Plant families are the highest taxonomic rank used in horticulture, consisting of one or more related genera. In most plant identification courses, students are expected to learn 150+ plant species by family, genus, specific epithet, and sometimes cultivar. With the onset of distance education technologies, new approaches can be used to help identify plants by family. These online innovations not only serve to reinforce important subject knowledge but help meet a critical need when shifting from traditional, entirely synchronous laboratories (hands-on live learning) to a hybrid approach with asynchronous components. With nearly one-quarter of faculty reportedly teaching online (Seaman, 2009), a number of studies have shown distance education to be comparable (Anderson and Walker, 2003; Henss et al., 2006; Miller and Pilcher, 2001; Spooner et al., 1999) or even superior to traditional classroom teaching (Means et al., 2010). Keeping students engaged, motivated, and challenged while teaching online still remains a challenge (Aragon, 2003; Beaudoin, 1990). Although learning outcomes can be equivalent among traditional in-class versus hybrid distance education courses, greater student satisfaction is still often correlated with live instruction (Hoch and Dougher, 2011; Rieger et al., 2011). Effective online formats use a variety of instructional strategies to enhance interactive learning, ensure critical thinking, and provide immediate feedback (Campbell et al., 2011; Schroeder-Moreno, 2010; Tignor et al., 2007; Wilson and Thetford, 2003).
As an alternative to keying out an unknown plant sample online, users can also select from a menu of highly detailed, full-color botanical illustrations obtained from an online library (Stüber, 2008) of an historical flower biology book (Thomé, 1885). Each illustration shows the parts of a plant in remarkable detail, and many include both longitudinal section and cross section through the flower’s ovary to illustrate the locules, ovules, and placentation (Fig. 1). For greater detail, a tool was added that allows users to zoom in on a given plant section. The plates were slightly modified in Photoshop (Adobe Systems, San Jose, CA) to remove each plant’s scientific name and family name, but they are otherwise the same as the originals. The captions were translated from the original German and have, in a few minor cases, been edited for clarity.
In summary, through the use of historical botanical illustrations and/or live plant material, the multiple-entry process of FloraGator has created a powerful online learning tool for anyone studying botany, plant identification, and plant systematics. By selecting from a database of 220 features specific to the habit, leaves, flowers, perianth, androecium, gynoecium, and fruit of an unknown species, users can practice their botanical knowledge virtually anywhere and at any time. To broaden its use, an application is currently being developed for smaller sized notepads or smart phones.
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University of Florida 2012 FloraGator: A multiple entry key for flowering plant family identification. 2 Feb. 2012. <http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/floragator/>