Chapter 2:    The Research Tool: about the production

2.1    Introduction

Chapter 2 is a report of the development and production of the Research Tool to be used for the main study. The chapter is an introduction to the Research Tool, the context and history behind its origination, and the features incorporated in the construction and design. The Research Tool was a multimedia CD-ROM product called Starcatcher using the audio and pictorial assets from programme 1 of Starcatcher. Starcatcher was the title of a 10-programme sequence in the ‘Song Tree’ series, a BBC Education Radio Primary Music Course for 5 to 7-year-old school children. The daily log of the production process and the staff involved is described in detail (see Fieldwork Diary Part 1). References in the chapter to children using the Research Tool are to tests of the software during Stage 1: the first methodology pilot, very early during the Research Tool testing period. The references are part of the contextual research and not to the classroom evaluation which forms the main study of the thesis. The CD-ROM containing a working model of the Research Tool is included in Appendix 5. The Research Tool was created using Macintosh software. The software ran on a Macintosh computer taken to the schools during the testing period. The final version was planned to be PC compatible but for technical reasons (recently updated PC operating systems) is only available in a Macintosh version on the CD-ROM.

The Research Tool began as a commercial project commissioned by the BBC in conjunction with the thesis. The researcher planned its design informed by the contextual research summarised in chapter 1, and by the literature review as indicated by cross-references to chapter 3. The interactive multimedia elements in the Research Tool were assessed using the research methodology described in chapter 4. The researcher’s role in the production stage was to project manage the commercial production process of the Research Tool, supervise the contracted graphic artists and a programmer (Mike Saunders), whilst reflecting on developments in an academic context.

2.1.1    The original aims of the BBC project

The aim of the BBC project was first, to explore the feasibility of transferring radio programme resources – the accompanying teachers’ notes, children’s worksheets and graphics – to a digital multimedia product. Second, to explore whether the original learning aims and objectives could be transferred by the use of interactive multimedia.

The aim of the Research Tool in the context of the thesis was more focussed. It was to investigate the interface design issues, especially the potential for improving the quality of interaction through greater depth of engagement that arose from using the radio and pupils’ handbook activities resources in digital multimedia form. It was not to investigate what musical knowledge children had acquired using the new technology or redefine the aims of teaching music in interactive terms or explore a single new aspect of learning music through interactive methods. These options were rejected due to financial and time constraints.

2.1.2    The decision to use Starcatcher

The decision to choose the radio programme called Starcatcher (see Appendix 4) was made within the feasibility brief of the BBC Education Directorate. The choice was made because of the very favourable response of schools and press during the previous Autumn Term Press Launch in 1994, when the Starcatcher series was first broadcast to schools. The project reflected the intense interest in multimedia including the creation of a new Multimedia Research Centre at White City. The researcher was given the task of managing the project and then proposed that it should be part of rigorous investigation within the thesis.

The researcher project-managed the production process according to the BBC’s anticipated professional timescale for a multimedia project. This was set to be a 3-month schedule from 1st September to 31st December 1995. The researcher also designed an interactive and multimedia structure within the existing budget constraints, and within the anticipated future Directorate multimedia production cost limitations of £20,000. The production team included two artists creating the graphic images and the multimedia designer programming the interactive aspects according to the researcher’s brief, but also made suggestions for improvement of the design as part of the iterative process. The researcher was also able to speed-up the production by preparing the outline interactive design using Macromedia Director software to demonstrate early trial models and by digitising the resources for the programmer. The work included digitising sound files from the original radio programmes and scanning in and preparing rough illustrations for the artist to develop.

This chapter is the record of the creation of the Research Tool CD-ROM and also contains references to the contextual research and the early stages of the literature review which were incorporated as features in the software. There are references to children’s responses. These relate to a first methodology trial during the production process in December 1995 at a primary school in Hertfordshire. <br>

2.2       Incorporating the literature review in the Research Tool

Three desirable elements that enhance the quality of interaction identified in the contextual research have been directly incorporated in the Research Tool. These three elements were: first, the need for a control panel interface for teachers and a simple navigation structure: second, the potential for greater depth of engagement through a recognition of eye physiology and children’s vision issues; and third, the potential of a pseudo 3-D storytelling interface using a simulated 3-D perspective. From the creation process came recognition of the value of greater engagement through manipulating objects using the mouse. These were not generally recognised subjects for education interface design at the time the research was carried out. They are described next.

The preliminary observations of the research in progress were published in the British Journal of Educational Technology in April 1997

(see Appendix 2).

2.2.1    The need for an interface for teachers

The contextual research regarding the difficulties of teachers using ‘edutainment’ CD-ROMs in classrooms led the researcher to propose a control panel interface in the Research Tool solely under the control of, and for teachers. The control panel allowed teachers to set up the computer quickly and easily, but more importantly organise the differentiation and progression of children and their work. This form of organisation was not available in any of the CD-ROMs listed in the NCET material at the time. A form of control was available in some commercial products such as DISCUS and Wiggleworxs but using the technique of users choosing levels and sections. The concept of a teachers’ control panel in the Research Tool was proposed using a different approach – the transfer into a digital medium of three very familiar aspects of normal good classroom practice. These aspects were: first, to be able to set tasks that can be completed within the normal time span of a lesson: second, to allow children to work on material which is appropriate to their own level of ability (differentiation); and third, to add further activities which develop children’s ability (progression). The concept of a teachers’ control panel was a reaffirmation of the traditional ‘bottom up’ model – a teacher led development of education resources.

