Psychology Virtual Learning Case Study


The Cognition, Genes and Developmental Variability Lab is a research group within the Psychology and Human Development Department at the Institute of Education. Their work is focused on cognitive development in neurodevelopmental disorder groups, and visuo-spatial cognition. The group has a history of using virtual learning technologies to support their research studies. The group leader, a Reader in Developmental Psychology leads the MSc in Child Development, which aims to deepen knowledge of child development and developmental psychology; take an informed, critical approach to developmental psychology; and provide high-quality education in the main theories, methods, and findings of psychological research. There is a strong focus on understanding shared key psychological theories within the group. The group facilitates a series of discussion and reading groups for postgraduate students.

Key case study participants included: a Reader in Developmental Psychology, a post-doctoral fellow, and a PhD student.

Research and methods in Psychology Virtual Learning

The purpose of the group’s research is to clarify concepts related to individuals’ cognitive understanding of physical space, in order to understand how people with the neurological disorder Williams Syndrome (WS) (learn to) navigate the physical world. Individuals with WS characteristically show impaired visuo-spatial skills, including their difficulty in learning how to navigate around environments. In this context, the focus is on the different ways of perceiving the environment and learning your way within environments.

Research in this site is a structured process guided by principles in the discipline of Psychology, particularly Cognitive (Experimental) Psychology. The theoretical base for the work is informed by theories of development, neuro-developmental disorders and visual –spatial strategies.

The Psychology CS is rooted in a Positivist position: it assumes an external objective reality that can be reliably measured and generalized to understand behavior.

Case Study Theory Method
Psychology Cognitive psychology
Theories of development, neurodevelopmental disorders, visual-spatial strategies
Quantitative Experimental methods –
Interventions, observations & standardized measurements
Statistical analysis
Table 1: Summary of the main theories and methods observed in the Psychology Virtual Learning case study

The group’s work is based on asking a research question, which has a limited numbers of variables in order to get a useful answer. A study is then designed where a number of conditions of those variables are manipulated (cognitive manipulations). Then statistics are used to look for any significant differences between conditions of the variables. The focus is on regimented designs that allow questions to be asked in a highly controlled manner. The research necessarily involves working with specific groups of human participants, engaging them in different intervention tasks to examine a particular research question, and administering a variety of measurement tests both before and after intervention. In this context there are specific variables being manipulated, with identified dependent and independent variables. This approach is typical of experimental psychology research, and requires attention to the design of the experimental set up as well as to the choice of and design of any measurement instruments used and the interventions themselves. The research therefore engages with concepts of comparison through testing within particular methodological boundaries.

It draws on a distinct set of established methods (see Table 1) that were made explicit throughout all aspects of the research process, a transparency viewed as essential for the evaluation and interpretation of the research findings. Observation techniques, psychometrics, and interviewing are the main data collection methods.

An experimental approach is at the heart of the process. Psychological measurement /testing is used as a core part of the research data collected. It forms the basis for showing within and between subject differences e.g. differences in performance before and after the intervention, and differences across subject performance. Examples of psychological measurements used in this case study include visual tests, numerical tests and spatial tests.

Meet the child and mother in lobby. Walk to the purpose built space consists of a suite of interconnected rooms; the potential to video record participant sessions using in-built equipment; and a glass screened observation deck above the main participant room. Only two of the rooms are used in this case study: one for conducting the experiment, and the other for observing the test without being seen. These rooms are connected with a two-way mirror to enable ‘hidden’ observation of participant activity from one room. The tests are implemented prior to the participant engaging with the intervention, as a pre-test measure. Three people sit around an oblong table. The researcher sits opposite the participant, with another assistant researcher sitting adjacent taking notes of the results. For each participant of the study, the researcher measures problem solving capacity and fluid intelligence – testing the visual and numerical abilities of the participant. The tests make use of paper media with images/ shapes; and verbal tasks i.e. repeat the spoken numbers – no use of the digital.(fieldnote, excerpt)

