Changing the Interface of Education with Revolutionary Learning Technologies
Technologies such as streaming video, virtual learning environments, and
teleoperated experiments are entering the Web-based learning arena. Along with
the development of a second-generation online education infrastructure, it will
be necessary to consider changing the interface of education—reinventing
pedagogy for the new interface, including multimedia and hypermedia enhancements,
and creating the educational standards necessary for generalized deployment.
Here, Nishikant Sonwalkar provides an overview of key issues that we hope will
spark a discussion among the various stakeholders in the development of online
An undeniable shift is taking place now from classroom teaching and learning
to asynchronous Web-based and Web-supported learning environments. The dissemination
of educational content is surely moving from a teacher-to-student model to a
technology-enabled interface. As our roles evolve from “sage on the stage”
to “guide on the side,” this shift will be evident in the modes of
technology that support the educational interface.
Many of these mode changes have already taken place. Simple interfaces, such
as Internet browsers, are now providing the glue to connect students to teachers
and to self-paced online courses. Advances in voice and pattern recognition
technologies will soon enable more natural interfaces. And widespread use of
wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) and embedded screens in cellular
phones will enhance both communication and interaction.
The increase in the power of personal computers is leading the way toward virtual
reality learning environments. Technologies such as head mounted displays (HMD)
and data gloves are interfaces for immersive, partially immersive, and enhanced
From studies in brain surgery, cognitive science, psychology, linguistics,
and artificial intelligence, theories have emerged about the capacity of the
human brain to learn. In answering the fundamental question of how we learn,
we look to the basic modes of cognition—touch, smell, sound, vision, and
taste—and to the primary educational modes of listening comprehension,
ocular comprehension, and haptic comprehension. Cognition is a complex process
that results from multimodal perception, and research has shown that cognitive
competence presents itself differently in individual learners.
Of the numerous pedagogical models proposed in education science literature,
those developed for online distance education do not take full advantage of
the online medium. In attempting to harness the capabilities of digital interfaces,
the mistake is often made of recreating a classroom-teaching model within an
online learning environment. Online technology designed to mimic the classroom
becomes a restriction and a barrier to the teacher’s ability to impart
A fundamental paradigm shift is necessary to create a pedagogical model with
the asynchronous technological interface in mind. The pedagogy must allow for
flexibility, interactivity, and media-rich and adaptive environments that both
provide individualized learning and are also accessible to large numbers of
learners for collaborations and group discussions. This learning environment
must allow multiple modes of cognition.
Hypermedia-based education systems are flexible, with multiple pathways for
cognition and learning. Multimedia enhancements and hypermedia-based instruction
will possess the flexibility required by digital interfaces. In hypermedia-based
systems, multimedia objects in the form of audio clips for graphical objects,
annotated video segments, and online simulations are presented with an associated
database of concepts. The modes of learning change from textual to audio, and
audio to video, and so forth, as the learner invokes the multimedia objects
merely by clicking on links. This provides the flexibility to acquire knowledge
from different modes, e.g., auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Web browsers
are networked hypermedia interfaces that allow such flexible, multimodal explorations
for a given subject matter.
There is an acute need to define a framework for the educational models that
will provide a basis for the implementation of online education. The basis of
learning starts with cognitive pathways, which we use to acquire and assimilate
information. These cognitive pathways refer to the sensory perceptions of the
human mind and include vision, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
The sensory organs provide the necessary stimulus for infants to assimilate
information and the human brain to assimilate knowledge. With the development
of language skills, higher order learning becomes possible. The cognitive pathways
then become text, graphics, audio, video, animation, and simulations. These
cognitive pathways to the human brain predominantly utilize vision and hearing;
however, in a simulated environment it is also possible to use haptic interfaces
as a means of knowledge acquisition.
There are several learning models that can be used for online asynchronous
learning, including apprenticeship, incidental, inductive, deductive, and discovery.
