Technology and embodiment: relationships and
implications for knowledge, creativity and
Sara Price, George Roussos, Taciana Pontual Falcão, Jennifer G.
London Knowledge Lab
With the emergence of mobile and ubiquitous technologies there has been increased
interest in exploring and thinking about the role of embodiment, and of particular
relevance here, embodied cognition and embodied interaction. This interest has been
accompanied by a rise in research that grounds ubiquitous technologies for learning in
concepts of embodiment. New technologies provide the opportunity for interaction and
learning to be more active, hands-on, directly related to physical contexts, new
opportunities for communication and collaboration promoting socially mediated learning,
and opportunities for new tools to be used as external cognitive support. Furthermore,
graphical interfaces are extending the capability for more complex interactions, sense of
presence and immersion that create a perception of embodiment in virtual
environments. It is probably not surprising therefore that a central trend towards
theorising about embodiment in both physical and virtual space is emerging, and a move
towards understanding how mobile and ubiquitous technologies can enable new „spaces‟
for learning experiences, that exploit embodied forms of interaction. In the context of
education these themes are relatively new, the research spectrum is broad – running
across formal and informal education, exploring new theories of learning (eg mobile
learning), exploiting the continually developing technology – and to some extent limited
in terms of understanding the relationship between technologies and embodiment for
learning. However, drawing on literature and research examples, we can begin to see
the current trends in the theoretical underpinning for embodied cognition and
interaction, and to map out new directions of research exploring ubiquitous and mobile
technologies for learning. Furthermore, we can begin to map current research findings
and theoretical thinking to explore what this might mean for knowledge production,
creativity and communication in education. This review is divided into three key sections
(embodiment, the intersection with technology, and empirical research applications). At
the end of each section we identify the key related opportunities, challenges, demands
and risks with respect to education. These are then drawn together and discussed in
terms of their implications for knowledge, creativity and communication in education.
The review begins by outlining current themes that form the theoretical underpinning of
embodied cognition and embodied interaction. This provides the basis for mapping the
ways in which ubiquitous and mobile technologies are being conceptualised in terms of
interaction, and the directions of research with particular respect to learning contexts.
The section begins by focussing on embodied cognition and draws on work from different
research disciplines including philosophy, psychology, human-computer interaction,
cognitive science and neuroscience. Here we outline the shifts in perspectives that have
taken place within each of these disciplines to understand where current thinking and
theorising about embodiment is seated. In so doing we see how concepts of embodiment
have emerged, not just from one or two perspectives, but across a broad range of
disciplines providing a powerful basis from which to think about society, technology and
education, and compelling grounds for changes in the ways we think about, and enable,
knowledge production, creativity and communication in education. Evidence from the
different theoretical perspectives are presented within some overarching themes, which
form the underpinning of theories of embodied cognition.
A further key concept to consider is „embodied interaction‟ which centres around “the
creation, manipulation and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with
artefacts” (Dourish, 2001). This concept has arisen in the context of tangible and social
computing and draws on phenomenological philosophy, particularly the work of
Heidegger and Wittgenstein. Tangible computing is based on tangible user interfaces
where a person interacts with digital information through the physical environment.
Social computing, on the other hand, describes the intersection of social behaviour and
computational systems and is most often associated with online communities such as
Facebook (facebook.com) and MySpace (myspace.com). Embodied interaction is not
restricted to tangible and social computing, nor is it restricted to interaction in the
physical world. As technologies move away from the desktops and into real world
environments or even inside our bodies, increasingly we see new fields and ultimately
new forms of embodied interaction emerging. The rise of graphical virtual spaces such as
Second Life [secondlife.com] provide channels for exploring embodied interaction with or
as an embodied agent – intelligent agents that interact with the environment through a
physical or virtual body within that environment. Embodied interaction, then, is a mix of
the virtual and physical, intangible and tangible, reality and fantasy, where new theories
of embodied interaction pair the physical, digital and social interface with the human
Section 3 presents an overview of the state of the art technologies, including key
development trends, and their relationship with interaction and employment. The aim of
this section is also to provide a brief introduction to the different technologies that form
the foundations of research applications discussed in section 4. As embodied interaction
with technologies is realised in many different ways a table is provided that outlines six
“hot” technology topics, identifying where interaction occurs, the characteristics of each
topic, and the particular focus of each topic. Then looking at each topic in more detail we
consider the developing trends over the last three years in different technology fields,
and how their underlying motivation can be traced to particular agendas. Again we use a
table to illustrate these relationships, together with examples.
Section 4 focuses on interaction and learning based research around these technologies.
This section is divided into 3 parts (i) Physical space: with technological innovations
through embedded and ubiquitous computing bringing interaction closer to the so-called
“real world” (Weiser et al, 1999), technology for learning is no longer only about the
computer screen, but about physical action, physical objects, schools spaces and real
world environments. This section explores how the different technologies have been
used in research applications within learning contexts, illustrating their effect on learning
activity, learning interaction and the relationship with embodiment (ii) Virtual space:
developments in graphical virtual spaces have opened the door to more complex
interactions in virtual worlds and computer gaming contexts. This section explores the
concept of embodiment in virtual space in more detail, and discusses the role of virtual
environments and computer games for learning contexts (iii) Intersection between
physical and virtual space: finally we discuss the intersection between the two, or mixed
reality, looking at interactive experiences which integrate physical and virtual spaces and
discuss issues of not only transcending real-world boundaries, but also merging
boundaries across physical and virtual space.
Finally, the discussion section draws together the themes presented, outlining the
opportunities for embodiment in today‟s climate of technology and society and its role in
thinking about learning. Two future scenarios for technology-based learning are outlined
along with the specific opportunities, challenges, demands and risks that they bring.
Finally, the key implications for education in terms of challenges, demands and risks are
discussed more specifically in terms of their implications for effectively supporting
knowledge, creativity and communication in education.