The ‘bottom up’ concept underlying a teachers’ control panel was very much against the attitudes of the time that the ‘edutainment’ multimedia CD-ROM software was easy to use and children only needed to use it to be able to learn – a popular view criticised by (Hawkridge, 1989) (see chapter 3, p. 67). A teachers’ control panel in the Research Tool was a design decision that gave teachers a method to manage the resources on a CD-ROM – to ‘break up’ the mass of content and allowed them to judge what was suitable for their class. The teachers’ control panel also allowed teachers to overcome one of the persistent barriers against using existing ‘edutainment’ CD-ROM software by offering a facility to take a quick look at the contents of a CD-ROM in minutes rather than hours.

2.2.2    Recognition of eye physiology and children’s vision issues

In the light of his observations during the contextual research of children having problems viewing a computer screen, (summarised in chapter 1, p. 6) the researcher suggested to the project programmer that the screen displays should be visually simple and uncluttered. Also, that the centre of the screen and an oval form for graphics should be used in preference to the edges. These suggestions are in part a response to Bruner and Mackworth (1970), and to research by Gregory (1974) (see chapter 3, p. 79). It was necessary to go back to these early references for eye search, because the subject was not the concern of educational research at the time of the literature review. Findings from this research informed the contextual research accounting for the fixation of attention around objects by children of a young age. Though Mackworth and Gregory wrote in the context of using conventional still pictures and direct physical manipulation of real toys, the technology in the Research Tool enabled the principles to be applied to a new interactive screen context. Some of the artwork lent itself to having a simulated 3-D perspective – the property of being looked down onto or into – directly applying observations about 3-D visual search by Enns (1988), Stoper and Cohen (1991) and others (see chapter 3, p. 83 and p.85).

2.2.3 The role of manipulation of objects using the mouse

As the literature review was conducted in parallel to the creation of the Research Tool the review informed the desirability of allowing children to manipulate information on the screen using a mouse. The capability was incorporated in the design of the Research Tool. The realisation was assisted by the subject – percussion music using manipulating beaters and selecting sounds – and availability of the latest techniques of Lingo programming in the software (Macromedia Director™). Once the concept was explored and demonstrated to be workable in the first plan of the software, literary references to activity-based learning and speech by Piaget (1952) and Vygotsky (1978) became the focus of a reiterative process of re-evaluating the potential. Further study, explored the concept of pleasure in activity and learning by Csikszentmihalyi (1992), noting valuable effects of total involvement, absorption and pleasure during physical activity, all suggested an activity interface could involve children in a deeper physical and emotional way by using moveable icons rather than clickable icons. At the time click and drag operations inside multimedia products were in advance of common educational software programming. In many multimedia products the mouse activity is confined to clicking buttons and highlighted hypertext.

It was for these reasons that the Starcatcher interfaces employed mouse operations, which children could use as an extension of their hands, as tools which created a direct relationship between them and tasks. If the mouse pointer arrow changed it became one of the standard pointing hand, hourglass or clock symbols. In the Starcatcher interface the mouse arrow changed to become a tool, for example a musical beater. During the early production tests, this feature together with the comprehensive use of high-quality sound appeared to change the frenetic clicking activity of children to more focussed activity. Also the screens were designed to have a dissolve effect and not to disappear quickly so children have time to recognise that a change is happening and avoid a surprise or shock reaction.

2.2.4    The potential of a pseudo 3-D storytelling interface metaphor

The discoveries in the literature review about the value of a 3-D interface metaphor were only  applied to the story element of the interactive design, rather than every activity screen, because of the limits of time and cost. There was also a technical problem, because the visualising of even a pseudo 3-D perspective interface conflicted with the operation of the mouse and its manipulative features – the software could not be made to display dragging objects across a 3-D background – without revealing white pixels around the moving object. Only the story interface in the Research Tool was designed to create data to analyse the effectiveness of a 3-D interface container metaphor. The story has a pseudo or simulated 3-D perspective interface which was used to explore the effects of children being able to physically place themselves in the story. The activities work in a simulated 3-D perspective (in 2-D) because of the limitations imposed by the production deadlines. The design for a 3-D storytelling space was based on a container with shading for depth and a rear ‘wall’ reduced in height to create the impression that the scene is being observed from above, the optimum visual search position as described by Maddess et al., (2000) and others and discussed in more detail in chapter 3 (p. 86). The application of the container concept originated in the work of orientation and ontological metaphors of Lakoff and Johnson (1980) described in chapter 3 (p. 105).

The origin of the simulated 3-D storytelling space concept is developed in more detail here. The drawings for the story sections of Starcatcher were 3-D perspective sketches drawn by the researcher. The ideas were first explored in Howarth (1997, p. 135) and visualised in Figure 2. 1 below. The result is the concept of ‘Radio Rooms’ formed by two box shapes positioned side by side, with an open doorway between. These are drawn as viewed from above and at an angle. The oblique viewpoint has the potential advantage of faster recognition times for the observer (Enns and Rensink, 1992) and (Maddess et al., 2000).

