Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Conceptual Model Learning Objects and Design Recommendations for Small Screens

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Conceptual Model Learning Objects and Design Recommendations for Small Screens

Article excerpt


A conceptual model is a particular kind of a learning object (see Churchill, 2007). It is an interactive and visual representation designed to depict a concept or a number of connected concepts, and support conceptual learning through multimedia and processes of manipulation and interrogation of represented properties and relationships. Emerging handheld technologies (portable digital assistants and some mobile phones) are equipped with multimedia capabilities that enable delivery of conceptual models. If appropriately designed for the context of use, conceptual models can be effectively delivered to a variety of learning environments via this technology.

This article presents recommendations on three aspects of conceptual model design for applications via handheld technology: presentation of conceptual models, small screen design, and design in relation to specific learning uses. These recommendations were developed over a number of years of experience designing conceptual models and applications of these multimedia representations with students in schools and higher education. The paper lists and expands on these recommendations, and provides brief background information on how these were explicated. The paper also attempts to substantiate the presented arguments through reference to an example of a conceptual model. However, readers should not expect detailed descriptions of data collection and analysis in this paper. Detailed reports on a study of various sets of recommendations have been presented elsewhere (e.g., Churchill & Hedberg, 2008b). Overall, the paper provides information that could be useful to designers of multimedia resources and professionals engaged in instructional uses of these representations, and calls for researchers to pay more attention to design as it relates to instructional uses of conceptual models.

A simple example of a conceptual model is presented in Figure 1. This conceptual model displays a concept of a triangle and its associated properties and relationships. It allows students to manipulate the base and height of the triangle by dragging corresponding sliders. Manipulating either of the two parameters of the triangle (base or height) by dragging the sliders will result in an immediate update of the display: the triangle will be redrawn in a corresponding size, and the numerical information regarding associated parameters (such as the value of the hypotenuse) will be updated. This conceptual model can be reused for different purposes and with different groups of students. For example, lower grade students could use it to explore the properties of a right-angled triangle, while more senior students might explore properties such as Pythagorean theorems and basic trigonometric functions (sine and cosine).

The current literature lacks specific recommendations for the design of conceptual models for applications via small screens of handheld technology. This paper introduces a set of recommendations for such design. These recommendations integrate three sets of independently developed guidelines: (a) design for presentation, (b) design for small screen and (c) design for learning uses. The recommendations reported in the article will contribute to the literature, and are useful to designers of educational multimedia, teachers involved in uses of conceptual models in instruction, and researchers interested in the effect of design possibilities on multimedia learning.


The rest of the article is organized into three main sections. The first provides theoretical background relevant to idea of a conceptual model and its application. The next section presents various design recommendations. Finally, there is discussion of a conceptual model designed in line with these recommendations.

Key Concepts and Issues

The idea of concept has been the subject of a philosophical debate and has influenced the work of well-known figures such as Kant, Vygotsky, Piaget, and others interested in understanding forms of knowledge and how these develop in individuals (see Berger, 2005, Hartnack, 1968, Turner, 1975). …

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