Front-end Evaluation for ADVANCING CONTENT THROUGH INTERACTIVE VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENTS
The purpose of this front-end evaluation study was to inform design decisions about the development of an interactive learning system focusing on Earth and planetary science. The design team was led by the Institute for Scientific Research (ISR), and the project was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The aim of the Advancing Content Through Interactive Virtual Environments (ACTIVE) Project is to create an interactive learning environment that allows exploration of the solar system through several senses including touch, sound, and sight. Developers will incorporate NASA Earth and Space Science data into a virtual reality system including haptics, an innovative touch technology. The program will be designed for middle school students (grades 5-8) who are blind or visually impaired. A mobile unit will be available through loan to schools for classroom use or for an exhibit setting. Carey Tisdal of Tisdal Consulting in St. Louis, Missouri designed and conducted this front-end evaluation study to provide information to project developers during the conceptual and content development stages of their work. The overarching methodology of the study was naturalistic inquiry. This front-end study had three overarching questions: (1) What is the range of knowledge, attitudes, skills among the target audience in relation to the West Virginia content standards in Earth and planetary science? (2) What attitudes, skills, access, and experience do target audience members have with computer technology and assistive devices? (3) To what extent and in what ways are the current teaching/learning strategies and materials in Earth and planetary science adequate to meet the needs of the target audience? Two primary methods were used, a literature review and in-depth interviews. Respondents were 8 middle school students with visual impairments and 3 teachers at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind. Interviews were conducted January 11, 12, and 13, 2006 in the Learning Resource Center of the school. The ACTIVE interactive learning system has the potential to provide a rich, exciting learning experience for both middle school students with visual impairments and their sighted peers. The most likely educational environmental for students with visual impairment to use this system is a regular classroom along side their sighted peers. About 74% of students with visual impairments are served in regular schools in West Virginia and 87.5% in the U.S. as a whole. Our respondents shared some of the challenges of that environment. The literature cites others. Several of these environmental factors point to important design features for the system. Based on this study, several overarching factors should be considered in the design. Technological design elements that ensure accessibility (audio narration, audio cues, high contrast graphics, sound cues) should be integrated into the overall design of the system so that students with visual impairments and their sighted peers can use them together without calling attention to the differences in visual ability. Sequencing of both content and haptic experiences is important. The lesson design should begin with activities to elicit students' existing knowledge and misconceptions so teachers can make good decisions about adaptation. Content should be carefully sequenced so students encounter familiar and less challenging topics early the program. These topics included Earth's structure and landforms. Respondents were also familiar with some planetary surface feature forming processes such as plate tectonics and impact cratering. Many of the target audience (both sighted and with visual impairments) are still concrete thinkers. Current scientific theories in planetary and Earth sciences use the underlying construct of complex system. Scientists best explain these systems with models involving multiple causes and multiple effects on different levels of system operation. For the younger members of the target population (5th and 6th graders), most have not reached a level of cognitive development that allows them to learn and process this type of information. Many older students may also have difficulty. The concept of a system should be carefully defined and supported with familiar examples. Goals for in-depth understand of these concepts should be modest should be at a factual and recognition level rather than expecting students to develop deep understandings. Haptics technology has the capacity to assist students with visual impairments in developing spatial mental models of the solar system. This, however, should not be an initial or introductory activity. Students with visual impairments need to be given addition time to explore the haptic environments to orient themselves spatially. Some activities should be included that require them to organize this information in an integrated way. Inquiry or problem-based scenarios appear to be a good teaching/learning strategy for this population and for the content. The social design of the small task groups should be carefully constructed to assure that students with visual impairments have the opportunity to display expertise and leadership. Approaching this content through the context of space travel appears to be a motivating factor for males, and provides a link to considering their own futures and identity. Disaster and catastrophic scenarios were also appealing but these may overpower scientific accuracy. Other strategies such as narrative structure with character and plot and reinforcing sound effects appear fruitful. The appendix of this report includes interview protocols used in the study.