Keywords: technology, knowledge, creativity, communication, interaction
Embodiment in the context of this review centres around the notion that human
reasoning and behaviour is defined by our physical and social experience and interaction
with the world. Although concepts of embodiment are not new, current theoretical trends
are placing more importance on the role of embodiment in understanding human
behaviour. Several factors have contributed to this change, not least the emergence of
technologies that enable radically different forms of interaction with them and through
them, than traditional desktop computing. Ubiquitous computing technologies can be
integrated into the environment, in unobtrusive and „seamless‟ ways. This offers
opportunities to build on familiar real world „natural‟ interaction practices through various
forms of digital augmentation, eg enabling interaction with contextually coupled
information. New technologies also provide opportunities for interaction and learning to
be more active, hands-on, directly related to physical contexts, with new forms of
communication and collaboration promoting socially mediated learning, and new tools
that aid external cognitive support. Furthermore, graphical interface development
extends possibilities for more complex interaction, sense of presence and immersion or
embodiment in virtual environments, bringing new „spaces‟ for learning.
Psychologists and philosophers have long argued for the important role of sensori-motor
interaction with the world for cognitive development (Piaget, 1972; Vygostsky, 1978;
Clark and Chalmers, 1998), but with the growth of ubiquitous computing the possibility
for enhancing physical environments and physical interaction have brought discussions
around embodiment to the forefront, and driven forward research into understanding the
interaction between mind, body and the environment. Collectively, these views and
possibilities have wide-reaching implications for education, particularly in terms of the
potential for influencing the way we teach and learn, and how education may be
organised. At the heart of this it is important that we understand the underlying
rationale for emergent theories of embodiment (embodied cognition, embodied
interaction), how these intersect with technology development, the extent of research
investigating the role and potential roles of „technology for embodiment‟ in learning
settings, and the potential implications for education.
This review begins by outlining the current theoretical underpinning of embodied
cognition and embodied interaction, and the implications for knowledge, creativity and
communication in education. We then present an overview of state of the art
technologies, including key development trends, and their relationship with interaction
and use, followed by a review of interaction and learning based research around these
technologies, focusing on technologies embedded in physical learning spaces, virtual
environments including gaming, and mixed reality. The discussion draws on this work to
both theoretically and practically explore the potential impact of current trends and
developments on shaping the future for education, highlighting the key opportunities,
challenges and issues that emerge.
2.1 Embodied Cognition
The emergence of mobile and ubiquitous technologies has led to increased interest in
embodied cognition, and the grounding of ubiquitous technology use in concepts of
embodiment. Recent changes in thinking across a number of disciplines emphasise the
role of embodiment in cognition. In cognitive science there is a shift from viewing the
mind as separate from the body – where cognition is described in terms of abstract
mental processes, with an emphasis on symbolic reasoning and internal representation,
to one where the mind is intricately connected to sensori-motor experience, with greater
emphasis placed on interaction with the environment and real-world thinking (Anderson,
2005; Smith and Gasser, 2005). Work in artificial intelligence has moved from modelling
intelligent systems as agent-independent representations of the world to embodied
agents evolving through interaction with the environment (eg Almeida e Costa and
Rocha, 2005). In philosophy the move is away from Cartesian ideas where reason is
considered separate from the body, to cognitive functioning being an inter-dependent
relationship between mind, body and the environment, where the mind is extended into
the external world (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). In psychology there is a shift in focus
from the cognition of the individual to a situated, socio-cultural approach to cognition,
together with an understanding of the role of sensori-motor interaction in cognitive
development and cognitive functioning. Furthermore, recent work in neuroscience
provides supporting evidence for such links between sensori-motor and cognitive
The bases for current thinking on embodied cognition fall into two broad categories
(Garbarini et al, 2001): (i) the grounding of cognitive processes in neuro-anatomical and
biological processes, and (ii) the derivation of cognitive processes from sensori-motor (or
physical) experience, which is embedded in the psychological and cultural context
(Varela et al, 1991). Neuroscientific research shows evidence for direct links between
action and perception at the neural level (eg Gallese, 2000; Kohler et al, 2002, cited in
Garbarini, 2001). The discovery of mirror and canonical neurons provides evidence for
the direct perceptual coupling between object shape and object function, and neural
system activation shows a “relationship between control of action and representation of
action” (Gabarini and Adenzato, 2004 p103). This suggests that representation is closely
linked to action, and is constructed through dynamic interaction with the environment. It
also changes traditional conceptions of symbolic representation, tying it more closely to
physical experience with the world.
Evidence for grounding cognition in sensori-motor experience is more extensive.
Principally, our multi-modal sensory systems (Smith and Gasser, 2005) provide an
interrelated experience of vision, hearing, touch, and action (Titzer, Thelen, and Smith,
2003, cited in Smith and Gasser, 2005), which contribute to our understanding and
perception of the world. A number of themes about the sensori-motor experience and
cognition relationship are outlined:
This relationship emerges from Gibson‟s (1977) theory of affordance - the way we
perceive the world or objects, ie shape, size and spatial relations, will afford or
guide particular kinds of action. Recent experimental studies suggest that
perception and action are intricately linked, eg participants respond more quickly
to visual tasks when accompanied by cues that relate to action (Smith and
Gasser, 2005). Furthermore, representation of self in space rather than location
per se, is shown to be important in understanding the interplay between
perceptual and motor activity (Markman and Brendl, 2005), suggesting that the
role of embodiment is more complex than simply a relationship between
perceptual and motor functioning.
At the same time action or engagement with the world forms the basis for our
understanding of the world (Dourish, 2001). This is exemplified through links
between children‟s understanding of object permanence and the developmental
stage of their loco-motor ability (Smith and Gasser, 2005). Action also forms the
basis for learning the ability to self-generate goals and strategies for problem
solving. When learning to reach for an object infants adopted different strategies
depending on their initial type of activity (eg flailing arms, placid inactivity)
(Corbetta et al, 1996). This facility to explore the physical world through different
ways of interacting are key to developing unique strategies that result in the
uniform outcome of a reaching action (Smith and Glasser, 2005).
Conceptual systems grounded in bodily experience.
Bodily experience and sensori-motor interaction are thought to form the basis for
meaning making, eg conceptual definition and rationale inference, and physical
concrete concepts form metaphorical analogies for abstract ideas (Lakoff and
Johnson, 1980). Off-line cognition is also argued to be body-based (Wilson,
2002), ie the activity of the mind is grounded in processes that have evolved for
interaction with the world. So, even when thinking away from particular contexts
our ways of thinking continue to be grounded in physical experience. In relation
to recent technology development this conceptual coupling is significant, where
emphasis is placed on meaningful coupling between objects, actions and
representations (Ishii, 2008).