Figure 2.1: Visualisation of a radio script represented in 3-D. (Howarth, 1997, p. 135)

The concept of a narrator’s room and a story action space had resonance with the creation of radio programmes in the physical environment of studio and control room and informed by the existence of navigable routes through text in 2-D by Chapman (1987). He stressed the visual process (see Figure 3.12, chapter 3, p. 110) that affects clarity of understanding through visual eye scanning, not the ‘choose your own adventure type of books’ of the early 1980s with their multiple choice story routes leading to different endings. Furthermore, in the Research Tool, each child could also click on icons of four children – by inference users – and drag the images so users could have the experience of ‘taking themselves’ into the narrator’s room and ‘into’ the story (see Figures 2.13-2.15). The proposition was that all these elements physically involve users to a much greater extent than the traditional ‘page’ metaphor. The sequence of screen shots developed from the diagram above can be seen in the next section.

Protherough (1983) also considered looking down on a scene in a story might be a popular concept in literature. As a result the researcher instructed the artist to create the background in oblique view. Also the graphic images of children were drawn facing into the picture and viewed slightly from above. The aim was to reinforce the sense users may gain from being part of the story by looking over the shoulder of the person they are manipulating (clicking and dragging) in a process that is comprehensively more visual and physically absorbing (see section: The role of metaphor in interface design, chapter 3). The technique has also probably origins in cinema and is standard practice in current visual worlds software. The preference for third person ‘over the shoulder’ view of a personal icon has also been observed more recently by researchers in the Vertex project, (Bailey and Moar, 2001, p.11)

The radio story sound effects were used in the visual transitions in and out of the narrator’s room and the fantasy space. In the case of this example the transition is through the window of the room where Granny – the narrator – is sitting, to the night sky where the story unfolds.

The three components: the teachers’ control panel proposal, recognition of eye physiology and children’s visual issues, and the 3-D metaphor potential that form the major practical influences on the Research Tool were informed by the contextual research and the literature review at the early stage of the production process.

2.3       Developing the interface design

An achievable plan was essential to turn the original teaching resources into interactive activities within the time limit. Brainstorming techniques were employed to explore different methods using visualisations of outline perspective drawings of layers showing the connectivity in a 3-D simulated view. Later, the original artwork was added. The visualisation technique was also an effective way to communicate ideas to management and aid clarity of discussions.

Planning Interactivity

The programmer needed the detailed formalised list of requirements provided in the form of the design brief. The amount and complexity of the specifications necessitated a written reference and a log to keep track of the digitised assets in each of the main subheadings of the project: the main menu, the children’s menu, the six activities , the story and the song. Within each subheading, the interactive brief was organised in two sections: in terms of the artwork components needed and a description of the interactive operations required for the artwork elements to function. Then a recheck was required to confirm the interactive ideas had reproduced the activities as described in the teachers’ notes.

Transferring radio resources to multimedia

The process of planning each interactive brief was outlined in chapter 1 and consisted of studying the Starcatcher teachers’ notes in detail. The process involved transferring the original aims and educational objectives of the radio series into multimedia format. These aims and practical activities were clearly and simply laid out in the teachers’ notes in a format that was well tried and tested. The content of each programme was also defined in detail with the aim of providing teachers with concise information needed before the tapes are played to the class. The ready prepared artwork, audio material with a clearly defined story line and activities, all to recognised BBC education standards and production values, speeded up the planning process. There were scripts available for each of the programmes and the tapes for each programme were listened to at the planning stage. The teachers’ notes even defined interaction in terms of children’s activities with the tape and booklet in a classroom situation. The interaction being defined in educational terms so concisely made it easy to look for ways to plan complementary activities in computer interactive form on the computer screen.

The song, story and six activities were given equal value. The six activities in their final order were:

Activity 1:   Children hear and see demonstrated the main phrase of the Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ (To Thee My Country) theme with the aim of identifying a tune.                   They recreate the tune and their own tune using the same notes.

Activity 2:   Putting into a boy’s pockets ‘star’, ‘shooting star’ symbols to aid familiarisation with music pattern.

Activity 3:   Putting planet symbols into a series of pockets to make a rhythmic pattern. Children learn about the structure of musical notes, using the                   syllable pattern of words as examples.

Activity 4:   Click and drag spelling of ‘star’, ‘moon’ and ‘sun’ from jumbled sets of letters.

Activity 5:   Creating star tunes using percussion instruments – choosing an instrument for each star, moon and sun picture.

Activity 6:   ‘Choose a music sound for different stars’ – 5 stars each with different instrument sounds. When each star is chosen a tune plays.

The aim was to explore whether the contents of a whole educational radio programme could be transferred to the computer. The overall design was based on following existing professional experience of music radio production. The motivational interest should come from the emotional element provided by the story (a quest). The fun element should come from the song (joining in the repeated sections led by the narrator during the broadcast). However, the ideas for interactivity came from the teachers’ notes activity information traditionally used in class during and after the broadcast. The aim of the Research Tool was to maintain the theme and approach in the new form of interactive media and to try to incorporate the qualities of pleasure and involvement inherent in the radio series.

The project management methods for creating the Research Tool were: a definitive written brief as a description for briefing the programmer and communicating progress to management; a production schedule; and also a log as a reminder of the large number of decisions taken. The process informing the design drew on the traditional radio production briefs with defined educational objectives and methods of achieving them in audio and visual terms, but now with an important addition – the methods of multimedia interaction (see The BBC Starcatcher project plan, timetable and production log in Part 1: Fieldwork Diary on accompanying CD-ROM). At the time, the attention paid to conventional computer instructional design was declined in favour of an exploratory method based on traditional radio production values.

2.3.1    The teachers’ control panel menu

The teachers’ control panel menu or title menu used the original radio series book cover picture theme, but the figures were moved in from the edges of the frame so children would not find visual search difficult or have to manually move the mouse too much. The quality of Granny’s facial detail was improved. The star was placed left of centre to allow more room for the title phrase with star buttons spaced out around the phrase to be used for the teachers’ controls.

