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Technology & Science

3D learning in a rich cooperative haptic environment

The overall aim of the 3D learning in a rich cooperative haptic environment project is to design, develop and evaluate a 3D virtual learning environment incorporating a haptic interface. This will enable students in secondary schools to explore and experiment in the tactile 3D world. The project will investigate the extent to which learning in such a rich cooperative 3D haptic environment supports learning of complex scientific concepts.

Haptics is the science of applying touch (tactile) sensation and control to interaction with computer applications.Thus haptic interfaces can enable students to directly manipulate virtual objects far more realistically than is possible through interfaces such as mouse and tracker ball.

The project started in October 2015 and is a three-year research project based on a partnership between the School of Education, Communication & Society at King's College London, the Cybernetics Intelligence Research Unit at Reading University, Abingdon School and the Abbey School Reading.


The overall aim of the project is to design, develop and evaluate a haptic-enabled 3D virtual learning environment that can support learning in secondary schools.

We are interested in how a 3-D environment incorporating haptic interfaces could provide learning affordances to enable better learning. Our research will focus on hands-on science education in which individuals or small groups of students manipulate the objects or materials they are studying. Because we can control the virtual world we can control the scale, which in science can range from the components of atoms to the dynamics of galaxies. Initially the work will focus on learning of cell structures, biology and processes and will build on current use of 3D technology under the 3D Learning programme at the Abingdon School in Oxford and the Abbey School Reading.

The objectives are to:

  1. establish configurations of the visual-haptic hardware to support learning.
  2. establish software tools and environments to represent a focused set of scientific concepts to secondary school students.
  3. explore possibilities for 3-D interaction methods that include two handed manipulations and multi- fingered haptics.
  4. compare the learning effects of haptic-enabled 3-D content, to an alternative windows-icons- menus-pointers (WIMPS) based interaction.
  5. compare the students' learning both in a formal classroom setting and in informal after-schools clubs and to evaluate this against current teaching practice.
  6. evaluate the potential for shared and collaborative learning.


The research

Allowing students to explore these worlds in a variety of ways is hypothesised to engage and motivate students. Futhermore the addition of haptic interfaces, with tactile and force feedback, to the visual experience of engaging with a 3 D virtual environment, may support learning. In particular students may find that they learn concepts, which have previously been difficult to learn, more easily, possibly because they are making use of an additional touch sensory channel in the brain. Therefore we intend to examine the development of their understanding while they are using the haptic-enabled environment.

In this endeavour, a number of educational and design challenges need to be addressed. First we need to identify the level of detail and realism that is appropriate for the school curriculum and will support learning and visualisation rather than confuse through its over-complexity or create misconceptions through oversimplification. Secondly we need to integrate the use of the 3-D environment into classroom teaching by identifying relevant pedagogical challenges and solutions. Significant design challenges include navigating the content and scale changes involved in moving between the visible, microscopic and nanoscale in an intuitive and realistic way and enabling collaborative learning.

Background to the work

In science education, hands-on practical work, in which individuals or small groups of students manipulate the objects or materials they are studying, has often been highly-valued by teachers as a pedagogical approach that motivates students and helps to develop their understanding. The benefits of practical work in science education include enhancing the learning of scientific knowledge, challenging students’ misconceptions of scientific ideas and processes, teaching laboratory skills, enabling insight into and expertise in scientific method and stimulating students' interest and increasing motivation to study science beyond school (Millar, 2010). In some areas of science a rich multisensory learning experience can be achieved using physical objects but many areas involve visualising structures and processes that cannot easily be observed directly, or for which cost or ethical considerations prove prohibitive.

It has long been recognised that the ability to visualise and to manipulate objects in the imagination is a crucial skill for learning science (see for example Tuckey & Selvaratnam, 1993) but this is not easily achieved through the 2-D representations and static 3-D models frequently used in science classrooms (Gilbert, 2005; Webb, 2008). Technology enhanced learning (TEL) can support the development of visualisation skills (Piburn et al., 2005), the learning of difficult concepts and enable hypothesis testing in areas of science learning where direct manipulation of real-world objects is not possible (Rutten, van Joolingen, & van der Veen, 2012; Webb, 2008 ). However Technology Enhanced Learning in science has mainly consisted of simulations, animations, modelling, measurement and control devices and online learning environments (Webb, 2008), where the interaction remains largely one of mouse clicks and windows menus, an interface method that is poorly-suited for 3D interactions (Gauldie et al. 2004).

Recently, the HapTEL project (Tse et al. 2010) has shown that advanced 3-D computer graphics together with haptic interfaces can simulate virtual environments that offer powerful and flexible opportunities for learning which include the development of manipulation skills required in the training of dental, medical and engineering students. Haptic interfaces are synonymous with the haptic sense, that is a sensory-motor interaction, possibly facilitated by a haptic device, that underlies natural interactions and helps to calibrate visual cues (Ernst & Banks 2002). Haptic technologies give the learner a sensation of kinaesthetic feedback in conjunction with auditory and visual sensory input while the learner is engaged in the cognitive processing necessary to learn a procedure. Core to this project is the hypothesis that this type of multimodal learning can be expected to increase the engagement in and understanding of the task at hand (Sankey, Birch, & Gardiner, 2012). Furthermore, while haptic feedback interactions between individual learners and technology have been shown to be beneficial for the development of skills (San Diego et al., 2012), our reviews and analysis of use of TEL in a range of situations have shown that increased understanding of complex structures and processes is likely to be achieved through interactions between students as they engage with the technology and learn collaboratively (Cox & Webb, 2004; Webb, 2008). Collaborative learning is known to have a positive impact on students' learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Stanne, 2000; Lee, Linn, Varma, & Liu, 2010) but productive interactions between students are not easily achieved (Barron, 2003; Chan, 2012) and appropriate learning situations are challenging to implement (Bell et al., 2009). Therefore another key element of our proposal is to examine ways in which haptic devices can be configured to encourage students to interact and collaborate while examining and manipulating simulated 3-D objects (Järvelä & Hadwin, 2013).

Haptic based TEL has been used in other areas of tertiary education and has demonstrated its potential in teaching fundamental science concepts including engineering control (Okamura et al. 2002) and molecule docking (Persson et al. 2007). There has been very limited uptake of haptic technologies in secondary education although Minogue and Jones (Minogue and Jones 2006) have a comprehensive review of the potential in this area.

Although haptic based TEL has yet to make an impact outside medical and surgical simulation - an oversight we propose to rectify - high quality virtual realities involving visual 3-D representations that can be observed and discussed, but not manipulated tactilely, have become embedded in the curriculum. For example, work by Macaulay and Bamford has demonstrated an educational benefit in visualising 3-D structures in biology ranging from cell structures to the cardiovascular system (Macaulay 2012, Bamford 2011). This work has now become an integral part of the science curriculum at Abbey School in Reading.


The main outcomes from the project will be haptic devices and virtual 3D environments that can be used by students for learning especially of difficult concepts in science. These will be accompanied by an evaluation of their value for learning as evidenced by the project findings and an analysis of the potential of such devices and environments for learning in a range of areas of school curriculum. The research seeks to encourage the haptics technology industry to consider the educational market by demonstrating that the technology will have a measurable and lasting impact on science education. Unless and until we can provide this solid educational evidence this market will be poorly served with unsubstantiated technologies.

Project status: Completed

Principal investigators


Mary Webb

Reader in IT in Education


  • Funding body: Leverhulme Trust
  • Amount: Undisclosed
  • Period: October 2015 - October 2018