Constructivism in practice: The case for meaning-making in the virtual world

Constructivism in Practice: The Case for Meaning-Making in the Virtual World

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CHAPTER 2: Conceptual Frameworks

This study examined whether constructivist practices in the classroom help students make deeper, more meaningful knowledge constructions than those derived from traditional classroom practices. This chapter describes the relationship between the learning theory known as constructivism, the semiotic theory of signs, and the use of 3-D interactive environments as a constructivist learning tool.

The first section of this chapter describes the learning theory known as Constructivism. This theory describes the process of meaning-making, in which individuals construct mental models that ground their understanding in a deeply personal and unique fashion. Constructivists believe that certain activities and environmental enrichments can enhance the meaning-making process, such as active learning using kinesthetic, visual and auditory modalities, creating opportunities for dialogue, fostering creativity and providing a rich, safe and engaging learning environment (Brooks & Brooks, 1996.) A description of constructivist practices is provided, followed by a series of concrete classroom examples utilizing these practices.

Sign theory provides a means of alternative assessment of the meaning-making process by evaluating the richness of students’ knowledge constructions. The semiotic model of sign, as defined by Peirce (1955) provides the conceptual model of meaning-making used in this study. The application of this model in education is then presented through the work of Cunningham (1992, 1997) and Shank (1997).

An introduction to 3-D interactive environments and their application as a constructivist learning tool is presented in the last section. Components of a particular virtual reality system are described, followed by a discussion on the perceptual aspects of virtual reality. Evidence supporting the use of virtual reality as a complementary learning tool to the constructivist learning paradigm completes the chapter.

2.1. Constructivism

Constructivism is a learning theory describing the process of knowledge construction. Though constructivism is a learning theory, it is the application of what are often referred to as "constructivist practices" (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, 1993) in the classroom and elsewhere that provide support for the knowledge construction process.

Constructivism is not a spectator sport. By definition, knowledge construction is an active, rather than a passive process. The process of constructing one’s knowledge can involve both cognitive (Cunningham, 1988, 1993) and physical constructions (Harel & Papert, 1991) of meaning, through the development of mental models or schemas (Johnson-Laird, 1980), as well as physical or virtual representations of knowledge (McClellan, 1996; Winn, Hoffman & Osberg, 1995; Winn, 1993, 1994; Papert, 1993; Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Winn & Bricken, 1992; Mones-Hattal & Mandes, 1996).

Two valued tenets of constructivist practice are the process of collaborative learning and deep personal introspection into one’s own learning process (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, 1996). Through dialogue, we form a network of understanding, a community of others with whom we can learn and share through discourse. Dialogue, however is not the only active means of knowledge construction at our disposal. Mental manipulation, visualization, and the process of developing, testing and discarding hypotheses (Shank, 1992, Shank et al, 1994) are also indicative actions of an individual actively engaged in the knowledge construction process.

This research is designed to test the value of actively constructing meaningful signs and relationships using virtual world building as one learning tool, and world experiencing as another. It has been found that creation and experience of virtual reality environments supports the students’ active mental and physical engagement in the knowledge construction process. (Byrne, 1996; Rose, 1996; Winn, 1995; Osberg, 1993b). This study was designed to extend our knowledge about this relationship.

2.1.1. Constructivist Practices: An Overview

The practical application of constructivist practices in the classroom presents additional challenges and benefits to both the teacher, and the student (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Taylor, 1992; Patterson, Purkey & Parker, 1986). The challenge for the teacher is to provide relevant frameworks upon which the student can construct knowledge and understanding, and to act as a facilitator rather than knowledge-bearer during the process (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, 1993.) Students must become actively engaged in their learning experience, rather than act as passive recipients of information (Negroponte, 1995; Cunningham, 1992; Kraft & Sakofs, 1989.)

Some components of constructivist practices include:

1. Depth vs. breadth

One of the key issues that a constructivist teacher faces is the need to develop a sense of depth about a concept. This requires longer content modules, greater focus on process rather than product, and open-ended questioning techniques that require contemplation and assimilation of information (Brooks & Brooks, 1993).

2. Learning for transfer

The constructivist classroom is an environment based on inquiry, that leads to deep understanding of the concept under scrutiny. It is also an environment in which students will have enough time to develop mental models of the content, which will assist in moving that knowledge away from the primary content area, so that it can be applied elsewhere (Spiro et al, 1992a, 1992b).

3. Changing one’s frame of reference through experimentation

In traditional classrooms, there is often only one ‘right’ answer. In the constructivist environment, naive beliefs are often the starting point for further discussion and discovery, and are not discounted as being ‘wrong’ (Lochhead, 1985, 1988; Minstrell, 1989, 1992; Minstrell, Stimpson & Hunt, 1992). Though formal scientific experimentation is not often introduced until at least middle school, the process of discovering cause and effect relationships is often employed even in the primary grades. (Strommen, 1992). This discovery process allows the child to reevaluate what they know, and to change their understanding based on what they have directly learned from their environment.

4. Implementation of cooperative rather than individual learning

In many traditional classrooms, cooperative learning would be frowned upon, or might even be viewed as ‘cheating’. Constructivism puts cooperation and mutual exploration at the top of the list. This frees students to bounce ideas off of one another, and fosters learning-in-dialogue rather than learning-in-isolation (Lewis, 1993; Brown & Palinscar, 1985).


The perceived benefits to a constructivist learning environment include holistic learning opportunities, the enhancement of collaborative/cooperative skills and time and appreciation for metacognitive reflection (Brooks & Brooks, 1993, 1996; Resnick & Klopfer, 1989).

Holistic learning encompasses absorption and synthesis of individual facts, building relationships between these facts and linking this knowledge with understanding of other knowledge domains. It is a process that involves engaging all of one’s perceptual senses, creativity, and intellectual prowess in the learning process (Weisberg, 1988; Kraft & Sakofs, 1989). This study sought to provide an environment in which holistic learning could take place.

Expectations and outcomes are different in a constructivist learning environment than those found in the traditional classroom. Therefore, testing procedures must be redesigned to compensate for the expanded knowledge base that the student is developing. As a complement to the constructivist learning paradigm, alternative assessment is discussed in the next section. Alternative Assessment

Part of the rhetoric surrounding the reform movement is specifically tied to the desire for accurate representation of what a student knows (Rose, 1995; Jonassen, 1992) and how that knowledge can be transferred to domains outside the school room. (Sweet & Zimmerman, 1992). The focus is on providing non-traditional means that allow students to show their understanding of a concept or process. It is also a much more complex, holistic approach to assessment.

Alternative assessment techniques, such as criterion-referenced, performance-based assessment, relate strongly to real-world experiences (Rose, 1995; Resnick, 1989). Performance assessments replicate the actions required to actually do the tasks, rather than referencing the tasks obliquely. However, it is not easy to develop or administer performance-based or other alternative assessment procedures (Herman, Aschbacher & Winters, 1992.) It requires more time, more willingness to engage on a personal level with students and more analysis. It also requires that the student be prepared to perform in a different manner than might have previously been expected (Perkins, 1993).

However, it is perceived that the benefits of performance-based assessment to the student can be extensive (Rief, 1990; Newman, Griffin & Cole, 1989; Bruner, 1971, 1990). There is often a heightened sense of personal accomplishment, more initial motivation to engage in the task and the perception of a stronger relationship between in-school and out-of-school activities (NARE, 1986; Herman, Aschbacher & Winters, 1992).

The process of developing performance-based assessment rubrics is similar in some ways to the design of traditional assessment. The designer must still tie the assessment to the instruction, determine the purpose of the assessment, select the tasks, develop criteria and ensure reliable scoring of the performance itself. The largest difference lies in the nature of the tasks that the student must undertake (Herman, Aschbacher & Winters, 1992), and the manner in which the data is interpreted. As stated by Winn (1993), ". . . instructional designers are wrong to assume that they can base instructional strategies on the analysis of an objective, standard world. Evaluation of learning can only tell us what students appear, or pretend to know, not what they really know."

