P4: IONiC: A Cyber-Enabled Community of Practice for Improving Inorganic Chemical Education

Ethan Benatan
Reed College, Director, Computer User Services, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd,, Portland, OR 97202

Hilary Eppley
DePauw University, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, 602 S. College Ave. Greencastle IN 46135

Margret Geselbracht
Reed College; Department of Chemistry; 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd.; Portland, OR 97202

Adam Johnson
Harvey Mudd College, Chemistry Department, 301 Platt Blvd, Claremont, CA 91711

Barbara Reisner
James Madison University, Chemistry & Biochemistry; MSC 4501; Harrisonburg, VA 22807

Joanne Stewart*
Hope College, Department of Chemistry, 35 E. 12th St., Holland, MI 49422-9000

Lori Watson
Earlham College, Chemistry Department, 801 National Road W, Richmond IN 47374

B. Scott Williams,
Joint Science Department of Claremont McKenna, Scripps, and Pitzer Colleges, 925 N. Mills Avenue Claremont, CA 91711


The field of inorganic chemistry is heavily specialized into subdisciplines, which can make curricular innovation in undergraduate inorganic chemistry difficult for faculty with deep yet narrow training within a subdiscipline. These challenges can be particularly formidable when faculty choose to incorporate topics outside of their comfort zone into lecture and laboratory courses. Collaboration with colleagues from different subfields would be an obvious solution to this problem, but geographical and professional isolation inhibits such collaborations. We describe a collective venture to enhance the inorganic chemistry classroom and laboratory experience for students and faculty members through the development and growth of IONiC (Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists), a vibrant virtual 'community of practice.' The community's foundation is a cyber-interface that facilitates collaborative development of learning materials and their dissemination to the wider inorganic community. This website, VIPEr (Virtual Inorganic Pedagogical Electronic Resource), serves both as a repository for materials and as a user-friendly platform for social networking tools that facilitate virtual collaboration and community building. We invite you to join the VIPEr community and work collaboratively with us to improve inorganic chemistry teaching.

Building a community of practice for improving inorganic chemical education

The field of inorganic chemistry is unusually diverse, encompassing the chemistry of the entire Periodic Table of Elements. It is taught at a number of different levels in the curriculum, ranging from introductory classes [1] to capstone senior-level courses requiring significant background in physical chemistry. Pesterfield has recently explored the various ways in which inorganic chemistry is taught and the wide assortment of topics covered by different faculty members.[2] In a recent article on the teaching of chemistry in the 21st century, Dorhout has specifically identified two important challenges for the future of teaching of inorganic chemistry: incorporating both new technology and new chemistry into our courses.[3] For faculty with heavy and diverse teaching loads, especially at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), the barriers to meeting these goals are formidable.

The incorporation of new content into an inorganic chemistry course is hindered in part by the division of the discipline into a number of diverse subfields such as bioinorganic chemistry, coordination chemistry, organometallic chemistry, main group chemistry, and solid state and materials chemistry. Faculty members trained in inorganic chemistry typically develop a deep specialization in one of these subfields as a result of their graduate and postdoctoral training. At most primarily undergraduate institutions, there is usually only one such specialized inorganic chemist on the faculty who is expected to teach the entire field of inorganic chemistry to his or her students. This narrow specialization and professional isolation can hinder curricular innovation, particularly in subfields that are outside of an individual’s “comfort zone.” This leads to challenges in developing a complete set of curricular materials that reflect the breadth of inorganic chemistry in the lecture and laboratory. The American Chemical Society Committee on Professional Training (CPT) provides an extensive list of inorganic chemistry topics and laboratory activities that include items from each of the subfields of inorganic chemistry.[4] While it is not feasible to cover all of these topics in a single course, faculty can serve their students well by choosing examples from across these subfields. To that end, they will benefit from resources that help them to effectively teach topics outside of their areas of specialization.