This test phase is followed by interaction with the virtual environment. The design of the virtual environments used for these interventions is seen as an aspect of the experimental design, in that the features of the environment need contribute to the study variables. This methodological process as a whole is dependent on or requires significant planning, and clear mapping from theory to method to research outcome: “Regimented designs that allow us to ask questions in a very controlled way” (Reader interview). The process then involves a series of single-user controlled experiments, within a series of experiments that are designed iteratively (pilot studies to studies), with the same format being undertaken with a number of different participants before analysis and results can be obtained. The studies observed during MIDAS are described in the following field-note excerpts:

The tests take place in the room with a laptop computer on a desk. The hardware is a desktop computer, with mouse, trackpad or joystick. The researcher sits next to the participant, and the computer is located in-between the two. She shows him how the system works, she gives frequent positive feedback, says “Very good indeed”, “Try again!”. The researcher chooses the activity – a series of maze tasks. She gives instructions of how to go through maze – to follow grass path within plain stone walls. She only speaks to give instructions/ help when the participant reaches a dead end.The participant performs each task. After finishing a subtask, researcher goes back to a menu with the script of the set of activities. [This menu screen facilitates researcher to move from task to task sequentially]. The participant’s mother watches through the two way mirror from another room. During the participant’s performance, the researcher takes notes, she counts how many errors are performed by the participant + trial number (may be compared/contrasted with log files later ). Repeated trials with software are undertaken – 6 in total with different types of paths, the use of landmarks, etc. Research participants engage in minimal gross body movement, but are physically engaging through some finer motor skills, specifically through the hands e.g. finger clicks on the keyboard to navigate through the 3D world of mazes.

The analytical approach used by the research team is primarily quantitative, as is usual for experimental research. The video data, of 72 participants in total, is used to plot the route of the participant and compare it with the real map of the maze to understand better what the participant did. This data is reduced to generate numerical data that is then plotted using SPSS and subjected to statistical tests, such as ANOVA, and Bonferroni correction. Statistical results are complemented with excel sheets, plots and tabular data that are used to support group discussion and interpretation of the data collected. The analysis is informed by group discussion and research supervision meetings:

In this meeting – student and supervisor – the student brings some early results, and some questions. During the meeting, a computer is used to show these results, and the supervisor suggests possible statistical tests to run with the data, and also possible answers to the student’s doubts, the participant errors are discussed, with ideas on patterns explored by reviewing the plots, visualisations of the data and student notes.

A clear set of methods is used that are drawn from a coherent defined field of psychology, these methods are stable, that is they have a long history of use within the group, the department, and the discipline as a whole, and are strongly embedded in the history and roots of psychological theory. Methodological innovation is not of high importance in this research context.

Researcher bias, or influence is seen as a key aspect that needs to be controlled. There is a strong focus on objectivity, and the researcher position is one of a distant observer, with considerable effort in the design of the research to minimize researcher disturbance including the use of discreet wall mounted cameras, and two-way mirror environments.

Digital Body in Psychology Virtual Learning

The case study is focused on cognitive theories of mind. The body is implicit in the context of a focus on the cognitive strategies (the internal, perception, mental mechanisms) people use to navigate (virtual) space. A clear division between the cognitive/mind and the body is established. The physical body is not seen as integral to the research, rather the perception of physical space.

Case Study Digital Body
Psychology Digital a research tool
Virtual environments on desktop computers with mouse-based interaction
Bodily navigation
Table 2: Summary of key digital technologies and concepts of body observed in digital Psychology Virtual Learning case study

The virtual-digital environment used to support the research is rationalized primarily in relation to the health and safety challenges of exploring the research participants’ way finding in physical settings. The digital is seen as a tool for mediating participant experiences that are critical to the research domain. In this respect it is of central importance and goes hand in hand with the conceptual ideas being explored. The research interventions are orchestrated through a virtual environment, which has been designed for desktop computers using mouse-based interaction. The primary environment used is based on a metaphor of mazes in the virtual environment as the representation of a space through which participants can navigate through the use of mouse/keyboard interaction. The virtual world has a specific and defined role in the research as a whole and participants have set tasks to achieve in the VE. The focus is on designing an entirely stable and replicable virtual environment: design creativity and originality are thus problematic in this research context.

