Dr Colin Ryan is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology and
Sociology at James Cook University of North Queensland
Human sensation and perception is a joy to teach! It's chock-full of enough curiosities, paradoxes, movement, illusions, colour, surprises and just plain wonder to beguile even the most world-weary and obsidian-eyed of post-Dawkins students. So much for the good news.
Demonstrating many of the key concepts and perceptual phenomena is often a logistical nightmare for both teachers and the technical staff. In these quality-assured times, it becomes progressively more difficult to justify four hour's work to mount a two minute demonstration, whatever its pedagogical merit.
So, while sensation and perception's message is inherently fascinating and entertaining, getting it across in the classroom and laboratory can be often unacceptably expensive in terms of time and physical and technical resources -- particularly in newer departments without generations of accreted teaching-aid infrastructure in place. Worse still, the opportunity for individual, hands-on, student exploration has been very nearly zero in all but the best-equipped departments.
And these problems multiply as the discipline becomes more sophisticated and complex. It takes a great deal of energetic arm-waving, for instance, to get Fourier analysis of spatial patterns across to students, or to convincingly integrate trichromatic and opponent process theories of colour vision with chalk and talk. Yet modelling demonstrations of these phenomena in the classroom can be tricky and prohibitively resource-intensive.
And the textbook publishers -- as I used to remind them relentlessly -- hadn't been much help. I made the mistake of complaining to a visionary acquisitions editor who cared and -- two years of intolerable workload later -- Exploring Perception is the consequence.
Targeted at advanced undergraduates, Exploring Perception allows for real-time exploration of almost 300 key concepts in psychophysics; colour vision; shape, movement and space perception; sensory physiology; perceptual constancy, development and adaptation; and size, distance, lightness, form, pattern and contrast perception. The package has a modular structure. Stand-alone investigative interactions can be tackled in any sequence. We tried to avoid the usual linear, cumulative, `talking-book' approach to educational multimedia and narrow `author-as-guru' didacticism in favour of go-anywhere, click-tinker-monitor-tune-tinker exploration.
Unlike much interactive multimedia -- where the interaction is in the spaces between the learning experiences and consists of little more than program management and control of information flow -- each element of the package is designed to be highly engaging and activity-oriented. Each interaction allows students to investigate the consequences of tuning key variables using a variety of on-screen tools. On-screen text is kept to an absolute minimum.
Students can explore, for instance, the coding of colour by the visual system by tracking the activity levels in various photoreceptors as they sweep a cursor across the colour spectrum. In the same way, they can run a simple psychophysical experiment to determine their difference threshold for size judgments; quantify visual illusions under a variety of conditions; or monitor simulated cortical simple cell firing rates as they vary the orientation of a visual stimulus.
So, each screen requires the student to interactively tune key physical variables while monitoring system outcomes and/or perceptual consequences. This might involve simply sliding a cursor to vary the saturation of the colours of a butterfly; monitoring the firing rate of simulated opponent cells in the visual system while changing the wavelength of illuminating light; or exploring how the world looks to a deuteranope. The emphasis is on independent exploration, prediction, investigation and discovery. Topics covered include:
Exploring Perception provides instructors with a friendly custom lecture-making environment, where a sequence of demonstrations can be planned in advance (just click) and run automatically in class. An on-board electronic glossary and tour/tutorial are provided, together with detailed click-and-check references to the six best-selling international sensation and perception texts. A tightly-focussed quiz is integrated with each interaction, guiding observation and providing a check on knowledge acquisition. The programme keeps track of the interactions successfully completed.
Arrangements are in place to market the CD-ROM in North America, Europe and Asia, both as a stand-alone package and as a complement of the new edition of Brooks/Cole's best-selling text Sensation and Perception by Bruce Goldstein.
|Putting it all together
Julie McNab of Melbourne publishers Thomas Nelson Australia, believed in the project, sensed the time was right, but knew that it would take a commitment from their ITP associate Brooks/Cole in the USA to be viable. Development costs would be high and, because the market was relatively small and specialised, world-wide distribution was imperative to commercial success. In California, Brooks/Cole's senior psychology editor Marianne Taflinger liked the concept well enough to back an academic she hadn't heard of, at a University she hadn't heard of, in a town she hadn't heard of, in a country that wasn't the USA. Courage indeed!
Eventually, a co-publication agreement was signed and near-meltdown ensued on the Internet! Scripts and concept designs were outlined in Townsville for exhaustive review by academics scattered across the USA; technical development was steered by Brooks/Cole's Multimedia Editor Bob Beede at UCS, and University of Pittsburgh perceptionist Bruce Goldstein; The project was coded in Melbourne by multimedia house, PMS; Brooks/Cole carried out final editing and voiceover production in Pacific Grove, California; and graphic design was supervised out of Thomas Nelson's Melbourne office by Tony Palmer. We are talking seriously complicated communications here! Had the Internet not existed, the project probably could not have happened.
PC requirements: Windowsreg. 3.1, 2 MB swap file, SVGA or compatible
video graphics card, virtual memory enabled, and sound card
A handbook with instructions and background notes on each interaction is included.
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