Transforming Teaching and Learning


The NSDL vision was to provide a nexus of resources and services to support STEM education that would build the foundation for transformative shifts in what and how we teach in the STEM disciplines (Macdonald et al, 2005). Because NSDL made innovation in STEM education easily accessible, planners envisioned that it would improve the teaching and learning capacities of teachers and students alike. NSDL's promise or potential was (and still is) in its ability to assume the following roles:

  • Engage learners with authentic scientific practices and assessment
  • Identify quality educational resources
  • Empower content consumers to become content creators
  • Support collaboration among diverse communities
  • Integrate technology into teaching, learning, and professional development
  • Support personalizing learning through context and metadata
  • Help shape federal policy

Lessons Learned

  • The context of where, how, and why learning takes place is important.
  • First provide quality resources, and then design complementary services to help users discover them.
  • Fostering user communities is essential to sustainability and growth.

Essay: Transforming Teaching and Learning


The creation of NSDL was motivated by a confluence of rapid advances in information and communication technologies, changes in educational practice, and a nationwide call to improve STEM education at all levels. The original vision for the National STEM Digital Library Program (National Science Foundation, 2000) was "to provide long-term support for maintenance, improvement, and expansion of high-quality digital science, mathematics, engineering, and technology materials for use by students and teachers at all levels."

From the very beginning, its planners envisioned NSDL as an online learning environment. It was to act as a gateway to a rich array of current and future high-quality educational content and services and a forum where content consumers could become content providers. NSDL would provide a nexus of resources and services in support of STEM education that would produce the foundation for transformative shifts in what and how we teach in the STEM disciplines (MacDonald et al, 2005).

This vision of networked learning, building communities, and creating and sharing knowledge has not changed in the decade of NSDL's existence. What has changed is a deeper and more nuanced understanding of (1) the socio-technical complexity of distributed, online learning; (2) the mismatch of timescales between technological and educational innovation; and (3) the roles that a vibrant, networked community of library builders and users can play.

In the years since that first request for proposals and the Pathways to Progress Report (Manduca, McMartin & Mogk, 2001), the technical, library, and education landscapes have undergone dramatic transformations. In this light, the initial educational goals of NSDL were laudable and ambitious, and, not surprisingly, also underestimated the complexities of the issues. It is fair to say, however, that NSDL made significant contributions to understanding issues surrounding technology integration to enhance teaching and learning at both the K-12 and undergraduate levels.

Evolving Educational Landscape

The educational landscape is rapidly evolving, and the instructor's role is constantly being redefined as new opportunities and challenges emerge. Twenty-first century learners increasingly expect and enjoy access to a wide variety of media formats and rich, personalized, online experiences. They expect school experiences to complement their online lives. The technical and social infrastructure afforded through the NSDL program enabled access to information, methodologies, and social networks that were previously inaccessible to most educators. Future development of large-scale instructional projects must simultaneously respond to and anticipate these changing conditions.

Teaching and Learning Capacities Generated through NSDL

Networked environments, coupled with a participatory web culture, have increasingly blurred the lines between content producer and consumer. Lack of access to information—the "digital divide"—is no longer a major concern for users, as it was when NSDL was conceived in the late 1990s. Today, it is easier to focus on linking the appropriate digital resources to the right user at the right time in increasingly personal and mobile learning contexts. As a networked repository, NSDL enables access to dynamic, media-rich, online resources to enhance instruction.

NSDL engages learners with realistic scientific practices and assessment.

NSDL provided a centralized context for undergraduate science instructors and K-12 teachers to learn about and explore 21st century teaching and learning approaches. Primary among these strategies is an effort to increase opportunities for students to learn science through engagement in realistic scientific practices. NSDL fostered the collection, distribution, and use of resources that integrate research science and science education through access to scientific data and analysis tools, by organizing instruction to reflect research-like processes and by incorporating cutting-edge science findings into course content. Some projects also created opportunities for teachers and learners to interact directly with STEM professionals.

