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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 learning systems.

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 reality environments.

Reinventing Pedagogy

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 knowledge.

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 of learning.

Multimedia Enhancements

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 is real.

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.

The 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.
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