In recent years there have been a number of online initiatives designed to provide educational resources to serve the undergraduate teaching of inorganic chemistry, and especially to enhance the teaching of particular subfields. For example, Ellis has spearheaded the development of educational resources for the teaching of solids and materials.[5, 6, 7] Others have developed materials for the teaching of molecular orbitals, [8] and some of these resources have been placed online for easy access to educators, such as Mark Winter’s atomic orbital visualization tool, the Orbitron, [9] and the Organometallic HyperTextbook developed by Robert Toreki. [10] In addition, several faculty websites maintain lists of links to resources in inorganic chemistry or tutorials in inorganic chemistry.[11, 12, 13,14] While these educational resources are quite useful for individual faculty members, they do not inherently encourage further development of the resources by a wider user community and provide few opportunities for interactions with other educators.

Face-to-face workshops designed to enhance the teaching of inorganic chemistry have been less common than online initiatives, yet they offer the opportunity for interactivity, at least for the duration of the workshop. The Center for Workshops in the Chemical Sciences (CWCS) has occasionally focused on topics of interest to inorganic chemists such as Materials Science and Nanotechnology for Chemists,[15] and these workshops provide a good mechanism for the acquisition of materials for use in the classroom. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Auburn University [16, 17] ran week-long workshops for inorganic chemistry faculty at undergraduate institutions. These workshops focused on advanced laboratory techniques and relevant background material, particularly in the areas of synthesis and spectroscopy. While these workshops provide great opportunities for the participants, they impact relatively small numbers of faculty. Furthermore, the general effectiveness of the "innovation-adoption" workshop model, where "experts" develop an innovation that is used by willing adopters, has been called into question by some.[18

Online Communities

Advances in technology have great potential to increase the impact factor of activities, but the incorporation of new technological developments in the classroom, while valuable, can consume large amounts of faculty members’ time. Teachers in other disciplines, including other sub-disciplines of chemistry, have been able to benefit from the development of online communities to enhance teaching and learning. Interactive online communities of physical science teachers, [19] chemists and technicians in biotechnology, [20, 21] practicing organic chemists, [22, 23] and faculty in introductory geoscience courses [24] have created communities that facilitate the infusion of new technologies into faculty members’ courses with varying degrees of interactivity.

Through developing IONiC, the Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists, we have developed a model for pedagogical collaboration that fuses the advantages of online databases, face-to-face workshops, and technologically-driven teaching communities by establishing a cycle in which workshops are used to both generate materials for an online repository and to build an interactive community that shares both content and technological innovations. By engaging in face-to-face meetings several times a year and collaboratively developing new content through workshops, we hope to build both the strength of the online community and its materials. Research on communities of practice emphasizes the importance of strong relationships between members, and face-to-face meetings can be critical in building those relationships. [25]

The first level of online community interaction involves the creation of a digital repository from which users can download and to which they can contribute educational materials. Starting Point, [24] a large web-based collection of resources for teaching entry level geosciences, provides an excellent model for providing multiple ways of organizing and accessing content. It has a uniform, streamlined appearance which invites and enables the user to explore this content-rich site deeply. The Analytical Sciences Digital Library (ASDL),[26] exemplifies a more traditional repository of information and extensive cataloguing of existing web resources. Physical Chemistry Online (PCOL) is an online community that contains examples of learning modules, experiments, and other resources aimed at both students and faculty in physical chemistry courses. [27] The Chemical Education Digital Library (ChemEd DL) [28], established by the Journal of Chemical Education, contains items such as digital demos, ConcepTests, [29, 30] mathematical program files, and online modules primarily for the fields of general and organic chemistry. [31] Both the ASDL and the ChemEd DL are associated with the National Science Digital Library (NSDL).[32] These sites currently function mainly as repositories although they have nascent discussion forum features as well.

The use of social networking tools is becoming more common in education in general, and more specifically in chemistry communities, as they allow a greater degree of interaction with online resources. [33, 34] Not Voodoo, [22] an appealing, user-friendly content-rich site demystifying synthetic organic chemistry laboratory techniques, immediately draws the user into exploring the wealth of information contained on the site regardless of her or his experience level. A number of simple rating/voting schemes that provide the user with immediately updated statistics are sprinkled throughout the site and invite ready participation. BiotechExchange, a relatively new online community recently developed by the American Chemical Society for chemical scientists working in the biotechnology field, features forums, blogs, and user-defined groups. [20] MERLOT, [35] which has also been linked to NSDL, is a growing assemblage of online learning materials and includes user ratings of resources. Even Wikipedia, the user-contributed collaborative online encyclopedia, features a number of entries that deal with topics of interest for inorganic chemists; these include 21 pages on coordination chemistry and 72 pages on organometallic chemistry, including one by a coauthor of this paper (ARJ) on hydroamination. [36] The website Science of Spectroscopy also recently switched formats from a traditional repository to one that provides a wiki interface to permit the posting of user-created content.[37]

