be valuable as more institutions include visual literacy requirements (see University of California at Davis credit for visual literacy to undergraduates). Toolkit design is being led Amy Zhang, a research associate funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Development Grant (Canada; PI Jenkinson).

An annotation tool for pedagogical multimedia content would not only ‘raise the bar’ in terms of scientific accuracy within multimedia but also facilitate and increase the confidence with which media are selected by instructors when trying to meet specific learning objectives. We have discussed this tool with others and the research teams of PIs Jenkinson and McGill are exploring prototypes.

Other collaborative projects involving VISABLI include:

1. Advising MSc students in the Biomedical Communications program at the University of Toronto for five animations, three of which address subject matter germane to the undergraduate biology curriculum (the actin cytoskeleton (, pathogenic manipulation of actin (https://youtube/ef6V5PwNIWQ), and molecular binding models Two animations address subject matter of importance to visual science communication for an undergraduate audience (visual strategies (, design principles in science communication (

2. Sharing access to a very large set (n>500) of scientific illustrations, animations and interactives in a range of formats for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth textbook created by PI McGill.

3. Creating materials to study the role of supporting text in helping students learn from a visual resource with a member of the VISABLI steering committee, Ric Lowe (Curtin University, Australia). Multimedia resources conventionally combine descriptive and depictive representations to convey their subject matter. However, responsibility for explaining that content is typically skewed heavily towards multimedia’s descriptive text components. In considering the perceptual and cognitive processing requirements for internalizing these two sources of information during mental model construction, Lowe proposes a comparative assessment.

4. Developing a web-based resource that clarifies the different categories of media and thereby allows instructors and visualization developers to work more collaboratively. Many educators are unaware of the full ‘menu’ of multimedia options available for development of visual teaching materials .This ‘Multimedia Design Atlas’ (MDA) will not only be a place to become aware of the broad range of media solutions (from static diagrams and illustrations, to animations, interactives, simulations and even immersive VR) but also provide multiple examples of each category, along with a curated set of relevant studies from the design literature that supports the pedagogical affordances for each media type. Some prototype elements of the MDA were used in the recent survey for biology instructors.


Ways to learn more:

Ways to get involved:

  • Please join our network from the "Join Us" tab on the upper right of the VISABLI website.
  • We will be holding a workshop to pilot our visual toolkit and annotation tools in July 2023 at UC Davis.

If you are interested in learning more and participating please join this group or email Susan Keen.

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows: