Tangible Interfaces for Learning: Training Spatial Skills in Vocational Classrooms

There have been many claims that Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs) can have a positive impact on learning. Alleged benefits include increasing usability, improving engagement and collaboration of students, and providing a better perception of the task, especially spatial ones. However, there exists little empirical data to back up these claims. Moreover, for all their potential benefits for learning, TUIs are still scarcely used in schools. This thesis explores these two issues in the specific context of vocational education and training of carpenter apprentices. The learning objectives concern spatial skills and in particular, the mapping between 2D and 3D representations. We study (1) whether TUIs can support the training of spatial skills, and if so what features allow them to do so, and (2) what kinds of classroom pedagogical scenarios TUIs can support. We follow a design-based research approach and run empirical studies, mostly in classrooms. The contributions of this thesis touch on three research domains: 1. Spatial skills. Our results show that TUIs can help teach spatial skills to carpenter apprentices. The tangible nature of TUIs can help the learner relate multiple representations of an object, especially for difficult problems. It can also lower the barrier to entry into a learning domain for beginners. 2. Learning with TUIs. According to our results, TUIs can benefit learning, but the mere fact of using TUIs does not guarantee learning. Instead, special attention needs to be given to the design of the TUI. Small design variations, such as the physical correspondence between the tangible object and its virtual representations, or the type and timing of feedback given to the user, can have a significant impact on learning. 3. Classroom technologies and orchestration. We explore several classroom pedagogical scenarios that TUIs can support. The most promising one is to use a TUI as part of a hybrid classroom learning activity that includes both TUI and non TUI steps. Additionally, we devise two ways to promote the integration of TUIs in classroom. First, we introduce 5 design principles that reduce the classroom orchestration load. Second, we show how new web technologies can be used to deploy TUIs in schools at a lower cost.

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