Constructivist learning is an active process, and alternative assessment celebrates this active process (Herman, Aschbacher & Winters, 1992). Instead of testing for the "presence or absence of discrete bits of information" (p. 15), alternative assessment instead provides a means to understand whether "students organize, structure, and use information in context to solve complex problems" (p. 15). This relates to the manner in which the semiotic model of sign can be used as an alternative assessment tool. By analyzing the relationships between signs and symbols, instead of evaluating the discrete signs themselves, a holistic picture of the students’ understanding emerges. The process by which these relationships come into being is an emergent phenomenon (Shank, 1992), which is iterative, personal and ongoing.

Simmons too (1994) states the case for iterative, ongoing, and imbedded assessment, which can be both self and instructor-administered. She states:

Assessment is not something that we tack onto learning: it is an essential ongoing component of instruction that guides the process of learning. Ongoing assessment uses exhibitions, student explanations of concepts, the writing of a poem or a song, or any number of other thought-demanding performances to evaluate and reflect on students work (p. 22).

Assessment can be used to build understanding through reflection and iteration. There is great promise for deeper understanding and appreciation of the creative, generative process we call learning when a student is aware of scholastic expectations and understands how to effectively review and critique his or her own work. Simmons (1994) outlines this process in three steps:

1. The teacher must help students understand from the outset the standards by which their work will be judged.
2. Students must document their work process for the duration of the project or unit.
3. Through performance and feedback, students come to understand the complex nature of judging and improving upon one’s work.

This last point is especially crucial, as "taking the time and energy to reflect on and improve one’s work is essential to the understanding process itself" (p. 124). Instead of the traditional black-and-white, single score assessments usually meted out by traditional instructors, students learn instead that there are indeed many shades of gray, that it is difficult to judge and to be judged.

Rief (1990) also supports self-assessment, especially in middle-school aged children. In her utilization of self-assessment techniques of student writing over the course of a year, Rief came to understand that it was the students’ personal dialogue that was most valuable. In establishing criterion for portfolio work, she found that it was best if she imposed external criteria by which the portfolio would be judged, and allowed the students themselves determine the internal criteria:

I discovered that the students knew themselves as learners better than anyone else. They set goals for themselves and judged how well they had reached those goals. They thoughtfully and honestly evaluated their own learning with far more detail and introspection than I thought possible. Ultimately, they showed me who they were as readers, writers, thinkers, and human beings (p. 25-26.)

In essence, what Rief (1990) discovered was the intrinsic motivation so necessary for developing deep understanding and personal meaning. As one of her students states: "Now I know that in order to write something well, you have to care about it. The first important thing is that you like a piece of writing, then you worry if anyone else likes it" (p. 29). At the core of the learning process is to acknowledge the intrinsic value of learning to ourselves. At the end of the year, in describing the above students’ work, Rief (1990) states "she has a message for her reader, because the message is always for her, first" (p. 31).

In practice, both traditional and alternative assessment of students’ performance should require an understanding of how a particular student came into the learning process, including their cultural background, personal learning style and what they accomplished in relative terms while engaged in the learning process. It becomes a very delicate, finely tuned relationship between assessor and assessed. This balance is easier to maintain when working with alternative practices (Simmons, 1994).

2.1.2. Classroom Examples of Constructivist Practices

Poplin (1991) attests that meaning can be constructed two ways: through new experiences, or through contemplation and recalled experiences. She feels that the latter technique is given short shrift in our current educational system, and yet it is through this reflective process that we come to know concepts deeply.

Poplin (1991) states that the reasons children do not learn are four-fold:

To be ‘sufficiently involved in the learning process’, Poplin (1991) states:

Learners cannot passively construct new meanings; they can passively respond to lectures, worksheets and even passively apply their short-term memories. For example, many students memorize lists of vocabulary words until the test is over, yet never integrate the new vocabulary into their own language (p. 3).

Regarding a child’s ability to make meaningful linkages to new information, the fourth point that Poplin (1991) makes with regard to why children do not learn is that some individuals have mismatched previous experiences, most notably those that are cultural or gender-based. She states:

The most prevalent mismatch in schools is the failure of most of the curriculum to take into account perspectives of cultures other than standard middle-class Anglo-Saxon ones. The evidence of our ethnocentricity is appalling, and can be found in most teacher’s guides. The guides offer only one answer to comprehension questions. The constructivists point out that the meaning of a text (or other information source) is constructed by the reader (or creator), not simply by the author or the curriculum guide author. This meaning, being personal in nature, is thus subject to the reader’s experiences. (p. 4)

Arnold (1991), states that "the curriculum here is neither for a body of knowledge developed by dead white men which everyone should know, or for ‘political correctness’" (p. 6). She espouses a curriculum-based reform effort, supporting knowledge construction:

The attempt to separate content and process, or to make one subservient to the other, belies a faulty epistemology. James (1974) tells us that knowledge involves both question (process) and answer (product or content). One of the major faults of schooling, and perhaps a reason why content tends to be denigrated, is that we are constantly giving students answers to questions that they have not asked. (p. 8)

Regarding the value of content Arnold (1991) states that "an educated person knows how to learn, but also knows about significant issues and ideas". To develop a curriculum rich in meaning, she suggests that such a curriculum embodies three distinct yet interrelated principles:

  1. Material should be genuinely important and worth knowing.
  2. Meaningful curriculum deals directly with values and beliefs about the content area.
  3. Both content and methodology must relate directly to the needs and interests of the student population, i.e. developmental appropriateness.

These thoughts are also addressed in "A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment" in that there are also the metacognitive and affective components to learning. According to Herman, Aschbacher & Winters, (1992), "meaningful learning is intrinsically motivating" (p. 16). By focusing on developing a "thinking curriculum" (Resnick & Klopfer, 1989), both process and product are reinforced. In a thinking curriculum, the focus is on in-depth, thematic learning that relates to real-world issues, and espouses the utilization of holistic, alternative assessment procedures, providing a direct connection of content and process to the learner’s background. In this manner, the essence (Brooks & Brooks, 1996) of the content can be fully addressed in a manner that is directly accessible to the student.

In the next section, three classroom examples of constructivist principles in practice are described. Harvard’s Project Zero has led the way for many constructivist practitioners by providing a framework for structuring a constructivist curriculum. Simultaneous to and separate from the Harvard project, Apple Computer developed the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow program, focusing more fully on the use of technology as a learning tool in the classroom. The KCOT classroom at Kellogg Middle School, a constructivist environment that incorporates principles espoused by both ACOT and the National Alliance for Restructuring Education is presented last. Project Zero: Harvard’s Teaching for Understanding Framework

At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, four principles have been developed that support the Teaching for Understanding framework, as part of Harvard’s Project Zero (Unger, 1994). These principles are:

  1. Learning should be generative, and go beyond the subject matter covered. Students should be encouraged to apply their learning "outside the box".
  2. Clear educational goals should be established and shared with students, thereby empowering them to work towards high, known, and understood standards.
  3. Assessment should be performance-based, giving the students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in a manner meaningful to them and accessible to others.
  4. Assessment should be ongoing and iterative.

Wiske (1994) describes how teaching for deep understanding changes the rules in the classroom, especially how the intellectual property of the classroom can be best utilized. She says:

Understanding is not a private possession to be protected from theft, but rather a capacity to be developed through the free exchange of ideas. (p. 19)

Using the Teaching for Understanding framework, Wiske makes note of the shifting roles and responsibilities in a classroom dedicated to emphasizing understanding. First and foremost, the lines between teacher and learner become blurred, and at times the roles are reversed. This provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their skills to a wider audience, and the teacher to acknowledge individuals’ scholastic capabilities in a different light than might normally occur. This was facilitated at Kellogg Middle School by providing the students an opportunity to create learning environments that would be experienced by other students; to become the "teachers" for that environment.

Second, the teacher must be willing to share what Wiske refers to as "intellectual authority" (p. 20). Instead of the objective knowledge base and commensurate power residing strictly with the teacher, intellectual authority is shared under this framework, leading to respect, consideration, and empowerment for both teachers and students. In Wiske’s (1994) words:

Certainly, teachers must not abandon their authority, which derives legitimately from the knowledge of subject matter and their responsibility for guiding students. But they must encourage students to develop their own ways of exercising authority. In short, teachers must be in authority, without being authoritarian (p. 21).