Figure 2.2: The teachers’ control panel menu page.

The key feature of the title page or teachers’ control panel menu interface (based on the contextual research) was that children cannot start the program themselves until the teacher has organised the selection of activities. Users must wait until teachers switch on the access to the stars control panel by holding down the Alt + Apple (Research Tool Macintosh version) and simultaneously clicking on a star to select a function. Typically teachers would be expected to prepare the selection before a class session starts.

Figure 2.3: The ‘Select all programme resources’ option menu in the teachers’ control panel.

The first star in the sequence of 7 around the title activates the ‘Select all programme resources menu’ (Figure 2.3). A design change was made to simplify the selection of resources by creating this menu of the teachers’ control panel which allowed teachers to make a decision whether to include all the resources for just one programme. An early idea was that could make a conscious selection of every element in all programmes before starting. The new option was provided to help teachers who might consider switching on elements from different menus too complicated. From installation, three mouse clicks are all that are needed to enable the program to be set up. For the Research Tool purposes, though all the code in Macromedia Director™ is in place for future commercial production, only resources for the first radio programme are active.

Figure 2.4: Close-up of teachers’ control panel buttons.

Seven stars in this illustration of the top right corner of the interface are buttons that switch on or off with the Alt + Apple (Macintosh) keys from each of 7 lists. From top-left to bottom-right: Select all programme resources, Story Options, Song Options, Activity Options, Sound Controls, Teachers’ Notes, Star Words.

The idea to use the Orion constellation, a key theme in the broadcasts was replaced by a simple 7 stars arrangement around the title phrase. The reason was that though Orion was a theme of the story in the radio programmes, the concept was visually too advanced for the age group. The stars were also deliberately designed not to be too prominent. It was thought that children might see their teacher set up the program and try to click on them. However, children took no interest in this aspect during the first trial (see the first methodology pilot, section 4.2, chapter 4, p.126) perhaps because the process only occurred at the beginning of the session before children approached the computer.

Figure 2.5: The Story Options menu.

The titles on the Story Options menu of the teachers’ control panel were a list of the story episodes (one per programme) – 10 in all. A rollover highlights the choice and a mouse click selects the item. Only the first story was active.

Figure 2.6: Song Options menu.

The Song Options menu shown (Figure 2.6) allowed teachers to choose whether they want children to be able to repeat the verse or the whole song. The original aim was to allow children to be able to replay each word in the song. The intention was to use QuickTime movies to control the access to the sound files, but this had to be changed because the method would not have guaranteed consistent running on different machines. The ‘Catch a Falling Star’ song featured in the first programme was left out because of the lack of time to program the elements into the Research Tool. However, the concept of the song was incorporated in the activities i.e. stars in pockets. In the first draft design of Figure 2.6, the un-highlighted lettering was too dark and this effect was made worse in the PC version, caused by dithering the images to 8-bit colour. The problem was solved by re-versioning the colours of the graphics in the PC version of Director during the cross platform final production.

Figure 2.7: Activity Options menu.

Each of the 6 activities in the Activity Options menu (Figure 2.7) of the teachers’ control panel is selected by highlighting and then clicking on the listed item. The intention was that in the final commercial version of the Research Tool, 40 activities, all of those existing in the radio programme series could have been listed in this menu. The structure was defined by the order in which the ideas appear in the radio programmes and reflects a progression of activities. Teachers can reorder these, but for simplicity of use for the main study the option of ‘All on’ using the ‘Select all programme resources’ menu was chosen.

Figure 2.8: Teachers’ Notes menu.

The Teachers’ Notes menu (in Figure 2.8) was intended to contain a straightforward scrolling screen of the teachers’ notes with the ability to print them out. It was not possible to reproduce the entire teachers’ notes in the Research Tool because of pressure of time, but the principles of its potential have been demonstrated. There was also no easy facility to programme the ability to print out the notes provided in the pilot, but this could now be easily achieved using the current version of Director which allows the use of Portable Document Format (PDF) pages to produce well-laid out copy. It was anticipated that would just print off the notes right away and not use the on-screen scrolling facility. It might be desirable that they can also choose a section to print e.g. by programme. Alternatively the whole text file could be downloaded to the computer.

Figure 2. 9: Star Words options.

The Star Words options menu originated as the glossary of terms in the teachers’ notes. The explanations were presented in text and audio at an appropriate language level for children to understand. This element did not form part of the final version of the Research Tool because it was difficult for the programmer to uncouple the code from the separate teachers’ control panel section at a late stage in product development period. However, the element was left as a practical technical demonstration of the potential for making previously inaccessible material in the radio broadcast teachers’ notes available to children. A 6-year-old child who recorded the phrases read out the words without any problem. (See Example of transfer of resources from teacher to child access,Fieldwork Diary on the accompanying CD-ROM.)

Figure 2.10: Sound options.

Teachers could adjust the volume level of all the playback sound and also turn the sound instructions on or off in the Sound options menu (Figure 2.10). The reasons for adding this menu were first, the problem of controlling the volume on the computers in school at the time, as the controls were on the back of the machine; second, in the contextual research, teachers vehemently complained of the sounds, particularly the repetitive and educationally unjustifiable sounds. The notes on the menu screen remind teachers how to control the CD-ROM. In the first draft of the Research Tool there was also an option allowing teachers to give children control of the teachers’ menu. There was also the place where teachers could switch on/off the ability of children to replay a line or verse of songs, a choice reflected by the appearance of a small icon at the beginning of each line or each verse. The flexibility provided by these easy controls allowed the Research Tool to be effective in the study of the use of sound instructions.

