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Learning with body participation through motion-sensing technologies

Have you ever thought that your body movements can be transformed into learning stimuli and help to deal with abstract concepts? Subjects in natural science contain plenty of abstract concepts which are difficult to understand through reading-based materials, in particular for younger learners who are at the stage of developing their cognitive ability. For example, elementary school students would find it hard to distinguish the differences in similar concepts of fundamental optics such as concave lens imaging versus convex lens imaging. By performing a simulated exercise in person, learners can comprehend concepts easily because of the content-related actions involved during the process of learning natural science.

As far as commonly adopted virtual simulations of natural science experiments are concerned, the learning approach with keyboard and mouse lacks a comprehensive design. To make the learning design more comprehensive, we suggested that learners be provided with a holistic learning context based on embodied cognition, which views mental simulations in the brain, bodily states, environment, and situated actions as integral parts of cognition. In light of recent development in learning technologies, motion-sensing devices have the potential to be incorporated into a learning-by-doing activity for enhancing the learning of abstract concepts.

When younger learners study natural science, their body movements with external perceptions can positively contribute to knowledge construction during the period of performing simulated exercises. The way of using keyboard/mouse for simulated exercises is capable of conveying procedural information to learners. However, it only reproduces physical experimental procedures on a computer. For example, when younger learners use conventional controllers to perform fundamental optics simulation exercises, they might not benefit from such controller-based interaction due to the routine-like operations. If environmental factors, namely bodily states and situated actions, were well-designed as external information, the additional input can further help learners to better grasp the concepts through meaningful and educational body participation.

learning body participation
Photo by Nian-Shing Chen. Used with permission.

Based on the aforementioned idea, we designed an embodiment-based learning strategy to help younger learners perform optics simulation exercises and learn fundamental optics better. With this learning strategy enabled by the motion-sensing technologies, younger learners can interact with digital learning content directly through their gestures. Instead of routine-like operations, the gestures are designed as content-related actions for performing optics simulation exercises. Younger learners can then construct fundamental optics knowledge in a holistic learning context.

One of the learning goals is to acquire knowledge. Therefore, we created a quasi-experiment to evaluate the embodiment-based learning strategy by comparing the leaning performance of the embodiment-based learning group with that of the keyboard-mouse learning group. The result shows that the embodiment-based learning group significantly outperformed the keyboard-mouse learning group. Further analysis shows that no significant difference of cognitive load was found between these two groups although applying new technologies in learning could increase the consumption of learners’ cognitive resources. As it turned out, the embodiment-based learning strategy is an effective learning design to help younger learners comprehend abstract concepts of fundamental optics.

For natural science learning, the learning content and the process of physically experimenting are both important for learners’ cognition and thinking. The operational process conveys implicit knowledge regarding how something works to learners. In the experiments of lens imaging, the position of virtual light source and the type of virtual lens can help learners determine the attributes of the virtual image. By synchronizing gestures with virtual light source, a learner not only concentrates on the simulated experimental process but realizes the details of the external perception. Accordingly, learners can further understand how movements of the virtual light source and the types of virtual lens change the virtual image and learn the knowledge of fundamental optics better.

Our body movements have the potential to improve our learning if adequate learning strategies and designs are applied. Although motion-sensing technologies are now available to the general public, massive applications will depend on economical price and evidence-based approaches recommended for the educational purposes. The embodiment-based design has launched a new direction and is hoped to continuously shed light on improving our future learning.

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