Wiske uses the metaphor of the key of knowledge being granted to every student by simply "leaving the door (to knowledge) unlocked" (p. 22). In this fashion, we can create an open atmosphere for learning that provides for guidance and assistance, yet celebrates students’ intrinsic value and autonomy (Brooks & Brooks, 1996). The ACOT Program

The ACOT (Apple Classroom of Tomorrow) format of classroom instruction is based on constructivist pedagogy, supported through educational technology. ACOT is a program supported by both Apple Computer, Inc. and the National Alliance for Restructuring Education. The mission of the ACOT program is to "change the way people think about and use technology for learning" (Yocam, Filmore and Dwyer, 1992; Dwyer, 1994).

Since its’ inception in 1986, the ACOT program has been working directly with teachers and schools to provide teacher training and technology in the areas of:

Though the program has sometimes been criticized for conducting most of its own evaluation, some independent research has been conducted that indicates that this and other technology-rich programs have a positive effect on students learning (Kulik & Kulik, 1991; Baker, Herman & Gearhart, 1989).

The ACOT Professional Development Center contrasts traditional instruction and constructivist learning in the following fashion (Apple Computer Inc., 1994):

Instruction-- lecture, drill and practice-- is a great way to introduce skills or concepts, or build awareness, or reinforce some set of actions that can be replayed habitually. When breadth is valued over depth in curriculum, instruction is one way to make sure you cover the necessary content in a given amount of time.

When depth and understanding are the desired outcomes, however, knowledge construction is a better strategy to help learners personalize and deeply internalize ideas to create situations where skills and concepts can be applied in different contexts to solve problems; to explore or generate ideas; and to generalize and synthesize knowledge. (p. 3-4)

Table 2, below, presents a summary of Apple’s perception of the differences between instruction and knowledge construction practices in the classroom.





Classroom Activity

Teacher-centered; didactic

Learner-centered; interactive

Teacher Role

Fact teller; expert

Collaborator; learner

Student Role

Listener; always the learner

Collaborator; sometimes the expert

Instructional Emphasis

Facts; memorization

Relationships; inquiry and invention

Concept of Knowledge

Accumulation of facts

Transformation of facts

Demonstration of Success


Quality of understanding


Norm-referenced; multiple-choice items

Criterion-referenced; portfolios and performances

Technology Use

Drill and practice

Communication, collabor- ation, information access and retrieval, expression

Table 2 - Comparison of Apple’s Instruction and Knowledge Construction Practices


By providing opportunities for relevant, timely, self-directed study utilizing technology-based instruction, collaborative learning and alternative assessment techniques, the differences in classroom practices and attendance is substantial. Dwyer (1994), in discussing ACOT’s approach to the development of critical thinking skills states:

In-depth study of a sample of students’ thinking processes began to show significant change in the way they thought and worked. . . . A four-year longitudinal study showed the greatest difference to be the manner in which they organized for and accomplished their work. Routinely, they employed inquiry, collaborative, technological, and problem-solving skills uncommon to graduates of traditional programs (p. 6-8).

The positive effects of the program have been far-reaching. As stated by Dwyer (1994), "we watched technology profoundly disturb the inertia of traditional classrooms" (p. 9). Benefits have been found with regard to both student and teacher behaviors. Regarding students, one benefit is the fundamental change seen in the way that children think about their personal learning processes, organize materials and engage in the learning process itself. This is directly analogous to Cunningham’s (1992) description of reflexivity, discussed in the section on educational semiotics. According to Dwyer and his colleagues, these skills are a direct outgrowth of the integration constructivist learning principles coupled with the daily use of computer technology into the classroom. From their research, ACOT project coordinators have seen a marked increase in the development and application of students’ critical thinking skills both in and outside the classroom.

With regard to teachers, ACOT-conducted research (Dwyer, 1994) has found that "teachers reported and were observed to interact differently with students-- more as guides or mentors and less like lecturers. . . For many teachers, personal efforts to make technology an integral part of their classrooms opened them to the possibilities of redefining how they went about providing opportunities for students to learn" (p. 6).

The other challenge is how to account for the demonstrated proficiencies such as creative problem-solving, collaborative learning and alternative forms of communicating about one’s knowledge. Traditional assessment systems do not allow for much deviation from quantitative, clearly defined measures, including those measurement rubrics employed at the state and national levels. As stated by Dwyer (1994) "Teachers struggle with the new methods of evaluation that could capture the novel ways that students were demonstrating their mastery of skills and concepts" (p. 6-7). The merits of alternative assessment have been previously addressed in section

Even with the success that ACOT has been able to demonstrate, there are still barriers and challenges that make the transition between a traditional and constructivst classroom environment difficult. However, pilot programs exist in many school environments. This project took place in one such environment, Shoreline School District’s KCOT program. A description of this program is provided in the next section. The Kellogg Classroom of Tomorrow (KCOT) Program

The environment in which this study was conducted is called KCOT, the Kellogg Classroom of Tomorrow. It is located in the Shoreline School District in Seattle, WA. Simultaneous with the development of the ACOT program, the Shoreline School District engaged in district-wide school reform planning, focusing on many of the same practices as described in the ACOT program.

In a document entitled Shoreline Learning Priorities (Simpson, 1995), Dr. Marilyn Simpson helped Ms. Marcia Morrison, district Director of Student Learning, define and refine the process by which these learning priorities could be accomplished within the district as a whole. The four priorities are directed at the teacher, in the interest of best assisting students to become responsible life-long learners (Senge, 1990) who can incorporate the skills gained in the classroom in all environments. Though not all of the subcomponents could be considered exclusively ‘constructivist’, as a whole they do present a very constructivist approach.

The four priorities are:

The KCOT program was developed to address these issues even more fully, and to provide a technology rich-environment in which students could work. By adopting and refining the standards established by Apple and the National Alliance, Kellogg Middle School has fostered the development and support of a constructivist classroom environment within the confines of the "traditional" middle school.

KCOT is one of 6 self-selected program options available to Kellogg 7th and 8th graders. In contrast to the traditional discrete-subject program, KCOT places emphasis on long-term, thematic, project-based learning. The program description, listed in the Kellogg Middle School (1996) Program Options brochure reads as follows:

The KCOT program provides a technology-rich student-centered learning environment of high standards and ambitious objectives. The program is a two-year curriculum that combines the core concepts of the 7th and 8th grade areas in English, math, social studies and science. Students learn through projects as well as specific skills classes. Program-set standards based on state requirements replace traditional grades. Technology, community resources and family play vital roles in student support.

Students in KCOT take responsibility for their learning by helping determine standards, developing projects, securing resources, and taking ownership of their community. They work both individually and in groups, utilizing a variety of learning strategies and techniques. Students use technology as a regular part of their day. Self-direction is essential to success (p. 2).

Other program documents highlight the cooperative, collaborative nature of the KCOT classroom, and the integration of performance-based assessment techniques. KCOT students meet for a single four-period (out of six periods total) block daily, during which they pursue core requirements as described above, but also take part in community-based projects. Many of the students participate in science, technology, and math fairs held at the district, state, and national levels.

Another aspect of the KCOT program is its’ staff. The teachers who participate in the KCOT program are progressive, willing to take risks in the interest of better education and technologically savvy. They are often asked by other teachers in the district for assistance in setting up similar environments elsewhere. For example, Mr. Mike McMann, originally a KCOT teacher, has taken on the role of district-wide Teacher Development Coordinator. In his expanded role, he has the opportunity to teach other teachers about how the constructivist classroom functions, how to integrate technology into the curriculum and how to develop alternative assessment programs that best fit the needs of both teachers and students, by utilizing the example set in the KCOT environment.

At its inception in 1993, the program had two teachers, two classrooms and 53 students. In 1994, the program expanded to incorporate 4 teachers, 4 classrooms, and 120 students, plus the invaluable services of Mr. McMann.

Much of the knowledge gleaned from the KCOT classroom is made available to other teachers in the district through workshops and seminars on constructivism, active use of technology as an integral part of the curriculum and authentic or performance-based assessment. Most of the classroom practices and reference information dispersed in these seminars has been tried and tested in the KCOT classroom prior to distribution. As testimony to support the efficacy of the KCOT classrooms, the district level coordinator now provides training and support to teachers from all over Washington State, and at the national level as well.

