March 10, 2015

Visual Learning Systems: An Online Science Curriculum {Product Review}

Science is my "waterloo." I am always out seeking new curriculum to help me conquer this subject. We have tried several different ones, but only a couple have we loved. When we had the chance to review the Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition (Grades K-5) curriculum from Visual Learning Systems, I hoped that maybe we would find success: A program easy to implement, easy to teach and loved by all.
visual learning system: online science curriculum

Product Information

Visual Learning Systems is an online science curriculum providing high quality, visual based content that teaches, challenges and encourages students to dive more into the world of science. Visual Learning systems have content available as DVD or digital formats. There is also the opportunity to subscribe to Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition (Grades K-5) or Digital Science Online: Secondary Edition (Grades 6-12).

Digital Science Online is an annual subscription to elementary (including primary) or secondary science curriculum including animations, videos, clips, images, assessments, activities and a teachers guide. Because it's COMPLETELY online, teachers and students can access it 24/7!

Because it's totally online, it integrates with all networks, no servers or software is needed, and you can use it on existing technologies like iPads, handheld devices and all computers! You will need a good Internet connection since it is completely online--you will also need a printer for printing out the worksheets, assessments, activities and teachers guides.

There are tutorials and samples available to help you see what Visual Learning Systems is all about. You can also request a free trial. 

Visual Learning Systems Digital Science Online has a special homeschooling price of $99 per edition and can be used for up to 8 students in the home. If you prefer a DVD, the DVD is available for 50% off the list price and comes with DVD, Teacher's Guide and Binder. 

The Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition is geared for grades K-5. It is broken up into Primary (K-2) and Elementary (3-5). The Primary portion contains 74 units separated into four branches: Physical, Life, Health and Earth science. The Elementary portion contains 62 units separated into three branches: Physical, Life, and Earth science. That gives you access to 136 units of science!

The Digital Science Online: Secondary Edition is geared for middle/high school. It is broken up into six subject branches: Physical, Earth, Life, Integrated, Healthy and Biology covering 125 units of science. 

We were given a one year subscription to Digital Science Online with access to both editions, but my focus is exclusively on Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition (Grades K-5) as that incorporates the ages of my children, specifically using the Elementary level (3-5) over the Primary level.

How Did We Use the Product?

When we received the log-in information via email, I went to it and set up Little Britches easily (simply click "manage" in the upper right corner to set them up) and then just looked around to see what was available. This is the main screen that I see:

I have made notes on this screenshot to show you what appears--I discovered this ALSO is almost identical to what the STUDENT will see when they log in. I was given all the levels, so that's why I have access to them all. If you click on each grade level, the subjects and thus units change to match what is available. The student can access all their student activities, but cannot access the teachers guide.

Every time I logged in, this SAME unit (the one shown in the photo above) always showed up. There is no way to change what unit shows up. I could not find any way to assign and program my students dashboard. So you ALWAYS have to set it up to whatever subject/unit you are going to be working on. If your child is doing it independently, it would be easy to give them the information to find it themselves. The units are in alphabetical order. 

I checked to find any kind of schedule and there isn't any. It really is a "go your own speed and order" kind of a program. If you DO want an order to do the units in, you can get a guide of sorts by looking at the catalog provided by Visual Learning Systems. They separate out the units into groups of lessons that go together. Here is an example of how they separate out the Elementary science within the Physical Science subject:

 Heat and Energy
 Electrical Circuits
 Magnets and Electromagnetism
 Exploring Energy

Describing Matter and its Properties
The Changing Phases of Matter
Investigating Mixtures, Solutions, Elements, and Compounds
Exploring the Building Blocks of Matter
Investigating Chemical Reactions
Forming Bonds
Solutions at Work

Things in Motion
Everyday Simple Machines
Forces in Fluids


The Nature of Waves
What is Sound? 

You can see that if you wanted to go in a scheduled order, this information would be a great help for you. I didn't use this because I wanted to just bounce around and check out different units in the grade level. We chose to just pick and choose what sounded fun.

One of the subjects we picked was Electrical Circuits. To start, I went to the unit and clicked on the Teachers Guide. The teachers guide is divided into four categories: Introducing the Video, Student Activities, Learning Objectives and Video Script. There is also a link for you to download the whole guide. Clicking on this opens up a pdf with a printable complete teachers guide. The one for electrical circuits is 25 pages and contains everything you need to teach the unit from the video script itself, to answer keys, to the student activity worksheets and exams. 