Each model offers a unique way to represent content. Access to each of the models
enables the learner to master the content more readily.
The combination of media and pedagogically inspired learning styles can be
represented as a cube (Figure 1) where the media—text, graphics, audio,
video, animation, and simulation—are ordered from simple to complex, and
the cognitive-based learning styles—apprenticeship, incidental, inductive,
deductive, and discovery—also scale by learner involvement. The third axis
describes the paradigm shift from a teacher-centric to a learner-centric modality
Recent developments in digital imaging, streaming audio and video, and interactive
human-machine interfaces provide a wealth of opportunities to enhance the learning
experience. More important than the technologies, however, is the context in
which the multimedia enhancements are presented to learners. The design and
development of combined media components—text, graphics, audio, video,
animation, and simulations—for enhancing the learning process will depend
on the learning model appropriate for the delivery of given course content.
A list of a few potential multimedia enhancements might include:
- Audio annotations to graphics
- Graphical visualization
- Audio annotations to video demonstrations
- Video demonstration of graphical elements
- Animated graphical frames (animated gifs)
- Audio annotations for animated graphics
- Animation of physical concepts
- Text annotations to video frames
- Animated simulations
- Numerical simulations for parametric studies
- Graphical simulation of mathematical equations
Video, animations, and simulations offer exceptional potential for enhancing
the interface of education. Experimental demonstrations and real-life experiences
and situations can be captured on video and provided as digital video.
Video can be a window to the real world for a given theoretical
description. In the past, there were considerable bandwidth, cost, and quality
issues associated with video enhancements. However, with the development of
video compression and real-time video streaming technology, many of these barriers
have been overcome, and the potential for significantly increased bandwidth
Animations are an inexpensive alternative to the video demonstration.
The animations of physical phenomena or a difficult concept can bring the point
home much more effectively than video clips can. However, animations are not
substitutes for video demonstrations.
Simulations can provide a risk-free environment for understanding
the consequences of parametric variations and can be considered “hands-on
experience” in place of real situations. For example, flight simulators
are used to train fighter pilots, and dangerous or expensive laboratory experiments
can be conducted without risk, and at a lower cost. The environments created
by numerical and animated simulation provide a unique opportunity to learn while
increasing the retention of the concepts.
Standards for Educational Media
In the past decade there have been several proposals for creating a uniform
standard that will provide a basis for universal use, reuse, and sharing of
learning objects. Since the adaptation of models used in library science to
categorize content objects (the Dublin Core), there has been a movement to create
metadata and standards for shared media—this includes Instructional Management
Systems (IMS) metadata standards, IEEE 1484 metadata and database standards,
extensible markup language (XML), educational markup language (EML), database
structures for educational components (Aviation Industry CBT Committee-Computer
Managed Instruction), and a sharable courseware object reference model (SCORM).
These standards and markup languages will potentially provide the means to define
course structure, objects, and hierarchy.
The goal of standards for educational media is to provide a taxonomy, methodology,
and object structure that will coordinate the development of online educational
courses. Most of these standards are in the evolutionary stage and the winner
in the race to be the de facto standard remains unclear.
Toward a Fundamental Change
The paradigm shift in the pedagogical design of online education will require
much more in-depth study and analysis of existing methods and evolving technologies.
Clearly, education delivery is not simply information transfer. There is much
to learn, but we already know much about the potential of the technology for
multimodal delivery of learning material to a variety of online learners.
Five Fundamental Learning Styles for Online Asynchronous Instruction
A “building block” approach for presenting concepts in a step-by-step
procedural learning style.
Based on “events” that trigger the learning experience. Learners
begin with an event that introduces a concept and provokes questions.
Learners are first introduced to a concept or a target principle using specific
examples that pertain to a broader topic area.
Based on stimulating the discernment of trends through the presentation
of simulations, graphs, charts, or other data.
An inquiry method of learning in which students learn by doing, testing
the boundaries of their own knowledge.