Monday, October 13, 2014

A Toy Story

A Toy Story

During my interview with Dr. Maher, Chair of Software and Information Studies at UNC Charlotte, we played with multiple interactive technology tools as she demonstrated to me how she was using them in her research. While we played with various toys, I noted to her that remembered when the most “interactive technology” that was used in the classroom was an etch-a-sketch.

I still remember the day in kindergarten when our chalkboard was replaced with a whiteboard, and everyone became incredibly excited because, at the time, the whiteboard was the second thing that defined our classroom as “modern”- succeeded only by the old computer we had for occasional rotation, on which we were allowed to play Oregon Trail and KidPix in fifteen-minute intervals in groups of four.

I remember even more vividly the day that the Ipod was released, and the Ipad, and the first online class I took- a revolutionary step at the time.

Looking back to those memories, it’s difficult to fathom how far we’ve really come in classroom interactive technology, and even more difficult to fathom to what lengths technology is aiding actively in the learning process.

Dr. Maher showed me just how far we’ve come when I sat down with her to discuss her research. She has a background in design and works with various students and institutions to develop new and more innovative ways to improve the relationship between cognition and technological interaction.

She explained to me that she worked in conceptual blending and the connection between cognition and formal representation of that cognition- in other words, the relationship between what we’re thinking and how we tangibly represent that thought. In the past, we were only limited to writing and to various forms of art. Now that digital interfaces are available, our potential to directly relate the original cognitive thought in a more “honest” tangible form has grown.

 Dr. Maher believes that if we approach this connection innovatively, we can improve learning and our representation of it into ways that are more relatable and far more instructive.

Still mystified by these vague terms, I asked her to show me examples of what she was talking about. How was her team more innovatively connecting our cognitive functions and their formal representations, and how was it more useful in instruction?

First, she showed me a device her team was working with for younger students. Called “siftables,” they are small cubes that are activated by Bluetooth and can be connected to each represent any number of patterns. Below you see them being used to create math problems, but they can also display any number of patterns, shapes, and images. Dr. Maher and her team are already implementing these into schools to see if they are useful in the classroom. Thus far, the evidence points to the benefits of the siftables.



For middle and high school kids, she’s envisioned using a device called “Arduino.” Pictured below, the Arduino is a device that can be used to create small robots and other interactive devices, and is an introductory tool to learning robotics and engineering.



Perhaps the coolest thing she showed me, though, was the Colorado Tabletop. After we played with the two toys above, she led me across the hall to a small laboratory where there were many students working. In the middle of the glass-walled room was a massive interactive touchscreen tabletop.
She began to explain that this tabletop was meant to be the precursor marrying nature with technology. She showed me how, on the table, there was an interactive map of a local nature trail. She showed me how I could follow the trail virtually, clicking on different spots to view images, facts, extended information pages, and videos.

Even cooler was that all of this information was crowdsourced- she calls it “citizen science.” The idea was that as visitors walked through this nature trail, they would take pictures and videos. When they came across one of the installed interactive tabletops, they could share their photos, videos, and other information with the table, joining their experience to dozens of previous other ones. If they had any questions, they could interact virtually with their surroundings to get answers.

While the table she showed me in the small room at UNC Charlotte was a prototype of a local trail, she was preparing to travel Colorado to establish an outdoor tabletop in one of its national parks. It would be the first of its kind, and the success of the Colorado Tabletop, she says, will indicate how society truly interacts and uses such technology, if made available freely.

Though her research seems to be varied, it centers around one thing- interaction with the user. She worked previously on something she calls “gesture interaction,” with installments that viewers can actually “walk up and use.” In a world that is driven by the growth of technology, she says, it’s important to develop technology that engages the user to the highest degree possible.

She has high hopes for the potential of bringing the formal representation of our cognition as close to our actual cognition as possible, creating tools and resources that can be used efficiently and effectively- and rather than becoming tools for distraction, they’ll become toys for instructive interaction.


Dr. Maher is at the beginning of the pursuit of the ultimate toy story.

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