2.3.2    The children’s menu

The children’s menu (Figure 2.11) is no different in appearance from the teachers’ menu (Figure 2.2). The original intention was to make the children’s menu a separate piece of artwork. However, following the teachers’ activation, the menu is now ‘live’ i.e. the rollovers, sound, and links operate and are available to children. The Director software layers system allows the same piece of artwork to be used so children’s interactivity was achievable by adding code turning the three figures into buttons.

Figure 2.11: The children’s menu.

Each figure highlights as the mouse rolls over it and a text label appears (Things to do, Stories, and Songs). Each text label is accompanied by an audio instruction. Clicking on the boy, girl or grandmother figure gains access to the different sections.

The researcher considered that merely transferring the pamphlet title with the word ‘Starcatcher’ to the screen gave insufficient guidance to users. Originally, it was envisaged that the Research Tool might be an entirely teacher-controlled product, with a verbal instruction to the class before pupils used the program, or that pupils would listen to the radio programme which would provide all the impetus necessary. The reason for this approach was in line with conventional attitudes to the control of BBC Radio resources by teachers and to create a product that teachers felt confident in using, because they could define its relation to class work. The implication of the teachers’ control panel design decision was specifically assessed in the research methodology. However, to ensure the software could be used by children on their own, in keeping with the current design of popular edutainment CD-ROMs, the researcher changed the design brief to add the question ‘Who is Starcatcher?’ to appeal directly to children. This functionality could be achieved by adding audio roll-over instructions to the original text-only instructions. Also the audio instructions were changed to ask children to take action.

Once it was observed in the first methodology pilot how well the combined audio and visual elements appeared to work with users, the audio instruction element and its inherent discovery approach were added to all the activity pages. The most obvious result was that a teacher need not explain the activities – children could understand and get on with the work without mediation by an adult. The second result was that the discovery theme, implicit in the radio programme structure could become an explicit goal in the multimedia context.

The idea of creating a game to achieve the goal was proposed, but rejected because there was never any final revelation in the broadcasts. The decision to just set the audio (and textual) challenge as ‘Who is Starcatcher?’ was because the first methodology pilot results made it clear that the age group were quite satisfied with the wonder and mystery of the search without the need for a resolution. The result was an open-ended, exploratory, non-directed opening theme that is a typical educational radio approach that might provide an addition to the visual and kinaesthetic levels of engagement  – by using emotion. This is a familiar technique used by education radio producers, and transferable to new media as an informed and focussed method. The ‘Who is Starcatcher?’ phrase sounds 5 seconds after the teachers’ menu choice is first made. Also the phrase sounds after the mouse was idle for ten seconds. A sense of mystery and anticipation is further enhanced by constructing other audio files with encouraging phrases that appear when the mouse rollover functions happen i.e. ‘Sing along and find out’, ‘Hear a story about him’, ‘Hear some stories about him’. The same technique of encouraging depth of engagement by using open-ended audio instructions was also applied to phrases in the story interface too:

            ‘Let’s go and see Sam and Stella’s Gran.’

            ‘She’ll tell us a story too.’

            ‘Do you believe in Starcatcher?’

            ‘We all do.’ (All four children speak.)

            ‘Gran, tell us about Starcatcher, we won’t tell a soul!’

The responses from children were encouraging in the first methodology pilot. Children listened to what was said. They discussed what to do and talked about the images. They did not rush and click on any icon. The response of the researcher was to add similar audio instructions to all the activities in the final version of the Research Tool. The effect of the opening interface also informed the design of the observation techniques in the research methodology as described in chapter 4.


2.3.3    The interactive song screen

The interactive song screen in Figure 2.12 was used to explore one of the traditional features of education radio broadcasts in a new media environment, and particularly music and movement programmes: children are encouraged to sing along (and interact) with the programme under the encouragement of the programme narrator. Typically, a page of music will be read or sung and repeated with children’s voices. The section will then be repeated with just the background music or even an instruction to pause the tape so children can work with teachers. Often the section is then repeated again so children can all join in and compare their results (reinforcement) with the original.

Figure 2.12: The interactive song screen.

The original intention was to make each word of the song sound when clicked on. The technique was technically possible but as the music also had to be halted while each word was heard, the effect might be confusing. The idea of revealing the text of the whole song was also rejected, because the words on the screen display were too small to read. This decision to only reveal a verse at a time coincided with the method used in the radio series where only one verse per episode was presented to children as part of their cumulative progression of learning the tune and words.

The proposal to use an animation to illustrate the theme of each line was rejected on technical grounds, because there was no space on the page for the animation to take place leaving an area of the screen clear for the highlighted text. Also overlapping layers of interactivity caused conflict in the software operation. On reflection, animation would certainly have detracted from the central activity. The first methodology pilot showed children were fully engaged just singing along with the highlighted words for the whole verse, enjoying the pleasure of the music, and remembering the words and were delighted in being able to repeat the music at their own bidding. The result was a simple layout in Figure 2.12 allowing children to choose the option of playing a tune line by line as well as a whole verse.