The KCOT program is a good example of the kind of classroom described by Schlechty (1990) in his article on what real reform can offer. He suggests:

Rather than being concerned with scope and sequence, teachers would concentrate on richness and texture. The assumption of course, is that the richer the curriculum (I did not say the more diverse) the richer the knowledge-work products will be. If the texture of the curriculum is such that students can grasp and handle it (intellectually speaking) as opposed to some of the pallid materials that now confront them, surely more students will be attracted to the field of knowledge work.

As workers, students are active participants in the knowledge-work process. Their job is to take the knowledge embedded in the curriculum and process it in such a way that makes it their own. (p. 6).

The KCOT program is not limited to the "best and brightest" students. In fact, one document states "learners with different abilities and interests will be challenged to do their best work individually and in small groups." My experience with the KCOT program was indicative of a broad-based effort to integrate, interest, and support students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, learning styles and intellectual abilities.

KCOT was an optimal environment in which to conduct this study. The classroom used to conduct the world building exercise had 14 computers around the perimeter. Students were used to constructivist learning practices, including participation in project-based, cooperative learning. No time was wasted "converting" students to a new way of thinking or acting. It was an energized environment, filled with individuals interested in taking charge of their own learning process, unafraid of technology, curious, socially aware, and willing to take risks in terms of their personal involvement in this high-stakes, high-visibility project. In short, it was an exceptionally exciting place to have had the opportunity to conduct such a study.

2.1.3. Constructivism and Semiotics

If the process of constructing knowledge relies heavily on the use of symbols and signs, we need a model of how signs and symbols are created, and how they come to have meaning. Based on the seminal work of Peirce (1955), the traidic model of sign describes the components of signs, and how signs relate to one another. This model serves a dual purpose: it describes the relationship of signs to their internal components, and it describes the relationship of signs to other signs. In the next section, this model will be described, including its application within education.

2.2. Semiotics

Semiotics, as described by Saussure (1916), is the "science that studies the life of signs within society". Since the days of Plato and Aristotle, the study of man’s relationship between mental representations and the "real world" have been the source of extensive inquiry by philosophers (Kant, 1990; Peirce, 1977), linguists (Saussure, 1916; Eco, 1979, 1984 ), psychologists (Piaget, 1954,1977; Morris, 1964), and, as of late, educators (Cunningham, 1992, 1997; Shank, 1992, 1997; Driscoll, 1989, 1997).

Saussure’s statement provides a perspective that signs have a life, and that life is constructed within the confines of a society. The relationship between signs, what signs represent (objects), and the mental process making that connection are described by Cunningham (1992) in Figure 1, below. Much of Cunningham’s work is based on the models developed by Peirce (1955), including this triadic representation of the sign process.

Figure 1 - Triadic model of the sign process

Figure 1 - Traidic model of the sign process

Signs, objects and interpretants represent the structural components of meaningful knowledge constructions. Cunningham (1992) says a sign "stands for something called the object, by linking it to an interpretant, and an additional sign that stands for some aspect of the object. A sign thus mediates between the object and its interpretant." (p. 172)

Signs are used to construct representations and relationships between representations. They have value because they allow us to compact information into a format that can be referenced within different contexts, leading to different understandings. Language is one such example; the same symbols, reconfigured in different sequences lead to entirely different understandings. Even icons, when presented in a context-free environment can mean different things to different people. The very malleability of signs is what gives them so much power, yet it is the signs that have been granted common meaning that provide us with the means to communicate with one another.

In the model above, the interpretant is the "outcome or the effect of the sign", which indicates that different signs may reference different aspects of an object, leading to different outcomes or effects. The process of creating the outcome or interpretant is a type of reasoning called abduction, according to Peirce (1955). This term has been subsequently adopted by other semioticians (Cunningham, 1992; Shank et al., 1994). Abduction is a type of reasoning that combines both deductive and inductive characteristics. As such, abduction is a form of inquiry that attempts to uncover the essence of an idea or object by both top-down and bottom-up analysis.

To illustrate the differences between deductive, inductive and abductive reasoning, Peirce (in Cunningham, 1992) used the following example:


The Deductive Syllogism:

Sign: All the beans in this bag are white.
Object: This bean is from this bag.
Deduction: This bean must be white.

The Inductive Syllogism

Sign: This bean is from the bag.
Object: This bean is white.
Induction: All the beans in this bag are probably white.

The Abductive Syllogism

Sign: This bean is white.
Object: All the beans in this bag are white.
Abduction: This bean is possibly from this bag.

In the abductive syllogism above, the white bean is the sign, the beans in the bag the object and the last statement the interpretant or outcome, as referenced by the relationship between the sign and object. Shank et al.(1994) states that "abduction operates through experiences as given in order to establish some meaningful hypotheses about the states of affairs behind the observations" (p. 35).

This process of experimentation is an important component to making meaningful knowledge constructions, according to Shank (1992). Children (and adults for that matter) often learn by trial-and-error. The abductive model, if taught, allows individuals to metacognitively assess their approach to a particular problem. Instead of random trial-and-error efforts, concious hypotheses can be formulated and tested. This allows individuals to make stronger connections between their assumptions, and their discoveries.

In the next section, Cunningham’s (1992) model of an educational semiotic is described. The pilot project at Kellogg Middle School presented an opportunity to utilize Cunningham’s model by providing the framework for student discussions about visual and interactive metaphors.

2.2.2. An Educational Semiotic

Cunningham has long been a proponent of sign theory, and of constructivism. Much of his current writing (1988, 1992, 1993, 1997) describes how an ‘educational semiotic’ could be utilized within the classroom context. In Cunningham’s model, he details the cognitive process in terms of four components: sign, semiosis, inference, and reflexivity.


Signs, as mentioned above are metaphorical or analogical referents to some aspect, concept, object, or relationship. Cunningham describes a triadic relationship (as illustrated in section 2.1.) that provides unlimited referential capability to the individual. As mentioned above, the triad consists of the sign itself, the object that the sign represents and a mediating factor called the interpretant (Peirce, 1955). Cunningham says that the interpretant represents "the ‘effect’ or outcome of the sign process" (p. 172.) Effects can be broadly classified into thoughts, actions and feelings (Houser, 1987). Cunningham adds that interpretants are also signs and so can stand for anything as well, providing the basis for iterative, referential interpretation.

Cunningham says that signs are context-sensitive. The roles of the same sign/object/interpretant relationship "emerge from the context in which they occur, not from some a priori, context-free structure" (p. 173). To continue the thought, "Reality is what our sign structures reveal, which is our current understanding" (p. 174).

Houser (1987) states that signs can represent objects in one of three ways: "as icon, index or symbol" (p. 175). Icons represent objects by "resembling or imitating the object" (p. 175), similar in a way to Bruner’s (1966) notion of iconic forms of representation. An index refers to its object by virtue of an actual link between the sign and the object. "Such signs serve as evidence of the object and in a real sense demand that we pay attention to them. They are entirely contextual and immediate" (p. 175). An example is the old adage "where there’s smoke, there’s fire." In this case, the smoke indexes the presence of fire.

In comparison, Houser (1987) states "symbols refer to their objects by virtue of a law, rule, or convention" (p. 175). Language is one such example. Symbols require syntax, because "it allows a code system to combine and recombine signs in a potentially indefinite number of ways" (p. 176). Code systems are important, because they are used to "structure our experience" (p. 176).


Semiosis is the process of making meaning as mediated by signs, and the interpretation of those signs. Peirce (1955) calls this process the "cognition produced in the mind" (in Nöth, 1995, p. 42). Cunningham (1992) says that the metaphor, a type of sign, is a designation by implicit comparison or analogy, as do Lakoff & Johnson (1980).

Lakoff & Johnson, (1980) however, go one step further. They provide evidence that metaphor is not only descriptive, it is also constraining. An example is the analogy "time is money." In this example, one can get a sense of the value-laden nature of some metaphors. In western society, time is valuable, and so is money. Therefore, the two can be equated in a meaningful fashion within the context of the society that created the metaphor.