Theories of situated cognition highlight the need to understand and explain
cognition in terms of „situation-appropriate behaviour‟ (Wilson, 2002; Anderson,
2005). Studies showing how the particular context of a task shapes activity and
cognition (eg Lave, 1988; Suchman, 1987), re-introduce the importance of
situated practice (both social and physical) for cognitive functioning. Cognition
also needs to be understood in terms of time-pressured real-time interaction with
the world (Wilson, 2002), where cognition is conscious (and therefore time
intensive) in unfamiliar situations or tasks, but becomes „unconscious‟ in familiar
situations. The aim is not necessarily to distinguish situated from non-situated
cognition, but to bring to the forefront the importance of context (that
encompasses cultural and historical influences) in shaping cognition.
Environment as external support
The external environment plays a role in supporting cognitive functioning. At a
basic level the physical world reduces cognitive processing, ie people do not pay
attention to what is before their eyes because they don‟t need to remember what
they can see (Smith and Gasser, 2005). At a more abstract level environmental
space and gesture support memory and communication (Richardson and Spivey,
2000), and external tools or systems are effectively used to support computation
(eg Larkin and Simon, 1987; Stenning and Oberlander, 1995). Theories of
external and distributed cognition emphasise the relationship between internal
(mental) and external representations. This sits in contrast to computational
models of reasoning which fail to take into account either the interaction or social
context of engagement with external representations.
2.2 Embodied interaction
Dourish (2001) coined the term “embodied interaction” to describe “the creation,
manipulation and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artefacts” - or a
merging of tangible interaction with social computing. Tangible computing is where a
person interacts with digital information through the physical environment (eg Ishii‟s
work at the MIT Media Lab). Social computing, on the other hand, describes the
intersection of social behaviour and computational systems and is most often associated
with online communities (eg Facebook and MySpace). Dourish characterises embodied
interaction as grounded in skilled, engaged practice.
However, as technologies move away from desktops and into real world environments or
even inside our bodies, increasingly new fields and ultimately forms of embodied
interaction are emerging. For example mixed reality games enable players to interact in
the real world with online guides, virtual characters moving in real space and unwitting
bystanders (Flintham et al, 2003). New theories of embodied interaction pair the
physical, digital and social interface with the human sensory system, making it a mix of
the virtual and physical, intangible and tangible, reality and fantasy. The rise of graphical
virtual spaces such as Second Life (secondlife.com) also provide channels for exploring
embodied interaction with or as an embodied agent – intelligent agents that interact with
the environment through a physical or virtual body within that environment. iRobot‟s
Rooba (http://www.irobot.com) is an example of an embodied agent with a physical
body, while an avatar in a game (Isbister, 2006) or in Second Life (Yee et al, 2006) is an
example of a virtual embodied agent. Research suggests that embodied intelligent
agents have the potential to significantly affect behavior, eg Roomba, which is simply a
vacuum cleaner, has been shown to affect how families interact with each other and
their pets (Forlizzi, 2007).
Embodied interaction in physical or virtual spaces allows us to explore neuro-engineering
and notions of embodied intelligence. Current research is exploring how mind-body
development shapes our perception, cognition, co-operation and social intelligence, the
role of form and material properties in shaping behaviour, and designing for emergence
(Pfeifer and Knoll, 2006). Pfeifer and Knoll‟s view is that thought is not independent of
body and that embodied intelligence has important implications in our understanding of
both natural and artificial intelligence (2006).
At the heart of embodied interaction and technology is communication - we are less
concerned with what innovative devices exist as how we use them as tools to stimulate
thought and action. The inner workings of a mouse are invisible to the non-expert –
what is important for the non-expert is what skills are required to use the mouse to
perform particular actions. Technologies for embodied interaction, then, require an
understanding of skill acquisition. Perhaps even more important, is how we interpret
those skills, as the one performing or reflecting upon the embodied interaction.
2.3 Implications for knowledge, creativity and communication
Embodied cognition and interaction suggest that intelligence lies in the dynamic
interaction of brains and the environment, and is centrally dependent on social and
cultural worlds (Anderson, 2005). From this overview we can begin to identify some key
implications for knowledge creativity and communication in education in the social,
technical landscape of today. A key aspect is that sensori-motor experience and
interaction with the environment are central to meaning making and conceptual
understanding, and provides the basis for learning self-generation of goals and
strategies for problem solving. Thus, it not only plays an important role in knowledge
construction but also supports other kinds of knowledge such as learning strategy
development. Another key aspect is evidence for the role of the external environment
and external tools in supporting interaction in social contexts and cognition, especially
with current technologies that provide more scope for communication and social
interaction, and new ways of recording, collating, storing and re-representing
information. The potential of mobile and ubiquitous technologies can also be mapped to
other key features of embodiment, eg activities that exploit context-related learning,
physical interaction and that are grounded in skilled, engaged practice, eg inquiry-based
3. Intersection with Technology
Embodied interaction with technologies is realised in many different ways. Table 1
outlines six “hot” topics:where interaction occurs, characteristics of each topic, and the
particular focus of the topic. These topics and categories are not mutually exclusive – as
technologies become cheaper, faster and more accessible they often slide between the
various topics, interactions, characteristics and focus.
Ubiquitous Computing refers to information processing embedded into everyday
artefacts and environments (Weiser, 1991). Ubicomp comprises a wide range of
technologies including distributed networking, sensor networks, human-computer
interaction and mobile computing (Weiser et al, 1999; Greenfield, 2006). Until recently,
ubicomp was seen as the opposite of virtual reality – where interaction is placed inside a
virtual world whilst ubicomp places interaction and computation in the „real world‟.
However, wireless computing, social networks and mixed-reality continue to redefine our
understanding of embodied interaction and ubiquitous computing, and have the potential
to push „traditional‟ boundaries of where and how to distribute information, offering the
capability to change learning environments and outcomes (Dourish, 2001; Rogers et al,
Proximity Interfaces Intra-body interfaces rely on proximity, using the human body as
a transition medium to allow people to store, display, and exchange information
(Zimmerman, 1996). They can act as social networking objects to exchange information
about relationships, through common gestures such as a handshake (Kanis et al, 2004)
or electronic wallets. This area is rapidly expanding as applications for mobile phones
pair social networking information with physical location. For example, BrightKite
(brightkite.com) and Twitter (twitter.com) allow social networking colleagues to see
where each other are, meet up with others close by, or list interesting events in close
Table 1. Table of „hot‟ research topics.
