Introducing Erbion

Erbion is a platform for teaching Chemistry in secondary school level. Built with React.js.

Ever since COVID-19 took the world by storm, schools have struggled to adapt to the new normal of remote teaching. While the crisis has caused great disruption, particularly for the most disadvantaged students, it also created opportunities. Technology can enable active learning methods, which have been found to improve learning outcomes over traditional lectures. Active and gamified learning has already found adoption in online education: language learning applications such as Duolingo do not ask you to watch a 50-minute lecture of Spanish grammar but teach using bite-sized lessons consisting of theory and exercises. Active learning can also work well when blended with lectures: online courses on platforms such as Coursera often use short lecture videos augmented with animations and videos, which are then coupled with exercises and questions about the topic. With the move to online teaching, the best of these methods should be integrated into our education system, from pre-school to higher education.

My focus on improving learning outcomes has been on chemistry. While the problems outlined above apply to most school subjects, pupils learning chemistry also face their own unique problems. Chemistry is a hard subject to learn, particularly because it works on several levels of abstraction. The pupils must see the chemical world through macroscopic, subatomic, and symbolic points of view. Traditional methods of teaching tend to cover these dimensions one at a time and lack the tools to allow pupils to easily navigate between the levels. For example, book exercises tend to highlight the symbolic aspect and lab work focuses on macroscopic phenomena. Computer simulations can solve this problem by showing the multiple dimensions side-by-side and allowing the user to explore the phenomena at their own pace. There are many good online resources for teaching chemistry: perhaps the best collection of free resources is PhET by University of Colorado. It contains a repository of online simulations in STEM subjects.

However, PhET and other existing simulations tend to have several common issues that could be improved. Firstly, each simulation tends to be an ad-hoc application, built from ground up to illustrate a particular topic. This is time-consuming and not scalable: time required to add simulations to new topics scales linearly. In addition, their ad-hoc nature means that the simulations tend to go out of date quickly: many great simulations built 5–10 years ago are no longer usable due to technology (such as Java applets and Adobe Flash) getting out of date. This means developers must also spend time patching their collection of old simulations!

The pupils must see the chemical world through macroscopic, subatomic, and symbolic points of view.

To solve some of these problems, I am introducing Erbion. Erbion is a web platform for augmenting chemistry teaching with interactive chemical simulations and experiences. Erbion is structured around two separate modes of learning. The first, called “lesson mode” consists of bite-sized interactive lessons (2–10 mins) centred around a single topic or theory. The lessons are designed to be given out as an extra, fun homework that revises the topics studied in the previous lesson or introduces next lesson’s topics. They can also be used to revise concepts before exams. A “challenge mode” is a free-form game where students are free to combine any chemical compounds they want and see what happens!

The central design ethos of Erbion is to allow new modules of lessons to be added easily, preferably without writing a single line of code! The lessons themselves are assembled from a set of generic views. This allows rapid creation of new lessons while introducing some constraints, such as limiting the lessons to the existing types of views. Erbion also provides internationalisation, allowing the lessons to be easily translated. I believe the benefits of this approach over individual, tailor-made applications, are significant. Firstly, new lessons can be created lightning-fast by anyone, including the teachers themselves! All upgrades to Erbion will also be available to all lessons ever created to it, eliminating the risk of old simulations being lost due to outdated technology. Finally, all lessons in the platform use the same interface and controls, which means the user must only learn them once. While the constraints mean that not everything is possible within the Erbion framework, new types of views can always be added by the Erbion development team, therefore improving the capabilities of the platform over time.

Here’s a few more screenshots of Erbion in action. To see more, you can try out a demo on https://villekuosmanen.com/erbion/

At the moment, Erbion only provides a small set of content. That is enough to try it out, but not quite enough for it to be used in real teaching. I believe a tool like Erbion could be immensely useful in teaching, but I am not sure what is the best way forward. Erbion could develop into an open platform where anyone could add interactive lessons without the need for coding, or it could provide a selected set of curated content created with a professional organisation. If you are interested in the vision and have ideas or resources for plans forward, do not hesitate to contact me through my LinkedIn profile.

I care about making digital products to improve the lives of real people.