Communities of Practice

Despite the proliferation of online communities in many areas of science, IONiC is the first virtual community specifically devoted to the field of inorganic chemistry or to its teaching at the undergraduate level. IONiC acts as a community of practice for inorganic faculty and students, a term first placed into the lexicon of learning theory by Etienne Wenger. [38] According to Wenger, communities of practice are groups of people bound together by what they do: members “are fully engaged in the process of creating, refining, communicating, and using knowledge.” [38] Communities of practice arise to address problems or challenges that matter to their members and evolve through various stages of development. The best practices of such communities have been outlined in the literature, [39] and include maintaining appropriate boundaries, slow evolution, and attentiveness to new avenues of interaction. Cumbie has reported that interactions in such groups lead to “exposure to broader professional perspectives, the formation of key professional relationships, [and] the enrichment of multidisciplinary input. [40] These benefits, extended to the field of inorganic chemistry, could lessen the sense of professional isolation of specialized faculty members and lead to better teaching of all of its subfields. The first stage of development in a community of practice that Wenger identifies is potential, wherein people recognize they face similar situations but lack the benefits of a shared practice. Ideally, the potential stage is followed by coalescing and the birth of a new community of practice, where members come together, recognize their potential, explore their connectedness, and define their joint enterprise.[38] Finally, this transitions into an active phase, in which the community members begin building practices and institutions that capitalize on the potential of the first phase.

Throughout 2006, a small group of inorganic chemists from PUIs, without  being familiar with the term, began the process of building a community of practice in inorganic chemistry by undertaking series of face-to-face meetings to discuss curricular issues and share educational materials. We started modestly by focusing our efforts within our small group. We shared course materials and teaching philosophies with one another. While the content of our courses varied widely due to our wide-ranging areas of expertise and the differing levels in the curriculum at which we teach, we found that we employed similar teaching strategies such as discussions of the primary literature, writing exercises, and long term laboratory projects. During the first meeting of our group, our conversations were enriched by interactions with Kenny Morrell (Professor of Classics, Rhodes College), who described the Sunoikisis project, an online collaborative learning environment in Classics. [41, 42] Our group was impressed by the value and excitement of doing collaborative work with undergraduate students and faculty across multiple colleges and the sense of reinvigoration and community that this provided.

IONiC: Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists

From these initial meetings, we began to form a new community of practice that we dubbed IONiC: Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists. Subsequently, we moved to an ‘active’ phase as defined by Wenger, where members engage in developing activities and institutions that will constitute the practice of the new community. Our goals were (1) to improve the teaching and learning of inorganic chemistry in our courses and (2) to enhance our own professional development through teaching topics outside of our normal “comfort zone.” We initially shared some of our teaching materials electronically using Sakai, [43] a course management system on a closed site at Harvey Mudd College. A second grant in 2007 provided additional funds to plan these activities, and to train the group in the use of a variety of social software technologies with the help of NITLE, the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education.[44] After this meeting we began using internet-based conference calls and chats to further our collaboration. A Moodle site that incorporates wikis and discussion forums was also created and is currently hosted at DePauw University. [45] Although we had made part of this site open to the public and had used the private part of the site to jointly collaborate and further develop the project, it became clear to us that the utility of this site as a collaborative hub for the larger inorganic teaching community was severely limited. Collaboration and community-building are best facilitated in an online environment that is specifically designed for that purpose. Learning management systems such as Moodle are strongly optimized for managing individual courses and do not provide the structural flexibility that we felt was necessary to support a vibrant online community.

