Academic Technology Center
Teaching with Technology Collaboratory

The Use of Learning Objects in the Classroom

Research Professor Declan G. De Paor of Physics and CEE

"Learning objects are a good way to present difficult concepts in a graphical, visual format. By limiting the number of distractions and irrelevancies, students can concentrate on the mathematical material that matters."

"As a teacher, using learning objects motivate me to get the material across in an attractive way for my students."
Dr. Declan De Paor

Declan De Paor has been passionate about teaching with technology his whole career. When he first started lecturing at the Nation University of Ireland in 1978, he joined a teaching methods study group that employed then state-of-the-art technology by recording lectures on reel-to-reel film. Critical reviews from his peers encouraged him to do more to enhance the student learning experience by switching his educational focus from teacher-centered, to learner-centered. De Paor states, “I realized that being a good teacher didn’t mean just standing up and delivering content.” What truly motivated him, however, was De Paor’s desire for students to become eager to learn Geology at a time when the new theory of plate tectonics was revolutionizing scientists’ views of how the Earth works. This motivation inspired him to apply for a grant and later lead him to design and build his own library of graphical flash animations to use in his structural geology and tectonics lectures.

De Paor’s first learning objects were designed and presented on an Apple IIe computer. In 1982, he and a colleague were awarded a grant by the now European Union to design graphical methods of teaching earth science that would overcome language barriers. After the success of these simulations and the desire of colleagues to use his software in their lectures, De Paor formed a company called Earth'nWare Inc. to distribute his learning resources.

"Professor De Paor’s animation really helped me understand certain aspects of his geology class. There were times when he would be discussing complicated processes, where several different factors such as rate, location, or direction where involved. The interactions between these variables were always much easier to see than have explained to you."
Jacqueline Cormier CM ‘06

Regarding the design of learning objects, De Paor states, "Animations, in some cases, are better than the real lab experience. There are all sorts of things that you can do with virtual reality that cannot be done in the lab. For example, you can change the force of gravity from its value on Earth to its value on the Moon, and let students see instantly the effects on the swing of a virtual pendulum."

"I’ve found that, especially in a course like Geology [GE 2341], where so much of the course material involves things that move - rocks, rivers, tectonic plates, and planets - animations played an important role in my understanding of the course. When Dr. De Paor wanted to show us something that we might not easily relate to, like the faulting of rock, his animations greatly enhanced what might otherwise have been only a couple pictures and a spoken explanation. The animations, done mostly in Flash, showed rivers flowing and eroding the landscape, continental plates moving, and planet orbits changing, all in a very pure form that was immediately easy to understand. It is impressive, exciting, and a bit inspiring to have professors like Dr. De Paor, who are familiar enough with technology to use it to its full potential in the classroom, and, in Dr. De Paor’s case, for his own research."
Kyle Miller AE ‘09

Over the years, De Paor has developed many flash animations and stand-alone Mac and PC applications for courses in Geology, Physics, Astronomy, and Core Curriculum Natural Sciences. Since arriving at WPI, Declan has developed positional astronomy materials for use with Starrynight™ software. With the help of Bob Pepin in Plant Services, Declan climbed onto the top of Boynton Hall tower to obtain panoramic photographs of the campus during each of the four seasons. These panoramas are programmed into the virtual astronomy application so that they form the horizon under the celestial scene. Season can be chosen and time speeded up to show changing constellation patterns in the sky over WPI campus in a 360? view. Not only do his students have the opportunity to learn visually from the changing night sky, but the setting and scenery is very real to them and provides the opportunity for experiential learning.

Experiential learning has led De Paor to explore other ways of using learning objects in his courses, not just in the lecture/lab environment. He is experimenting with podcasting technology as well. Students will have the opportunity to use their video or picture iPods in the field during class trips by referring to images, animations, or small Quicktime" movie clips with short explanatory sound tracks. To support his curriculum development efforts, he has submitted a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation entitled "Developing MP3 Music Players as Geoscience Learning Objects."

De Paor is making his repository of animations available to WPI faculty and colleagues at other institutions through MERLOT. View his Pendulum animation and his Prism Refraction animation (must have the latest version of Macromedia Flash).

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Last modified: Nov 16, 2007, 08:06 EST
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