The negative impact of these constraining influences can be quite deep, especially when applied in an educational setting. Expectations can be formed and solidified that are based on metaphor, not on fact. Examples of this can be seen with metaphors associated with gender (Harding, 1991), race (Kohl, 1994), and equitable or moral classroom practices (Clark, 1990).

A classic educational example provided by Cunningham (1992) is the analogy "mind as container" in contrast to "mind as a laboratory." In the first analogy, the student is present in the classroom to be filled with the knowledge provided by his instructors and his materials. In the second, the possibilities for experimenting with thought and learning are provoking indeed (Shank, 1992; Shank et al., 1994). Instead of viewing the students as repositories for extant knowledge, we can instead expand the knowledge base by experimenting with different content mixtures and educational processes. This attitude is often found in what Cunningham describes as a semiotics-based classroom. It changes the role of education and of the teacher completely. In the first instance, the teacher is the source and the student the receptacle; in the second, the teacher is a guide and the student a scientist. In Cunningham’s words:

The focus now is not on what is constructed but on the construction process itself; not knowledge, but the processes whereby something can become known; not what we know, but how we know it. Our job as educators is to provide models of the knowledge construction process and then nurture students’ attempts to model. (p. 179)

Cunningham (1992) also expands Gardner’s (1983) view of multiple intelligences to encompass not just ways of knowing, but also of representing knowledge in the mind of the individual. He says that there are no superior forms of representation-- that we "must avoid the dogmatism of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thinking within any particular intelligence" (p. 180). This opens the door to a new way of thinking, teaching and learning. Cunningham continues:

We have to shift to pedagogical strategies that promote a student’s ability to see that multiple perspectives may be brought to bear on a problem; that coming to understand another’s view requires dialogue, not simply listening; that learning can and often should occur in a social setting, not as some private act; and that learning should be situated within realistic contexts about which the students care or about which they have made some kind of commitment" (p. 181).


Both Cunningham (1992) and Shank et al. (1994) describe the nature of the process of thought in terms of inference. In Cunningham’s (1992) view, if signs are complete equivalencies for the objects they represent, and (as some semioticians contend) all thought is in signs, then thinking is fundamentally inferential. We infer "an object from its sign, and that inference, the effect of the sign, is the interpretant" (p. 184-85). This process is described in Figure 2, below.

Figure 1 - Triadic model of the sign process

Figure 2 - Types of Inference

Recall that Shank et al.(1994) state that abduction operates "through experiences as given in order to establish some meaningful hypotheses about the states of affairs behind the observations" (p. 35). In this manner, individuals develop new ideas (general statements) about which they can develop specific hypotheses which can then be tested through experience. The results of this process contribute to the knowledge base, through abduction, of that individual. Cunningham (1992) states:

Regarding semiosis as systems of beliefs and abduction as the primary mode of building new beliefs, places inquiry, in some form or another, squarely back where it belongs, within the capability of every person. (p. 186)


Reflexivity, in Cunningham’s view, is "awareness of the processes of semiosis" (p 187), a form of metacognition. In his words "A reflexive analysis of the metaphors by which we live will allow us to reconsider them" (p. 188). He describes one way in which it could affect the way we teach:

One consequence of an emphasis on reflexivity in our courses would be to coalesce the various subject matters, revealing the unity underlying them and rendering their separate treatment ill advised. . . An important component of reflexivity is the development of a informed skepticism, a healthy distrust of things at their face value and an openness to explore new interpretations, new sets of beliefs (p. 188-189).

Though Cunningham’s model is robust, it is still incomplete even by his standards. As he states, we will always have an obstructed view of reality, because "signs are jointly determined by the constraints imposed by reality and by the semiosic structures of the cognizing organism" (p. 190). Regarding the semiosic process itself, he says:

It is a difficult and subtle discrimination to decide when to intervene and when to let students struggle with the construction process. . . In my experience, some students are unable or unwilling to assume responsibility for their own learning. Those who are unable should be coached. Those who are unwilling need to be persuaded (p. 190-91).

Shank (1992), too, has tried to build classroom practice around a semiotic curriculum. In his view what is needed is teacher re-education, based on a curriculum that emphasizes semiotics as the basis for their own learning. Only through practical, visceral experience will the value of this educational semiotics paradigm become obvious.

2.2.3. Sign Theory as an Assessment Tool

Sign theory can be used as an assessment tool to evaluate the meaning inherent in a representation. However, a balance must be maintained between the value of interpretation (art) and the value of consensual understanding. For example, to understand the value of a virtual learning environment, one must ask both creators and experiencers what they derived from their design or experiential encounter with the environment. It is not just a question of whether students remember discrete aspects of the environment. It is more a question of what they derived from it in a holistic fashion.

Cunningham’s (1992) model formed the meaning-making groundwork for my research study, as can be seen from the examples cited above. The intention in this study was to create an environment in which his educational semiotic could be employed, especially in overt consideration of the students’ and teachers’ deeply held beliefs and values about signs and their referents; an inherent component in virtual world design.

In the next section of this chapter, relevant aspects of virtual reality and its use as an educational learning tool will be explored.

2.3. 3-D Interactive Environments (Virtual Reality)

Computers are symbol-system manipulation tools (Kay, 1990; Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Winn, 1995). Advances in computer technology has allowed for the development of real-time, 3-D graphic, auditory and kinesthetic environments in which the student can be perceptually "immersed". Optimal learning environments should be, according to Scardamalia, et al (1989) "active, learner-centered, engaging, relevant and robust." Therefore, the characteristics of 3-D interactive environments are closely aligned with those of an optimal learning environment.

In this section, the case is made that 3-D interactive environments are a tool through which educators can provide an educational environement grounded in the principles semiotics and constructivism.

2.3.1. Introduction

We live in a technological, information-rich environment (Negroponte, 1995; Papert, 1993; Forman & Pufall, 1988). The Internet, for example, was originally developed as a direct communication link between government and scientific laboratories. With the increasingly widespread use of global communications such as the Internet and World Wide Web (WWW), we have expanded access to vast information, fostering the need to make sense of and assimilate this information in a meaningful way. This example of information access is just one aspect of our society’s focus on technology and science; areas of expertise that can be quite complex. The need for knowledgeable individuals in these areas is great (Project 2061, 1993a, 1993b; Lewis, 1995). Therefore, the need for a better means of teaching complex subjects is also a high priority. (NARE, 1996).

To accomplish this, we must be able to move beyond our old understanding of education (Apple Computer, Inc. ACOT Program, 1994; Arnold, 1991; Poplin, 1991), and to focus instead on developing a sense of meaning from the information with which we work, and the manner in which we make use of it (Fosnot, 1992, 1993; Cunningham, 1992; Bruner, 1990; Deely, 1986).

Information can be provided in a variety of ways, including through technologies such as virtual reality. In this study, students had the opportunity to both create and experience a virtual environment; both examples of experiential learning. The use of virtual reality ties to the precepts set forth in constructivist pedagogy in both a cognitive (mind), a somatic (body) form. In the virtual world, the knowledge construction process is made concrete by providing the student the ability to create and experience their own representations, or to manipulate the representations of others in a meaningful fashion. Though this capability is not always limited to virtual reality, the level of personal and shared interaction achievable with this technology makes it a compelling means for displaying and interacting with information. This ability is especially valuable when students interact, physically and directly, with objects and processes that are not accessible to the senses in the real world. From this standpoint, we can explore how the application of constructivist and semiotic theory through the creation and experience of virtual environments may provide one means of meaning-making for the student.

2.3.2. Virtual Reality Defined

Virtual reality has many meanings. In this study, the 3-D interactive environments that are referred to as "virtual reality" are described as follows: a computer generated, three dimensional environment in which the student is an active participant. (Bricken, 1991; Bricken & Byrne, 1992). The perceived advantages of the virtual environment as an instructional tool include whole body experiential learning (Osberg, 1993a), presence (Hoffman, Prothero, Wells, & Groen, 1996; Hoffman, Hullfish & Houston, 1995; Barfield & Weghorst, 1993), multiperceptual engagement (Brill, 1993), the opportunity to change perspective at will (Dede, Salzman & Loftin, 1996; Loftin & Kenney, 1995; Loftin, Engelberg & Benedetti, 1993), and abstract concept representation (Byrne; 1996; Winn, 1993, 1994; Winn & Bricken, 1992). Soon, multiparticipant, collaborative environments will also be available (Osberg, 1994b).

