Literature review in learning with tangible technologies

  • O'Malley C
  • Fraser S
  • Others
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The computer is now a familiar object in most schools in the UK today. However, outside schools different approaches to interacting with digital information and representations are emerging. These can be considered under the term tangible interfaces, which attempts to overcome the difference between the ways we input and control information and the ways this information is represented. These tangible interfaces may be of significant benefit to education by enabling, in particular, younger children to play with actual physical objects augmented with computing power. Tangible technologies are part of a wider body of developing technology known as ubiquitous computing, in which computing technology is so embedded in the world that it disappears. Tangible technologies differ in terms of the behaviour of control devices and resulting digital effects. A contrast is made between input devices where the form of user control is arbitrary and has no special behavioural meaning with respect to output (eg using a generic tool like a mouse to interact with the output on a screen), and input devices which have a close correspondence in behavioural meaning between input and output (eg using a stylus to draw a line directly on a tablet or touchscreen). The form of such mappings may result in one-to-many relations between input and output (as in arbitrary relations between a mouse, joystick or trackpad and various digital effects on a screen), or one-to-one relations (as in the use of special purpose transducers where each device has one function). Tangibles also differ in terms of the degree of metaphorical relationship between the physical and digital representation. They can range from being completely analogous, in the case of physical devices resembling their digital counterparts, to having no analogy at all. They also differ in terms of the role of the control device, irrespective of its behaviour and representational mapping. So, for example, a control device might play the role of a container of digital information, a representational token of a digital referent, or a generic tool representing some computational function. Finally, these technologies differ in terms of degree of embodiment. This means the degree of attention paid to the control device as opposed to that which it represents; completely embodied systems are where the users primary focus is on the object being manipulated rather than the tool being used to manipulate the object. This can be more or less affected by the extent of the metaphor used in mapping between the control device and the resulting effects. In general there are at least two senses in which tangible user interfaces strive to achieve really direct manipulation: In the mappings between the behaviour of the tool (physical or digital) which the user uses to engage with the object of interest. In the mappings between the meaning or semantics of the representing world (eg the control device) and the represented world (eg the resulting output). Research from psychology and education suggests that there can be real benefits for learning from tangible interfaces. Such technologies bring physical activity and active manipulation of objects to the forefront of learning. Research has shown that, with careful design of the activities themselves, children (older as well as younger) can solve problems and perform in symbol manipulation tasks with concrete physical objects when they fail to perform as well using more abstract representations. The point is not that the objects are concrete and therefore somehow easier to understand, but that physical activity itself helps to build representational mappings that serve to underpin later more symbolically mediated activity after practise and the resulting explicitation of sensorimotor representations. However, other research has shown that it is important to build in activities that support children in reflecting upon the representational mappings themselves. This work suggests that focusing childrens attention on symbols as objects may make it harder for them to reason with symbols as representations. Some researchers argue for cycling between what they call expressive and exploratory modes of learning with tangibles. A number of examples of tangible technologies are presented in this review. These are discussed under four headings: digitally augmented paper, physical objects as icons (phicons), digital manipulatives and sensors/probes. The reason for treating digital paper as a distinct category is to make the point that, rather than ICT replacing paper and book-based learning activities, they can be enhanced by a range of digital activities, from very simple use of cheap barcodes printed on sticky labels and attached to paper, to the much more sophisticated use of video tracing in the augmented reality examples. However, even this latter technology is accessible for current UK schools but without the need for special head-mounted displays to view the augmentation. For example, webcams and projectors can be used with the augmented reality software to overlay videos and animations on top of physical objects. Although many of the technologies reviewed in the section on phicons involves fairly sophisticated systems, once again, it is possible to imagine quite simple and cheap solutions. For example, bar code tags and tag readers are relatively inexpensive. Tags can be embedded in a variety of objects. The only slightly complex aspect is that some degree of programming is necessary to make use of the data generated by the tag reader. Finally, implications are drawn for future research, applications and practice. Although there is evidence that, for example, physical action with concrete objects can support learning, its benefits depend on particular relationships between action and prior knowledge. Its benefits also depend on particular forms of representational mapping between physical and digital objects. For example, there is quite strong evidence suggesting that, particularly with young children, if physical objects are made too realistic they can actually prevent children learning about what the objects represent. Other research reviewed here has also suggested that so-called really direct manipulation may not be ideal for learning applications where often the goal is to encourage the learner to reflect and abstract. This is borne out by research showing that transparent or really easyto-use interfaces sometimes lead to less effective problem solving. This is not an argument that interfaces for learning should be made difficult to use the point is to channel the learners attention and effort towards the goal or target of the learning activity, not to allow the interface to get in the way. In the same vein, Papert argued that allowing children to construct their own interface (ie build robots or write programs) focused the childs attention on making their implicit knowledge explicit. Other researchers support this idea and argue that effective learning should involve both expressive activity, where the tangible represents or embodies the learners behaviour (physically or digitally), and exploratory activity, where the learner explores the model embodied in the tangible interface

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  • C. O'Malley

  • S. Fraser

  • Others

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