Digital Education Case Study


The embodied learning team (herein: Education) is based at the London Knowledge Lab (LKL), Institute of Education. It conducts social research on concepts of embodiment and embodied interaction in contemporary digital learning environments, including school and museum contexts. The emphasis is on how digital technologies enable embodied interaction and support new ways of learning. The project team is interdisciplinary bringing together methods from sociology, psychology and embodied cognition. The team has conducted a range of studies using different digital technologies examine their role in shaping embodied forms of interaction. It is focused on both empirical work, and methodological and theoretical development. The team contributes to research methods training at LKL, including the MA in Education and Technology at LKL, Doctoral and Postdoctoral training.

Key case study participants include: a Professor, a Reader, and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow.

Research and Methods in Digital Education

The Education CS has a strong ethos of methodological exploration towards the development of new methods for undertaking empirical work on embodiment that brings together cognition, materiality, action, and meaning. It is engaged in informing learning and HCI design, as well as the theorizing of embodied forms of learning interactions in digital environments.

Case Study Theory Method
Education Multimodality
Embodied cognition
Physicality and Bodily interaction
Learning and education theories
Naturalistic observation
Video recording/analysis
Quasi-experimental interventions/ studies
Interviews & focus groups
Table 1: Summary of the main theories and methods observed in the digital Education case study

The case study site draws on interpretative epistemology, that is it assumes a socially constructed reality that is never fully objective or un-problematically knowable and to a lesser extent it is informed by a critical approach to technologies and the social order in which they are experienced.

This site primarily uses a qualitative research perspective and is influenced by theories and methods in communication, and education to foreground embodied interaction, notably combining an embodied cognition approach, interactional approach, and multimodality in the context of educational theories and concepts. The focus on technology means that it also connects with methods and ideas from HCI, and sets out to inform technological design practices. The research centers on empirical in-situ observational studies, in which establishing an overarching research question grounded in the context is key. The work of the team is focused around a series of studies spanning 6-12 month periods. Each study is planned, with respect to recruiting and consenting participants, learning activity design with digital technologies, video camera positions, protocols for observations and field notes, focusing questions if interviewing participants. That is, there is a strong research design for each study, with a clear framework from the outset. This is refined as the project evolves, and the research questions are shaped through the iterative relationship between the research literature and the data.

The methods are naturalistic, and focus on observational methods to examine situated embodied interaction at a micro-level focused on different aspects of the body: gaze, gesture, hand manipulation, body posture, movement, and so on. There is a strong focus on exploring and explaining how a particular technology affects bodily interaction, learning and meaning making through taxonomies and frameworks.

Group data sessions and collaborative team discussion is a significant feature of this site, and key to the analytical phase in relation to determining the analytical direction of the research. This requires a sense of the whole episode of interaction with a focus on the digital environment and the participants’ actions, as well as telescoping in on specific episodes of interaction for micro analysis.

At the beginning of a video analysis session based on thematic analysis, the researchers discuss the approach of identifying themes: R1 pauses the video and asks ‘What is our intention?’ R2 says, ‘I was expecting to do an open look and see what kind of things might be interesting in the data’. They watch the first video, while annotating down ideas on their notebooks. After watching the different videos of children interacting with an installation in a museum, they brainstorm potential themes, and share ideas that they have noted during the viewing. These include: child interaction, adult interaction, adult-child interaction, child-child interaction, floor-wall & intentionality vs coincidence, mapping design, floor-wall touching space. Through their discussion, with reference to the literature, they identify emerging themes for further analysis. [Fieldnote excerpt]

There is an emphasis on being objective, systematic and rigorous and recording the research processes and findings are verified through collaborative analysis.