Virtual reality systems include the main processor, an input device of some kind (such as a 3-D mouse, glove, joystick or keyboard) and a visual display system. Visual displays can include:

In addition to the components above, a tracking system is incorporated to describe where the participant is within the virtual environment. Trackers are found on the input device, and often on the helmet as well. They provide real-time relative coordinate information to the processor. By tracking the participant’s movement in physical space, that movement can then be translated to the virtual environment so that the participants’ point of view is changed to reflect that movement.

Virtual reality is similar to multimedia in that it is multiperceptual. Visual, auditory and haptic senses are engaged to navigate and interact within the environment. It differs from multimedia, however, in three distinct ways:

  1. The whole body can be used to navigate and interact within the virtual space.
  2. The technology can engender a sense of presence, the perceptual quality of being in the virtual environment, rather than in physical space.
  3. The participant has substantial control over movement and interaction within the environment, rather than navigation by pre-programmed controls.

In this study, an immersive virtual reality system was used, including the main processor, a 6-D mouse which tracked hand movements in X, Y, Z, and roll, pitch, and yaw. The headset had two speakers and two LCD panels mounted in a fully enclosed helmet.

2.3.3. Perceptual Aspects of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality is often promoted on three grounds; its multisensory capability, 3-D representation and animation, and the sense of perceptual "presence" that comes from combining the first two factors (Hoffman, Prothero, Wells & Groen, 1996). The primary sense utilized in virtual environments is visual, though certainly other perceptual senses can also be engaged. This visual information is used to make sense from the virtual environment, just as it does in the physical world. However, virtual reality goes beyond the physical world in some ways. Natural physics need not necessarily apply, nor do natural modes of perception. We have the possibility of exploring the environment as both an emerging aesthetic and as a practical test-bed for development of ideas and relationships (Gigliotti, 1995). As stated by Mones-Hattal and Mandes (1995):

The primary purpose of most current virtual environments is to create a modeled duplicate of reality. For an artist, the ability to extend or manipulate our sense of physical reality and not simply duplicate it is an opportunity to expand our ways of seeing, feeling and experiencing, far beyond what we can do in our ordinary lives. There is really very little reason, especially in the context of art, to refine virtual worlds to the point where they are indistinguishable from reality especially when we can find ways to share what we can imagine with each other. (p. 890) Metaphysics of Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is, as Beardon (1992) describes it "a simulation in which we are invited, or perhaps persuaded to amend our belief in what is real." It is a means by which to experience alternate views of both physically real and imagined environments. By combining the power of computing technology and advancements in human-computer interface design, virtual reality provides a metaphorical parallel to our real-world analogue, and forces us to ask deep questions about our traditional understanding of metaphysics, such as ‘Where is here? Is it the location of my physical or my cognitive/emotional/spiritual being? And who am I? Am I what I am here, or what I purport to be there? Or both? And how do I relate to everything else that I am experiencing?

The technology has turned our traditional view of metaphysics on its ear. What we have come to know as perceptibly real is now completely manipulable; the knowledge and process associated with developing meaning within this new rubric completely rocks our assumptions of real, unreal, false, true, signifier, and signified (Nöth, 1990). Our frame of reference, as Einstein so elegantly stated, is truly relative. And, as Gigliotti (1995) and Krueger (in Heim, 1993) point out, "these are aesthetic questions with engineering consequences."

As described by Chesher (1995), at issue is our understanding of signifier and signified, our concept of metaphor and what it represents (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). This relates directly to sign and object, as described by Cunningham (1992). The relationship between what we are referencing, the symbols used to represent what we are referencing, and the "relationship in the mind" (Peirce, 1955) is infinitely iterative. The referent can be infinitely referenced, creating a series of very deep interrelationships and constructs. Imbedding meaning-within-meaning becomes fractal in a sense. One can travel both forward and backward along the referential path, expanding or contracting one’s knowledge structure as need be. This correlates strongly related to Shank’s (1992; Shank et al., 1994) description of abductive reasoning, as illustrated in Figure 2, in that the individual iterates between idea, hypothesis and experience.

The relationship between signifier and signified is further discussed by Baudrillard (1983). A representation is a model of that which is signified if I never lose my belief that it is the original object that is the real object, rather than the representation. In a simulation, the signifier may not have a direct referent to the "real" world, nor is one required. The model, or signifier, takes on a reality of its own. This further describes the sensation of "presence". (Hoffman, Prothero, Wells & Groen, 1996; Winn, Hoffman & Osberg, 1995), in which one is convinced that the virtual world is real.

To describe how the aesthetic, corporeal, and intellectual processes can be engaged through representation in virtual reality, four examples of non-traditional environments are provided. None of these environments could have been created without the aid of virtual reality. Four Non-traditional Environments

The potential to explore virtual space and make meaning from it in a very non-traditional perceptual manner has perhaps best been embodied to date in the works of Brenda Laurel (Placeholder), Char Davies (Osmose), Margaret Dolinsky (Dream Girls) and McCagie Brooks Rogers (Mythseeker). These projects demonstrate the extensibility of the technology by illustrating places that virtual reality can take us, but that traditional simulations cannot.

In Placeholder, Brenda Laurel uses Native American legends to explore the boundaries of representational art and environmental backdrops, allowing participants to "become" the personification of one of four petroglyphs (crow, spider, fish or snake), and to share their experiences with the narrator and another participant. The environment allows the participant(s) to experience the world from the perspective of the personified animal, as opposed to their traditional (human) perspective.

In Osmose, Char Davies has created an ethereal, surreal environment in which navigation takes place through breathing. The interface to the environment is a chest sensor, that tracks the participants’ breathing to control movement. As one inhales, one rises, as if scuba-diving. This is one of the most spectacular representational and experiential art forms ever presented that maximizes the capabilities rather than the hindrances of the technology to date.

Margaret Dolinsky is a visual artist and virtual environment creator at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In her work Dream Girls, there are many representations that women in her milieu wanted to include as part of a girl’s "dreams." It is a wonderfully colorful yet mystical place, where one can gateway to a number of different personal dream representations by entering a virtual head or other representational object present in the environment.

This mystical component of virtual reality is enhanced, and also made more educational in an environment called Mythseeker, created by McCagie Brooks Rogers. In this virtual world, participants can explore the cosmology of six different spiritual systems: Christianity, Shakti, Shamanism, Kabbalah, Greek Mythology, and Indian Mythology. The purpose of this environment is to provide the participant with the opportunity for self exploration, deepening of spiritual connections and personal meaning making by experiencing the symbology, rituals and relationships within six different cosmologies. The Mythseeker project’s sole purpose is to provide a means by which individuals can explore, at their leisure and within the privacy of their own virtual domain their beliefs, fears and hopes for personal and spiritual growth.

What these four environments have in common is the highly experiential component; all of them are deeply interactive and are designed to give the participant(s) a strong sense of presence in an alternative space. With the exception of the Mythseeker project, they are not directly intended to be intellectually educational. However, they provide an alternative design framework that goes beyond traditional use of the technology, and are therefore useful examples for future application to education. Visual Thinking and VR

The potential for developing and experiencing virtual environments as a learning tool is possible due to our changing educational values. As we come to better understand the nature of human intelligence, creativity, and the value of being multi-modal in our perceptions and our productions, there seems to be an increased awareness of developing our children’s visual thinking skills in addition to the more traditional focus on reading and writing. Because we can create environments whose properties may have no parallel in reality, we can begin to stimulate children’s imagination and visual thinking processes.

