Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Cognitive tools in interactive design for digital design

Keith Robinson
School of Design
Curtin University of Technology

1. Introduction

The introduction of new technology media, has introduced the need for different concepts in the design of communication environments. The once primarily print based profession of the graphic designer, now includes, computer based environments and 3D graphics. I believe that this transformation of the design profession, requires a different approach in the way design for communication is currently practiced. After twenty years in the design profession, I was immediately influenced by the concepts of the new media available for design production. Of these new media, I discovered that the Internet and interactive CD-ROM, showed the greatest potential for the communication of ideas and concepts. The theoretical structure, for building interactive environments into the powerful communication devices which I perceived them to be, did not seem to be a priority in any of the educational programs I undertook. I therefore, began a program of research that I hoped would lead to a tangible and applicable theory, for the development of these media as communication environments.

From my research, I have endeavoured to demonstrate a communication model, which illustrates that to complete the communication link a basic set of components must be present. These components are based on the requirements of the basic communication model (Reber, 1985, p136). The use of this model, is only used in the explanation of what I propose, as a communication model for the application of cognitive processes, in design for multimedia. I am not at this stage, trying to introduce the concepts and communication theory of semiotics.

Under constructivism, educational researchers produced the concept of externalised cognitive processes, in the form of cognitive tools. My research, is based on the application of these cognitive tools, in the construction of communication environments. I use the term 'communication environments' instead of 'learning environments', because I see the application of cognitive tools, creating a unique communication link for wider fields of application. (i.e. Advertising interactive CD-ROM).

2. Background research

Research in constructivism has presented many new concepts in learning. Piaget's re-ification theory, which relised that knowledge was an assimilation, of the new idea with existing knowledge, was an initial concept of constructivist theory. Bruner's later research expanded on Piaget's theory, by stipulating that knowledge is constructed by the learner. Bruner said that it was the task of the teacher to "translate information to be learned into a format appropriate to the learners current state of understanding" (Bruner, 1995, paragraph 2). From Bruner's theory of instruction, a new framework emerged, "based upon the study of cognition" (Bruner, 1995, paragraph 5). This concept introduced the study of cognition and the relevance of cognitive processes to the learning model.

2.1 Research in learning environments

The pivotal point of my research, centred upon the realisation, that digital media was capable of engaging the user in a communication environment. My research then focused on constructivist learning environments, and how these models of learning can be better designed, to cope with the learning requirements of the individual. Some researchers in constructivism, have presented a sequence of models, that address specific cognitive abilities in the learner. It is the application of these models, to different learning situations, which has emphasised the benefits of learning in a cognitive framework. Vosniadou, suggests that, "we need learning environments that pay more attention to the constructive and creative aspects of human cognition - environments that encourage metaconceptual awareness, representational growth, and cognitive flexibility" (Vosniadou, 1996, p2). This concept , highlights the need for learners to become active participants in the construction of knowledge, requiring an environment, in which learning is capable of being shaped and supported.

2.2 Open ended learning environments

One of the central concerns of my research, was to find a relevant system, which could be applied to digital media formats. The concept of Open ended Learning Environments, provides a flexible model for the development of CD and Internet formats, as communication environments.

The goal of Open ended Learning Environments is "to provide authentic contexts for learners to identify their beliefs, test their validity, refine them in ways consistent with data, and gradually evolve alternative understanding" (Land et al, 1997, p69). In open-ended learning environments, the student is able to reconfigure the experiment, to produce variable conditions, gaining a wider set of results, and also a wider comprehension of the subject.

Some programs can also be developed as 'conscious' tutors, so that data collected by the student can be presented in the form of extended problems for the student to solve. This system of feedback, illustrates the point of using student driven data results to broaden the learning experience. The concept of open-ended learning environments has been successfully tested in both mathematics and science instruction.

3. Cognitive tools

The tools employed for learning, can vary greatly, according to the situation. The one common factor, in the 'cognitive tools' concept however, is the external construction of cognitive processes. Kozma maintains that, "cognitive tools are devices that allow and encourage learners to manipulate their thinking and ideas" (Kozma, 1987, p21). In effect, these tools assist the student to acquire knowledge by externalising cognitive processes, thereby, freeing up 'short term memory' for the accomplishment of learning related tasks.

The heuristic (learning through discovery) nature of constructivist learning environments, supports design strategies, that endorse the concept of the environment as a cognitive tool. Further to this idea, Richard Ennals states that "cognitive tools are partial models, generaliseable knowledge structures within which exploratory learning can be facilitated and generated" (Kommers et al, 1992, p139).

Heeren and Kommers, concept map for cognitive tools (Kommers et al, 1992, p86) (Figure 1), demonstrates the path of knowledge assimilation. This concept map describes how cognitive tools function, through the processes of guiding/ modelling and enabling , to enhance thinking and learning. That section of Heeren and Kommers diagram, which represents the process of cognition, has been adopted in my own concept maps. As I assumed the process of cognition would remain unchanged. I then proceeded to develop concepts to demonstrate the application of cognitive tools (Figures 2-4). These concept maps, illustrate my hypothesis, that the application of cognitive processes through interactive digital media, could enhance thinking and learning.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Cognitive tools

Figure 2
Figure 2: Cognitive tools applied

I propose in this first model, that a common code of cognition, occupies the process. In this model, which developed in discussion with my supervisor Michael Pearson, the cognitive processes inherent in the 'tutor' and the 'student', are recognised in relation to the cognitive tools applied thought 'digital media' (computer). The learning environment, in this model, encompasses the three elements of tutor, student and computer program.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Cognitive tools in design

Figure 3 demonstrates my proposed model for the application of cognitive tools through the process of visual communication design. In this model, I am trying to build upon the communicational capacities, of those cognitive processes involved. The design, which utilises prior knowledge of cognitive tools, demonstrates the application of specific cognitive processes, to create a communication link with the learner/user.