In the world
Human body (and
object) as transition
Store, display and
Activity recognition and
(In hand, ear,
focus on physicality
and touch; auditory on
sound; olfactory on
smell; visual on sight)
Fixed and implanted
data (eg bio-sensing)
physicality and sensory
Wearable Interfaces are worn on the body, removable, and often considered
extensions of the human body. Whilst pioneering applications such as the inverse
surveillance system (Mann, 2001) or the early head-mounted displays worn by „cyborgs‟
(MIT) seem more like science fiction, recent technology developments have led to mobile
phones becoming the most ubiquitous wearable computer and are particularly well suited
for mobile multitasking. For example, a wearable headset paired with a mobile phone
allows users to drive a car whilst answering incoming phone calls. The fashion industry
has taken a keen interest in wearable computing, (eg Joanna Berzowska
(www.berzowska.com), and Maggie Orth (www.ifmachines.com) and the recent addition
of DIY electronic kits such as the LilyPad Arduino board (www.arduino.cc) have
introduced embodied interaction, and technology-based interactive fashion into the
Sensory-specific Interfaces focus on human senses as input. Olfactory interfaces
focus on smell; haptic interfaces on touch; visual interfaces on vision. The least explored
area is olfactory interfaces with its realisation only just becoming available in
applications such as fire fighting and surgical training. Sensory specific interfaces are
often multimodal – haptic and tangible interfaces are often paired with sound and vision.
Implantable Interfaces Implantable interfaces are fixed inside a body, but because of
associated health risks they have long been the domain of medical research and
healthcare applications, and often focus on enabling greater accessibility among disabled
and challenged patients. However, performance artists are also exploring interaction
with implantable interfaces and the ethical and cultural issues and long-term effects
associated with extreme surgical intervention, eg Orlan (www.orlan.net), Stelarc
(www.stelarc.va.com.au), Eduardo Kac (www.ekac.org), as well as cybernetics
researchers such as Kevin Warwick (www.kevinwarwick.com).
Looking in more detail at developments in the past three years, Table 2 outlines the
current trends and the biggest movers. Important to note is that all of these fields are
motivated by particular agendas, eg a software computing company, which sponsors a
conference, will tend to select papers, which relate to their technology.
Table 2. Current trends in hot research areas described in Table 1.
Interacting in public; privacy; hacktivism; tabletops and
touchscreens; location and navigation; smart home; health; sensors
and sensor networks; with wearables; gesture, movement and touch;
context awareness; social networks; prediction; behavior
modification; energy management; craft; tracking in indoor
locations; cloud computing; volunteer computing
Biggest trends: indoor location sensing; context-aware computing,
smart home; energy management; volunteering computing
Social networking; privacy and security; healthcare; contactless
interfacing; global tracking; cosmetics convergence versus
divergence (applications beyond time and space versus tailoring to
individual and immediate need); apparatus for disabling and
enabling; toys and games.
Biggest trends: healthcare; contactless interfacing; social
Health and fitness; design; fashion; virtual coaching; semi-
supervised activity; real-time data streams; harvesting human
Biggest trends: health and fitness; fashion
Games and toys as controllers; tabletop interfaces; voice, sound
audio; materials; interactive art; product design and branding;
gesture, movement and touch; social networks; mobile phone as
tangible device; shape-shifting; large displays; RFID.
Biggest trends: Approaches to gesture, movement and touch
Medical-driven systems; connectors; connecting; electronics;
biomedical engineering; microstimulation; nanotechnology; synthetic
materials; 3D printing; performance art
Biggest trends: medical-driven systems; 3D printing; performance
Multi-modality; mobility; mobile presence tools; communal
engagement; collaboration; accessibility; green computing; urban
computing; intelligent control; social computing; DIY methods;
education and learning; performance and live art; video blogging and
Biggest trends: mobile social computing; collaboration; urban
computing; DIY methods; education
3.1 Implications for knowledge, creativity and communication
Mobility In 2008, technology is all about mobility and connectedness. Increasingly
technologies are moving from the labs into real-world spaces such as the home, outdoor
environments and even nightclubs and festivals (Sheridan et al, 2004). As mobile and
smart phones provide more on-demand services and options “cloud computing” will
emerge, ie people only „take what they need‟ whilst being mobile, and leave everything
else at work/home/virtual repository. Furthermore, assuming that learning is not
restricted to classrooms, increasingly connected mobile devices and similarly connected
augmented environments would help bridge gaps between learning contexts, and
contribute to the construction of general knowledge.
Multimodality and multi-tasking Following on from this, people will want to do more
things simultaneously. Multimodality and multitask devices provide new means for
expressing creativity, in an increasingly fast and demanding society. However, current
trends indicate that people want devices and applications that are specific to their
immediate needs rather than generalised across devices and applications.
Connectedness and collaboration in the real world Associated with mobility and
constant access to information, the social interaction provided by the increasing
connectivity within communities (and the environments) potentially leads to more
collaboration, as communication becomes easier and ubiquitous.
Context-based Ubiquitous, wearable and mobile technologies provide capabilities for
bringing new concepts of authenticity to learning environments, by, eg augmenting real-
world contexts, like museums, field trips; augmenting physical role play; and
augmenting real-world spaces with virtual overlays of authentic contexts for learning.
Convergence versus divergence Applications beyond time and space (always on,
anywhere) versus tailoring to individual and immediate need (only on now, just here).
Geo-networking and the physical web Pairing virtual online information from social
networking sites with physical location and events in the real world.
4. Technology-based learning research
4.1 Physical space
Biological and psychological aspects of learning have been acknowledged since the 18th
century (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) when the use of games, manual works and direct
experience, moved learning away from purely memorizing rules and procedures. Hands-
on learning has been advocated (Pestalozzi, 1803), implemented in kindergartens (by
Froebel in 1837), and largely adopted in schools worldwide (Daltoé and Strelow, 2005),
through the use of simple materials and manipulatives like Cuisinaire rods (Fig. 1A)
(fractions and proportions), golden blocks (Fig. 1B) (decimal system) amongst others, to
stimulate children to express themselves through perceptual-motor activities, and
language and play (Colella, 2000).
