We apply an innovative instructional technology approach, that bridges together cognitive psychology research on distributed cognition as enabling learning theory and virtual reality (VR) environment as enabling technology. In our courseware design, we incorporate the successful findings and ideas from science education and cognitive science research on instructional technology, in order to provide the best environment for conceptual and metaconceptual understanding of biological and physical processes.
Our educational modules are designed to support a two-scaffold learning process: concept-acquisition (problem-based) phase, covering several curriculum topics, followed by concluding an inquiry-oriented (project-based), distributed-task collaborative project (DTCP). A DTCP is targeted to deepen earlier-acquired conceptual knowledge by applying and verifying acquired concepts and models in a complex multi-topic exploratory inquiry. During concept-oriented instruction, built-in VR simulations supported by dynamic visual representations are used to facilitate students to acquire the basic conceptual knowledge of the topic. During the second, DTCP phase of the project, students are given the inquiry-oriented focused tasks, which will require students to design and navigate in their own VR simulations.
Although VR simulations have been proven to be very successful as an entertainment tool, its application as a successful conceptual tool in curriculum-based courseware is a very important, innovative educational practice. Indeed, students who learn with computer-based open-ended exploratory environments often become adept at solving problems and completing investigations on the computer, but fail to connect what they are doing to the science underlying the model. In effect, they gain skills at the "computer game" without really learning the associated concepts. To avoid this problem, it is very important to make explicit for the students the connection between simulations and the real-world scientific phenomena that it models.
It requires courseware implementation into the curriculum with appropriate subject-knowledge support, inquiry-based interactive and dynamic tasks, relevant multimedia materials links, and integration with laboratory practice. In addition, our effort is targeted to expand our understanding of visual display design and of educational materials' presentation involving different visual representations in science education and other educational domains where interactive visual display is crucial in helping students to develop their cognitive and social skills (see our criteria).