Bertrand Schneider


A collaborative environment for learning phylogenetics.

The goal for this project was to create a collaborative learning module that allows students to experience the process of creating and interpreting phylogenetic trees. In discussions with instructors of college-level evolutionary biology, we discovered that the concepts behind tree-building can be difficult to grasp for students, and the ability to correctly interpret the information communicated through trees often does not come naturally. By implementing a collaborative activity that utilizes new ways of interacting with trees and tree-building, we tried to address some of these challenges.

We implemented this computational learning module on the Microsoft Surface platform. This allowed us to explore the use of interaction techniques that would not be possible with a traditional pen-and-paper exercise. Students can physically order and arrange character traits and explore different arrangements and representations for the taxa, transitioning from one visualization to another with ease. The following video shows the different steps of our learning scenario:

The Phylo-Genie environment presents users with a scenario that motivates the learning activity. Participants ’travel’ to Australia as researchers to assist in data collection and analysis. The trip is executed as a series of nine stages. During the trip, a user is bitten by a venomous snake. The users then have to choose between 4 equidistant hospitals; each hospital has only one type of anti-venom. They have time to reach only one hospital before the venom irreversibly affects the bitten user. Since the species of the snake is unknown, participants must learn tree-building techniques to assess the common ancestry of the Australian snakes. Closely related snakes share the same venom (and thus anti-venom). Successful tree construction and interpretation allows users to select a treatment. This scenario, anchored in a real life setting, provides participants with motivation for learning phylogenetics.

To evaluate Phylo-Genie’s strengths and limitations in supporting collaborative learning of phylogenetics we conducted a between-subjects experiment with 56 undergraduate and graduate students. We compared the system implemented on a multi-touch tabletop to a traditional pen and paper implementation of the Phylo- Genie scenario. The rationale for this choice was to conduct an ecologically valid comparison of our system as pen and paper is the premier media used for teaching in college settings. In this study, we examined the similarities and differences of the two implementations in terms of quantitative performance and qualitative behavior.

In this study we examined the similarities and differences of the two implementations in terms of quantitative performance and qualitative behavior. Our results suggest that our proposed design guidelines promoted a deeper understanding of phylogenetics.

More specifically, four guidelines shaped the design of our system: firstly, we focused on developing an activity that engaged and motivated students. Interactive technology helped reach this goal. We created rich and viscerally compelling contents that were not available in paper format (e.g. immersive videos, interactive contents, animated tutorials). The engagement questionnaire suggests that students felt more involved, viewed the learning experience more successful, and rated the task as being more aesthetic. Secondly, we supported collaboration through physical tokens and tabletop implementation embodying the main actors of this scenario. The goal was to reinforce users’ ownership of both physical objects and areas on the interactive surface. We interpret the more balanced division of labor between users as an indirect evidence for this hypothesis: in the tabletop implementation, participants took more turns and spent more time collaborating (e.g. pooling information, coordinating activities) rather than working independently. The results are supported by other studies showing that territoriality plays an important role in tangible learning environments [27,44]. Thirdly, we dedicated a significant part of the learning activity for students to reflect on the content. Even though the paper activity also offered this opportunity, we argue that switching from a very active role (interacting with physical tokens on a multi-touch surface) to a more reflective stage (articulating discoveries as formal concepts) provided better opportunities for understanding and refining phylogenetic concepts. Fourthly, we tried to provide a sense of control and autonomy to our participants by building automatic feedback and scaffolding in our activity. Although we did not device any measures for this dimension, we believe that this principle played a major role in the learning process; in traditional classrooms, students often have a passive role and depend on the teachers for advancing in the domain taught. In Phylo-Genie, users control the pace of the activity and decide when to move to the next step without any social pressure. Future studies should develop metrics to measure this construct and investigate how it helped students’ learning.

In summary, the four guidelines helped develop a strong learning activity. Additionally, we observed that the learning process took an indirect path. The mediation analyses revealed that collaboration was the strongest factor in supporting knowledge-building and that engagement acted as mediator for a productive collaboration. Thus, Phylo-Genie succeeded in supporting learning by increasing users’ collaboration, which in turn was improved by a high engagement. It suggests that interactive environments can and should support learning in very diverse ways.



Project members: Bertrand Schneider, Megan Strait, Sarah J. Elfenbein, Laurence Muller, Orit Shaer, Chia Shen

Publications: Schneider B., Strait M., Muller L., Elfenbein S., Shen C., & Shaer O. (2012). Phylo-Genie: Engaging Students in Collaborative ‘Tree-Thinking’ through Tabletop Techniques. CHI 2012.

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