(A) Cuisinaire rods
(B) Golden blocks
Fig. 1 – traditional manipulatives
In the 1980s, computers became popular tools in schools, providing diverse
transformative experiences for children‟s development (Papert, 1980). However, with
traditional computers, interaction is screen-based, restricted to mouse and keyboard
input devices, thus lacking the advantages of concreteness, physicality, and connection
with real-world environments. Recent technological innovations through embedded and
ubiquitous computing bring technology-based interaction closer to the so-called “real
world” (Weiser et al, 1999), providing new learning experiences that rekindle
opportunities for learning through physical activity, engagement with physical objects
and real world environments (Eisenberg, 2003; Moher et al, 2008).
4.1.1 Physical interaction
Mobile and sensor based technologies have been used to link physical activity to
conceptual ideas, through mapping physical activity to visual or audio representations of
abstract concepts, thus encouraging combined physical and cognitive development.
Smartstep and Floormat (Scarlatos et al, 1999) used sensor-embedded floor mats to link
children‟s physical movement (eg walking up and down the mats) with screen-based
visual representations of mathematical concepts (eg discrete number line). The mapping
of physical action to abstract concepts was thought to “make the activity more
meaningful for the child … partly because the physical objects help children to see – and
therefore better understand – abstract concepts in a new way” (Scarlatos, 2006, p295).
More recently configuration of Wii controllers is being used to support applications where
physical activity is promoted through digital augmentation. Kahol and Smith (2008)
showed that a Wii game (Marble Mania) designed to support movements required for
performing surgery, increased surgical dexterity skills. Applications using a Wii remote to
measure acceleration of a swinging pendulum, and forces involved in freefall, by
transmitting acceleration data in real-time (Vannoni and Straulino, (2007) have also
been developed to teach force, velocity and acceleration. More recently, investigations
into mapping physical activity with such physics concepts (motion and acceleration) will
provide new insights into the value of embodied interaction in learning (Sheridan et al,
4.1.2 Interacting with physical objects
Similarly tangibles are used to combine the benefits of concrete manipulation with digital
technologies to enhance interaction experiences. Tangibles are digitally augmented
objects used as input devices to trigger digital effects on a display surface (O‟Malley and
Fraser, 2004). Tangibles are thought to be beneficial for learning due to the opportunity
to exploit their familiarity of interaction; flexible linking to different forms of
representation; their affordances for constructive activity; and opportunities for new
forms of collaborative interaction.
Several popular (and therefore familiar) toys have been transformed into technological
artefacts, eg Bitball (a transparent sphere that records and transmits information about
its own movement (Resnick, 1998)); assembling blocks that involve concepts of
behaviour patterns (Stackables, Programmable Beads (Resnick et al, 1998)); and
system dynamics (FlowBlocks and SystemBlocks (Resnick et al, 1998; Zuckerman et al,
2005)); and blocks that are used as tangible programming elements (Wyeth and
Purchase, 2002; Schweikardt and Gross, 2008) to make programming easy and
engaging for children.
Other kinds of assembly or constructive kits allow children to build their own,
personalized models, stimulating their creativity and imagination. For example, Topobo
(Raffle et al, 2004) enables children to build creatures out of digitally embedded pieces,
which can record and playback physical motion. Research suggests that this process of
creating models helps develop a greater understanding about the functioning of things
(Klopfer et al, 2002). Children produce knowledge by expressing themselves through the
representations they create (Marshall et al, 2003), ie the artefact embodies the
children‟s activity and thoughts.
While familiarity may engage children, ambiguous or less familiar representations can
promote curiosity and exploration (Rogers et al, 2002). With Chromarium, a system to
explore colour mixing through physical and digital tools, children experimented and
reflected more with less familiar representations. In this case, children investigated the
properties of a model built by someone else (Marshall et al, 2003). Knowledge is
produced through exploration (leading to conclusions), rather than expressivity, and
therefore there is less space for creativity, suggesting expressive and exploratory
systems lend themselves to different contexts.
Tangible environments also lend themselves to collaborative work, as usually a set of
interaction objects can be manipulated both by a group and individually. Combining
tangibles with tabletops (Reactable (Jordà, 2003), Sensetable (Patten et al, 2001))
increases collaboration by adding the advantages of concrete manipulation to shareable
interfaces that encourage communication, providing face-to-face interaction and
multiple, simultaneous users. Recent work suggests how the interactive properties of
such shared interfaces supports productive collaborative knowledge building (Pontual
Falcao and Price, under review).
4.1.3 Interacting across physical spaces
Technology distributed across physical environments can be used to create collaborative
dynamic simulations, which take advantage of whole physical spaces, like classrooms.
This typically includes the use of mobile devices, as a way of freely exploring the
environments (Klopfer et al, 2002), and embodying meaning-making in activity contexts
(Rogers and Price, 2009). Participatory simulations enable students to act as embodied
participants (Moher, 2006), as the systems are layered on top of the real world. Instead
of watching a screen, students interact with technology distributed across the
environment and become part of the simulation, while abstract concepts turn into
experience (Colella, 2000). Such simulations might be seen as large-scale microworlds,
as they present scenarios (with context-based information (Klopfer et al, 2002))
mediated by rules and open to knowledge production through investigation and
experimentation (Colella, 2000). For example, in the environmental detectives system
(Klopfer et al, 2002) students investigate ecological issues using portable computers; in
a virus activity participants explore the spread of disease, by collecting information and
communicating through wearable computers (Colella, 2000); in the Ambient Wood
(Rogers et al, 2002) children discover complex ecology processes whie exploring a
digitally enhanced woodland; in Savannah (Facer, 2004) children work in teams to learn
about animal behaviour and longer term survival, using handheld computers that map
the virtual environment to the school playing field; and in Frequency 1550 mobile
phones are used to “transport” children into the past allowing them to explore previous
societies (Huizenga et al, 2007). Many of these experiences also engage students in
forms of inquiry learning, with the facility to collate diverse sources of data that can be
re-represented in the classroom, often using integrated visualisations.
