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Educational Design & Development:

Fainting Goat not only creates standard promotional materials like print ads, brochures, websites, but we also design interactive educational materials like the Virtual Library or Fuel for your head.



Nicaise, M. (1998). Cognitive Research, Learning Theory, & Software Design: The Virtual Library.

The Journal of Educational Computing Research, 18 (2), 105-122.

The Virtual Library Abstract

The idea that theory and research on learning and cognition could influence the way we teach and structure learning environments has established a new paradigm for software designers (Lebow, 1993). According to cognitive theory and research, social discourse, authentic tasks, discovery and student-centered learning all play central roles in learning and understanding. These cognitively-guided concepts were incorporated into a software development prototype called the Virtual Library. When complete, the purpose of the software will be to assist preservice teachers in learning about educational psychology. The software is based on a library metaphor where students browse through a series of 3-D, virtual rooms to understand research, theory, and classroom applications of educational psychology. Students have access to movies, text, images, and web sites. They also have opportunities to participate in interactive lessons and e-mail conversations with other students, classroom teachers, and educational psychologists.

A Library Metaphor & Exploratory Learning. Learning tools that allow students access to multiple sources of information, tasks, and problems, in an order that learners prefer, and where learners are required to construct an understanding, is in closer alliance between what it means to learn and classroom instruction (Lehrer, 1993; Reiff, 1993; Venezky, & Gong, 1993). Exploratory learning environments are thought to help students learn better because they require students to actively construct meaning as opposed to passively receiving it (Bruner, 1961; Harel, 1990; Hsu, Chappelle, & Thompson, 1993; Papert, 1980).

Currently, three separate rooms comprise the library environment, and each room represents a distinct theory of learning in educational psychology and instructional design (behaviorism, information processing, and constructivism.

Top-Down View of the
Virtual Library

Each room contains information about theoretical beliefs, empirical support, and implications theory and research have for teaching, assessment, and learning. The next series of figures present different views of the behavioral room. Users travel through the environment by clicking around on the screen. If they click on the right side of the screen, the user will turn right. If users click in the middle of the screen, they will move for ward, and so on.

As users approach specific artifacts within each room, they may click on the artifact to receive information or participate in interactive lessons: in the Behavioral room, clicking on the dog statue retrieves archival video of Pavlov working in his laboratory; clicking on B.F. Skinner initiates an interactive lesson (described later).


Situated Learning Around an Authentic Task

Although open-ended, discovery learning environments have a certain appeal for some, many are disturbed by the seemingly loose nature and goal-free approach. Unfortunately, there is a general misunderstanding that knowledge-construction through discovery learning implies no learning objectives and a content-free curriculum. In fact, developing an open-ended and exploratory software includes determining specific learning objectives and outcomes, except the methodology used to facilitate learning is completely different from the traditional, linear lecture or computer-based tutorial. In discovery learning environments, student learning should revolve around an authentic task or project. The task serves as a vehicle that spirals or weaves seemingly discrete pieces of information and skills into a complex whole. In other words, the task helps students to organize and analyze information they discover or uncover.

To assist students in organizing, analyzing and synthesizing information they find in the VL (or to help provide instructors who may use the software with ideas), the software provides a menu of authentic tasks or projects to users. The tasks help guide student exploration and provide students with a purpose for using the software. Because it is difficult to devise one central authentic task for multiple users of varied backgrounds, an introductory interface provides students with diverse authentic tasks. In other words, in the Virtual Library, the user (or instructor) selects and defines his or her own mission or authentic task. The missions loosely guide students as they interact with the software. For instance, similar to Advise the President (McGee & Beckwith, 1993), users may choose to "Advice the Dean."

Advise the Dean

"Schools and universities are restructuring classrooms in dynamic ways. Ideally, classrooms should be based on theoretical and empirical support derived from educational psychology and instructional design. At the end of the semester, you will meet with the Dean of the College of Education and with representatives from the state and advise them on the best possible theory (or theories of learning) and how to best translate theory into classroom practice."

Student-Centered, Nonlinear & Playful Learning

Multimedia offers students several unique characteristics important for student-centered learning that a textbook or teacher cannot offer. First, multimedia offers students choices of accessing information in the form of text, audio, video, or through simulations. In other words, it becomes easy to present information in more than one way where students make choices. Along with presenting information in more than one way, multimedia helps to present information in nonlinear ways that invites students to seek out explanations. In the VL, when a user clicks on the photo of Watson, they hear this,"John Watson is considered to be the father of behaviorism, and he conducted his most famous experiment with Little Albert." Afterwards, the user may click the photo of "Albert as an adult" to watch an animation where Albert becomes frightened at the sight of a small mouse.


If the user is curious about this, he or she may seek out a multimedia book on Watson to watch the actual video of Watsonís experiments with Little Albert, read a text file, or hear additional audios regarding Watson's contributions to educational theory.