The suggested presentation of the unit is to begin with a pre-test to find out your students existing knowledge on the subject. The tests for the units are a mix of multiple choice, true and false, and short answer questions. The next step is to talk about the video--introducing the subject and getting a discussion going. Next, the student watches the videos while completing a Video Review page. The videos in the primary lessons are about 10 minutes, and the elementary ones are about 15 minutes. The teachers guide provides a video script so that you can follow along if you desire. When the video ends, the students are guided by the video to complete the 5 "after video" questions to check their comprehension. 

Each unit contains a vocabulary worksheet and writing activity where they put to use the information they learned and the new vocabulary words. There is also usually an experiment of some kind with paperwork for documenting observations. I have found that each unit also has 1 or 2 extra student activities that can be done. 

Once these are all done, you can give your student the post-test. It asks many of the same questions and provides a great comparison about the knowledge gained from studying the unit. 

There is no suggested lesson plan on how to implement each unit, so it's really just up to you and how much you want to do--or how long you want each lesson to go. In a homeschooling classroom, this is an excellent asset as each homeschool flows differently. With all the units included, you could EASILY get more than a year out of it by doing just one lesson a week! Remember just in the edition I'm reviewing there are 126 units--and 62 just in the elementary portion that we used!

Here are some photos from our use of Visual Learning Systems Digital Science Online program:

I decided to try doing our first unit (Chemical Reactions) with a routine sorta of suggested by the items in the teacher's guide, so we started by introducing the lesson and then I gave him a pre-test. I told him that it wasn't anything more than me seeing if he already recognized some of the information. He appreciated that  was multiple choice and just took his best guess if he recognized anything. 

Pre-Test for Chemical Reactions
Once we did the pre-test, I read the information for the Introduction to the video that is provided including doing the Alka Seltzer in water trick. Then I guided him to logging in and finding his lesson on the student page for Elementary level. As soon as he pulled it up, the video is ready to play. I gave him the Video Review page, explaining that the video would walk him through how to fill it out and then helped him find the way to make his video full screen and turned him loose.
Both of them watch the videos
 This program is written where my son can easily read MOST of the directions on his own, but I helped him if he needed assistance. The video review is a mix of fill in the blank and short answer taken STRAIGHT from the video.
For this unit, I printed out the entire teachers guide to see what all was included. I printed off every activity, even if I wasn't sure we would do it, so that I could see what I had to choose from.
All the Student Activities
 For this unit, we decided on the vocabulary page, and the activity that is geared towards applying the new knowledge to solve problems. For this one, the activity gave you an example of a chemical reaction and then had the student decide what was causing the change and what was being changed.
 I really appreciated having the entire answer key at my fingertips. Even if an answer was in the students own words, the answer sheet guided me to know what was a logical answer.
Answer Keys
As I mentioned earlier, every unit has an experiment of some sort. My son's favorite experiment was the one we did for Electrical Circuits. When your husband is a mechanic--you don't need tiny light bulbs and small volt batteries--he brings you a CAR BATTERY and his wire tester light. LOL! I think he enjoyed watching us do this experiment as he took the photographs. The teachers guide paperwork gives you all the information you need to set up the experiments, obtaining materials, and provides any observation paperwork necessary.
Insulator or Conductor experiment
I did give the post-test at the end of each unit. I find that those are very helpful in determining what your child remembers after doing all the activities. Little Britches always did well with about a 90% score. He tests well because he knows I don't make a big deal about them. They are more "Show What You Know" papers.

Once we used it a bit, we chose to do ONE lesson over a weeks time doing Science three days a week--allowing 30-40 minutes per day:
Day 1: Video and Video Review
Day 2: Vocabulary and Student Activity
Day 3: Experiment and Post-Test

Really, you could probably do Science for five days a week and knock out two units a week. This is dependent on how much time you allow for it, how swiftly your child completes work, and how much of it you want them to do.

What Are Our Thoughts on the Product?

Little Britches: "Love it! I really like the video and the experiments that are part of EVERY lesson. The only thing I don't like is the writing activities. But not the last test. That's okay because I know it and it's easy."

Baby Britches: "I like the video too!"

My Thoughts: I found this program very very easy to get started. Everything is there for you. Simply log in, figure out which unit you want, and print out your materials. It's very easy to navigate and things are clearly labelled. It was easy to navigate between the grade levels and units to see what was available. I even liked being able to look through the "chapters" of the videos to see what was going to be taught. Having the teachers guide available in complete form to just print off and use is a GREAT thing. I also noticed that the guide listed the national standards that each lesson met. 

One thing I did notice--not all the teachers guides are available for download. I mostly ran into this when I was looking around in the middle/high school grade level. In those lessons I would have needed to copy and paste the information. Not ideal. However, the student activities are ALWAYS available for print.

