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What research questions the project addresses, aims & themes

iSpot is a website aimed at helping anyone identify anything in nature. It encourages participatory learning via social networking which supports the learning community and assists both informal and formal learning and enables the provision of feedback to support learning in the absence of formal assessment. The project helps develop the relationship between traditional open educational resources (OER) and more participatory, active learning opportunities. iSpot is part of OPAL - Open Air Laboratories - a partnership led by Imperial College London, which aims to create and inspire a new generation of nature lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy and protect their local environment.

How the research questions are addressed by the project (methodology and activity/environment)

Users post observations of nature to the site, by uploading photos of wildlife, logging where and when they saw it, and their guess at identification. iSpot aids identification by looking up scientific names from common names and checking the spelling with the dictionary of UK species held by the Natural History Museum. Other iSpot users - experts or beginners - can then 'agree' the identification if correct or provide an alternative identification if incorrect. A simple yet sophisticated reputation system gives feedback about expertise of users.

The site is organised into eight taxonomic groups and provides strong links to other online resources, such as field guides, to help with identification, and links to the Encyclopaedia of Life (EOL) online reference guide which covers all 1.9 million known species. Additionally, the iSpot Keys provide a new, learner-friendly way to identify species compared to the traditional dichotomous keys. This innovative use of social networking for baseline recording of biodiversity helps make the system more efficient whilst at the same time supporting and encouraging learning amongst users in an informal learning space. The site is promoted on BBC TV and radio broadcasts, helping motivate people to take their interest in nature further, such as the short open-entry university-level course Neighbourhood Nature offered by the Open University as the first step to a related degree.

Findings and outputs

The iSpot site has become a fully functioning and effective social network for learning, enabling social interaction in a scientific context. The iSpot reputation system amplifies the contribution of the experts present on the site whilst not inhibiting non-expects from participating. The system enables learners track the expertise of other users as well as their own, and has proved to be extremely powerful, useful and motivating.

Project impact

Since the iSpot website became live in 2009 it has assisted many people to learn more about the nature around them:

  • 100,000 observations with 165,000 photos attached
  • 130,000 identifications made
  • 425,000 agreements
  • 18,000 registered users

Winner of Wildscreen Panda Award 2010 for New Media

Shortlisted for Times Higher Education Award 2010 for Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year


Clow, Doug and Makriyannis, Elpida (2011). iSpot Analysed: Participatory Learning and Reputation. In: Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge, 28 Feb-01 Mar 2011, Banff, Alberta, Canada. 

McAndrew, Patrick; Scanlon, Eileen and Clow, Doug (2010). An Open Future for Higher Education. Educause Quarterly, 33(1)


Participatory learning, social networking, informal learning, formal learning, open educational resources, nature, wildlife

People involved

Will Woods, Doug Clow, Richard Greenwood, Richard Lovelock (IET)

Jonathan Silvertown (overall lead), Mike Dodd, Martin Harvey, Donal O'Donnell, Jenny Worthington, Stacey Cougill, Marion Edwards, Jon Rosewell, Janice Ansine (Science)

A team of iSpot Mentors across the UK.

Project partners and links

iSpot is part of OPAL - - Open Air Laboratories - a partnership led by Imperial College London, which aims to create and inspire a new generation of nature lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy, and protect their local environment.

OPAL partners:

  • Field Studies Council
  • Imperial CollegeLondon
  • Met Office
  • National Biodiversity Network Trust
  • Natural HistoryMuseum
  • Newcastle University
  • Open University
  • Royal Parks
  • University CollegeLondon
  • University of Birmingham
  • University of Central Lancashire
  • University of Hertfordshire
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Plymouth
  • University of York

iSpot also has links with the Encyclopedia of Life


Funded by the National Lottery through the Big Lottery Fund.

Start Date and duration

Lottery funding for five years from Dec 2007 to Nov 2012.

Site launched June 2009.

(Ongoing funding for site received via other projects: iSpot Local, iSpot Garfield Weston, iSpot BES.)

Research & Innovation