As we looked to the future of our project, we were inspired by the success of the classicists’ Sunoikisis project. Online databases frequently tend to burn out for lack of input, and conferences generate a tremendous amount of energy that can be difficult to sustain after the end of the meeting. Online interactions between faculty are unlikely if these faculty do not feel connected through a community. Coupling the long-lasting nature of an online database with the enthusiasm produced by regular meetings has the potential to be a model that can become self-sustaining over time and grow. The combination of “in person” collaboration and the development of parallel online materials is greater than the sum of its parts, and naturally generates its own cycle of innovation. While our face-to-face and online activities to date have provided an initial opportunity to share and develop our teaching ideas within our small (but growing) group, we seek to expand the nature of our collaboration.

The Foundation—Building VIPEr: The Support Structure for the Community of Practice

The foundation upon which our community rests is VIPEr, the Virtual Inorganic Pedagogical Electronic Resource (www.ionicviper.org), a web-based, collaborative, inorganic chemistry learning environment containing a wide range of curricular resources and enabling interactive tools such as user rating systems, forums, polls, and other emerging tools for virtual, asynchronous networking. The authors of this paper form the Leadership Council of IONiC and, together with a number of technological and graphic designers, are the initial developers of VIPEr. Representing the different subdisciplines of inorganic chemistry, the Leadership Council is responsible for the design and launch of the initial version of VIPEr v1.0 and provides editorial oversight for subsequent contributions. VIPEr v 1.0 “went public” at the Spring 2008 American Chemical Society meeting in April 2008, and we encourage the readers of this paper to be among the first to visit VIPEr, register, and become part of the IONiC community.

In VIPEr, teaching resources are organized and categorized by the appropriate subdiscipline of inorganic chemistry and by the type of ‘learning object.’ A learning object is a small instructional component that can be reused by faculty in different learning contexts, such as a laboratory experiment, an in-class activity, a literature discussion assignment, resources for teaching writing, or problem set questions. The user navigates VIPEr through either the subdiscipline or the learning object organizational scheme, but for VIPEr v1.0, we focus on organizing by subdiscipline at the topmost layer. On the home page of VIPEr v1.0, a user first sees the different subdisciplines of inorganic chemistry; these are listed by name and represented by images of readily identifiable inorganic compounds relating to that subdiscipline (Figure 1). Selecting any of these sends the user to a page listing the learning objectives for that subdiscipline along with a brief description of the available resources (Figure 2). With many objects, there are a variety of types of resources including student handouts, instructor notes, and molecular visualization resources.

Figure 1. VIPEr v1.0 home page showing subdisciplinary links to learning objects.


Figure 2. VIPEr v1.0 subdiscipline page for organometallic chemistry showing list of learning objects.

The process of developing VIPEr is iterative. Our vision is for a more socially interactive site than is common in most established resources for sharing pedagogical materials.  Because of this different approach, we will need to learn and adjust as the project develops. The user interface design will be informed by interactions with a web design and usability expert, and ultimately through usability testing and assessment.   The functionality of VIPEr will also change over time, growing in response to feedback from the community and as we learn from using it.  This iterative process is guided from within the Leadership Council by advice about best practices and emerging technologies from Ethan Benatan, a technologist at Reed College and member of the Leadership Council.

The Development Process 1: Share knowledge and develop materials

The most obvious role of the VIPEr website to a first-time user is a repository of learning objects. These objects have been created by experts in the field (along with guiding instructions for their optimal use in the classroom), they can be rated by other users according to their suitability and usability in the classroom, and can include an assessment tool for use in the classroom. The current emphasis of IONiC is to populate the website with a number of learning objects of many different types across the various sub-disciplines of inorganic chemistry. However, by the very nature of the discipline (deep specialization within a broad discipline), users of the website will not be specialists in all subfields. As individual faculty members download and use the new learning objects in their classrooms, they will develop a broader base of knowledge to inform their teaching.