The sound file heard on entering the song page is ‘Click the moons and see what happens.’ The first methodology pilot suggested children would join in more quickly if the sound file was modified to i.e. ‘Click on the moons, sing along to learn the words and tune.’ The change was made. A page of words that appears too complex for young children to read in a conventional medium may now be manageable in an interactive environment because of the highlighting of individual words and because of the control children now have over repeating the words. Children sing along with the tunes themselves. What was immediately clear was that when 6-year-olds were asked to learn the words and join in they began singing and jigging up and down very excitedly.

2.3.4    The interactive story page

The interactive story page was designed to incorporate the story element integral to the radio programme. Each radio programme in the series contained one episode. The essence of the story was the quest for children in the story to find out who Starcatcher was through tales told by grandmother and a series of adventures.

Figure 2.13: The interactive story page.

Originally four speech bubbles were planned, one for each child in the story page illustrated in Figure 2.13 above, which on rollover appeared in text and in audio, ‘Hello everyone’, ‘Hello Stella’, ‘Hello Sam’, ‘Yes, Gran, please’, ‘Can we hear a story please?’ The decision to use sound files only was based on the complexity of making the speech bubbles appear and making the child icon images draggable at the same time.

The design of the page in Figure 2.13 demonstrates the application of principles informed by the literature survey (see chapter 3, Improving learning using pseudo 3-D perspective interfaces, p. 117) with the overall 3-D perspective effect, a viewpoint from above and the child icon images. They are intended to represent users being an integral part in the picture as well as their positioning to give an ‘over the shoulder’ viewpoint into the computer. The effect of making children able to drag ‘themselves’ into the picture achieved by slowly fading the figures as they are dragged to the doorway enhances the transition function of music and sound effects in storytelling.

Figure 2.14: Inside Granny’s living room.

Figure 2.14 is the view revealed when all four figures have been ‘dragged’ into the house by users. The sound file plays ‘Tell us a story Gran.’ In the first pilot version the icons were not constrained, so children started to put the child icons on the roof of the house. They went off-task very quickly and this opportunity was dealt with by constraining the icons of the children to only ‘go’ through the door area.

Figure 2.15: The story animation page.

The original plan was to make a shadow of Starcatcher move and blot out stars of the story screen in Figure 2.15 above, as the story sound file played. Starcatcher is a male figure, an option to change gender could have been chosen, but the male reference in the radio series was maintained. Stars were to be moved about by users and then put in Starcatcher’s pocket, which would then glow and the stars would stream out as shooting stars. Figure 2.15 was proposed to zoom into the centre screen from Granny’s window space in Figure 2.14 giving the appearance of the child icon images being drawn into space (and the story), and dissolve into the night sky as the story sequence started. Due to pressure of time the animation was simplified in the final version of the Research Tool, so the stars disappear as Starcatcher moves across the screen and his net catches them. The researcher was surprised that the passive listening and watching the animation of the story screen appeared to retain its appeal, despite the expectation of children for there to be active participation thorough mouse clicks. The effect may be due to children listening and looking to good quality sound and visuals at close range. Certainly the experience would have been unusual at the time. In the second software trial there was a lot of discussion. 6 to 7-year-olds asked very excitedly if Starcatcher was real? The reaction may not seem surprising in reference to Beard (1972) drawing attention to Piaget’s observations that children at this age imbue moving objects with life and will talk to the objects as if living things. This aspect was considered in the literature review (see 3.3.5 Manipulation and conventional education theory, p. 96).

In a primary classroom the value of ‘useful noise’ – educationally valid activities such as reading aloud, small group singing and discussion is well-established so a small group of three singing the song in a busy classroom would be acceptable and a teacher would accept a high sound level to retain attention against the normal high background noise of a classroom. At the time, headphones were not generally available due to the size of headphone connectors on computers. The pace of the story (unchanged from the radio version) was not a problem, only a pause between mouse click and audio file playing. The result of was children’s discussion about ‘Have I done something wrong?’ The technical problem was solved in the final version by shortening the blank space before the audio story file began playing. The researcher’s contextual research as to the ability of CD-ROMs to create feelings of anxiety caused by incorrect timing is demonstrable in this instance. The suspension of belief was dissipated by the inaccuracy of the pace, which can be defined as the acceptable pauses between phrases in narrative recording. In radio production terms pauses of longer than three seconds are not considered acceptable. Having solved this technical problem the Research Tool was made more effective allowing for the focus on the issue of the pseudo 3-D and manipulation aspects designed into the research methodology.

2.3.5    The activity pages

The decision as to the order in which the activities were listed initially depended on the sequence in the radio broadcast. The radio series contained an organised progressive plan of musical activities designed to develop music concepts. From the researcher’s radio production experience it was common practice to avoid spelling out the educational aims (to children) in the broadcast. The focus of a broadcast was in its stimulating content. Too much didactic material had been shown from production experience to be counterproductive in radio terms for this age group. The opportunities for applying the educational message was clearly spelt out for in the teachers’ notes. The result was that, as in the radio programme, the progression was not spelt out to users, though the coherence was inherent.

Activity 1

The original educational aim of this activity was to help children identify and familiarise themselves with the idea of a tune. The radio technique was to use the presenter to play the tune, repeat it and sing along and to clap hands. would repeat the activity as many times as required using the taped version of the programme.

Figure 2.16: Activity 1 – Identifying a tune, Jupiter and moons.

The first draft computer design in Figure 2.16 involved interaction which consisted only of the planets glowing in time to the 15 notes of Holst’s Jupiter Planet Suite theme. The advantage of this feature was that it could be repeated as much as children required to ‘get the point’ without teacher involvement – repetition being the facility that teachers would have to mediate – because of the technical difficulty of accurately rewinding the tape and through pressure on their time.