The importance of objectivity and distance was discussed among the team, notably in relation to the data collection practices – how to capture the context and environment, with a focus on full body interaction as well as capturing the detail of movement, talk, facial expression, gaze, attention to differences in the types of interaction and the digital installation, to ensure the possibility of a return to the linking between the body and the digital. At the museum setting up the cameras they got a step ladder and mounted the camera high on the installation, then they decided to use iPads instead of the video camera as it was ‘less obtrusive’ for the families, [Fieldnote excerpt]

The presence of the researcher’s body (and its proxies – e.g. video cameras) was considered problematic and much was done to remove or lessen it (and cameras).

There were clear tensions between the need for rigor and interpretation in the context of methodological innovation. For example, there was discussion about whether there is intentionality or not during play in a digital environment (whole-body interaction exhibit in a museum), and whether there is an end goal in mind or not:

For one researcher, “from the play perspective there is not play if there is not an end goal”
while for another, “but that’s only an end goal in terms of their intentionality” as she explain her skeptical view about whether they have any intentionality when interacting with the exhibit, as they don’t know what are they going to produce. The third member of the team says, “we don’t know that they are experiencing that [end goal] in that context in the same ways they would think about colouring in on paper”. The team discusses how their interpretations are influenced by their training and perspectives and what is meant by a goal or intention and how this is ‘a complex world in education, and can make it quite difficult sometimes, as the analysis is more about interpretation, how we interpret and interact with things [Fieldnote]

The limitations of the interpretation of data were also seen to connect to what the video camera make available to see, and how it can shape interpretation. This became a question and focus within the methodological aspects of the study: that is how to work with complex data sets including re-enactment, video prompted interviews, focus group data, and photographic data, to support the use of video for social research. This case study places a high value on the explicit articulation of research methods and processes.

Digital Body in Education

The body is very central to what we are doing. It is core. The work involves looking at the body in various kinds of ways. I think digital technologies have changed the nature of interaction very recently. Moving away from the desktop, has made it more possible to engage with your body differently through digital technology. That is the starting point of the work. Looking at how digital technologies like mobiles or tangible technologies changes the way that you physically interact and engage either with the technology or the world or both together. And what we are looking at is to try and understand better what role that plays in learning or meaning-making. [Fieldnote]

Case Study Digital Body
Education Digital technologies as shaping interaction
Mobile, Tangible and Whole body sensor technologies
Body as a material semiotic resource
Body conceptualized in terms of gaze, gesture expression, movement
Table 2: Summary of key digital technologies and concepts of body observed in digital Education case study

Meaning-making is a key term in this site. It is related to the notion of reading the body – interpreting physical interaction – and understanding its contribution to meaning-making, which the team connect to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the body as the ‘hub of all meaning-making’ (Fieldnote excerpt). The body is conceptualized within an education context, using perspectives from multimodality, social semiotics, embodied cognition, embodied interaction, educational theories and HCI. The body is conceptualized in terms of gaze, facial expression, movement, gestures, and bodily actions and observed as a means for understanding the communicative and cognitive aspects of learning as mediated by technologies. The observed projects range from tangible interaction (hands-on manipulation), to whole-body interaction, to mobile interaction in school and museum contexts. The discourses that the body is embedded in circulate around the idea of being able to read meaning making from the body as a material semiotic resource that has been socially shaped over time, the body as a sign of affect, the body as relating to space and time.

The team is interested in bodily interactions with new technologies in education for understanding the role of the body. The technologies featured in this project range from mobile technologies, to tangible user interfaces, to whole-body interaction interfaces. The researchers study existing digital technologies and how they mediate interaction in specific contexts, rather than make or develop in house technologies. There is a systematic focus on developing research methods in the context of embodied interaction in digital environments. Technologies are seen as re-mediated interaction, talked about as a magnifying lens on bodily interaction, as environments, and there is a focus on the tensions and the trajectories between the physical and the digital.

‘Digital technologies have changed the nature of how we interact with one another, the environment and technologies themselves, bringing new and interesting ways of thinking about the body. Collectively this raises challenges for research: theoretically in terms of how the body is conceptualised; practically in terms of shaping bodily interaction; and methodologically in terms of data collection and analysis. (Excerpt from training information)

The team experiences a number of challenges in relation to studying emerging digital technologies: the desire to study devices that are often not commonly in situ or generally being used for learning can lead to studies being necessarily ‘un-naturalistic’ or the need to be lab based; users may not be familiar with the technology and require familiarization or training which can be problematic in terms of research vs intervention; and the research may be constrained by the availability of devices or software, time, resources and programming skills. The team took a pragmatic approach to these problems.

