August 4, 2010

The world in a small window

Categories: Close-up — Tags: , , — Nick @ 3:41 am

The biggest new feature in version 1.9 of World Geography Tutor, which we’re rolling out this week at FamilyGames.com, is the optional larger view that is now supported. Some users have found WGT’s small window size a matter of curiosity since the app first came out back near the turn of the century, and admittedly it might seem like an odd choice. After all, is it not more convenient to work on a large, non-scrolling map if the monitor screen is big enough? Why doesn’t World Geography Tutor provide that option?

I’m not sure I’ve ever answered this question in public, though I’ve explained the reason often enough to individuals. In fact we particularly wanted the window to be small enough that the user would be required to scroll. The issue is not one of convenience, but of learning theory. On a fixed map, you might think you’re memorizing the location of The Gambia, but in fact your memorization is clouded by a detail that should be irrelevant but is irresistibly exploited by your memory as the new information is processed. That detail is the position of The Gambia on the display. On a fixed map, each country stays put with respect to the enclosing rectangle, be that a window boundary or a monitor screen, and that extra positional information is included in the new memory. While you remain at your computer, the added information, arbitrary though it is, will actually make recall easier. But it’s also a crutch. In an environment where the positional cue is absent — a conversation, say, or a test — recall won’t be nearly as good.

What you should really be doing is memorizing each country in the context of the shape of its containing land mass and the countries surrounding it on the map. It means far more to know that The Gambia is on the west side of Africa nested inside Senegal than that is on the left side of the monitor screen two centimeters below the logo. On a scrolling map, your memory is compelled to depend more on the geographically-relevant cues, and the importance of the physical context is reduced. Since the learning goal is primary, we went with a scrolling map.

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