Despite the extensive application of computers in the physical sciences for instrumental control, data acquisition and computational purposes, their effectiveness as educational tools in these disciplines has been substantially below predictions (Salinger, 1991). Among the factors contributing to this has been the relative difficulty of using computers to represent and interact with complex, abstract physical science concepts. The current generation of computer graphical user interfaces combined with interactive multimedia (IMM) potentially provides an environment more attuned to the needy of instructors and learners of the physical sciences. To explore these possibilities, in combination with other educational issues associated with physical science learning, the authors have been developing an IMM physics instructional program. A major outcome of this project has been the recognition that most commonly used IMM instructional design bases have limited applicability in teaching and learning physical science. One reason for this is the abstract and counter intuitive nature of many (even elementary) physical science concepts. The limitations of these design bases are unlikely to be resolved by application of more advanced hardware or software tools but rather require that significant research be directed into instructional designs appropriate to the physical sciences and to the development of effective learning interactions.
One of the first steps in this process was to assess the potential of existing physics educational software and IMM courseware to teach introductory university physics to approximately 500 students per year (Low, 1992). About one third of these students have little or no previous physics instruction and most required physics content specific to their major discipline. While several useful programs were identified and were subsequently incorporated into other physics units, none of the programs were found to be suitable for our major requirements. The only program attempting to provide comprehensive learning resources and interactions in an IMM format was the Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment (CUPLE) (Wilson & Redish, 1992a, 1992b; Kagan, 1992) which is currently only available on the IBM PC. The difficulties involved in developing IMM for the physical sciences are highlighted by the fact that even though CUPLE involves several dozen contributors only a small percentage of the overall package has been completed. Most of the current content of CUPLE is also too advanced for many Curtin University physics service students and would have required substantial modification to meet their needs.
To minimise hardware and software complications the authors initial developments were based around the Macintosh platform and SuperCard software environment. Approximately three person months were devoted to the instructional design including navigation and provision of user resources. Once an initial framework or shell had been established the authors began to experiment with the incorporation of physics content but it rapidly became apparent that mathematical expressions and physics concepts such as vectors and fields posed difficulties well beyond initial expectations. A number of other issues were also identified (Loss et al, 1992; Loss et al, 1993) including:
While IMM can be considered in terms of the management and presentation of information, there is a considerable difference between the presentation of information and the provision of effective learning opportunities. Effective communicators and instructors (be they scientists, shareholders, union officials, lawyers or teachers) all need to consider not only what they are presenting but how they are presenting it and to whom. Information by itself does not provide for learning any more than a library (or for that matter a lecture) does. Many initial attempts at IMM instruction are no more than the transfer of inexpensive and highly portable text books onto considerably more expensive and much less portable computers. Effective instruction considers the background of the learners and attempts where possible to provide multiple learning pathways and interactions under the control of the learner, and to suit the learners individual learning style. These well established learning requirements (although not always offered in practice in conventional university physical science instruction) are especially significant where the instruction involves highly complex and abstract information and concepts. An even more important distinction between presentation and instruction is that the latter should provide substantially more sophisticated levels of interactive feedback to enable the learner and instructor to assess the level of understanding achieved.
In the following section some of the more common IMM instructional design bases that go beyond the usual electronic encyclopedia and are being or could be used in physical science instruction and are described. Many IMM instructional packages incorporate several of these bases in the one package and some may also include other interactions specific to the subject content and the overall objectives of the project. In each case we will examine their potential at delivering deep learning interactions and their overall applicability in the instruction of complex and abstract concepts such as those encountered in physical science instruction.
The development of new graphical user interfaces and IMM has enabled complex symbolic and graphical information to be incorporated into questions. Although this has improved the way questions can be asked, the ability of computer programs to analyse learners responses has not changed significantly. Free form text, and graphical and algebraic responses to questions remain awkward if not impossible for current computers to grade. These types of questions are even more difficult to analyse for the provision of feedback to learners and human instructors. This problem is applicable to all other instructional design bases which attempt to tackle deep learning.