While physical-digital crossings are implied in the case study, no distinction is made between navigation in the virtual/physical world. The VE is talked of as being the same as the physical world. No difference is seen between the virtual and the physical in relation to the cognitive strategies used. The ‘body’ is not visualized as an avatar in the virtual environments observed during the case studies, though in some studies it has been. In the process of researching perception and cognitive strategies in spatial (virtual) landscapes the body it is not seen as necessary to recognize or to explore the body as a physical entity in this context.

The researcher plots the paths participants’ have taken during the experimental task – she is looking for any patterns of interaction or patterns of navigation strategies. She plots the route of a participant and compares it with the 2D layout map environment of the maze to understand better the data – what the participant actually did. The body is made visible through its navigation in the virtual space. The movement of the body in this space is talked about as indicative of how participants perceive the space in order to navigate effectively, and is indicative of particular strategies that they might use in order to understand the space they are in. (fieldnote excerpt)

While the research participants’ bodies are involved in their navigation of the virtual environment using a mouse, keyboard or joystick and implied in the discussion of their pathways and routes: the body is not ‘formally’ present in the data set or the analysis. The research interventions take place entirely in the virtual environment. The research findings are related directly to the physical world – the crossing is naturalized and presented as unproblematic. The digital is perceived as offering a number of advantages for the participants:

“The beauty of digital is that you can manipulate it in a way that you can’t in the real world. So if you need parallel environments you can make sure you’ve got the same number of landmarks with the same visual salience in the same categories of positions” (Reader interview). This highlights the importance of standardization in the design of the research, and the importance of the digital in enabling more “control over the variables you’re interested in”. She says it also allows for many more trials per participant, because they don’t get as physically tired as they do walking around a 1km route. The time for each trial is also significantly different – 2 minutes in the VR and 30 minutes in the physical world. She says the VE is also good for managing issues of participant safety, fatigue etc.. in walking/going around an environment. (fieldnote excerpt)

Manipulation, time and control are key important factors that the digital offers to the experimental environment and research area and it is responsive to the importance of control and standardization in the design of the research.

Terminologies related to the body that are used in the case study are directly related to different ways of perceiving the environment: either from within your own body where everything you perceive around you is in relation to you (termed egocentric or self-to-object spatial relations); or perceived from outside the body where the environment is seen as some kind of layout (termed allocentric or object-to-object spatial relations).

There is no zone of the body in view: the body is limited and not integral. However, the hand, finger, mouse, keyboard, clicks and traces of body in space (spatial navigation, maze, visual-spatial, geographic, layout, route) are implicit in the research. The body is, through the research process, abstracted as numerical values, and movement points.

Another key aspect of this research is that the environment only really enables the researchers to talk about the subjects’ sense of vision – since the VE doesn’t tap into any other senses.

During the discussion they note that in the VE environment there is much less peripheral information, (kinaesthetic feedback, proprioception, audio or smell). The limitations were talked of in terms of not enabling e.g. audio, because participants would not usefully be able to tell the distance from position/ object/ sound, since audio is emitted from a 2D environment and not using, for example, surround sound. In addition, the VE isn’t seen to have all the distractions that a real world environment has. (fieldnote excerpt)

The landmarks within the VE (lampposts, signs etc.) are therefore important in enabling participants to have visual cues. If there were no visual cues, then in order to do the task participants would have to memorize left right turns, which would not say anything about how they navigate the ‘environmental space’. Furthermore, particular kinds of landmarks are more useful for navigation than others – so the visual design of the landmarks is key. The sensory and material aspects of bodily interaction are removed interaction in the virtual environment.

