June 13, 2001 CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The campus that produced Mosaic, the graphical browser that helped produce the explosive growth of the World Wide Web, now has a graphical solution for searching the Web’s vast resources.
"We think it can change the way people search and learn from things on the Web," says Daniel Kauwell, a doctoral student in educational psychology and co-developer of the software, called VisIT.
A beta version of VisIT (for Visualization of Information Tool) recently was made available for free download at http://www.visit.uiuc.edu. The software will run on Windows-based computers; a version should soon be available for use on Macintosh computers running OS X. A patent is pending on the software.
Instead of producing lists, like most search engines, the VisIT search tool uses one or more of those engines simultaneously to get search results, and then forms them into a graphical layout. Pages are shown as small icons, grouped by the sites where they’re located, and with the most-relevant sites toward the center. Arrows show the hyperlinks between, making it possible to see which pages are seen by others as authoritative or very useful, and giving clues as to which pages cover similar topics. All the arrows, appropriately, give the layout a web-like look.
And unlike often-long and confusing search lists, it’s a layout that eliminates duplicate pages, identifies broken links, can be rearranged, added to, deleted from, annotated, saved and passed on to others. VisIT also locates key text from a page, and pops it up when the user passes the mouse pointer over the page’s icon. The user can then always click on the icon to see the full page in a browser. The combination of features allows users, in a sense, to see both the forest and the trees, and then rearrange the forest to suit their needs.
VisIT was designed with learning and research in mind, noted James Levin, a professor of educational psychology and the other co-developer. "It becomes a kind of knowledge-construction tool," incorporating the theory "that people learn best when they’re building the knowledge, rather than when it’s transmitted (to them)," Levin said.
It also serves as a valuable tool for teachers. One motivated teacher, for instance, can conduct a search, organize and edit the results, then share it with students or other teachers, Kauwell said. Another feature makes it possible to add a background image – such as a Civil War map or a drawing of human anatomy – so page icons can then be set at appropriate points as reference links.
VisIT is being developed as part of a project at the UI’s Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. Partial funding has come from the U.S. Department of Education, through the UI’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).
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