In this project, we investigated the effect of using a tangible interface for discovery-based learning. For this purpose, we built EarExplorer, a Tangible User Interface (TUI) supporting students’ discovery of the human’s hearing system.

Background

Discovery or inquiries learning approaches have been advocated for several decades. The last decades, particularly, have seen the apparition of a plethora of work on the topic. Empirical work and various frameworks have highlighted the importance of a constructivist approach, where students build on their prior knowledge to construct a conceptual understanding of a domain, or explore a problem space before being given a lecture. However, discovery, exploratory learning activities are notoriously difficult to engineer in classrooms with traditional materials, and researchers have been advocating that new technologies could play an important role there. New materials such as robotics, and tangible user interfaces, could be powerful building blocks in engineering such activities. This is why we built EarExplorer: to study how new technologies can prepare students for future learning.

Goal

Our goal was to investigate the effect of using a tangible interface for discovery-based learning. For this purpose, we built EarExplorer, a Tangible User Interface (TUI) supporting students’ discovery of the human’s hearing system. EarExplorer is a tangible construction toolkit where students can manipulate and connect parts of the auditory system (e.g. the pinna, ear canal, ossicles, cochlea and neurons) to rebuild a functional structure. An augmented reality layer displays sound waves and shows how they are transformed at various stages of the process.

3D reconstruction of the human hearing system. Each tangible was virtually remodeled using 3D design softwares and physically recreated using low-cost 3D printers.
3D reconstruction of the human hearing system. Each tangible was virtually remodeled using 3D design softwares and physically recreated using low-cost 3D printers.

Process

Our previous work suggests that TUIs are particularly good at preparing students for future learning; that is, compared to a “tell-and- practice” type of instruction, students learn more when they can explore the domain with a TUI first, before receiving a standard kind of instruction such as attending a lecture or reading a textbook chapter. In our study, we isolated the effect of generating knowledge versus receiving it. In one condition, students rebuilt the hearing system by trial and errors. In another condition they rebuilt it by following the step-by-step instructions of a teacher, which is the approach often used in most classrooms.

The two conditions of our study. On the left side (“listen”), a teacher guided the students through the building process. On the right side (“discover”), students built the system by trial and errors.

The two conditions of our study. On the left side (“listen”), a teacher guided the students through the building process. On the right side (“discover”), students built the system by trial and errors.

We found that the first group (“discover”) significantly outperformed the second group (“listen”) by ~27% on the final learning test. 

Results of the learning test between the two main conditions of our 1st factor ("Discover" and "Listen"; see previous figure)
Results of the learning test between the two main conditions of our 1st factor ("Discover" and "Listen"; see previous figure)