An off-site external designer creates the VE, and none of the team has digital expertise, design or programing skills. As the digital design is not embedded directly in the theoretical knowledge of psychology and the research project, this makes it difficult at times for the research team to control the design aesthetics and architectural correctness or to drive the design of the VE in ways required by the study:

The two researchers are in the office, looking at the VE environment and discussing what the designer needs to do, they are discussing particular parts of the maze environment they are talking about, and pointing at the screen, the suitability of working with buildings with landmarks, they are concerned about the implication of buildings having different heights and the salience that certain features have in the design, and that this is not appropriate for the experiment. This includes the number of pathways, the types, number and design of peripheral cues, and decisions about whether and when to include such cues. They are discussing decisions about changes they want are done, while navigating through the virtual mazes themselves.

This indicates the importance of the iterative software design being directly connected to research in psychology, and the specific psychological theories being used. In this context it is important that the developer designs according to the requirements of the experiment. The design is primarily guided by theoretical and practical aspects in the field, that are important in engaging participants and researchers in activities that relate directly to the experimental design. Engaging with a designer in this context raises a number of tensions that sit around the concept of interdisciplinary work and how this needs to play out differently in different settings to be effective. Firstly, it requires the designer to have a good understanding of the aims of the research study and the related design requirements. Yet typically designers do not have a Psychology background, highlighting the need for very specific design instructions to ensure that it is offering a ‘controlled’ environment in the context of the study. Secondly, and relatedly, it sits in contrast with VR designs that rely equally on the designers /developers design expertise that is commonly driven by the desire to create aesthetically pleasing, architecturally right, realistic and user friendly environments. This can create tensions where requirements based on specific needs for psychological testing may not sit comfortably with design approaches that are grounded in other disciplines – in this case engineering, where the aesthetics and architectural correctness are central to driving the ‘look’ and ‘feel’ of the VE. In the context of developing future research studies, the option of using Kinect or Viacon technologies was discussed given its affordable price, and presumably its affordances for interaction.

At the end of one meeting, the group have an informal conversation about the possibility of running the same study with 2 and 3D environments: one with this built-in 3D environment [Virtools], and another with Vizard, and looking at how the results differ. One hypothesis is that the ‘perspective’ is wider with the built-in tool, and highlights the different constraints and affordances that technology brings.

However, such choices need to be further researched for suitability for the task, which again is complex as experience and knowledge of different digital technologies was acknowledged to be low and raises new considerations for research design.

Contribution to Researching Embodiment

Body Zones have a key role in maintaining disciplinary boundaries and supporting analytical processes. The psychology case study establishes a complete mind – body split in the research designs that the team uses and their theoretical approach. The physical body is not seen as integral to the research, and there is no zone of the body in view. The hand, finger, mouse, keyboard, clicks and traces of body in space (spatial navigation, maze, visual-spatial, geographic, layout, route) are implicit in the research and while providing the numerical data for the research conducted in this site they are not the object of the studies. Here bodily interaction with the computer is a means for data collection, but the body is not considered essential to navigation. Navigation becomes a disembodied phenomenon. The body is abstracted as numerical values related to the way-finding body in virtual space, with points and routes, the use of signs etc., reproduced as a set of scores. This case study raised questions about how the mind and body are conceptualized – what is the body in this context, the boundaries placed between them, and the attention given to mind and body via the research processes. These questions are central to how the body features in research, and its place as a research tool, a site of research, or a problem space to be interrogated.