I liked that the lessons were easy to understand and that for the most part, written so that my son could read and complete them on his own. On the other hand, if your child is NOT confidently reading at about a 4th or 5th grade level, he or she would probably need you to read the questions and answers for them.

I was curious about the primary levels reading, so I looked at some of the student activities. There is still quite a bit of reading to be done, but there are simpler questions, more pictures and less writing involved. I would say that your child would still need to be about a 2nd grade level to be able to do it independently. 

I think that the program itself allows for doing a week's worth of science in every lesson. This is based on doing science about 3 days a week. I like that at this rate I have a definite full year of Science--and a science that doesn't take up any cabinet space since it's all online!

Okay, in all honesty I myself found the videos--BORING! The narrator is dry as dirt and so monotone. Totally taking me back to the old science videos we had to watch when I was in school. The ones I slept through. The videos themselves are great--it's just the narrator. Now my boys didn't complain about them, so I guess that's okay and what matters.

The website is a bit...outdated? It's more old fashioned in it's style, but that being said, it has easy to read font and very easy navigation. So I don't know if I would change anything. It's just missing the more modern look.

But one thing that I think REALLY needs to be changed...I do NOT like that the videos start playing as soon as you log in. I would prefer it, if the videos didn't start until you clicked on them yourself. We had to keep pausing it while we looked for the unit we wanted. I also wish that the grade level you last used was the one that came up when you logged in. In our case, the log in page always opened to the middle/high school level. This was confusing at first to Little Britches until he learned to immediately click on "elementary" to change. 

I also am not a fan of the fact these are standard secular science videos--meaning that evolution IS taught in them--without any reference to Intelligent Design or Creation or God. Especially in all the Earth, Life and Biology subject matter. I noticed that in the middle/high school level there is even a unit all about evolution. Because our family avoids anything related to evolution since we do not believe in it, I plan on skipping any references to it--this is going to be very difficult in the Earth, Life and Biology subjects since it is mentioned A LOT! But this is a personal and faith based preference, and something each family would decide for themselves.

That being said if you would prefer NOT having any reference to Intelligent Design, Creation or God, you would appreciate this fact in the videos. These videos are made so that they can be used in the public school system--hence the fact that they are secular.

The fact that the curriculum is completely online can be a con if you don't have a good internet connection--or one that is fast enough--or one at all! However, as I mentioned earlier, DVDs are available so that you can have a physical version of the program. 

Would I Recommend This Product?

Even with the cons I have mentioned, I WOULD recommend this product. As many of you know, Science is my personal weakest subject to teach and I find that using this program was very easy to do every week. Everything was done FOR me. I just needed to guide and implement it. It is a balanced program for a variety of learners--a blend of videos, writing, and experiments. I think that a family with several children within a grade range--K-5 for instance, would be able to easily do this one subject TOGETHER. Baby Britches is age 4--and while he can't write, he remembered the information from watching the videos and doing the experiments. I could even read some of the test questions out loud and he knew the answers to more than a few.

And think about the middle/high school! With one $99 subscription you can cover grades 6-12 and just adjust the assignments as needed! Talk about money saver! The fact that you can EASILY get a FULL YEAR out of one subscription and that it can be used for more than one student (up to 8 for homeschool!) makes it a great buy. To order for homeschool you will have to call or email to make sure you get your the homeschool pricing.

$99 is an outstanding deal for this program. All you have to do is look at the pricing for it to be used NOT in homeschool to see that. We are talking HUNDREDS of dollars difference. And $99 to teach all your kids science together (within grouping of 6 grades). No books for you to store. Just need a computer and a printer to make it happen. And because it's on the website, you can access it through handheld devices too--taking it on the go!

So the big question...will we keep using this program?
Absolutely. Right now I prefer it to what we were doing when the year started. Everyone likes it. It's all there ready to go and the boys can do it together. I LOVE having all the answers and the experiments are laid out and simple to replicate. At this point, I plan on just avoiding anything mentioning evolution or glossing over it as we come to it in the other sciences.

Want to Learn More?

I was just one of the 100 reviewers of Visual Learning Systems! I focused on the Digital Science Online: Elementary Edition (Grades K-5) with an emphasis on the elementary portion for grades 3-5. You should really check out what some of the other families did with the other editions!
Visual Learning Systems Review

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Crew Disclaimer
Well, we have found a science curriculum that we do enjoy and plan on continuing to use until something else comes along or our subscription runs out! This makes me very happy indeed!
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