Authentic Tasks as the Basis for Multimedia Design Curriculum

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Virtual Reality Project Enables Students to Pursue Their Own Interests and Guide Their Own Learning

At the beginning of the 2000-2001 school year, 12 seventh- and eighth-graders in the Highland School District in Highland, Ill., moved from an overcrowded building - whose structure was unable to support the exploding progress of educational technology - to a building where the possibilities for technology curriculum projects were nearly limitless. And what better way to show off a new school building, as well as give students a chance to experience an authentic multimedia Web development project, than to turn them loose to create a virtual 3-D walk-through of the school? One of the new elective course offerings was in Web design, and the course's content relied heavily on creating informational and interactive Web products that could become part of the Highland Middle School Web site. The structure of the course was one that attempted to present students with authentic tasks and professional-quality software tools to enable them to pursue their own interests and guide their own learning.

Classroom Environment

Specifically, the structure of the middle school Web design course was based on two principles outlined in a summary of Jean Lave's writings on "situated learning" (Kearsley 1994-2001). The two principles are:

  • Knowledge needs to be presented in an authentic context, i.e. settings and applications that would normally involve knowledge.
  • Learning requires social interaction and collaboration.

In addition, the climate of the learning environment was designed to be student-directed in nature, paralleling North Central Regional Education Lab's (NCREL) Engaged Learning Model. The Engaged Learning Model - a detailed description of which is available online at www.ncrel.org/sdrs/engaged.htm - suggests that small, heterogeneous groups of students should make decisions about how they will encounter real-world learning challenges, and then have an active role in carrying out projects that relate to their own learning.

Setting the Stage

Throughout the first part of the quarter, the students learned skills similar to those taught in comparable middle and high school courses in various schools, including HTML, image editing, design principles and file management. Students worked in groups of two or three on a variety of ongoing projects such as informational Web pages for the school's site. This included athletic information and schedules, curriculum resource pages for teachers, and information of general interest to the community. Each student was encouraged to maintain a personal Web page that would serve as a portfolio of their work and progress in the class. After the students had attained a certain level of competency - both with the basic Web development tools and with working in a relatively self-directed manner on projects in small groups - a biggerproject was proposed to them.

The culminating project in the course consisted of a challenge. Students were given three digital cameras with tripods, two iMacs with Apple's QTVR Authoring Studio, a set of blueprints of the school and as many 43-minute class periods as necessary. Then they were asked to plan, create and publish a 3-D walk-through tour of their new school building for posting on the Web. The project began with a questionnaire to be filled out by each student. The questionnaire outlined the resources mentioned above and asked the students some guiding questions to help them think about the project. The questions were:

1. Pretend, for a moment, that you are the one to organize this project from start to finish. In a sentence or two, how would you plan it out so that everyone has a role?

2. Knowing that there will need to be a variety of different roles, which role do you see yourself filling? (There may be more than one role for you.)

3. How do you suggest we proceed to complete this project?

4. How long do you think the project will take, and how long do you think each phase will take?

Answering these questions allowed the students to think about the project individually and write down their thoughts so that they could contribute to the group discussion later on. For the most part, the students' responses were very similar with regard to the way in which the project would proceed. Fortunately, the students identified a variety of roles they would each like to fill. Some roles with which students commonly identified were photographers, QTVR software specialists and Web interface designers. One might have anticipated those three roles. However, students decided two additional roles were also needed for the project.

The first role students identified was that of a public relations person. One might think such a role is unnecessary for a project involving students who are actively visible during regular class time in school. But some students felt it was important to inform other teachers and students of what the project involved, and to ask for the cooperation of those around them. At least two other students suggested that there should be one or two students to oversee the project and coordinate the components. By placing students in such positions, the teacher effectively became a co-learner with the students and a resource person for their self-directed learning activity.

Implementation

After the students initially planned the 3-D tour project, there was much work to be done to implement the plan. The two students who had expressed an interest in coordinating the various components of the project started by studying a blueprint of the school to decide how many 3-D panoramas, or nodes, would be enough and where they should be placed. Although a reasonable depiction of the school could have been achieved with approximately 10 to 12 three-dimensional panoramas, both students identified 25 aspects of the school they thought students, parents and community members might be interested in walking through. The project managers had to ensure that each node could be linked to, or seen by, at least one other node. The students, deciding which parts of the school would be included in the virtual tour, did not set about photographing each and every room. Instead, they identified certain rooms they felt were representative of some of the school's daily activities. Among the rooms they chose were the library; a computer lab; a modular technology/family and consumer science lab; the gymnasium; the band and chorus rooms; the office; the cafeteria; and various entryways and foyers. From those choices, the students then decided which points along the hallways needed to be photographed to link the nodes.