While virtual simulations can overcome and ignore human limitations, the constraints of
the human body are naturally taken into account in these systems through “authentic
physicality” (Moher et al, 2008). This represents a shift in the concept of direct
interaction, which in the past referred to manipulating agents or parameters through an
interface or virtual world. „Embedded phenomena‟ is a technology instantiation where
scientific phenomena are mapped to classroom physical space (Moher, 2006). Local and
partial information about the state of the system is distributed through media across the
classroom in a persistent manner, to be monitored and manipulated by students
throughout an extended period of time (weeks). Several embedded phenomena systems
have been developed and tested in classrooms (RoomBugs, HelioRoom, RoomQuake
(Moher, 2006)). The Wallcology environment (Moher et al, 2008) expands this
framework by enabling distributed collaboration, increasing physicality and expanding
the activity sites. The embedded phenomena framework uses ambient media to support
embodied interaction, and draws on situated learning and psychology theories that
support action as the origin of thought and bodily interactions with the world as the base
of cognition (Moher, 2006).
4.2 Virtual space
Embodiment forms a key theme within virtual worlds and computer gaming, where
immersion in the activity is considered central for learning (Gee, 2007). Learning content
is embedded in the experience, so that meaning making and knowledge construction
take place within an appropriate context, rather than a series of facts removed from the
activity. Virtual worlds, like physical worlds, are based on the senses, where vision,
touch, and hearing are supposed to function, and are, therefore, perceived in similar
ways to the physical world (Biocca, 1997). In contrast Egoyan (2007) describes the
concept of embodiment in virtual worlds as performance rather than as sensation.
Through performative experience, changes in our understanding of emotion, actions and
behaviours can take place. Important components for interacting in virtual spaces
include creativity (constructing identity), communication (the ability to express through
an avatar) and performance, but all are bounded by the constraints of the tools available
and the design of the game. For example, design may cause release from embodiment
through anomalies with the real world, eg walking through walls. This release from
embodiment may, in fact, be a seam around which learning may be mediated – through
encouraging different levels of engagement and reflection (Ackerman, 1996).
Avatars form the physical instantiation of self to act and interact in a virtual space, which
is often made „real‟ through objects, spaces, properties and behaviours. Through avatars
users create an identity, with physical, social and behavioural attributes of their choice,
eg Second Life, MySpace. On one hand this offers opportunities to explore and
experiment with the nature of self and identity, and concepts that are difficult in the
physical world (Egoyan, 2007) eg relationships, views and behaviours, where
interactions with others actually takes place. On the other hand, through avatars people
have a tendency to represent their concept of „me‟ (although this may change over time)
and often express whether they feel „comfortable‟ or not in their „virtual skin‟ and strive
to feel „right‟ (Taylor, 2002).
Although the development of performances in virtual environments such as Second Life
are relatively new, they promise exciting possibilities for challenging the way we
communicate with each other, perceive our bodies and our relationship to space. Since
performance is a reflexive activity, through performance in virtual space we can “reveal
ourselves to ourselves” (Turner, 1986, p81). Virtual environments also provide a space
for mediating interaction between performers and audience through improvisation and
construction of alternative narratives. This not only reveals theoretical possibilities for
embodied interaction but also new technical possibilities. New software for creating
different identities, for chatting between participants, or even game controllers (such at
the Nintendo Wii Remote) challenges how we act with our physical bodies in virtual
Performance in general is fundamentally about making things seem real when they are
not (Morse, 1998) and much of this theory can be applied to our understanding of
embodied interaction in virtual space. For example, emerging avatar performance
companies such as Second Front (the first performance art group in Second Life), use
performance theory to explore of virtual embodiment, online performance and formation
of virtual narrative (slfront.blogspot.com).
Performance, and in particular performance art, has a unique role to play in education.
Garoian (1999) claims that performance art is both pedagogical and post-modern. He
suggests that a collapsing of the difference between academic and creative work would
promote critical thinking in any discipline and that performance art pedagogy represents
the “embodied expression of culture as aesthetic experience – that is pedagogy as
performance art and performance art as pedagogy”
Communication is a key component to attaining a sense of presence, which is grounded
in both the physical activity of the avatar and social practice. The concept of boundaries,
in a physical and social sense, are examples of embodiment and presence, eg the sense
of someone else (through the avatars) being in „your‟ space. Furthermore, “much as in
offline life […] digital bodies are used in a variety of ways – to greet, to play, to signal
group affiliation, to convey opinions or feelings, and to create closeness.” (Taylor, 2002,
p.41). Virtual avatars can also generate an aura of societies in which there are no
boundaries between e.g. cultures, religion. At a different level of interaction, virtual
worlds can create a space for inhabiting worlds devoid of these kinds of boundaries, and
provide a space where people get to choose how to communicate and how to play out
their world in ways that are different from the real world (McIlveny, 1999).
Researchers are seeking to understand factors that trigger high levels of motivation, and
activities within „gaming‟ settings that might contribute to learning. Prensky (2007) goes
beyond this, suggesting that the physical structure of brains is different for those
growing up in a digital world (cf: Luria 1979 - environment and culture affects the way
we think; different cultures think differently), and that there is a different blend of
cognitive skills that is a product of exposure to multiple digital media. However, the need
for interactivity, immediate feedback and response, to maintain attention is highlighted,
together with the concern that this is coupled with less time and opportunity for
reflection (Prensky, 2001). One focus of gaming research, rather than advocating games
per se for learning, is to take lessons learned in terms of learning principles that can be
found in game culture.
Gee (2007) outlines 15 features of video games that form the basis for good learning.
Some key features that are useful to consider in the context of this review include (i)
Identity (for real learning the learner needs to make a commitment through identity in
games) and customisation (the ability for the player to choose roles that suit them) are
both concerned with self and preference. This raises issues of whether it is educationally
important or not to encourage students to take on unfamiliar roles or to do the things
they find harder (ii) Risk taking: (offering the opportunity for positive failure and
therefore encouraging risk taking, and which maps well to current thinking about the
value of exploratory learning) and well ordered problems (the need to order problems so
that they always build on ones solved earlier, thus avoiding the issue of exploratory
learning where creative solutions may be found, but don‟t lead to good learning about
how to solve later problems (see Elman, 1991)) suggest the complexity of integrating
good learning practice into education (iii) Challenge and consolidation (games follow a
„cycle of expertise‟ – ie get a set of challenging problems which are solved many times
until routinised and then more problems given) suggest similar strategies used in some
traditional teaching in school, suggesting evidence of a good strategy worth continuing
(iv) Performance before competence (offering the facility to perform before you need to
be competent) is akin to exploring, discovering, an underlying ethos to a number of
learning experiences with mobile and ubiquitous technologies.