Cognitive Tools Identified: Cognitive tools are mental processes that allow the human to collate and categorise information in memory. The function of externalising cognitive processes frees up Short Term Memory (STM). In the complex environments of learning and instruction, where the mind no longer needs to hold extensive amounts of unessential knowledge, then the learner has more STM for the processes involved in understanding the instructional materials. This concept is where the inclusion of cognitive tools, in the form of visual aids and interactive functions, becomes relevant to the multimedia designer.

These cognitive tools, are identified through constructivist literature, and there practical applications, have been demonstrated in the deconstruction of commercially available exemplars. In each analysis, I have discussed concepts for the application of cognitive tools, in the construction of communication environments.

4. Commercial exemplars

As part of my research, to determine the presence of cognitive tools, I have made an evaluation of commercially available interactive products. The results from this analysis, are documented in a diagrammatic breakdown of their role in interactive environments (Figure 4).

Figure 4
Figure 4: The complete communication link

The use of 'cognitive tools' in commercially available learning products is not always shown to be a concsious act of the designer. Cognitive tools are meant to be designed into the program, at the initial planning stage, but due to the nature of cognitive processes, some 'tools' will be present with-out requiring conscious designed inclusion. Some included processes, which are designed to facilitate cognition, may fail to connect with other cognitive systems within the program, rendering it ineffective as a learning environment. Both the evidence and the questions, raised in this analysis, have proven that cognitive tools can make a difference to the value of digital media as communication environments.

5. Demonstrated use of cognitive tools applied through design

As a result of the findings made in this research program, I have constructed an interactive program, to demonstrate the use of cognitive tools as they might be applied through design. Although only a simple procedure, the sequential process of 'Tissue Culture', proved to be ideal as an experimental project. Also, the fact that I had already completed the Kings Park Plant Science CD, meant that I could use the same visual metaphor (i.e. interface design), as a template program. This program, was an ideal concept, from which to extend an educational component.

6. Conclusion

The conclusions which I have drawn from this research, are concentrated on the need to understand cognitive processes as a design tool. The need for designers, to acquire the ability to apply this technology, is demonstrated through the communication model (Figure 4). This concept, highlights those elements, which combine to form a complete communication link with the user. The user is effectively engaged in a one to one interaction through a common code, communicated through cognitive tools.

What is needed in multimedia design, is a theory which can be applied in its same form to the construction of any interactive environment. The known and established processes of human cognition, have been identified by educational researchers. These processes, applied in the form of cognitive tools, have been successfully demonstrated in the analysis of commercial exemplars. The plug-in like concept, of cognitive tools, makes their use an attractive option, for the designer. These simple and identifiable theories, can act alone or be used in multiple concepts, to create and control the communication of interactive environments.

The fact, that constructivist research does exist, in commercially available educational products, does not suggest that all of the cases identified were planned as applied cognitive theory. It could be argued, that the unintended application of cognitive tools, will occur as a result of the natural cognitive processes and discussions between designers. This hit and/or miss, method of design, is the current technique applied in interactive multimedia. My investigation has proven that the prior knowledge of cognitive tools, for their planned use in interactive communication, will result in a more consistent and focused use in design applications. Exponents of the considered and practiced application of cognitive theory, for interactive communication, will be the long term beneficiaries of such knowledge.

The printed version's Appendices A-D, page 358, are reproduced as
Figures 1-4 in the web version, and are positioned in the text above.

7. References

Bruner J. (1995). Constructivist Theory. http://www.gwu.edu/~tip/bruner.html (22 Jan 99)

Hannafin, Michael, Hannafin, Kathleen, Land, Susan and Oliver, Kevin (1997). Grounded Practice and the Design of Constructivist learning Environments Education Technology Research and Development, 45(3), 101-117.

Hannafin, Michael (1992). Emerging Technologies, ISD, and Learning Environments: Critical Perspectives. Education Technology Research and Development, 40(1), 49-63.

Kommers, Piet A. M., Jonassen, David H. and Meyes, J. Terry (eds) (1992). Cognitive Tools for Learning, NATO ASI series, Series F; Computer and System Sciences vol. 81, Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Kozma R. (1987). The Implications of Cognitive Psychology for computer-based learning Tools. Educational Technology, 40(11), 20-25.

Land, Susan and Hannafin, Michael (1996). A Conceptual Framework for the Development of Theories-in-Action with Open-Ended Learning Environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 44(3), 37-53.

Reber, Athur (1985). Dictionary of Psychology. Penguin, London.

Vosniadou, Stella, De Corte, Erik, Glaser, Robet and Mandl, Heinz (eds) (1996). International Perspectives on the Design of Technology - Supported Learning Environments. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, New Jersey.

Please cite as: Robinson, K. (1999). Cognitive tools in interactive design for digital design. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 354-359. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/robinson-k.html

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