Chapter 1:    From analogue to digital: a new interface for education

1.1 Introduction

The researcher, as an education radio producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation began the thesis at a time when the organisation was responding to developments in computers and educational CD-ROM technology. In 1994, the researcher was asked to report on the CD-ROMs in Primary School Initiative (National Council for Educational Technology). The researcher then proposed a trial multimedia project using the BBC’s own radio resources and the Head of BBC Education commissioned the project. Staff at the School of Lifelong Learning and Education at Middlesex University were approached for advice on the scope of the project. It was suggested that the contextual research of CD-ROMs in the Primary School Initiative and the BBC's trial multimedia research project should be formalised as a PhD. The researcher has pursued the process from 1995 to 2002.

The context of the thesis is the growth in use of information technology in schools, particularly in the area of multimedia resources for learning. In this period of growth the parameters of what constitutes educational value are changing as new forms of interactivity and technology develop. An analysis of their educational value in a classroom environment is therefore much needed. The thesis identifies the gaps in the research during a period of very rapid growth in the new technology and defines principles that will inform professional future producers of interactive computers and teachers using new media technologies in the classroom. The thesis is a critical reflection on developments in multimedia software by a researcher with a background in radio and audio-visual education. The perspective provided by the researcher’s experience has led to a wider review than the traditional literature in the field. The thesis collects evidence from the wider review to identify themes and patterns for improvement in interface design and to suggest new ways forward.

Chapter 1 establishes the aims and methods of the study, outlines the organisation of the thesis in more detail, and indicates the contextual research that led to the research.

Aims and objectives

The aim of the thesis was to first discover more about the way 5 to 7-year-old children used computers by developing and testing a working interface appropriate to the ability of children. The intention was to improve the quality of interaction between children and computer interfaces they use.

To achieve these aims, the objectives were to:

  • Analyse observations of children in primary schools during the summer of 1994, prior to beginning the thesis.
  • Reflect on these observations by surveying standard studies of visual perception and psychology texts in a literature review and historical survey of educational developments in informational technology.
  • At the same time create a working multimedia product, referred to as the ‘Research Tool’ in the thesis, and intellectually account for the most appropriate design incorporating the prior observations and parallel literature review as far as possible during the Research Tool production period.
  • Test the Research Tool, summarise and analyse the results.
  • Suggest approaches to future design of multimedia products and further areas of research.

Arising from these aims was the research question:

What are the design features required to improve the quality of computer interface interaction for 5 to 7-year-old children?

The classroom context of the research was the current common practice at the time of three children using the computer, – an arrangement used by teachers to make use of scarce computer resources. Children in primary classroom were recognised to use computers in a variety of configurations but that the rotating of groups of three using the computer was a pattern observed in the contextual research to be the most familiar method used by teachers in the real classroom environment. The real classroom environment was defined as the typical everyday experience of a working primary teacher in which well-planned lessons are adapted to events – opportunities for learning – and flexible in terms of group and whole-class organisation .

Interface interaction was defined in terms of the new edutainment techniques emerging at the time: full colour graphic images with hotspots linked to other ‘pages’ or triggering animations, sound or video sequences and ‘pop-up’ boxes of text. Click and drag methods of interaction were only used in system software and in generic software programs. The new emerging edutainment techniques was an aspect of ‘new media’ referred to in the thesis – the integration of text, pictures, video, sound; and the increasing use of the Internet as well with the defining feature of interactivity.

The quality of interaction was proposed as being improved by developing a greater depth of engagement of children with the computer. Engagement was defined in the dictionary sense of attracting attention, employing, occupying (person, powers, thought) including emotional involvement or commitment,and the facility to improve the depth of engagement by greater use of the senses in the context of the limited technology available: kinaesthetic – in terms of greater use of motor activity with the mouse as a physical manipulation tool; auditory – the use of audio that enhanced interest and improved feedback; visual – improving the visual quality of interface graphics possibly including a simulated 3-D perspective. Engagement was also conceived as involving pleasure – a proposal arising from a combination of the subject matter, educational values and the contextual research and the depth potentially being enhanced by qualities familiar in radio production methods.

The methodology for answering the research question was qualitative. The methodology moves from the broad study to a focussed practical application through the creation of the Research Tool. The conventional fieldwork phase of a thesis has been replaced by the contextual research described below and in conjunction with the literature review informs the design and production of the Research Tool. A pilot study was used to test the methodology before the main study. The methodology is described in detail in chapter 4.

The Research Tool was a multimedia interactive version of songs, story, teachers’ notes and graphics material from ‘The Song Tree’ an already completed BBC Radio children’s primary music course for the 5-7 age group, Starcatcher, first broadcast in 1994. The title of the Research Tool was ‘Starcatcher’. The process of the development of the Research Tool as a CD-ROM has been recorded in chapter 2 of the thesis.

The accuracy of the methodology has been enhanced by new technology: first, applying new digital audio technology to make the recordings of higher quality observations and more effective interview transcriptions; second, using new computer database software to analyse the transcribed audio information more thoroughly. These new techniques are described in detail in chapter 4.