The first development of the interactive design was to add a sound file demonstrating the tune pattern from the original radio programme. The second interactive development was to arrange Jupiter’s moons through height and colour, a familiar graphic notation method in music education. The third development was to make the moons clickable icons and break up the sound file so each moon could be ‘played’ by children.

The audio instructions were changed to help manage the interactive process. The first version of the rollover instruction was ‘Listen to this voice and then click on Jupiter’ and then, ‘Now click on Jupiter’. By adding a suggestion to ‘click on the moons and play the tune yourself’ so the educational value, through greater interaction might be increased considerably. In the last changes, the second element of the activity was locked until after the first element had been achieved. The result was to stop children accidentally going off-task by clicking on the small moon first.

The graphic image underwent several changes too. An early design draft illustrated the realistic rings around Jupiter, but this made the ‘glows’ of the moons difficult to see. On reflection the original idea was much too adult. The desirability of giving Jupiter a name label or referring to its size was also considered as children at this level cannot recognise the planet from its shape on the screen alone; but the change was not made because of the time constraints of the production process.

The music was chosen carefully. There were several attempts at choosing the exact length of the musical phrase. In the end a few bars in front and at the end of the main tune were selected to allow a lead in and place the musical pattern in its context. There were 15 beats in the music theme that would have left Jupiter (with its 14 moons), one beat short. Luckily, during the period of work on this project another Jupiter moon was discovered by US satellite probe.

Some negative reactions by children about the version of the activity, as shown in Figure 2.16, were observed in the second software trial. Children found the adult’s voice amusing and they did not know which of the symbols was Jupiter, but quickly guessed. These aspects were not changed because they did not adversely affect usage. However, the moons did not light up enough to give effective feedback in poor lighting conditions so the colours were given a richer hue.

In the final version of the activity the following sequence was established: audio instruction of what to do, audio demonstration, visual demonstration, invitation to copy the process; a technique used in radio music programme formats, but also an instruction technique central to primary school teachers’ didactic methods. However, children were not asked to, or informed of, the possibility of creating their own tune from the sequence, but the software was capable of this deeper level of interaction. The considerations informing this decision were the length of the instructions for the age of users and secondly, the time available to code a second screen for the open-ended element. It was decided to be aware of the potential and look for children exploring the function in observations during the main study. There was a general intuitive feeling that the activity did not sit well at the beginning of this activity sequence. The decision was taken to put it at the end of the Activity list in position 6.

Activity 2

To give the most space in this interactive screen for the pockets, the top of the head and the feet of the graphic were ignored. Children had to click and drag four stars in the boy’s pockets to hear the word ‘star’ four times in rhythm pattern as the icons glow in the four pockets. The four star icons in Figure 2.17a then turn in to four shining star icons to be put in to the pockets and, on completion, turn in to four shooting star icons.

Figure 2.17a: Activity 2 – Familiarisation with music pattern using star words.

Audio files of ‘star’, and ‘shining star’ and ‘shooting star’ were taken from the section of the radio programme, illustrating the theme of the song but also the pattern of beats of music using syllables in the words.

The entry frame audio instructions are ‘Put the stars in the pockets and hear a musical pattern.’ It was thought that adding to this phrase ‘Join in and clap your hands’ would encourage children to sing and clap themselves, so the exercise might be more educationally effective by physical involvement giving greater depth of engagement.

The distance that children are required to drag the stars was found to be too great for small hands. This appeared to be caused by the difficulty or lack of experience of lifting the mouse off the mat to reposition it, and also the length of the ‘dragging’ distance across the mouse mat. The solution was to make the longest distance of drag half the width of a standard mat as in Figure 2.17b.

Figure 2.17b: Stars repositioned for easier manipulation.

Activity 3

The task in the radio broadcast is for children to learn about the structure of musical notes using the syllable pattern of words as examples. In the interactive version they choose from planets with different numbers of syllables. Dragging them into the pockets causes the sound files to play, for example Ju-pi-ter, and shoo-ting-star. The entry frame audio instruction was originally ‘Put the pictures in the pockets and hear them play. Hear them play a pattern.’

Originally ten pockets were proposed based on the number of syllable pattern examples in the radio programmes. However, the number was considered to confuse children with too many choices in a new media context, and so the number was reduced to 5 as in Figure 2.18 as a compromise between the available space on the screen and the size of the icon for children to manipulate using the click an drag issue discovered in activity 2. Each icon has a sound file of its name attached. When the pockets are all full the whole sequence plays the spoken words stressing the syllables: Ju-pi-ter, star, shoo-ting-stars etc. Children can repeat the task as many times as they like.

Figure 2.18: Activity 3 – Space words patterns. Pocket icons in the middle row and ten space feature icons such as asteroid, comet and Jupiter on the top and bottom line.

The order of the pockets can be changed too, one or more pockets at a time and the new sequence automatically starts to play again. The addition of the change in order option was not flagged in a sound file instruction at first and was added later for the main study. The words were also changed to make the potential clearer: ‘Put more space pictures in more pockets. Say the words and clap your hands in time. After that clap your hands and chant your new star word pattern.’

Activity 4

The layout of the screen is exactly replicated from the pupil’s booklet for the radio series in which children were asked to write the correct words in the correct boxes. In the computer interactive version illustrated in Figure 2.19a children click and drag letters and order them correctly in the box below.