When students build virtual worlds, this visual thinking process is clearly demonstrated through the selection and representation of key elements necessary to create meaning in the environment. These elements are displayed both through visual interpretation and through interaction with the environment itself. This opportunity for developing what Gardner (1983) terms spatial intelligence can be fostered through virtual environment creation and experience. For instance, Mones-Hattal & Mandes (1995) describe the opportunity for creating and experiencing environments constructed using a 3D form of visual semantics:

In other words, visual meaning is at least partially derived from the color, form, orientation, and movement of the visual target, and that these qualities are generally immediately apprehensible. Semantic syntax is dependent upon classes of symbols, combined according to a set of specific rules. Visual syntax uses spatial points as its sole class of symbols and is combined through spatial juxtaposition. Developing environments that display both representations and abstract components will provide for us a testing ground for unusual design opportunities and perceptual ambiguities. (p. 890)

The focus of virtual learning environment development, as with educational development of any kind, must start with at least the rudiments of what is known, and build from there. Metaphorical representation is a wonderful tool, but the environment must still be interpreted to have meaning.

Visual thinking deals with the holistic interpretation of the visual scene, rather than the linear interpretation of verbal or text-based materials. According to Solso (1994), visual thinking takes place in three stages:

  1. The scene is analyzed for basic elements of visual stimulation; form, color, orientation, and movement.
  2. Elements of contour perception, and figure-ground discriminations take place.
  3. Forms perceived are given meaning from the individual’s visual memory; the combination storehouse and visualization mechanism of mental imagery.

The active, conscious use of visual memory as a meaning-making tool is where the rubber hits the road in a cognitive sense. But how does this take place in the brain? This section explores current research regarding the role of mental imagery and visualization in meaning-making, both in terms of representation and application.


The Mental Image

A mental image is the representation in the mind of a particular "aspect, concept, or referent" (Cunningham, 1992). Visualization is the process by which those mental images are created and utilized. The constructivist and the semiotician are interested in how these images are developed and used by the individual in terms of meaning-making.

Humans continuously seek meaning in the environment, in interactions, and in our own perceptions. What constitutes the process of meaning-making has been hotly debated for many centuries, starting with the first documented inquiries into the nature of the mind and of knowledge as represented by Plato, in describing his wax tablet metaphor in the Theaetus (Nöth, 1990; Kosslyn, 1981, 1994). Plato explored the notion that the quality and usefulness of mental representations can vary extensively from individual to individual, just as representations on a wax tablet can vary based on the quality of the wax, the clarity of the image, the skill of the image-maker, and so forth. Most cognitive psychologists today acknowledge an underlying assumption that humans (and perhaps other organisms) create and store images of some kind, both those that are meaningful (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Cunningham, 1992), and those which are superfluous.

Mental images are important, because they contribute to the way individuals understand relationships (Morris & Hampson, 1983). Text or verbally-based information that is connected to a visual memory is often more memorable (Samuels & Samuels, 1975). This study describes the use of virtual reality as a tool to enhance the visualization process. By listening to discussions among students during their design process, it was clear that students made connections between visual representations and verbal memory. By enhancing the visualization process, students may have greater access to information in multiple formats, enhancing the richness and recall of that information.


Constructing Mental Images: Three Perspectives

Paivio (1971) developed the dual coding theory of cognition. In his view, all perceptual information is translated into one of two modalities; verbal, and non-verbal (primarily pictorial). As stated by Ernst (1983), in describing Paivio’s work:

The verbal system was viewed as being specialized for dealing with relatively abstract information, such as language whereas the specialization of the imagery system was processing concrete perceptual information, such as non-verbal objects or events (p. 1).

Based on Paivio’s (1971) extensive experiments in this area, it became apparent that perceptions and memories of perceptions also varied in vividness, depending on the type of image that was generated for the individual. At the cellular level, perception activated first-order cells, as well as higher order processes, whereas memories only activated second-order and higher level processes, losing the first-order properties that would "give it the completeness and vividness of perception" (p. 477).

In work completed by another of Paivio’s colleagues, Katz (1983) mentions the effect of culture and personal experience in combination with individual differences as a source of image quality. In his view, variations in imagery proficiency may be "regarded as symbolic habits resulting from different patterns of experience" (p. 51). In addition, metacognitive strategies are also seen as a component of imaging proficiency, in that "individual differences in imagery will not emerge unless people first realize that imagery processing is called for" (p. 52). In other words, high imagers may be those individuals who have not only native ability, but the metacognitive skills to know when to apply image processing strategies. The driving motivation behind all of this, in Paivio’s view, is to make the most sense out of the environment at the least cost. Therefore, information is stored in either form, or both, in the brain.

In contrast, Pylyshyn (1981) sees part of the problem in describing one’s mental images and how those images are represented as a semantic issue. For example, it is often difficult to accurately describe with words a pictorial process or representation. When we report about our experience, we are indeed limited to our language at hand to describe that which is not a language-based experience at all. Chomsky (1964) noted this disparity in our limited ability to communicate about such experiences as a lack of "explanatory accuracy."

The last perspective on mental image development is presented by Pinker & Kosslyn (1978). In their seminal work The Representation and Manipulation of Three-Dimensional Space in Mental Images, Pinker & Kosslyn (1978) state quite strongly that indeed the images that a human chooses to represent and to analyze are "potentially rich in detail, spatially correct, and accessible for mental manipulations such as rotation and inversion" (p. 72). This is in opposition to the position taken by Pylyshyn.

Kosslyn’s (1981) focus on function helped him to build a working computer model of the development and application of imagery. This model is based on what Kosslyn calls the "Cognitive Theory of Imagery", and represents a description of the visual system’s structures, both data and the communication medium, and processes, or those actions performed on the data structures themselves.

Data structures are those components of one’s understanding that describe "format, content, and organization." In this case, Kosslyn (1981) develops the underpinning of Cunningham’s later view of symbol development by stating:

The content is the information stored in a given data structure. Any given content can be represented using any number of formats. For example, the information in the previous sentence could be stored on a magnetic tape, on a page, as a series of dots and dashes etched on metal, and so on. The organization is the way the elementary representations can be combined. The format of a representation constrains the possible organizations, but does not determine them.

Cunningham (1992) takes the notion of reorganization based on context much further in his theory of an educational semiotic, as discussed in section 2.1.2.

These three views have been presented to illustrate the variety of perspectives on the value and application of images. In this study, students were encouraged to visualize during their design process. Part of the world building exercise required students to reframe or convert information from text to visual images, and to do so in a meaningful way. The translation between formats (text, verbal, visual and auditory) was critical to the students’ successful design and development of a virtual environment (Dickson, 1985). It has been found that "conceptual framework data and information can only be potentially meaningful, not intrinsically so" (Winn, Hoffman & Osberg, 1995). Visualization was used to assist students in making the content they studied meaningful.


Using Mental Images

Morris & Hampson (1983) state that consciousness is an integral part of one’s awareness of the imaging process. Conscious actions that affect the imaging process include:


Mental images can be useful tools for cognition. According to Morris & Hampson (1983), there are three dimensions of individual perception upon which images vary:

1. The intentional/passive role of the individual in the creation of the image

2. The experience of the image as being out there as part of the real world, or existing internally in a different form from real objects

3. The belief that what is being experienced is part of the real world, or is created in some way by the individual’s mental apparatus (p. 65).

In Morris & Hampson’s (1983) view, all perceptions are colored by past experience, and by the mental schemata in place at the time of perception (Ryle, 1943; Neisser, 1967; Johnson-Laird, 1980). Therefore, conscious imaging can encompass a broader range of possibilities than random imaging. Summary

In this section, the visual perception aspects of virtual reality have been explored. Four alternative environments that set the benchmark for effective use of virtual technology were presented, followed by a discussion of the relationship between visualization and virtual reality. Conscious imaging was presented as a preliminary exercise to virtual environment design, supporting mental manipulation of images that were then translated into virtual representations.

In the next section, practical aspects of integrating virtual reality technology into the curriculum are explored.

2.3.4. Virtual Reality and Education Constructivism and Educational Technology: An Overview

There is a natural linkage between the constructivist learning paradigm and the utilization of educational technology in the classroom (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Saloman, Perkins & Globerson, 1991; Scardamalia, et al., 1989) . Today’s computer systems can be used to "communicate, create, inquire, categorize, synthesize and present" (Zemelman, Daniels & Hyde, 1993) information. They are an excellent storage and manipulation device for both existing information, and for one’s original ideas and creative work. They therefore serve as tools that allow students to build their own mental models. By definition a symbol processing system, computers can also be used to transform information from verbal and digital forms to visual, auditory and haptic representations. As such, the use of computers in the classroom can be a powerful adjunct to teaching and learning for students and teachers alike.