Development of Learning Objects by Individual Faculty

In order to generate the content for VIPEr v1.0, the Leadership Council is drawing upon the materials that we have developed through our experiences in teaching inorganic chemistry in a wide variety of institutional settings (i.e. courses at different levels in the curriculum and even specialized courses in particular subdisciplines). We highlight learning objects that are student-centered, inquiry rich and that require higher levels of cognitive achievement (analysis, synthesis, evaluation) consistent with the teaching philosophies of the Leadership Council. A complete learning object will include the description of the activity and any necessary materials, an assessment to be administered by users to gauge student performance, and assessment results from the developer and at least one tester. As the site grows, new users will be strongly encouraged to contribute learning objects. There is very clear documentation on the site that provides first an overview of how to contribute to VIPEr, and then more detailed step-by-step instructions that describe how to upload an object. After a new object is uploaded, a membership of the Leadership Council checks it for relevance to the field of inorganic chemistry and posts it to VIPEr. 

Development of Faculty Expertise and New Materials through VIPEr Project Meetings

In addition to the content for VIPEr contributed from the past experiences of members of the Leadership Council, additional learning materials will be developed in a collaborative mode through Project Meetings of the Leadership Council and technology and assessment consultants. The intensive face-to-face format will jump-start the process of collaborating to develop new materials. This will, in turn, keep the website as a fresh and developing resource with which other members of the wider inorganic community are more likely to become involved. While much collaboration can be accomplished electronically, in this case meeting face-to-face will provide the most effective means to share information, stimulate discussion, foster innovation, and forge the creation of new materials.

These VIPEr Project Meetings not only serve to add to the content of VIPEr, but also contribute to the further professional development of the faculty involved. Our intent is to enable teachers of inorganic chemistry (including ourselves) who are trained in depth to better teach the diverse topics of the field of inorganic chemistry in breadth. Our approach is to empower instructors with the specialized knowledge of their colleagues at other institutions. Through mutual engagement, discussion, and creation of teaching materials based on new developments at the cutting edge of subdisciplines in inorganic chemistry, members of the Leadership Council will enrich their expertise in these areas and engage in the integration of research and education in their roles as teacher/scholars. These meetings will also serve as test beds for a series of subsequent workshops that we plan for Phase II of this project. These later workshops will be faculty development workshops that feature expert teacher/researchers in the various subdisciplines of inorganic chemistry; the goal of said workshops will be to bring faculty members “up to date” in areas outside their own subdiscipline.

The Development Process 2: Build community through cyber-technology

Asynchronous and synchronous networking tools will be used to continue and further the collaborative refinement of the new learning objects, to maintain the community of practice through the facilitation of the discussion about activities related to the teaching and learning of inorganic chemistry, and to test new tools that could be used to enhance and build community among inorganic chemistry faculty. Iterative refinement of the learning objects will improve their content and functionality in the classroom. Asynchronous discussions using the site's discussion board will allow faculty to discuss timely topics such as how inorganic chemistry classes can best meet the "foundation" and "in-depth" course requirements in the new ACS Committee on Professional Training guidelines. For example, there are currently VIPEr discussion forums titled "Inorganic Chemistry 101" and "What I think belongs in an inorganic class...."

Some of the networking tools that the Leadership Council have used or examined during the initial planning phase are listed, along with a brief description of their function in the project, and their pros and cons.

Testing technologies that will facilitate the community of practice

The Leadership Council, in consultation with our technology consultant, will continue to learn about and work with emerging technologies for virtual networking. We have already gained experience using some of the technology that is required for virtual collaboration. These experiences have resulted in the sharing and modification of educational materials. Additionally, these tools have been used to write several proposals in a truly collaborative fashion. Although the Leadership Council has become very familiar with many of the tools available, our consultant will guide us to choose the most appropriate tools and ensure their incorporation into VIPEr in the most user-friendly way. We will design a user-friendly collaborative interface that promotes the community of inorganic chemists.

The Physical Chemistry On-Line (PCOL) community of practice is in some ways similar to the environment that we wish to create, as it has content, instructions for creating new content, and resources for students and faculty to enhance learning. Two of the stated goals of PCOL are to “promote wider interactions between students of Physical Chemistry worldwide” and to “promote wider collaboration among [physical chemistry] faculty.” The moderators of the site report rewards relating to professional development and a sense of community. However, the site is not very interactive, and serves mostly as a library of (excellent) resources for the teaching and learning of physical chemistry.