Well constructed case studies using a contextual approach can also offer a highly stimulating and deep learning environment, but can be a nightmare to program, particularly where multiple possibilities am allowed. Conventional and IMM based case studies in physics education are rare probably because once again these types of interactions assume a certain level of understanding of the material and do not appear to be well suited to the introduction of complex physical concepts. However, some examples of where this could be applied in physics are in areas such as electrical or mechanical fault diagnosis and for consolidation or revision purposes.
Of the 48 papers presented at a recent conference on the use of computers in physics education at universities (OzCUPE1, 1993), 32% had as their main theme the development and/or use of computer simulation in physics instruction. The main reason is that simulation is an already well established in physical science research so the extension of this tool into education is understandable and even desirable. Most advanced physics students at university routinely use simulators to study complex phenomena such as atomic and crystalline structures, digital and analog circuits, optical and acoustical design and chaotic systems.
Because the results can be expressed in quantitative terms, very sophisticated computer based simulations have been developed and used for many years to analyse complex phenomena in industry, the social sciences and commerce. Many simulators also integrate aspects of IMM including exploratory learning facilities suited to deep learning interactions. Simulators handling multi-dimensional input information and providing output in multiple media formats are often difficult to distinguish from visualisation or virtual reality (VR) applications.
Although simulation has the capacity to promote deep learning in physics, our evaluation of most stand alone physics simulators including those designed for novice physics, shows that they are unsuited to the introduction of elementary physics concepts. The main problem with most existing simulators is that the investment in time required by students to become familiar with these appears to outweigh any educational benefits. This is in part due to the complexity of the concepts being investigated, and the added complexity of the simulation process and the levels of abstraction or simplification required to produce physically meaningful results. Although products such as Interactive Physics (Knowledge Revolution, San Francisco, CA) are considerable improvements over earlier simulators, their practical use in introducing students to physics concepts is limited. Simulation may be more effective for novice students when integrated in small doses into a more structured learning environment such as a IMM or for more advanced students who already have some familiarity with the specific concepts.
While there are still some practical hardware problems with using IMM (eg computer speed, memory and storage restrictions), recent developments should soon provide more than ample performance. An excellent set of examples of this interaction are displayed and discussed by Wolff and Yaeger (1993). Virtual reality (VR) devices have also been used to visualise highly abstract physical concepts such as the curvature of space-time in general relativity (Bryson, 1992). The addition of new tactile feedback devices to VR will add a useful kinaesthetic dimension which may assist in understanding physical concepts.
An example of this level of feedback or user sensitive software is already appearing in some current non-IMM applications in which the software or system attempts to assist the user . The development of software tools to provide IMM developers with the ability to provide improved real time feedback from users of their application would be a major breakthrough in increasing the learning depth potential of this medium.
A major attraction of IMM to educational and training administrators is the possibility of economic savings in both campus based and distance education and training. Our experience over the past three years indicates that many current IMM instruction strategies are not sufficiently well developed to teach even many elementary physical science concepts. Because of the complexity of many physical science concepts, the authors recommend that IMM research in physical science education concentrate on the development of small scale learning interactions and exploration of the learning depth dimension. A major problem in funding these aspects of IMM instructional projects is that sponsors and funding agencies do not recognise the significance and time consuming nature of this research and tend to favour projects which are little more than electronic encyclopedia.
Improvements in hardware and software may solve some of the presentational problems described above but it is unlikely that technology will ever automate the development or design of effective deep learning interactions. In the case of stand alone products perhaps IMM developers should assess the reintroduction of a more human element into IMM. There may well be cases where an abstract concept is best described by a short video (or sound) clip of an instructor explaining the phenomena judiciously combined with other DiVA or graphics. What makes this different from a lecture other than the replay facility? What makes the digital replay facility different from a video tape recording? The flexibility, complementary information, interactions and potential learning depth, which after all is what IMM instruction is all about.
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|Authors: Dr Robert D. Loss, Lecturer, Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology, PO Box U1987 Perth WA 6001. Tel: 351 7747 Fax: 351 2377. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr Mario G. Zadnik, Lecturer, Department of Applied Physics, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001
Associate Professor David F. Treagust, Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987 Perth WA 6001
Please cite as: Loss, R., Zadnik, M. and Treagust, D. (1994). Teaching and learning abstract physical science concepts in a computer based multimedia environment. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 311-316. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/km/loss.html