Examples: Engaging Students with Scientific Practices and STEM Professionals

  • The Using Data in the Classroom portal project promotes quantitative literacy by providing access to data sets and instructional resources for educators and learners in and beyond K-12.
  • The Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN) Pathway provides a comprehensive collection of climate science and climate literacy resources for students in Grades 6-16 and informal citizen learners to promote "civic science."
  • The Integrating Research and Education project demonstrates multiple approaches to guide students in using research methods and data to simulate or replicate true research activities.
  • The Earth Exploration Toolbook provides step-by-step tutorials in the use of scientific data sets and analytical tools.
  • Ask Dr. Math, a service of The Math Forum, connects students directly to mathematicians who help them understand concepts in new and different ways.
  • The Fun Works (Education Development Center) introduces learners to a variety of scientists through a site designed by and for children.
  • NSDL supported a service called Ask NSDL for a number of years that provided a "reference desk" service for all NSDL users to have their questions answered by content experts within the NSDL community.

NSDL identifies quality educational resources.

Although NSDL library-building efforts initially focused on finding and organizing resources, the need to identify resource "quality" emerged quickly. A tension arose in defining what constituted quality in different circumstances (Sumner, 2003), making it a challenge to find a balance between restricting collections' content to serve the needs of a particular group and the desire to support wide use by any teacher or learner. and individual projects developed and tested a wide variety of approaches to address this challenge. For example, instructional resources in some NSDL collections were reviewed according to codified standards. These reviews commonly relied on criteria such as scientific accuracy, pedagogic effectiveness, and technical reliability. Social networking features let users add reviews or recommendations and help them select resources. Reviews can also serve as an instructional tool to disseminate information about the growing body of research on learning.

Examples: Determining the Quality of Educational Resources

  • Resources submitted to the collaborating partners of BEN, BioSciEdNet, undergo peer review processes similar to those for their print materials. The BEN Scholars program offers professional development for instructors who wish to create and publish educational materials.
  • The DLESE Community Review System (Kastens, 2005) developed an online form that allowed resource users to rate a learning object according to three important dimensions: scientific veracity, pedagogic effectiveness, and "robustness" (i.e., all parts of the activity were available, stable, and functional).
  • Since 1997, the Engineering Pathway - (broken link) - has supported the Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Education - (broken link). Submitted courseware undergoes a rigorous review conducted by content and instructional design experts.

NSDL provides tools for content consumers to become content creators.

NSDL supports rapid, continuous cycles of improvement of STEM content and the capacity of teachers to use it in innovative and transformative ways. NSDL projects in both K-12 and higher education provided a continuum of options for users to become creators by annotating or creating collections of existing content or by constructing new content from scratch.

The ability for teachers and learners to re-purpose resources in a number of diverse contexts is one of NSDL's most important contributions. Although a content creator may have targeted a specific learning goal, it is entirely possible that the same resource could be applied in novel and innovative ways in different domains and subject areas. For example, creative instructors could use a resource in a variety of new instructional settings defined by class level, class size, geographic location, or student learning styles.

Examples: Tools to Support Teachers as Content Creators

  • The Instructional Architect allows teachers to combine web-based resources on the fly to create structured learning environments for their students. Teachers can tailor, modify, and comment on these resources and then contribute these enhancements back to the community via a web page. (Read more about Instructional Architect.)
  • Using a gestural interface, the Content Clips tool lets teachers quickly assemble and arrange multimedia objects drawn from distributed digital collections into searchable resource sets and simple, interactive, learning activities.

NSDL supports collaboration among diverse communities.

NSDL provided a supportive environment for collaborations among a diverse, scholarly community of educators. As a result, content specialists, curriculum developers, instructors, and experts in instructional technology worked together to identify, create, and adapt materials for different learning contexts in both K-12 and higher education. At least two aspects of NSDL were essential to supporting these cross-community collaborations:

  • NSDL technology infrastructure and online tools made sharing different types of educational expertise much easier than ever before.
  • The social connections needed to strengthen relationships across traditionally different groups took time to mature, and NSDL's decade-long duration and tight community structure provided that time.