The body is understood in this site holistically, with no split between mind and body, with the body situated in space and time, however the body is fragmented analytically into communicative modes that map to body parts (eyes, hands, torso). The distinction between the physical and the virtual/digital, and their impact on bodily interaction, is a topic of research within this context, but the boundaries between them are not seen as distinct – the digital is seen as part of the physical world and vice versa. Physical-digital trajectories were not a feature of the Education CS, rather the digital and body were seen as embedded in real time interaction. There is a process of amalgamation or collaboration between the physical and the digital in space and time, rather than trajectories/crossings.

The Education case study sees the sensory as related to bodily interaction in digital environments, dependent on the type of technology and how it relates to the senses.

‘The sensory is foregrounded differently depending on the technologies and the activities that is used for: in the tangible study touch, manipulation, texture and feeling of things is really important; in the whole-body interaction study, it was mostly visual, aural, and kinaesthetic but not tactile.’ Fieldnote.

Touch in the context of touch screens, tangible technologies for learning science, and work on digital exhibits in museums has become an important aspect of the teams work on embodiment and the sensory aspects of audio-visual and kinaesthetic embodied interaction have been explored to some extent in the project. The focus on the body is related primarily to communication and interpretation: ‘They talk about the body as a dynamic moving thing, which connects people, spaces, artefacts – and gives insight into/connects with/produces thought processes’ [fieldnote, excerpt]. The work has focused on how the body is implicated in a range of learning experiences, including in-situ history learning using mobile devices, with a focus on bodily affect and emotional engagement and how this can be explored through an analytical focus on the body. The importance of space and place for understanding embodied learning is also a feature of this work: notably how the body and space are mutually shaped through context. Along with the substantive questions that focus the idea of the body in this study there are a wide range of methodological challenges related to how the body is considered, including the development and the research consequences of different taxonomies of the body and the need to develop ways of talking about the body for social research.

Recommended Readings

Anderson, M. (2005) Embodied Cognition: A field guide. Artificial Intelligence, 149, pp.91-130.

Antle, A. N. (2009). Embodied child computer interaction: why embodiment matters. Interactions, (April), 27–30.

Dourish, P. (2001) Where The Action Is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction. The MIT Press.

Goodwin, C. (2000). Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, (32),1489–1522.

Holland, S., Wilkie, K., Bouwer, A., M., D. & Mulholland, P. (2011) Whole Body Interaction in Abstract Domains. In England, D. (Ed., Whole Body Interaction. London, Springer Verlag.

Larssen, A. T., Robertson, T., & Edwards, J. (2006). How it feels, not just how it looks: When bodies interact with technology. In OZCHI (pp. 329–332). Sydney.

Marshall, P., & Eva Hornecker. (2013). Theories of Embodiment in HCI. In S. Price, C. Jewitt, & B. Brown (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

Price, S. & Jewitt, C. (2013). A multimodal approach to examining embodiment in tangible learning environments. In Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (TEI’13), 43-50, Barcelona.

Price, S., Roussos, G., Pontual Falcao, T. & Sheridan, J. G. (2009) Technology and Embodiment: relationships and implications for knowledge, creativity and communication. Beyond Current Horizons: technology, children, schools and families.

Rowlands, M. (2010) The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. The MIT Press.

Varela, F., Thompson, E. and Rosch, E. (1991) The embodied mind. Cognitive science and human experience. Boston, The MIT Press.

Wilson, D. and Golonka, S. (2013) Embodied cognition is not what you think it is. Frontiers in Psychology, 58(4).

Wilson, M. (2002) Six views of embodied cognition. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 9 (4), 625-636.