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The Virtual Advantage

John Black and his students are demonstrating how digital technology can improve learning. Also check out a story on TC's revamped Human Development Department.
Popular video games can be the siren song for educators. Adapt one successfully to the classroom and you’ve got a built-in draw for kids who don’t necessarily take to books and paper. Get seduced by flashy technology in which the movements and interaction do not match the conceptual structure of what you want the students to learn, and you not only won’t promote learning – you may even make things worse. 

For John Black, Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Telecommunications and Education, the latter scenario is all too pervasive in his field right now: “There’s a lot of so-called educational technology out there, but while the technology is very advanced, it often reflects very little knowledge education. And when you bring in technology without reference to quality research about how learning really occurs, you’re dooming yourself to failure.”

In Teachers College’s program in Cognitive Studies in Education, chaired by Black – and particularly in the Intelligent Technologies concentration -- the guiding concept about how learning occurs is the theory of embodied/grounded cognition, which holds that full understanding depends to a large degree on the learner’s ability to create both a mental and perceptual simulation of a concept or process. Studies have shown, for example, that for children reading a story about farming, manipulating actual farm objects led to a better memory of the story.

As digital technology has become more sophisticated, it has provided increasingly powerful forms of grounded cognition.

Essentially, the hierarchy of effectiveness is – from least to most – watch, do, feel, move. On the most basic level, seeing something simulated on a computer screen can supplement one’s real-world understanding of it. But becoming a participant, at even the most basic level, ups the ante.

For example, in a study he co-authored in 2006, Black studied learning gains created by on-screen animation of a roller coaster that enabled students to use a mouse to change the vehicle’s speed and the steepness of the track incline. By seeing changes result in response to their own minimal movements, the students developed a better understanding of physics concepts such as potential energy and kinetic energy.

Feeling the activity in question further reinforces underlying concepts. In another study last year, Black and former TC student Insook Han found that adding “force feedback,” or weighted resistance, to a simulation further increased learning. Students worked with a program that simulated the movement of interacting gears. To increase the output force of the gears, the students By pulling with more or less force on a joystick, or lever, the students had to pull harder on a joystick, or lever.

The newest and most exciting frontier is technology that responds to human movement. In 2002, the movie Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, envisioned precisely such a gizmo: a three-dimensional computer interface that the user controls with hand gestures. Since then gaming technology that responds to movement, like Nintendo’s Wii, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3, has come online. Tools such as the i-Pad Touch and Microsoft Kinect respond to smaller movements.

Why is movement important? A growing field, led by experts such as TC’s Barbara Tversky, Professor of Professor of Psychology and Education, posits that physical gesture corresponds with and can enhance different kinds of thought processes. For example, studies have shown that, in problem solving, people make characteristic gestures when problem-solving that reveal underlying mental imagery; or that, in people watching others engage in activity, the neurons activated are those that are actually employed in that activity.

Technology that responds to gesture can therefore promote learning. In a study presented in November 2010 at the Psychonomic Society Conference, TC doctoral student Ayelet Siegel, Black and Tversky demonstrated that when children solved arithmetic problems with simple, defined answers, they used tapping, pointing and beating gestures that were best supported by use of a traditional computer mouse. But when they performed a “continuous task” such as estimating where a specific number would fall in on a number line running from zero to 100, they made smooth, continuous hand gestures such as sweeping, arcing and dragging, which were best approximated by being able to drag their fingers on a touch pad.

TC student Cameron Fadjo and Black have shown that movement can also turn young learners into programmers of on-screen or tangible avatars – which, in turn, can enhance their understanding of concepts in subjects such as physics. In another study conducted last year by Black and three students – Carol Lu, Seokmin Kang and Douglas Huang – elementary school students in TC’s Harlem Ivy After-School Network built and programmed LEGO robots to perform specific activities, such as striking balls of varying size and weight with different degrees of force, in response to signals of touch, light and sound. By observing how far and fast the balls traveled, the students learned principles governing the relationship between force and mass. But a sub-group of students were also asked to initially imagine themselves as the robots, and to move their own bodies in the ways that they wanted the robots to perform.

All the students in the study demonstrated improved understanding of the concepts being studied, but the sub-group that initially visualized and acted out the movements they were trying to program scored best on a post-test of conceptual understanding.

The bottom line, says Black: “Using hands-on-activities that are conceptually congruent with what is being learned can improve that learning, and adding simulations that help students also imagine and manipulate those experiences can improve learning even more. This approach improves memory for what is being learned but even more important improves the flexible ability to use what was learned to solve problems.”

Published Tuesday, Mar. 22, 2011


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