We’d like you to think back to your school days for a moment. Think about how you were taught concepts in subjects like biology or chemistry. How were those concepts visualized? If you’re of a certain age, there were probably a few illustrations in your textbook. Or maybe your teacher would draw something on the chalkboard that you’d copy down. If it was a big concept, there may have been a 3D model, but that was about it.
Boy have things changed. Technological advancements mean that learners in classrooms can learn concepts far more vividly than in the past. One person at the forefront of figuring how to best use those advancements for visual learning is Dr Konrad Schönborn.
Born and educated in South Africa, Schönborn is now a Senior Lecturer in Visual Learning and Communication at Linköping University, Sweden, and Coordinator of the Swedish National Graduate School in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education Research.
We recently got the chance to sit down with him and talk about his background, why visualization in learning is so important, and where the field is headed in the near future.
A touch of serendipity
The fact that Schönborn got involved in visual learning in the first place is largely down to serendipity. While studying at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Pietermaritzburg, he was unsure which of his two majors – Biochemistry or Psychology – to pursue further.
“I was really really confused,” he told us. “I didn’t know whether to do an Honours in Psychology or an Honours in Biochemistry”.
Eventually, he chose Biochemistry. Soon after, serendipity hit. Schönborn met a professor who was in the process of dedicating his lab solely to studying how people learn Biochemistry.
“And that’s how it sort of started,” Schönborn told us. “I started a Masters in looking at how students interpret textbook diagrams of biomolecules”.
At the time, no one was really doing similar work, making Schönborn and his supervisor, pioneers in the field.
Having had his Masters upgraded to PhD, Schönborn was hired as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Göttingen in Germany. The experience, he told us, was invaluable because in Germany “they’re very systematic with their data gathering and analysis, so I learned a great deal very quickly”.
Things really began to take off for Schönborn, however, when he met a Swedish professor at a conference who invited him to work with her in Sweden.
“These guys were doing some really hot and cutting-edge visualization research,” he said. “My whole world just opened up.”
After the move, Schönborn shifted away from studying static pictures as he did in his doctorate to now studying “much more dynamic visualization right through to virtual reality environments”.
It’s not just about academic research though. The university Schönborn teaches and conducts research at, is home to a visualization centre that aims to bring visualization to the general public.
But why is visualization so important for learning?
As Schönborn explained to us, traditional ways of learning – diagrams in textbooks – can render dynamic processes static.
Take Biology for instance. At the biomolecular and cellular level, there is an extraordinary amount of dynamicity, even in something as simple as water moving through a membrane.
“You are,” he said, “going to a do a better pedagogical job using dynamic visualization – in terms of animation, in terms of simulation – because that maps onto the biological reality”.
Another example comes from physics. If you ask a group of school kids whether a piece of metal left in a room overnight is cooler than a block of wood left in the same room, most will tell you that it is. This is based on the fact that the metal feels cooler to the touch. But it’s actually down to the fact that the rate of heat transfer is quicker through the metal because it’s a better conductor of heat than the wood.
So how do you address that misconception? Well, Schönborn explained, one way is to point a thermal camera at the two objects.
Do that, he said, and “kids can suddenly associate this tactile, haptic feeling they get with their bodies, and then see, using the thermal camera, that heat flows through the metal quicker than through the wood”.
Beyond the classroom
Visualization isn’t just useful in the classroom though. As Schönborn reminded us, it’s recently seen an explosion in a number of fields. One obvious example of this is in the media , where journalists and science communicators are making increasing use of infographics to convey information.
Less well known examples include the engineers at companies like Siemens using digital touch tables to collaborate visually on big projects.
This kind of application Schönborn told us is “really interesting because it’s multi-modal, in the sense that different people can touch the table at different times, and when they touch the table, they can manipulate and interrogate the visual data with classic gestures that they’d use on an iPad”.
AR, VR, and beyond
Those Siemens engineers wouldn’t be able to do that without the massive improvements in visualization technology we’ve seen over the past decade or so.
According to Schönborn, these changes have been “unbelievable” to witness.
And as the associated costs of these technologies come down, they also become easier to integrate into the classroom.
Some schools, for instance, might set up dedicated AR and VR centres using devices such as Oculus Rift and Microsoft’s HoloLens.
For a wider impact, a teacher could give students a visual virtual reality learning experience with something as simple and affordable as Google Cardboard.
“Google Cardboard is just waiting to be used in the classroom,” Schönborn told us. “I mean, what a good way to expose kids to Chemistry for instance”.
While the technology is readily available, Schönborn did point out that it’s down to the teachers to actually use it.
“Our hope and our dream is that teachers do become a little more adventurous in the sense of trying things out,” he told us.
While projects using those technologies are fascinating, the thing that really has Schönborn’s interest piqued right now, is Nanotechnology.
One project in this area of interest saw him and two university colleagues (Drs. Palmerius and Höst ) create an immersive Nanoworld experience using a 3D TV and an Xbox Kinect.
“It really feels like you’re immersed,” Schönborn told us.
Putting aside the “cool” factor for a moment, Schönborn believes it’s imperative that we get the best possible results when it comes to Nano-themed education.
“We don’t really know what the long term implications of Nano are going to be,” he told us. This, in turn means that it’s imperative to promote a Nano-literate public, “so we have to produce learning environments where we can communicate this information, and visualization is a fantastic candidate for doing that”.
And if Schönborn and his colleagues can enable people to do that in way that’s entertaining and absorbing, well, so much the better .