In other instances, multimedia helps to present information in visually rich and stimulating ways or in game-like scenarios. Simulations are especially good at piquing student interest which enhances an intrinsic motivation to learn (Lepper, 1985). In the VL, there are several simulations or games. When a user clicks on Skinner, she or he tumbles into a virtual Skinner box to learn about operant conditioning.

Welcome to the Virtual Skinner Box. You must figure a way out.

{To exit the box, students need to figure out a series of lever pushes. When correct, the user will be rewarded with an informational movie -- most of the movies are actual footage of Skinner working with pigeons in the 1940's; the movie provides the user with information that will eventually assist the user in exiting the box. When users make mistakes, they are given a simulated shock.}


Also, to motivate student interest, some media are presented in a light-hearted spirit. For instance, there is a historical antecedents section in the behavioral room that presents media describing Locke's, Descartes', and Darwin's influences on educational theory. To access the Darwin media, the user clicks on a picture and watches a morphing of Darwin to and from an ape.


Multiple Viewpoints, Discourse, & Dialogue

Along with exploratory learning, authentic tasks, and student-centered learning, discourse is important in learning, and this was articulated best by Vygotsky. According to Vygotsky, discourse is thought to help students express ideas, ask questions, and create categories for concepts. Discourse is thought to help students to construct hypotheses and test them against what they believe to be true. Moreover, it helps students to view knowledge and information from multiple perspectives. Conceptual growth comes when students and teachers share different view points, new perspectives, and experiences.


In Virtual Library, students have access to multiple points of view and opportunities for discourse. In particular, many movies and other media present teachers, students, and educational psychologists who have contrasting views. The graphic to the left presents users with a series of comic videos; the characters present different sides of an issue. This particular interface is presented on a kiosk in the behavioral room.



Each of the three rooms in the Virtual Library has a kiosk in a centrally located position, and information on each kiosk allows users access to analytical information about the three theories. Also, each kiosk presents examples or non-examples of different theories in practice. On the behavioral kiosk, a Montessori school is presented as an example of how a developmental- constructivist may design a school.

To present users with additional perspectives and points of view, some of the media in the VL are connected to other resources, especially to sites on the World Wide Web. In the Information Processing room, a user may access information about artificial intelligence and chess playing by linking to information on Artificial Intelligence as applied to chess match between Gary Kasparov and Deep Blue. s

  Likewise, students have access to multiple points of view through a telecommunications function. Students may access a web bulletin board on the web by clicking a button on the menu bar.


Typically, adults have tight control over pedagogy by predetermining all or most learning objectives. Then, adults construct meticulous lesson plans to deliver fragmented content across several weeks or months. The idea of putting disciplines into bite-sized units that can be taught through daily lectures across a series of weeks has a long tradition in American education. Although methods such as lecturing, expository teaching, and direct instruction have their places in teaching, all too often, people adopt an information-giving approach and rarely consider alternatives. Similarly, many have selected a fragmented, linear, and direct instruction approach in software design. Most software resembles an information-giving approach because most of it is designed to help students progress through a sequential knowledge base and a hierarchical, skill-building process. In these instances, technology has not radically altered the way we teach, and this type of instructional design is problematic for many reasons (Becker, 1991). Generally, it fails to consider the variations in student background knowledge, interests, goals, or learning style. Furthermore, when teachers (or software) pre-establish most learning objectives, including the sequence in which they will be learned, students are relegated to passive participants. Some suggest that students become over-reliant on form and imposed structure and do not learn to self-regulate (Kozma, Belzer, & Jaffe, 1993; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976). Most importantly, there is scant evidence that a direct instruction and hierarchical approach to learning works. Direct instruction appears to be successful for basic skills instruction, especially at elementary levels in reading and mathematics; for other subjects and other grade levels, however, there is "less of a basis for believing the direct instruction methods will improve student learning," (Slavin, 1994, P. 286).

Although it is difficult and challenging to find new ways of teaching and organizing information, an interesting transformation is occurring in software design and technology use. Advances in educational technology are beginning to assist educators to consider radically different ways of teaching or structuring information because it provides us with vehicles to do it differently. Consider Papertís (1980) innovative work with computer technology; his goal was to use a mechanized turtle to encourage young children to learn principles of mathematics and physics in a non-linear and exploratory way -- a way that closely resembles the processes of human learning. Since then, others have created computer-assisted cognitive apprenticeships, microworlds, and simulations (see Nicaise, 1994). Clearly, software can be designed to create dynamic learning situations that encourage students to build on prior knowledge and actively construct meaning. Software, such as the Virtual Library, can be designed to allow students to explore content in a visually rich environment that is not heavily structured. Students can go where they want, walk through rooms, observe video experts, or initiate electronic discourse with classmates. Student learning is supported through the use on authentic tasks, the availability of rich sources of information, and on-line guidance from classroom teachers.

Authorís Note: I would like to thank Humphrey Loe, Regan Richards, Kelly Wells, James Cooper, and Ed Williamson who made significant contributions to the development of the prototype. Without their dedication, expertise, and sense of humor, the Virtual Library would still be a figment of my imagination.

A full paper describing the Virtual Library is available as a PDF file.



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