ECOi (1997-8) – interactivity and external representations

The ECOi project “External Cognition for Designing and Engineering Interactivity” was funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Cognitive Engineering Initiative and ran from 1997-1998. Its main aims were: (i) to develop innovative software prototypes, using interactive multimedia and 3-D visualisations, to teach children difficult concepts that they have a hard time learning using existing media (e.g. text, animations) and (ii) to develop a new methodological and theoretical framework for informing the design and evaluation of interactive educational material.



Several prototypes were built in director, using dynamically-linked visualisations (‘dynalinking’) to bridge the learning gap between abstractions of an ecosystem, such as food web diagrams, and the corresponding ‘real world’, exemplified by a simulation of animals and plants in a pond. One of the prototypes ‘Pondworld’ was evaluated over a period of time, first of all determining whether the interface was understandable for children aged 7 to 11 working in pairs. Further tests were then carried out, and an assessment of
children’s knowledge before and after interacting with the software revealed substantial learning improvements.

In the example above a simulation of a pond is linked to a foodweb diagram – the red circle in the pond matches the link in the foodweb diagram. Such ‘dynalinking’, where abstract representations, such as diagrams, are linked together with a more concrete illustration of what they stand for, such a simulation. Changes in one are matched by changes in the other, enabling a better understanding of what the abstraction means.Here the user has made an incorrect placement of an organism in the food web (placing the weed above the perch). The animation shows what would happen if the weed did eat the perch. The children readily understadn that this is not possible and suggested to us what animation should appear.

A CD-ROM of the suite of interactive software modules is available from the author.

A further outcome of the project was a website on interactivity, that provides examples of the interactive prototypes, as shockwave movies, plus a conceptual and methodological framework for designing interactive multimedia. While its genre is somewhat outdated, many of the design principles and interactivities are still highly relevant.


Yvonne Rogers, Mike Scaife, Frances Aldrich, Matt Davies