The digital in this case study is also seen as a tool for mediating participant experiences that are critical to the research domain. The virtual world (digital) has a specific and defined role in the research as a whole. Physical-digital crossings are implied in this case study: although no distinction is made between navigation in the virtual/physical world, and the research interventions take place entirely in the virtual environment. The research findings are related directly to the physical world – the crossing is naturalized and presented as unproblematic. The case study uses a virtual environment to explore cognitive strategies for navigation. The ways in which the physical and the digital or the physical-digital is thought of are significant for the collection and interpretation of data. This case study could move to the physical environment to verify the strategies of the research participants, for example. Rationales for not doing so are related to method (i.e. intervention and variable control), and ethics (i.e. the impact on research participants, and health and safety concerns). The benefit would be to examine how way finding in real world conditions, is supported by a range of sensory modes including audio, olfactory, or kinesthetic. Layering these two approaches in a research trajectory that encompasses the virtual-digital and the physical would provide a richer sense of cognitive strategies.

The case study is not concerned with the sensory aspects of bodily interaction in the virtual environment, which enables them to talk about vision in relation to visual landmarks in the environment. Experience of the world is built from the sensory overlap from all our bodily senses, suggesting social science’s limited attention to the sensory fails to account for significant aspects of embodied experience. Although the Psychology case study, for example, investigates navigation using the sense of vision with extreme rigor, it could be argued that this is a scenario that is not applicable to the physical world. HCI exploration of sensory interactions with social and mobile technologies makes it increasingly impossible to isolate authentic controlled environments and the impact of multi-sensory interactions on perception.

Recommended Readings

Broadbent, H., Farran, E., & Tolmie, A. (2014). Egocentric and allocentric navigation strategies in Williams Syndrome and typical development. Developmental Science, 1467-7687.

Broadbent, H. J., Farran, E. K., & Tolmie, A. (in press). Object-based mental rotation and visual perspective-taking in typical development and Williams syndrome. Developmental Neuropsychology, 39(3):205-25.

Courbois, Y., Farran, E.K., Lemahieu, A., Blades, B., Mengue-Topio, H., Sockeel, P. (2013). Wayfinding behaviour in Down Syndrome: A study with virtual environments. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 34, 1825-1831.

Courbois, Y., Blades, M., Farran, E.K., Sockeel, P. (2012). Do individuals with intellectual disability select appropriate objects as landmarks when learning a route? Journal of Intellectual Disability Research. 57(1):80-9.

Farran, E.K., Courbois, Y., Van Herwegen, J., Blades, M. (2012). How useful are landmarks when learning a route in a virtual environment? Evidence from typical development and Williams syndrome. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 111, 571-586.

Farran, E.K., Blades, M., Boucher, J. & Tranter, L.J. (2010). How do Individuals with Williams Syndrome Learn a Route in a Real World Environment? Developmental Science, 13, 454-468.

Jarrold, C., & Brock, J. (2004). To match or not to match? Methodological issues in autism-related research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34, 81-86.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1998). Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends in Cognitive neuroscience, 2, 389-398.

Kitchin, R., & Blades, M. (2001). The Cognition of Geographic Space (International Library of Human Geography). I.B.Tauris.

Landau, B., & James E. Hoffman. (2012). Spatial representation: from gene to mind . OUP USA.Mengue-Topio, H. Courbois, Y., Farran, E.K., Sockeel, P. (2011). Route learning and shortcut performance in adults with intellectual disability: A study with virtual environments. Research in developmental disabilities, 32, 345-352.

Purser, H., Farran, E.K., Courbois, Y., Lemahieu, A., Sockeel, P., Blades, M. (2012). Short-term memory, executive control, and children’s route learning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 113, 273-285.

Thomas, M. S. C., Annaz, D., Ansari, D., Scerif, G., Jarrold, C., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2009). Using developmental trajectories to understand genetic disorders. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52, 336-358.

Van Herwegen, J., Formby, S., Holmes, T., Daniyal, F., & Farran, E. K. (2013). Landmark knowledge and route-learning strategies in Williams syndrome: evidence from eye-tracking. Poster presented at British Psychological Society Developmental Section Annual Conference, Reading, September, 2013.