NSDL integrates technology into teaching, learning, and professional development.

Often, the mere existence of digital resources inspired educators to take a fresh approach to designing learning activities and to convey concepts in new ways. NSDL continues to ease the use of technology by removing access barriers to digital materials and capturing metadata and paradata that reflect best practices for using a particular resource in the classroom. This relationship between research on teacher needs and the refinement of description and access approaches increased teachers' ability to focus on the task of instruction and may also have enabled them to employ innovative instructional approaches.

Example: Integrating Technology into Teaching and Professional Development

Over the past decade, NSDL has been a resource for educators that are shifting their instructional focus from content- to learning-centric approaches. Interviews with users of On the Cutting Edge website, which offers professional development resources for geoscience faculty, showed that collections can support faculty in shaping their teaching behavior. As faculty adopt new approaches or topics, this change can be spread through a user community (McLaughlin, Iverson, et al, 2010). The same social networking enabled a new culture of sharing of resources, ideas, and data among college faculty.

NSDL supports personalizing learning through context and metadata.

Teachers often use search engines to find instructional resources, but they can become overwhelmed sorting through the deluge of information resulting from a browser search. Educational digital libraries focus on collecting and describing educational materials in ways that support their discovery in a more manageable stream. Resources are commonly discovered or developed by working groups or recommended by community members and then placed into meaningful contexts for users. Through this vetting process, NSDL has built confidence in the quality and utility of resources in their collections.

The idea that educational learning objects need specific descriptive structures was not new to NSDL, but NSDL's leadership in metadata generation and standards was integral to its ability to connect K-16 users with digital resources. The metadata, paradata, and technology infrastructures developed in NSDL projects have enhanced resource discovery and access to a range of media formats, as described in this report's Scaling Technology essay.

Digital libraries can also facilitate the discovery of resources that meet very specific user needs. Depending on the way a search engine describes and indexes a collection, descriptive metadata goes far beyond the traditional library metadata standards and can include enhanced resource types, alignment to standards, and educational level.

Examples: Metadata in Action

  • NSDL projects both anticipated and responded to the growing importance of curriculum standards and ensured that they were clearly associated with resources, for example as they were in Teachers' Domain.
  • NSDL Targeted Research projects were also on the forefront of changing the way standards were included in the search process. Tools like the StrandMap Service gave teachers a way to locate standards-linked resources visually while keeping their instruction anchored in the standards' progression.
  • Researchers also sought ways to automatically assign standards, as in the experimental work of the [link 'Science Literacy Maps'] and Breaking the Metadata Bottleneck Generation projects. The results of these research efforts are still used by Achieve, a non-profit organization that provides technical assistance to states on standards, assessments, curricula, and accountability systems.
  • Many individual collections developed metadata fields and terminology that support specific disciplines or grade bands. For example, the Middle School Portal2 (MSP2) employed a Learning Object Metadata (LOM) approach that was adapted over time to become more streamlined.
  • Two efforts to increase the effectiveness of resource discovery include the development of a new metadata schema, Learning Application Readiness (LAR), and its associated paradata framework for collecting data about how a resource is used. Metadata and paradata support personalization through the contextualization of exemplary resources in a variety of formats. Project staff may combine resources into teaching units, offered as completed guides, while other functionality lets users assemble resources into units, folders, or other personal spaces.

NSDL shapes federal policy.

Larger trends affecting K-12 education created opportunities and challenges for the work of NSDL. NSDL could be seen as an outflow of the successful NSFNET project that catalyzed efforts to connect universities, schools, and libraries to the Internet. By 1998, educational policy began to emphasize the successful application of technology to learning, not just its presence in schools. Initiatives such as the federal Goals 2000 program, the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards (NETS), and Partnership for 21st Century Skills led to state and local requirements that couple technology expenditures with guidelines for effective classroom use. NSDL was able to build on these earlier efforts to influentially guide expectations for integrating digital resources for K-12 learning into and beyond STEM and to shape NSF RFPs that solicited projects to further enable such technology integration.