The virtual community that has resonated the most with the Leadership Council because of its format and user-interactivity is the website “Not Voodoo,” a website dedicated to demystifying synthetic organic chemistry. It is well-organized, not cluttered with unnecessary graphics or text, and draws the user in to explore, learn, and rate or vote on the content of the site by its simple, intuitive user-interface. However, this community is quite limited in its intent: it serves mostly as a repository of information with the rating system available to suggest the most popular solutions to different synthetic problems.

In contrast to these two sites, the members of the Leadership Council will use virtual networking tools to iteratively develop the learning objects and user interface of VIPEr. We will investigate several mechanisms to facilitate continued discussion of and interactivity in learning objects. These may include tools such as a discussion forum for faculty to discuss classroom activities and resources and/or blog pages integrated directly into the learning object pages on VIPEr. Topics of the forum discussions will include editorial review of the content of learning objects, discussion of implementation challenges, and models for assessing student learning with a particular learning object. The Leadership Council will also establish forum discussions on the strengths and weaknesses of different textbooks and experiences with other on-line and published teaching resources in our courses, designed not only to inform but also to stimulate future and ongoing discussion amongst the wider IONiC community.

The Development Process 3: Future plans for testing materials and technology in the classroom and assessing student learning

Single Institution Activities

Now that VIPEr 1.0 is launched, further classroom testing and rating of the posted learning objects is needed. Our initial goal is to provide learning objects that will be tested in the classrooms of both the developer and at least one other member of the Leadership Council. The goal of materials testing in multiple classrooms is to provide feedback on these materials that will be used to refine them to maximize student achievement. Testers will be expected to use the materials as developed, administer the corresponding assessment tool, post feedback and assessment data on object implementation, and contribute to the discussion of the learning object on VIPEr.

VIPEr will provide access to the learning object, the conversation about the development and use of the object, and assessment data on the object. The technologies that will be available in VIPEr will provide a mechanism to have an active discussion about the teaching of each of these objects, suggestions for modification for different classroom environments, and suggestions for object improvement based upon assessment data. Thus, VIPEr will serve as a resource for continuous refinement and improvement of the learning object by the author and to inform future users.

Multi-Institution Activities

Means for student involvement in IONiC will also be developed. Synchronous networking tools will be harnessed to connect groups of students and faculty from different institutions, in effect, to create virtual classroom communities. Due to the small numbers of inorganic faculty and students who elect to take courses or pursue research in inorganic chemistry at each PUI, building a thriving community that has enough participants to lead to a meaningful exchange of ideas can be challenging. Desktop videoconferencing tools such as Marratech offer an innovative solution to link students and faculty in disparate geographic locations to bring together a critical mass for discussion. Because enrollments in upper-division inorganic chemistry courses are often small at PUIs, hampering the ability to sustain a vibrant class discussion of papers in the current literature, we will use this technology to increase the number of discussion participants. In order to pilot such discussions before including students, members of the leadership council will hold an online discussion of the paper under consideration.

The details of the implementation and testing of these literature assignment activities will be similar to those developed for single institution activities: the activities will be used in at least two classrooms and refined based on student and instructor feedback. The only difference in implementation will be the mechanism: two institutions will be connected online for the class activity. Our goal will be to host a minimum of four on-line synchronous literature discussion assignments throughout the year, each one linking students at two institutions. Users from all testing institutions will be expected to use the materials as developed, administer the corresponding assessment tool, post feedback and assessment data on object implementation, and contribute to the discussion of the learning object on VIPEr. They will also be expected to administer and post data from a second assessment that will try to isolate the role of the cyber aspects of the activity.


In a recent EDUCAUSE Review paper by John Seelye Brown and Richard P. Adler, [46] the authors give examples of virtual learning communities and describe them as “new kinds of open, participatory, learning ecosystems.” IONiC hopes to grow and sustain its role in the inorganic chemistry community as the place where educators and students come together in a vibrant, dynamic community to improve inorganic teaching and learning for all. We invite and strongly encourage the readers of this paper to become part of this community by registering at the VIPEr web site and contributing their own inorganic learning objects to the site.


IONiC acknowledges financial support from the Mellon Faculty Career Enhancement Initiative (Inter-institutional award), the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) Western Region Instructional Innovation Award, and the National Science Foundation (CCLI-0737030).


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