The organisation of the thesis

The thesis aims, objectives and contextual research are described in chapter 1. Chapter 2 takes the form of a description of the production, a journal, which critically reflects on the development of the Starcatcher Research Tool kept since the beginning of the creation of the CD-ROM in September 1994 (The detailed log is to be found in the Fieldwork Diary: Part 1). Chapter 3 is a literature review of, first, a chronology of significant events in the introduction of information technology in British schools and, second, a review of papers relating to the field of study. Chapter 4 demonstrates and tests the methodology used to evaluate the Research Tool. Chapter 5 describes the main study, the use of the Research Tool with children and presents a summary of the evidence. Chapter 6 is a series of written guidelines for improving the quality of computer interface interaction called the total impact assessment toolbox. Chapter 7 discusses the issues and implications arising from the main study and suggests areas for further discussion. The Appendices and Field Study Diary contain detailed information for reference. The structure of the thesis is summarised in Figure 1.1.

Figure 1.1: The structure of the thesis, in outline.

Figure 1.1 visually illustrates the relationship of the contextual research, the production of the Research Tool and the continuation of the literature review through the period of refining the methodology. The research was carried out between September 1995 and August 1999. The literature review ran concurrent with the creation of the Research Tool funded by the BBC whilst the researcher was seconded to the BBC Multimedia Production Unit at the Open University. The trials of the methodology, changes to the Research Tool and the main study itself were continued by the researcher after leaving the BBC, and during a period of training at the Centre for Electronic Arts at Middlesex University in 1997. The period of collating the research data coincided with the establishment of the researcher’s Virtual Reality Photography business exploring the potential of Apple’s QuickTime VR technology. Further research and redrafting continued in 1998 and writing up took place from 1999 when the researcher began work as a senior lecturer in digital production at West Herts College, Watford. The contextual research that stimulated the thesis is described in the next section.

A summary of contextual research

The section is a description of the contextual research prior to and determining the direction of the thesis. The period of contextual research began in April 1994, at the suggestion of the then Head of Department, Terry Marsh. The general aim was to investigate the potential of interactive learning and make the findings available to the Education Department. (A summary of the titles of the reports created during this period is listed in Appendix 6. Summary and detailed classroom observations (1994)are to be found in the Fieldwork Diary: Part 1. The complete reports form Fieldwork Diary: Part 2. in Appendix 5: CD-ROM of the research Tool).

The first task was to survey and acquire a collection of educational CD-ROMs for a departmental multimedia library for education producers’ use. The second task was to take the CD-ROMs to schools and watch children using the software that had been acquired. The intention was to assess real educational value, rather than the advertised edutainment advantages.

The BBC’s survey coincided with the beginning of the National Council for Educational Technology (now the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, BECTa) CD-ROMs in Primary Schools Initiative in 1994. The Hertfordshire Information Technology Centre (ITC) was involved in the Initiative and through them contact was made with a range of schools that had been provided with computers and software as part of the scheme. (See Fieldwork Diary Part 1).

Permission was given by Hertfordshire ITC to visit 12 of the Initiative schools during the summer term of 1994. The audio interviews with teachers and children were recorded while they were using the computer and the transcripts written up as reports. Some schools were visited on several occasions. A summary of the observations was prepared. These early observations represent the contextual research, a personal view and a collection of perceptions carried out before, but leading to, the thesis. The contextual research has guided the direction of the Research Tool design and the focus of the literature review. The following is a summary of the key points from the contextual research. (For the detailed report see Fieldwork Diary Part 2.)

1.  Children appeared to ignore icons in the corners of the screen. The subjective observations appeared to suggest preferences for particular parts of the screen. There appeared to be a preference for the left and right of the middle area of the screen. They also appeared to press some buttons repeatedly, and ignore others completely. They also clicked anywhere quickly and at random and frequently moved to the next screen using the hotspots without attempting to read the contents of the screen.

3.  Children were also observed working away without any sense of time, chatting, concentrating intently and expressed their pleasure in the educational materials in a manner familiar to the quality of their experience with computer game playing.

4.  Observations raised the researcher’s concern of the computer’s physical form as in an adult product. The CD-ROM disc case, keyboard and the mouse were too big for a child’s hand. Even the best-designed trolleys were too small to accommodate the computer, keyboard and monitor. From these practical issues came serious concern that in the process of learning children have great difficulty holding the mouse, manipulating the cursor over hotspots, looking at the screen, holding the mouse still whilst clicking on hotspots and carrying out click and drag movements.

5.  Pupils continually appeared to have difficulty ‘finding their way’ around the software, becoming ‘lost’ in the multimedia activities, expressing their displeasure by going off-task and displaying anxiety. There was the difficulty of children recognising the meanings of icons and the role of lettering, colour and feedback responses expected by children. A focus of the researcher’s interest developed into questioning the appropriateness of language, figure/ground relationships, the number of icons, their colour and location on the screen, icons and sounds and the hierarchy of icons used to navigate through the software.

These observations guided the interest in the design of the Research Tool and also the direction of the literature review.

The detailed reports were shown to the BBC Education Directorate at the end of the summer term 1994. The findings were also presented at the time to a number of other researchers in the field including the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET), British Aerospace Sewerby Research Centre, the Open University Institute of Educational Technology, and staff at the Middlesex University School of Education. It was at this point that staff at the School suggested the contextual research could be pursued further in a formal academic context.

Chapter 1 has provided a background to the main body of the thesis identifying its aims demonstrating the formative interests, the experience and the contextual research of the researcher to demonstrate it has clarity of focus. As already indicated, the development of the Research Tool was carried out in parallel to the literature review. Those aspects of the contextual research incorporated within the commercial production schedule for the Research Tool are indicated at the beginning of the next chapter. The development of the Research Tool is now described in chapter 2.