Synapse: Improving Education Through Technology at UMaine

Synapse team photoSynapse, an academic web application developed in 2006 by the BioMediaLab at UMaine, has only just begun. Synapse has seen tremendous growth since it started and is still expanding. It is now used in over 20 courses at the University and is the most interactive and innovative of all course-helper websites at UMaine. Synapse features student’s grades, rubrics, lecture movies and slides, quizzes, and other collaborative tools. It can be compared to Blackboard, the most widely used course-helper software in the U.S., but Synapse’s easy-to-use features, slick design and instant messaging component offers a unique alternative.

The goal of Synapse has always been to improve learning through technology. It was created with students in mind and has features to help every type of student succeed. The beginnings of Synapse goes back to 2004 when marine biology professor Malcolm Shick requested an online program to display media for students, and The BioMediaLab hence created a simple program called Newton. About a year later, the BioMediaLab partnered with biology professor Leonard Kass along with other biology professors to develop a web application to supplement large classes within the department.

Most large biology classes were based on multiple choice, and Kass recognized a problem with this. “I had students that would fail even if they understood the material,” he said. Kass emphasized a need for a web application that included practice problems instead of just reading and tests. He argued that the students needed more tools to help themselves master the material.

Synapse login screenRon Kozlowski, the director of the BioMediaLab, had a vision of bringing more rich media to educational programs. He wanted students to have a place to interact with one another and professors about class material. Collaboration on the site was crucial, but collaboration between the BioMediaLab and the UMaine community was what made the program a true success. “We were right here on campus” explained Kozlowski, “so professors could come to us with a specific suggestion or issue.” To this day, Synapse is being developed and adjusted according to the needs of UMaine professors.

Although the system quickly became a success among the biological community, creating it was not easily done. “We were trying to build a program with a very small amount of people,” Kozlowski explained, “whereas blackboard has hundreds of people developing for them.” In contrast, there were benefits to a small team. According to Kozlowski, the Synapse team was able to discuss all angles, get direct feedback from students and professors, and be perfectionists. “We wanted to make the best product possible,” he said. The Synapse team works long hours and is essentially run like a start-up company. “We do it because we have passion in our work.”

Brian Olsen, a professor of biology here at the university, is appreciative of the system. “The Synapse staff has always been willing to discuss ways to improve my experience and extend my abilities. It’s like having a team of personal programmers working for your class,” he explained. A former BIO 100 student, Brooke Kimball, compares Synapse to Blackboard. “I think it is a much better program than Blackboard. I love how easily you can navigate around to find all the material you need, and it’s all in one spot,” she said. Kozlowski, hopes to expand Synapse to more courses at UMaine and perhaps even to other schools.

If you would like a demo of Synapse or more information, please contact the BioMediaLab at

Written by Dana Freshley