Motion-capture educational platform sees results in K-12 classrooms


Embodied learning — the premise that physical movement and digital learning can go hand-in-hand — is expanding at dozens of schools across the country as educators find ways to use new motion-capture technology.

More than 60 K-12 schools have installed SMALLab Learning technology, a classroom-sized, transformational 3-D learning environment that enables physical, experiential learning across all subjects.

“We couple the physical actions of moving in a real-world, 3-D space and we overlay different kinds of abstract representations,” David Birchfield, co-founder of the company, told EdScoop. SMALLab, which stands for Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, sprung from a research project at Arizona State University.

“As you move, you’re feeling the physical motion in your body, but you’re also seeing diagrams, you’re seeing graphs, you’re seeing equations that represent that motion,” Birchfield said. “In that way, we’re bringing together what we know is very powerful about this embodied processing, together with this kinesthetic action in the space, and that’s how we can drive learning.”

SMALLab uses marker-based motion-capture technology to track movement on its platform within a millimeter. Students hold small, scepter-like markers, and objects can be fitted with smaller nodes. Their activity is reflected onscreen, allowing students to see how their activity corresponds to the lesson they are learning.

SMALLab Learning, which was founded in 2010, is transformative in its application of marker-based motion-capture technology inside classrooms, but the vision behind the company is an educational one, not a technological one, Birchfield said.

SMALLab Learning from SMALLab on Vimeo.

“We’re not a technology company that says, ‘here’s a cool motion-capture technology, let’s stick it in a classroom and see what happens,’” Birchfield said. “Rather, what we did was we built a technology platform alongside a pedagogical framework that embodied learning, and we drew from this field called ’embodied cognition.’ That looks at the very fundamental ways in which the mind and body are connected in learners’ minds.”

The audio, visual and kinesthetic elements of SMALLab create a multisensory experience unlike anything currently in use in K-12 classrooms today, Birchfield said.

“When we started doing the initial work that was funded by the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, we were really trying to take a fundamental approach to bringing together experts from really diverse fields — education, psychology, computer science, dance, music and a lot of different fields looking holistically at the classrooms as a special kind of space.”

SMALLab says its results have been stellar: The company’s research studies indicate an 86 percent increase in student learning. Teachers have also noted a 33 percent increase in effectiveness alongside an almost 700 percent increase in student-led discussion, which is a key indicator of success within a SMALLab environment.

“The teachers that are most effective in SMALLab are the teachers that are most comfortable with an inquiry-learning experience and they’re most comfortable with student-led instruction,” Birchfield said. “Regardless of age and tech savviness, the teachers that are most comfortable with SMALLab are the ones that are already doing things like leading instruction by asking questions … engaging all students in their classroom.”

Educators have largely embraced the technology, which Birchfield described as “intuitive,” even for teachers who are used to chalkboards. The versatility has allowed for all types of learners to engage, according to Denise Manganello, principal of Seneca Valley Academy of Choice, who has plans to expand SMALLab usage in the Pennsylvania program’s classrooms.

“It has so many different opportunities for students to learn content or how things are developed or to collaborate and reach a higher level of thinking and metacognition,” Manganello told EdScoop. “Really, everybody should be using it.”

“It brings learning to life,” she added. “The kids are up, they’re moving. They’re also collaborating, they’re working together and tying it all in.”