4.3 Intersection between physical and virtual space
Mixed reality, also known as „augmented reality‟, describes the intersection of the real
and virtual – where interaction in the real world with physical objects effects interaction
in the virtual world with virtual objects and characters (and vice versa). With the
introduction of smaller, cheaper and mobile technologies, mixed reality opens the
possibility for new kinds of embodied interaction in educational settings. Mixed reality in
teaching environments provides opportunities to explore embodied interaction through
self and remote learning. The MiTRLE project is a mixed reality teaching environment,
which pairs local students with remote students through a virtual world in a higher
education setting. The aim is to foster a sense of community amongst remote students
on the basis that avatar representations of teachers and students will help create a
sense of shared presence, engendering a sense of community and improving student
engagement in online lessons (Gardner et al, 2008).
Mixed reality environments also have real-world implications. Geo-networking merges
information from social networking sites with real-world physical locations. Live Geo
Social Networking applications such as Twitter merge this information in real-time so
that participants can post and search geo coordinates of time critical items. For example,
a person can use a mobile phone to post information about an event they are witnessing
in real time and all other interested parties in the vicinity can search, see and get
directions to the event. These applications could have wide reaching implications for
remote and collaborative self-learning in mixed reality settings although attention needs
to be paid to the risks involved in sharing such information.
Technology-based applications can create new kinds of learning spaces – both physical
and virtual, that bring opportunities to exploit the value of embodiment for learning and
interaction. Assuming that learning content is embedded in experience and knowledge
production should take place in appropriate contexts, immersion in learning activities is
also fundamental. Technology interfaces presented in this review can support
engagement in directly active and participative ways, for example, through physical
activity and experience in authentic contexts, exploration, discovery and
experimentation, use of new external tools that can mediate action and thought,
collaboration and communication (including that which occurs through forms of
expression), creativity through expression and production, learning activities and
situations that provide new catalysts for reflection and discussion around learning
domain, and inclusion of students with physical disabilities and/or learning difficulties
through multimodality and collaboration. Collaborative and communicative activity
changes offering new forms of interaction and activity including sharing of information,
eg embedded phenomena, transferring of data through physical proximity, eg
participatory simulations, and expressions of knowledge or creations through production,
eg virtual worlds, MySpace, re-representations of collated data, eg Ambient Wood/
Savannah; and expression or communication through performance activities, eg avatar
performance art groups like Second Front. In addition, different relationships between
student and teacher (eg as facilitator/guide) can be promoted, which maps to the
emerging prominence of independent learning in the current (science) curriculum
(Lombardi, 2007). At the same time this raises issues about students‟ competence at
taking on a more independent self-generated activity or role that this demands, and
teachers‟ ability or familiarity with facilitating learning.
However, such opportunities also raise a number of issues and challenges for education.
Here we provide two scenarios derived from ideas raised earlier to identify and discuss
the key opportunities, challenges, risks and demands that emerge within the context of
embodiment, technology and education. With each scenario we identify some specifically
related opportunities and issues, and then discuss the general risks, challenges and
demands that such scenarios might bring.
5.1 Scenario 1: Embedded experiences
Opportunities Features of mobility and sensor embedding technologies provide new
opportunities to re-think space, place and classroom organisation. Applications like the
„embedded phenomena‟ engage large groups of children in science learning in radically
different ways within a classroom setting. The „persistent‟ concept in this model of
augmented learning, where the phenomena run over weeks or months, and where the
activity is related to but asynchronous with the regular flow of instruction in the
classroom, illustrates new openings for rethinking models of instruction and classroom
practice (Price, 2007). In „embedded‟ experiences, students are repeatedly exposed to
different pieces of information distributed across the physical space of the classroom,
and given opportunities for role-play, providing them with experiences from different
perspectives and the means to build a collective and comprehensive understanding.
Research has illustrated how this might work in science learning, but we could also
imagine structuring history and geography learning in similar ways. Imagine learning a
time period in history or geographical changes (climate or landscape changes) where
events over time are experienced within the classroom across a several week period. In
history this might follow a series of pertinent events from the start to the end of a world
war. In geography this might illustrate the formation of the ice age with speeded up time
events and examples of the changes taking place on the land and the people living
there. Students could be alerted to particular events taking place at appropriate points in
time and access video showing events, take environmental measurements that
demonstrate the climate change, or even have opportunities to take part in political
debates at pertinent times as historical events unfold. Such interaction promotes
extended exposure to a topic, enabling reflection over time, but furthermore provides
new opportunities for students to experience and understand causal events over time.
Challenges/demands Integrating learning activity that is distributed across extended
periods of time, and across the classroom space brings challenges and demands for
restructuring of classroom practice, particularly use of space, time management, dealing
with interruption, and organisation of student activities. The requirement for students to
work in groups independently from the teacher, taking more control of organizing their
activities to reach their goals, poses challenges for changes in teaching style and student
expectations about learning.
Risks Evidence for the potential of this scenario exists in scientific domains, but not
other subject areas, although geography, history or even language learning could be
supported in new ways using this design of embedded technology experiences.
5.2 Scenario 2: Shareable interfaces
Boundaries between physical and social spaces, and between different kinds of
knowledge or learning contexts (informal/formal) are also changing, offering
opportunities for ways to integrate everyday experience and interaction for learning.
Mobile technologies offer opportunities to extend learning beyond the classroom,
bridging the gap between home and school, and between field-work and classroom.
Mobile phones and other multi-functional handheld or personal devices can be carried
around, enable access to, recording of and communication of various forms of
information and data, including photos, video, scientific measurements, survey records.
Such tasks are freed from the classroom and can become living experiences, enabling
learning to be more embedded in students‟ own experiences and real-world topics of
relevance. Both horizontal and vertical surfaces can be used in the classroom to display
data uploaded from the different sources, which can then be used for sharing,
explanation and discussion in classroom settings. Flexible use of large displays could
exploit both small group and large class interaction. For example, table-tops are
particularly suitable for small group interaction, but can also be combined with large
displays to provide a forum for sharing student information with a broader audience.
