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Cooperative Development of Visually-Oriented, Problem-Solving Science Courseware

P.E. McClean, D.P. Schwert, P. Juell, B. Saini-Eidukat, B.M. Slator, A. White. North Dakota State University, Fargo, ND 58105

The NDSU World Wide Web Instructional Committee (WWWIC) is a group of faculty who have a strong and active interest in applying information technology for instructional purposes. A World Wide Web (WWW) site http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/wwwic/ provides many of the details of the history and the accomplishments of this group.

The WWWIC has identified three discrete but related approaches for innovative design which are both highly technical and highly promising in terms of broad applicability for the development of courseware. These areas are: Visualizing Course Content, Simulating Course Concepts, and Interfacing with Course Content. Each of the WWWIC courseware projects emphasizes one of these approaches, and all feature active student interaction with course materials. Because each courseware application depends upon some form of simulation, students modify parameters or choose their own route to learning. This active engagement with the course materials promotes the learning experience. The direct outcome of these design and development efforts includes: the Virtual Cell, the Geology Explorer, and the Visual Computer Program, all of which are hosted and supported by our Java/MOO for Virtual Worlds client-server architecture.

Visualizing Course Content - Background. To facilitate learning and understanding in a uniquely accessible way, many concepts can be presented both spatially and graphically. This is possible for abstract, theoretical, as well as physical objects. This approach to system development has positive advantages and presents profound technical and conceptual difficulties. VRML, the Virtual Reality Modeling Language, has emerged as a highly plausible standard for creating visualizations, but specfic problems are associated with its usage. In particular, VRML and client-server applications employing VRML place prohibitive processing requirements on computing environments. Still, there are many advantages to this approach, and manageable methods of implementation can be developed. For example, the need is for state-of-the-art computers to host these server applications.

Visualizing Course Content - Courseware: The 3D Virtual Cell. Active learning involves students interacting with course materials. From a computer technology perspective, this involves interfacing with the materials in a computer environment, visualizing the subject matter in a 2D, or better yet, a 3D environment (which VRML supports), and modeling the material so that the student can learn concepts by manipulating parameters related to the subject matter.

Because 3D rendering and interactivity is a relatively new field, we will provide pioneering efforts necessary for future development. Answers are not yet known to questions such as how best to utilize computer and network resources to deliver this type of 3D content. Other unknowns include the dynamics of traveling through such a display and updating the module. Because new discoveries are being made in the field of molecular genetics and biochemistry at a relatively rapid pace, we design 3D worlds that are easy to modify so new developments can be easily incorporated.

The 3D Virtual Cell can also serve as a model for any 3D world. The solutions that we seek will have applications to other fields in which dynamic, interrelated information is the foundation of knowledge. Therefore the research solutions that we devise will pave the way for these applications elsewhere on campus.

Visualizing Course Content - Courseware: The Visual Computer Program. It is difficult to show effectively the execution of a computer program. This is particularly true for rule-based programs used in expert systems. This project develops the 3D models of program execution. The models are distributed in VRML form, allowing the student to "fly" through the steps of execution of the program. In addition, there are a number of special Java-driven Hot Buttons to allow variations in the presentation. This supports stepping through the program, putting the program into a play loop, and hiding various parts of the information.

Simulating Course Concepts - Background. Research in active learning environments includes implementing "live" simulations for exploration and discovery that engage learners while treating them to a plausible synthetic experience. Simulated environments are valuable teaching tools because they can take a learner to places they would never ordinarily experience either because they are too dangerous, or because they are a physical impossibility. Unfortunately, simulations are complex and difficult to build. The need is for research into the construction of such systems, so that appropriate tools can be developed to facilitate later constructions. In addition, mutli-user simulations require high-speed computing resources to support the "plausible" interactions required to maintain the integrity of the virtual environment.

Interfacing with Course Content - Background. Research in the area of end-user interaction includes discovering better and more efficient ways of presenting information, supporting navigation, and delivering content. Client programs and browsing interfaces have moved through several generations within just the last few years, and there appears to be no end in sight. It is clear, for example, that Java development, for all the many recent strides, is still in its infancy. It appears likely that Java will be the WWW language of choice for the immediate future, although the shape of that future is only now becoming clear.

Interfacing with Course Content : Java/MOO for Virtual Worlds. Ongoing research in the Computer Science department involves the construction of educational technology applications for tutoring and training. These applications are of a particular type: synthetic, multi-user environments spatially oriented and designed on a model that promotes learning-by-doing, collaboration, exploration, and positive role-playing. Systems of this sort capitalize on the advantages inherent in game-like educational media.

These synthetic environments are implemented as a graphical MUD/MOO. (MUDs, or Multi-User Domains are typically text-based electronic meeting places where players build societies and fantasy environments, and interact with each other; MOOs are object-oriented MUDs.) The participants in a role-based environment are immersed in a sustained problem-solving simulation. To succeed in their virtual world and effectively play the game, the learner must necessarily master the concepts and skills required to play their part. To "win", they need to learn the domain, and they need to learn their role in it.

The MUD/MOO technology supporting these educational environments is in many ways similar to a Web server. The server runs a game simulation constantly, and players connect using client software whenever, and from wherever they like. However, the server is an active simulation implemented on an object oriented database, and the database supports messaging and scripting so that the virtual world can be both inhabited and implemented at the same time. Many players and many implementers can be resident at the same time, and they can interact with each as they choose. In periods of intense involvement, i.e. supporting dozens or hundreds of simultaneous users, the server must be capable of sufficient processing speeds to preserve the integrity of the interactive simulation. The need is for a delivery mechanism that spans the user community and yet delivers acceptable enough performance that remote users will be satisfied with their learning experience.

As a broad field of inquiry, science has many basic principles and intellectual approaches. One of the goals of science education is to teach students a framework based on these principles and approaches that can later be used to solve science-based problems. In addition, a specific scientific field is content based. To have a successful career in science, students must master the content of a discipline. The challenge for science educators is to develop educational tools and methods that deliver the principles but at the same time teach the important content material in a meaningful way.

The development of computer-based courseware tools can significantly affect how and to what depth principles and content are delivered to the student. For example, it was not that long ago that engineering students would be given the overnight assignment of measuring the load on a beam. With the development of sophisticated CAD software, the overnight assignment can now be to design an entire room in which all of the load bearing walls meet a specific code requirement. The impact of the software is two-fold. First, the principle of load is taught in relation to the real-world realm of a room or even a building. In addition, content can be delivered at a faster rate because the rate of student learning is not limited by the tools used to solve course-related problems. Over an extended period of time, what were once advanced topics will be taught earlier in the studentís education. This evolution will lead to a richer education experience that better prepares students for science careers.

These development efforts are funded by the National Science Foundation under grants DUE-9752548 and EAR-9809761. For further information on virtual worlds software development at North Dakota State University, visit the NDSU WWWIC site. The authors acknowledge the large team of dedicated undergraduate and graduate students who have made these projects so successful.

(Note: This abstract is under consideration by the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education for presentation at their March 1-4, 1999 meeting entitled M/SET 99--International Conference on Mathematics/Science Education and Technology.)

Copyright © 1998. World Wide Web Instructional Committee