Friday, June 17, 2011

Do Flashy Google Earth Tours have a Place?

Looking at the examples of GE tours out on the web I'm struck that they often use flashy attention grabbing effects but fail to communicate their content well, (an example discussed). However, watching this video made me pause and rethink

Intangible Value: In a very entertaining talk Rory advocates the importance of 'intangible value': its not anything real but its absolutely worth something. An example he doesn't discuss is the placebo effect, results show you can put a patient in an operating theatre, slice open their knee, wiggle some tools around inside achieving precisely nothing and the patient is likely to report a real reduction in knee pain after the un-operation. Amazing isn't it?

Chart Junk: I've always advocated the Edward Tufte approach to graphic communication, he regards anything that is not directly contributing to communication as 'Chart Junk' - anything that is there to make the tour look flash or just as decoration is getting in the way of the message and should be removed. Richard Mayer has empirical evidence showing that chart junk in educational animations (which are very similar to GE tours) has a negative effect on teaching efficiency which he calls the coherence principle.

Context is All: So is chart junk fluff that should be removed or does it add a professional feel and grab attention in a useful way? My view is that in formal education (taught classes in schools or Unis) producing intangible value should be low priority, any clever effects in GE tours fail to grab attention by the 2nd or 3rd lecture of a course. However, in an outreach context, particularly in a setting like a kiosk in a museum, a GE tour would be vying for attention against other exhibits so special effects represent intangible value that is worth having. These two contexts are extreme points on the end of a scale and there are all sorts of other contexts inbetween them for which decisions need to be made. The key question in making such design decisions is 'do I need to grab users attention?'.

Content First, Flash Presentation Second: Despite the context discussion above I would add that even in a context where flash presentation is important authors need to be careful that the message still gets through. Its no use grabbing someones attention if you fail to then do anything with the time they then give you. Juggling this need to both attract attention and also tell a good story is not easy but Hallway Testing is the solution.

My answer to the original question is 'Yes, but it depends on the context and where the answer is 'yes', be careful'.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Google Research Award – Identifying Learning Benefits of Google Earth Tours in Education

It is always nice to announce good news. Back in February, together with [Muki Haklay at UCL], I submitted an application to the Google’s Faculty Research Award program for a grant to investigate Google Earth Tours in education. We were successful in getting a grant worth $86,883 USD. The project builds on Muki's expertise in usability studies of geospatial technologies, including the use of eye tracking and other usability engineering techniques for GIS and my expertise in Google Earth tours and education, and longstanding interest in usability issues.
Job Offer: In this joint UCL/Southampton project, UCL will be lead partner and we will appoint a junior researcher for a year to develop run experiments that will help us in understanding of the effectiveness of Google Earth Tours in geographical learning, and we aim to come up with guidelines to their use. If you are interested, get in contact with Muki.
Our main contact at Google for the project is Ed Parsons. We were also helped by Tina Ornduff and Sean Askay who acted as referees for the proposal.

The core question that we want to address is “How can Google Earth Tours be used create an effective learning experience?”
So what do we plan to do? Previous research on Google Earth Tours (GETs) has shown them to be an effective visualization technique for teaching geographical concepts, yet their use in this way is essentially passive. Active learning is a successful educational approach where student activity is combined with instruction to enhance learning. In the proposal we suggest that there is great education value in combining the advantages of the rich visualization of GETs with student activities. Evaluating the effectiveness of this combination is the purpose of the project, and we plan to do this by creating educational materials that consist of GETs and activities and testing them against other versions of the materials using student tests, eye tracking and questionnaires as data gathering techniques.
We believe that by improving the techniques by which spatial data is visualized we are improving spatial information access overall.

Related Project: A nice aspect of the getting the project funded is that it works well with a project that is led by Claire Ellul and Kate Jones and funded by JISC. The G3 project, or “Bridging the Gaps between the GeoWeb and GIS is touching on similar aspects and we surely going to share knowledge with them.

For more background on Muki Haklay, see his blog. This is a joint post on both our blogs.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Grids and Scale Bars

Related to my post last week about landmarks and judging distance I have some suggestions for GEarth itself.

Scale Bar Problem: At the moment if you click

View > Scale legend

you get a scale bar in the bottom left corner of GEarth. It isn't very usable as it works in the same space as the tour controller. Also, as you zoom in or out the bar itself stays static and just the measure of the distance changes. This doesn't work very well as users can't gauge what 3/4 of 772.1m is quickly.

My Solution: It would be a lot better if the bar itself changed size and the numbers stayed round until a new number was needed. So zooming from a scale where the scale bar initially showed 0 to 100m my idea would be to have the bar gradually expanding until it reaches a critical width at which point the bar snaps back to half its width and the scale numbers now read 0 to 200m.

Grid: Selecting

View > Grid

pulls up a grid of thin white lines that dynamically change as you zoom in and out. Ironically, its a lot like the solution I suggested for the scale bar above but in this case, I don't think it works as its all over the screen and is too visually busy. Better to Allow the user to choose to have a grid of a fixed width visible which has smallish crosses at intersections rather than having a complete grid. This would help with orientation and memory. If you're interested in reading further about landmarks in Virtual Worlds and Virtual Reality I can recomend this paper .

If you have your own suggestions as to how to improve GEarth, Google would like to hear from you. I've added my vote on the above topics...