Canopy in the Clouds development team analyzes its social outreach

A guest post by Greg Goldsmith, a tropical plant ecologist and part of the multitalented team behind Canopy in the Clouds. He describes methods he used to track and analyze audience engagement in the educational website with colleagues Drew Fulton, Colin Witherill, and Javier Espeleta in an article out today in Ecosphere.

Cloud Forest Introduction from Colin Witherill on Vimeo.


There is a growing movement towards using the web for educational outreach in the sciences. The unfortunate truth is that no one really knows whether or not it is working.

Data gathered from our science education website Canopy in the Clouds demonstrate that simple changes to website design, content and promotion can improve the outcomes for everyone involved. In an article published today in the Ecological Society of America’s open access journal Ecosphere, Drew Fulton, Colin Witherill, Javier Espeleta and I show that by monitoring how visitors find and use the site, we can spend less time and user fewer resources while simultaneously increasing both the quantity and quality of visits.

140912 Goldsmith_FigureforEcosphere

A screenshot from the Google Analytics report for Canopy in the Clouds shows visits per day to the website in October, 2012. Google’s anonymous tracking can show a webmaster which pages visitors look at, for how long, their path through the website, and how they found the website (click for bigger image).

The results provide much needed data on how people find and use science education websites that we hope can help others in their own efforts.

Perhaps the most striking results concern how we use social media tools. Facebook was more effective than Twitter at driving visitors to Canopy in the Clouds, but visitors from social media viewed fewer pages and remained on the website for less time than visitors referred from other sources (e.g. educational websites). Simply building a website is not enough, it needs to be actively promoted in order to reach its potential.

We studied more than 60,000 visits to the site over a three-year period using Google Analytics, a free tool that lets a website provider track visitors to the website. Importantly, the visitors’ identity and location are removed from the data provided in order to maintain anonymity.  The metrics include how visitors found the site (e.g. keyword search or link from another site), how long they spent on the site, and what content they viewed.

The study also revealed how visitors used the website content. Their behavior was not what we expected.

Canopy in the Clouds is designed to use immersive multimedia from a tropical montane cloud forest as a tool for engaging people in ecology. The website’s homepage has an introductory video that then leads to the core multimedia content.

Our results suggest that if we immediately immersed visitors in the core content of the website, rather than providing the introductory video, that they would stay for longer and look at more pages. This provides a data-driven foundation upon which we can redesign the website and improve the experience for our visitors.

The web is an obvious choice for science education. It is now easy to create and revise content that can be accessed by a global audience. However, while businesses use sophisticated analytics for tracking engagement with their audiences, formal use of such metrics in the academy has been quite limited. Our efforts can and should benefit from data-driven approaches that allow us to optimize how we use our time and resources—and, most importantly, provide our visitors with a better experience.

Improving the efficacy of web-based educational outreach in ecology (2014) Gregory R. Goldsmith, Andrew D. Fulton, Colin D. Witherill, and Javier F. Espeleta. Ecosphere 5:10, art131

The core data underlying the paper is published in the Dryad Digital Data Repository, which is also open access and can be accessed here:

Data from: Improving the efficacy of web-based educational outreach in ecology. (2014) Goldsmith, G.R., A.D. Fulton, C.D. Witherill, & J.F. Espeleta. Dryad Digital Data Repository. http://doi:10.5061/dryad.94nk8

National Geographic funds Canopy in the Clouds through two Young Explorer grants.