Such table-top interaction also provides opportunities for student expression,
explanation and demonstration.
Challenges Particular challenges in this scenario include teacher development in
managing fluid and uncontrolled learning outcomes, and their ability to manage
increased instances of small group interaction, managing resources, eg number of
artefacts available might limit number of participants (what will the rest of the class be
doing?), physical location of the technology hardware within the school, in a specific
room (need for pre-planning and booking resources and possible “dispute for resources”
among teachers) or within the classroom (having technology at hand to be used
whenever needed, as support tools), managing firewall issues with internet access,
including security and privacy issues, practical management of integrating personal
devices/multiple devices with school-based technologies.
Risks Insufficient provision of technology resources might limit the number of
participants (how will teacher manage this?). In addition, the use of personal devices
(rather than school distributed resources) might create unequal opportunities among
children due to socio-economic issues.
5.3 General challenges, demands and risks across scenarios
Key challenges and demands
While offering new ways of learning, technology also raises challenges for teacher
education, training and professional development, not only in terms of practically
implementing changes, but knowing what kind of changes are needed. This is essential
to avoid concerns that technology is often not integrated into education/teaching in a
way that is likely to be successful (Selwyn, 2007). Changes in learning space and time
demands developing the curriculum creatively to accommodate learning activities that
support different learning processes (rather than specifically targeting factual learning,
which should occur through effective activities and teaching practice), and to support re-
structuring of the school day (to promote new forms of classroom interaction). This
would promote new use of technology rather than mapping to current teaching practice.
Teachers themselves need to become more familiar and proficient with developing and
changing technologies, and the potential implications for their teaching practice.
A key challenge is how best to design learning experiences within the context of current
knowledge on technology, embodiment and learning. Learning experiences described
here were designed and developed through large multi-disciplinary groups. For
educational contexts technology must be developed together with pedagogical aims
guided by the teacher‟s planning and scaffolding (Moher et al, 2008). This raises
challenges for the development of technology-based learning experiences which requires
multiple expertise, and demands not only the involvement of teachers or school-based
technicians in the design process, but also having the personnel with skills to modify,
apply and orchestrate learning experiences for different groups of students or subject
domains. This requires competent programmers to develop the different activities, and
skilled technicians in school to run and maintain the technology experiences.
In terms of students‟ learning, flexible use and linking of information through digital
communication and augmentation, requires careful design and management. Increased
combinations of representations require learners to attend to and integrate diverse
pieces of information from different data sources. The degree to which novices
(students) are able to focus on and extract appropriate information impacts on their
abilities to engage in effective knowledge acquisition activities (deGroot, 1965; Glaser,
1992), suggesting the need to understand how experiences can be designed to
effectively provoke learning (Price et al, 2008). A further challenge is moving beyond
the „experience‟ itself, and mapping this to other forms of knowledge. Consideration
needs to be given to the kind of knowledge that technology-mediated experiences
effectively promote (eg procedural, factual, creative, or different forms of skill
development), and how to integrate it with other forms of knowledge or learning
activities. At a more general level, this requires re-thinking what constitutes „learning‟
within „education‟ together with specifying desired outcomes or end goals.
Broadening the use of communication technologies beyond the classroom raises serious
challenges about how to enable safe, accessible and innovative e-Learning strategies.
Firewalls serve an important role in protecting children from inappropriate digital
content, but they often prevent teachers and pupils from effectively using e-Learning
tools and technologies in the classroom. Heavy restrictions placed on the use of
everyday communication tools, such as email (eg file size, file type) or more advanced
tools such as Skype and YouTube filter external Internet content, but affect the quality
and type of information that teachers can present in the classroom. However,
communication technologies can disrupt the classroom and internet misuse is
widespread. For example, many bright pupils are able to by-pass government approved
firewalls to access X-rated and violent websites, and statistics in the UK suggest that one
quarter of pupils at every school is avoiding firewalls.
Radical changes in technology use and implementation in education demand significant
financial investment in technology hardware, software and skilled personnel. A key risk
is that insufficient financial and training/development opportunities will reduce the
likelihood of successful educational transformation. If technology is to be embedded in
useful ways, then teachers need to have more competence and familiarity with working
with different technologies. Furthermore, the need to attract appropriately skilled
designers and developers, and educationally based technicians is of paramount
importance to effectively embed ubiquitous technologies into educational practice.
Ubiquitous technologies provide opportunities to re-think (some) learning activities to
exploit the everyday interactions young people have through their own technology
devices, promoting motivation through (for them) familiar forms of interaction (eg Gee,
1999; Prensky, 2001). However, a key risk here is focusing on engagement to the
detriment of learning. It is important to note that despite bringing about positive effects,
physical action and entertainment do not, on their own, guarantee learning benefits. This
again highlights the need to re-consider what „learning‟ entails.
Taking into account evidence and theories arising from embodied cognition and
interaction, developments in computing technologies, and evidence from research, the
future for education is set to change. Paying attention to and integrating up-to-date
technology into education is of paramount importance, as it inevitably forms a central
part of everyday life, but much work is yet to be done to establish effective ways of
using these technologies to promote learning – both in formal and informal contexts. Of
emerging significance are the potential changes in learning activity and learning process
that are precipitated through technologies. Ubiquitous learning experiences demand
different kinds of endeavours and activity than (some) traditional learning activities. We
can see how ubiquitous learning environments (both physical and virtual) can provide
„spaces‟ within which learners can explore, discover, experience concepts/ideas, and
which can serve as a discussion forum, eg getting students to think about different
issues and different boundaries. Inherent in this process is the re-thinking of what
education means for developing learners; what are the central components of learning
and the kinds of skills that learners will need to acquire to engage fruitfully in adult
society and life. This requires not only understanding the underlying drivers for learning,
but also the implications for teachers (their role, practice and training) and the
development of curriculum and educational establishments. Research effort and evidence
is needed exploring effective ways for teachers to know how to use and adopt
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This document has been commissioned as part of the UK Department for Children,
Schools and Families’ Beyond Current Horizons project, led by Futurelab. The views
expressed do not represent the policy of any Government or organisation.