In the past, people have engaged with data predominantly through the medium of print. Data has tended to be presented in the form of tables or of static images such as graphs or bar charts. This has, of necessity been in two dimensions. Increasingly vast amounts of data are being created, stored and engaged with digitally. This affords the opportunity to engage with and manipulate data at any time and in any place through the use of mobile devices such as smartphones, tablet computers and laptops, including in three dimensions. These changes can allow the correlation of a vast amount of rapidly changing data, and the display of these changes in real time. One only has to watch the weather forecast on TV, and to cntraast present day presentation, with live data from satellite and rain radar sources, with that of a couple of decades ago (see MET Service). In addition to data created by governments and organisations, individuals including students can create and share data, and contribute to crowd sourced databases. How are these changes relevant to teaching and learning today?
There are many innovations that drive these changes in the extent and ways that we can create and engage with data. Some examples are:
- Increasing sophistication of personal devices such as tablets and mobile phones which allow users to create, access and manipulate data anywhere and at any time. Many people now use their devices for navigation using the GPS function, and apps have been created allowing images and videos to be tagged with their location and shared. An interesting example of GPS use is Geocaching – a form of treasure hunting that relies on the use of GPS data to find hidden objects. Geocaching is increasingly used to create interesting and authentic learning opportunities for students.
This relates to the aggregation of data from, or the manipulation of data by, large numbers of people through distributed online networks. Probably the most well known example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia. The Stanford University's Quakecatcher Network crowdsources seismic data from mini-seiemometers located in individual homes, and has an educational feature designed for use in classrooms. Another interesting application of crowdsourcing for data engagement and manipluation is the online game Foldit. Individuals across the globe used this program to solve the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS related retrovirus – a problem researchers had been struggling with for years. As yet, there appear to have been few applications of crowdsourcing in school-level education; however, at tertiary level it has been used to develop curricula and assessments, and to write textbooks.
- Novel ways of displaying and animating data. For people living in Christchurch, one of the most familiar of these novel ways of displaying data is the is the live quakemap which animates the display of earthquakes since September 10, 2010. Hans Rosling is a medical statistician whose Gapminder site brings alive a whole host of world statistics, including those on health and economic parameters, over many years. These animated data clearly show dynamic trends illustrating differences between countries, and provide information that students can use to analyse and specualte on the reasons for such differences. The site provides examples of the use of the data by students.
- Public accessibility of digital data, and data 'mash-ups'.
Many governments and organisations are opening up their data bases to the public. In New Zealand, much public data is accessible—these provide rich sources of authenitc data for students to engage with.
There is an increasing trend to create 'mash-ups' of online data such as images, videos, documents, maps etc. These create novel combinations of data, which can present information in unusual and impactful ways. In New Zealand, there has been a couple of mash-up competitions organised by DigitalNZ. In 2011, there were well over 30 student entries.
- The Third Dimension
3D computer environments have the potential to enhance engagement through the illusion of 'being there'. Many 3D games and virtual worlds allow participants to 'meet', to learn and to engage with data together.
There is a wide variety of educational 3D games. Three New Zealand examples have been created by former eFellows – a microbiology game, a game based on the battle of Gallipoli, and a virtual marae, used to help students learn Tikanga Maori. In the case of the Gallipoli game, students interact virtuaally with contemporary artefacts, including letters from home, soldiers' kit and a fly ridden can of corned beef, in a way that is impossible in the normal classroom.
Many educational establishments have engaged with online virtual worlds – notably with Second Life. In New Zealand, the SLENZ project developed immersive environments to develop midwifery and job related skills. Other organisations have created simulations of artefacts such as the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre; and a Spaceflight museum. The potential of Second Life use for schools is limited by the policy of limiting membership to those over 18, however, other sites such as Teen Second Life and Active World are available.
Augmented reality has been defined as: 'an environment that includes both virtual reality and real-world elements'. In the past, augmented reality applications have required the use of special goggles, although more and more applications are accessible via laptops and mobile devices. Educational applications of augmented reality are increasing. Examples include the Android SkyMap application which overlays a map of the constellations on the sky. Many cultural locations, including the Canterbury Museum have adopted augmented reality to bring their locations to life, and MindSpace Solutions of Christchurch have developed a number of mixed reality experiences which produce 3d images – such as of the planets or the human heart, which can be manipulated by the user.
Many students already use Google Sketchup to produce 3D images and virtual models. Using the Google AR plug-in, these images can be overlaid on real scenes, and these augmented reality models can be exported and shared with others. This technology is already being applied in some classrooms to enhance teaching of subjects such as mathematics.
3D printers are beginning to be used in schools. These produce tangible objects from digital data – allowing students to handle the products and to examine them in real life. One school has applied digital prinitng technology in a variety of areas including science, design and social studies. Other reports speak of printing out models of molecules for students to get a 'feel' for the reality of their shapes.
- Haptic technologies.
The most usual ways in which computers and mobile devices present information to the user are via visual or audible channels. Haptics feeds back information through the sense of touch. It is used in remote surgery and in medical training, where it gives feedback on the 'feel' of the patient's anatomy. Its use in education is in its infancy. However, haptics has great potential for tactile and kinaesthetic learners and those with visual or aural disabilities. One form of haptic feedback involves the use of special gloves or other devices that apply forces to the user to simulate the sensation of holding and manipulating the target object. One research group has focused on the use of these devices in studying the solar system (PDF link) – experiencing accelerating forces and 'feeling' the shape of the planets, and on technology – assembling models involving gears. With firms like Apple exploring haptic feedback on mobile devices, we can envisage tactile interaction with data becoming increasingly available to the public and educational institutions.
Another approach that is related to haptics is gesture recognition technology, familiar to the users of the Nitendo Wii, Playstation PS3 and the Xbox 360. This techonlogy allows users to engage with onscreen data and respond by body movements. Thus it has the potential especially to suit kinaesthetic learners. Obvioius applications include sport and physical education. This YouTube video describes the use of the Wii in areas such as music, mathematics, physics and special education. Other posts describe using Wii technology to create a low cost interactive whiteboard. It will be interesting to see how uses of these devices in education evolves over the next few years.
There are a many potential impacts of these novel ways of engaging with data. A couple that immediately spring to mind:
How can schools best exploit these new modes of data engagement to derive maximum benefit for schools, teachers and students?
How much do we know about and how much do we use and create open data sources in our schools?
How is your school providing for the opportunities that new ways of data engagement afford now and into the future? What technology to invest in, and how to manage student access?
What implications do these innovations have for planning, the curriculum and assessment?
- The days of relying exclusively on the printed text book as the main source of information in our classrooms are drawing to a close. Teachers need to be exploring how to use these new techonlogies, bearing in mind that they allow us and our students to interact with data in more immediate and authentic ways – gathering, creating and interpreting it in real time. This implies changes in the way that we teach – away from accepting and using only a limited source of printed information to one that accesses multipl sources that can be analysed and interpreted in many ways. This implies issues of authenticity, of data ownership, and what it means to be literate in a technological society.
- These technological innovations make it very easy for ourselves and students to contribute data as well as using and manipulating it. We need to consider this in our planning, where students and teachers – perhaps from several classes or dispersed locations – can collaborate in large scale data gathering activities. This data can then be pooled and worked on collaboratively.