After identifying the locations from which each set of photos would be shot, the project managers met with pairs of students who would be taking part in the digital photography. Using self-adhesive notes, the students marked the areas they would soon photograph. But having only a few students at a time actively involved in getting the project started left several students with little to do. However, there was much learning to be done, and much of it was done independently on the parts of the students. Some students who had planned to be photographers instead conducted research on the Internet for information about the optimum settings for taking the photos that would later be used in the QTVR movies. After much trial and error - and several QTVR movies that did not resemble the areas they were supposed to represent - the students decided that the best way to take the pictures was to place the camera on a level tripod and take 18 photos, each 20 degrees apart. Expensive tripod attachments were available to assist in measuring the angle between photos, but the class chose to use a circular paper guide using The Geometer's Sketchpad from Key Curriculum Press.

While some students familiarized themselves with digital cameras and tripods, others used computers to plan the file management system they would use to keep track of the hundreds of photos. Others used some pictures taken around the classroom to practice using the QTVR Authoring Studio software, while the public relations specialists composed an e-mail to send to the school's faculty and staff informing them of the project. Finally, before the pairs of students set out to photograph the school, the project managers created a checklist that allowed them to keep track of which areas had been photographed and which photographs had been used to create the QTVR movies.

Production

Once the preliminary preparations had been completed, most of the students had some involve-ment in producing the virtual tour. Since there were three digital cameras with tripods, there were approximately six students taking pictures at all times. There were two to four students who kept track of the floppy disks containing pictures as they came in from the photographers, and the students monitoring the files en-sured that they were stored correctly on the computers. As time allowed, a few of the students began to create the individual QTVR panoramas that would later become the nodes of the tour. Meanwhile, a pair of students was developing prototypes of the Web pages that would later become the interface through which the Web users would view the class's work.

After several days of classroom activity, the digital photography and QTVR panorama production started to slow, giving the students the opportunity to learn additional skills. They would need to link the nodes to create a QTVR virtual reality tour that the Web user could walk through. They would also need to decide which information should accompany the movie on the Web site. When all of the nodes were in place, the exported movie that would appear on the Web was a hefty 8.5 MB, sparking some serious questions. The students needed to determine if they could include some fast-loading information that the Web user could peruse while the QTVR movie was loading in a separate browser window. The students decided they would create Web pages that outlined the process and equipment they used in creating the project. They also decided to include an interactive flat map (Figure 1, Page 20) of the school that included still photos from the tour, allowing the user to preview the 3-D tour. In some cases, the user may choose to view only the two-dimensional map and photos, foregoing the long wait for the QTVR movie to download. The navigational scheme that the students employed appears in Figure 2.

Figure 1: Figure 1    Figure 2: Figure 2

Conclusion

The students and their instructor chose to meet one evening shortly after the class's conclusion to celebrate the progress they had made throughout the semester. But it became evident that the project the students created went beyond just being something neat. They gained a variety of skills. All of them became better communicators; they learned to use a variety of software to complete a purpose; and they were able to apply some of the skills they learned earlier in the semester about HTML, graphic creation, Web navigation and design, and digital photography. In addition, all of the students developed a basic understanding of how 3-D multimedia software works. But most importantly, the students learned that they are capable of planning, executing and completing a real-world design project. Many of the students plan to take one or more Web and/or multimedia development courses during their freshman year of high school. Others have spent their own time making slight revisions to the finished class project as they see fit.

From an instructional standpoint, a variety of learning opportunities were embedded in the project. A constant fragile balance existed between providing the students with a certain level of guidance and instruction that would keep them from having a sense of ownership over the project, while trying to offer enough support and information to keep the students from having a desirable amount of success. The students chose to pursue the project to a slightly larger scale than the instructor would have chosen if the students had not been allowed to make those decisions themselves. For example, it was anticipated that only about 12 nodes would be selected; instead, they chose to include more than 20. The instructional gains this project afforded will be replicated to other projects in the future. The virtual tour of the school can be used as a model for similar projects, allowing future classes to learn both the positive and negative attributes of creating a virtual Web tour. The 3-D walk-through portion of the students' work appears in Figure 3.

Figure 3

To view the Highland Middle School virtual tour, visit www.thejournal.com/magazine/basden.

Reference

Kearsley, G. 1994-2001. "Explorations in Learning and Instruction," The Theory into Practice Database. JSU Encyclopedia of Psychology. Online: http://tip.psychology.org.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.

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