Examples: The Role of NSDL in Shaping Policy

Many NSDL projects, including the following examples, collected baseline data about educator readiness to infuse instruction and assessment with technology and applied this information to shape policy decisions at local, state, and national levels.

  • Infusing NSDL in Middle Schools examined systemic issues that affect teaching and learning in STEM fields.
  • Faculty Participation in the NSDL—Lowering the Barriers studied faculty use of digital education resources (Wolf, 2005; Morgan, 2007; McMartin, 2008).
  • The Speak Up surveys conducted by Project Tomorrow documented student perceptions and needs.

Lessons Learned

Lesson 1: Context matters.

  • Ensuring effective technology integration in teaching and learning settings (e.g., K-12 classrooms, museum field trips, undergraduate lab courses) requires a good understanding of the local implementation context such as (1) the level of technology infrastructure, support, and knowledge available; (2) the local policies and culture regarding technology and curriculum innovation; and (3) the motivation of the stakeholders.
  • Developing a collection of digital content or an online tool also requires considering local needs and technical capabilities in concert to successfully create a working system. An effective design and development process is likely cyclical, and the process from conception to implementation takes a distributed effort over a long period of time.
  • Digital STEM learning resources require contextualization to facilitate their discovery and use. Providing access to resources was the initial NSDL challenge, but access must be accompanied by support services and professional development opportunities to leverage change in instructional practice. Support services may be virtual (e.g., annotation, assessment, discovery search/browse services) or live (e.g., workshops) to help faculty effectively use the resources that are available.
  • Effective use of instructional resources requires that other contexts and services be provided in areas such as scientific content, pedagogic approaches, assessment, and research on learning. Community input and contributions can result in comprehensive collections of teaching resources and methods for using them effectively.

Lesson 2: Provide quality resources first, complemented by discovery services.

  • "Quality over quantity" should be the collection development motto for any educational collection. Time is a precious resource for educators. For these reasons, providing a limited set of targeted, contextually appropriate resources is imperative. In addition, the community needs to seriously consider and debate what constitutes "quality" in a variety of contexts.
  • High-end discovery services should complement the quality collections. Educationally relevant metadata can help support effective resource discovery. However, as above, context matters, and automated techniques are emerging to complement and extend discovery, such as recommender systems and the collection and analysis of paradata.
  • In the K-12 arena, educational standards are an important part of resource discovery and description, but standards linkages must be based on a match that goes beyond simple keywords. Determining whether a resource is relevant for teaching a certain standard requires matching concepts, which can be extremely difficult to achieve automatically.

Lesson 3: Foster a user community.

  • Community-based design is essential to meet the needs, expectations, priorities, and possibilities of the many interests encompassed by the STEM disciplines.
  • Community building is most fruitful when built on top of existing communities where potential participants are members, such as professional organizations. Building new communities requires focusing on emerging topics and diversifying interests represented in such existing communities.
  • Communities need to share responsibility for defining and refining essential services. As an example, development of reviewed collections has proven to be both expensive and challenging. However, users desire and require rich descriptions that enable a variety of thoughtful, appropriate implementations, and authentic assessments must accompany tools, resources, and services. Planning for future facilities should anticipate the need for these services and budget time and resources appropriately.
  • Projects need to be responsive to changing community needs and expectations. The NSDL Pathways structure is an example of how stewardship led to involved communities that participated in defining the scope of NSDL collections and the resources and standards needed to sustain teaching and learning in a specific domain.
  • The development of thematic collections can be initiated and sustained through catalytic events such as workshops, communication networks, professional meetings, and a variety of professional consortia.
  • Educators must have access to programs of continuous professional learning and development. Dissemination and outreach are essential to raise awareness of collections and must complement methods such as commercial search engine indexing. Professional development communities need to be able to link virtually and face-to-face. The power of bringing developers and users together in face-to-face events, such as the NSDL Annual Meeting, led to new synergies, collaborations, and implementation of new services.