Duffy & Jonassen (1992) feel that today’s practice of educational technology should indeed be couched in the constructivist paradigm. This plays out in terms of developing systems that are situated in the real world as much as possible and are as experiential as possible. The goal is to design and present authentic learning opportunities in which individuals have the freedom and the opportunity to ground their experience in a manner appropriate to them.

The individual engaged in learning should have the opportunity to inquire, and to develop understanding from their own and others’ perspectives when constructing knowledge. This position is supported by the work of Cunningham (1992), Belenky, et al., (1992), Noddings (1984, 1993), Adams (1989) and Adams & Hamm (1988), who report the effectiveness of this approach for helping students learn. Bridging the Gap Between Multimedia and Virtual Reality

Computer technology that has been integrated as a learning tool into the body of the curriculum can have a very positive effect on student motivation, engagement, and learning (Dwyer, 1994; Taylor, 1992). This is especially true of those technologies that require the student to actively engage with the information presented (Perkins, 1993; Winn & Bricken, 1992; Byrne, 1996). As the constructivist learning theory describes, learning-by-doing appears to be a key factor in content assimilation and retention, and in student enjoyment. (Brooks & Brooks, 1993; Minstrell, 1989; Lochhead, 1988; Winograd & Flores, 1986).

Interactive technologies that are in use in many classrooms today include multimedia and the Internet. The effects of these two technologies has been felt deeply within the educational community. (Spiro et al., 1992a, 1992b). Due to their design, these technologies are alternatives to the linear structure to much information presentation, facilitating a more broadly defined, amorphous data gathering technique that is again supportive of constructivist learning principles (Dede, 1990, 1992; Papert, 1993; Lochhead, 1988).

Two Internet-based examples are the JASON project (Ballard, 1992; Baer, 1989), a science and engineering web-site where students can interact with the terrestrial and ocean environments telerobotically, and Toy Scouts (Companion et al., 1995), another interactive web-site that students can visit and study. These are representative of the kind of multimedia environments that ‘bridge’ between single-computer CD-ROM based systems and multi-participant environments. The next step, just a dimension away, is to move into virtual environments for education and training (Dede, 1992, 1994; Dede, Salzman & Loftin, 1996), which will be discussed in the next section. Virtual Reality as a Constructivist Learning Tool

The concept of "learning by doing" (Bruner, 1990) is certainly not new; however, allowing the student to learn by doing within the classroom context is a departure from traditional methods; one which virtual reality enables (Lewis, 1993; DeVries, 1995). As an experiential learning tool, virtual reality is an enactive knowledge-creation environment. In this study, each environment we developed contained a combination of real-world analogs and abstract representations, providing students with an opportunity to learn and to share information with others.

Houser (1987) describes three types of signs: icons, indexes, and symbols. All three types are found in virtual learning environments, and are important for their unique contribution to the meaning-making process. Icons, the signs most analogous to their real-world referants, are important for populating the environment with recognizable objects that "ground" the student in context. From that context, indexed and symbolic objects take on meaning in relation to iconic and spatial representations present in the environment. There is no value associated with one sign over another; it is how the environment functions as a whole that is important.


Virtual Environment Construction vs. Experience

There are two distinct aspects to the use of virtual environments as a learning tool: the actual construction of a virtual environment, and the experience of visiting a virtual environment. The construction process involves developing an understanding of the objects, relationships, interactions, aesthetics, ethics and interface issues inherent in the finished product (Gigliotti, 1995), which requires the selection or creation of icons, indexes and symbols. It is primarily a creative and intellectual process; one in which the virtual artist attempts to create a meaningful space that can later be experienced. Experiencing a virtual environment, on the other hand, involves using one’s body and mind in conjunction to make meaning from the experience of visiting the virtual space, without perhaps having had the opportunity to design the space being experienced, and requires just the use of icons, indexes and symbols. It is primarily a visceral and intellectual process. In both cases, designer and experiencer, the individual has the opportunity for meaning-making; for learning from the process itself.

However, the integration of virtual reality in the classroom, whether as a design process or as an experiential learning tool, is still in its infancy. Though some research has been conducted (Winn, Hoffman & Osberg, 1995; Merickel, 1992; Byrne, 1993, 1996; Osberg, 1993a; Rose, 1996), there is interest in learning much more about both the world-building process and how it relates to meaning-making, and the educational value of world-experiencing process (Rose, 1996; Winn, 1992). Furthermore, there is great interest in making the most of what we bring to the learning process in the use of virtual reality (Norman, 1993; Bowers, 1988, 1992; Osberg, 1993a), instead of focusing on the flash and dazzle of the technology itself.

Virtual reality goes at least one level above multimedia in terms of perceptual richness and locus of control. The primary difference is in intent; multimedia is a representation, whereas virtual reality is a simulation, intended to fool the senses into believing that the participant is perceiving their ‘physical’ body to be in another place. And yet, it is the reintegration of the body in the search for knowledge that provides such a compelling tour de force to the technology, as described by Heidegger’s (1977) notion of being ‘ready to hand’, i.e. accessible for scrutiny and unmediated use. This last point is particularly powerful in education. By bringing our bodies back into the search for meaning, we can at long last become fully, not just intellectually, integrated.

All of what we experience is a construction of sorts (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992; Winn, 1992) in that all communication, both internal and external, is mediated to a degree. Indeed, one can think of VR as a three-dimensional Rorschach test, in which the need for interpretation is implied, if not required. This places the technology more as experiential and interpretive informational art rather than as a direct means of deriving objective meanings and truths. This point is similar to the one made by Heidegger (1977), in his postmodern view of communicative technologies in which he states "reality changes, and with it the task of thinking". VR in the Classroom: Practical Considerations

Much of what has been described thus far with regard to VR and education has painted the technology and its application in the classroom in a very positive light, and research has indicated that there is indeed perceived value to be had (Dede, 1992, 1994; Dede, Salzman & Loftin, 1996; Loftin, Engelberg & Bebdetti, 1993; Loftin & Kenney, 1995; Byrne, 1996; Winn, 1992, 1997; Osberg, 1993b). However, the practical side of virtual reality as a learning tool has two components: access and appropriateness. Both need to be more substantively addressed if VR is to actually become a practical reality in the classroom.

Access to the technology requires that it be available, and that cost is not a prohibitive factor. Another form of access has to do with interface design. The technology must be made available and accessible to the user from a cognitive, physical or affective sense. Otherwise, individuals may be precluded from utilizing the technology due to complexity, knowledge barriers, or physical barriers.

Industry has hyped virtual reality and nearly all other computer-based learning technologies as the next educational panacea. Such an expectation is unwarranted and inappropriate. As described by Dennen & Branch (1996), in some respects this technology is the prototypical "technology looking for a purpose". However, based on our research, we find there are excellent applications for virtual reality as a learning tool, primarily those that require high visualization skills or 3-D representations, present abstract information in a more cognitively accessible format, or present the opportunity for experience which cannot be had any other way. (Osberg, 1992; Byrne, 1996; Winn, 1997).

This section describes how this technology might be used in the classroom. Support for computer-mediated instruction as a constructivist learning tool was presented, including virtual reality technologies. Distinctions were made between virtual environment construction and experience.

2.4. Summary

In this chapter, the conceptual framework for this study was presented. The process of making connections between signs, symbols and relationships was discussed in the section on constructivism. Peirce’s (1955) traidic model of sign was presented as the basis for exploring relationships between signs, referents, and objects. Virtual reality was then presented as a constructivist learning tool to assist students in making deep, meaningful knowledge constructions in a visual, auditory and interactive environment.

Based on the above relationships, I designed and conducted a study that implemented a constructivist approach to learning, as mediated through 3-D interactive environment construction and experience. In the following chapter, research methods are presented.

Human Interface Technology Laboratory