Figure 2.19a: Activity 4 – Spell the words and match them to the pictures, star moon sun.

If they make a spelling mistake the letters jump out. When the spelling is correct the matching symbols change colour and move. Children can repeat these activities as much as they like. The entry frame sound file is: ‘Spell the words and see what happens!’

The researcher observed in the first methodology trial that children did not notice the moon rotating when they spelt ‘moon’ correctly. The reason was thought to be that the moon was too far away from the area of focussed attention – an observation that could be accounted for by the tendency for young viewers to engage in visual fixations as identified by Bruner and Mackworth (1970) – and described in detail in chapter 3 (3.3.2 Children’s eye function, field of view, and vision issues, p. 76). The decision was made to apply Bruner and Mackworth’s observations by making the spatial relationship between mouse activity and animation much closer. Bruner and Mackworth’s findings and the existence of the ‘foveal oval’ of attention are discussed in more detail in the literature review. In addition the size of the area of each letter was observed to be too small for children to easily click and hold with accuracy. The letters and boxes were therefore enlarged. The solution is indicated in Figure 2.19b.

Figure 2.19b: Revised version of Activity 4 with icons rearranged for easier visual recognition.

Activity 5

In the activity illustrated in Figure 2.20 the entry frame sound instruction asks children to: ‘Choose your favourite sound for each space picture. Use your beater and play a space rhythm’. Children click and drag the icons to the symbol.

Figure 2. 20: Activity 5 – Choose an instrument sound for each picture, star moon sun.

The instrument then disappears and a beater appears instead of the arrow icon which, on a mouse click, plays the instrument sound. The activity worked very well during the early trial and no changes were made. In the radio broadcast children are asked to choose star-sounding percussion instruments and creating appropriate ‘starry’ sounds with real instruments after the programme finishes.

Activity 6

The activity was originally an activity described in the teachers’ follow up notes – for work after the programme had ended. It is a class activity using real percussion instruments, and represents ‘progression’, an increasing of children’s understanding by extending experience by stages. In this case ‘progression’ is based on the previous exercise.

Figure 2.21: Activity 6 – Choose a music sound for different stars. 5 stars, each with different instrument sounds.

Children move to a further level of abstraction relating musical sounds to similar versions of one star symbol. In the interactive version illustrated in Figure 2. 21, the audio instruction asked children to: ‘Move the pictures around to make a sound pattern. If you want, choose a new sound. Play your pattern to a friend.’ They can click and drag the 5 icons to different star shapes. The music icon disappeared and when all the stars are ‘filled’ the sequence plays. When the musical icons changed, the whole sequence plays again, but the sequence cannot be stopped during the play sequence. The order of the stars can only be changed afterwards and then the new order played. This activity created an unexpected amount of discussion in the early trial, not so much on which instrument to choose for a star, but because the instrument could not be seen after it had been chosen, but the discussions were about ‘which sound had gone where’. The activity seemed to become a memory exercise. There was no programming time to develop the concept further or make changes. It was recorded that adding small instrument icons by each star when it had been placed would probably have lessened the memory load.

The decision not to delete this activity was made on the basis of exploring whether children are drawn into or reject the activity because of the memory task. They are solving a problem and being required to relate a symbol to a sound in memory. The final reordered list of interfaces is summarised here for clarity.

The Opening screen:

Users choose icons representing ‘stories’, ‘songs’, ‘things to do’ (activities).

Activity 1:   Users click and drag letter icons to spell ‘star’, ‘moon’, ‘sun’.

Activity 2:   Users put icons in to a boy’s pockets.

Activity 3:   Users put planet icons in to a series of pockets to make a rhythmic pattern.

Activity 4:   Users create star tunes choosing an instrument for each star, moon and sun picture.

Activity 5:   Users choose a music sound for different stars – 5 stars each with different instrument sounds.

Activity 6:   Users recreate the Holst’s ‘Jupiter’ tune and their own tune using the same notes.

Story:         The animated first episode of the 12 stories of Starcatcher.

Song:          Users hear and sing along with one of the many songs from the radio series.

Teachers’ Control Panel:  The 7 stars on the opening screen that switch on or off items from each list of 7 control lists.

Summary

The chapter has recorded the refining of the Research Tool design in detail. The design originally focussed attention on the three areas: the need for an interface for teachers; recognition of eye physiology and children’s visual ability issues; and the potential of a pseudo 3-D storytelling interface. In addition during the development period there were discoveries that:

  • The use of audio instructions gave added flexibility for children to use the Research Tool without having to read or to depend on teacher involvement.
  • The role of manipulation of objects using the mouse has potentially greater depth of engagement than clicking with the mouse and also greater educational value.
  • The order of activities should be changed.
  • The activities prompted discussion amongst children.

The Research Tool achieved the original plan to be a teacher-controlled product and the changes were incorporated so that it functioned effectively. As indicated in the cross-referencing the following areas are subject to further study in the literature review.


  • The apparent ability to program physical manipulation of objects achieving a deeper level of engagement encouraged in-depth research into manipulation and flow theory and a resonance in conventional education theory.
  • The role of the navigation metaphor.
  • Inconsistencies in the holistic approach of ergonomics and human factors.

The chapter has been an account of the production of the Research Tool. In the literature review in chapter 3, the Research Tool is first put in its historical context by a chronological account of developments in educational information technology up to its inception and second, the areas of enquiry that arose as significant elements in the production process are described in greater depth.