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ALL MODELS ARE WRONG
“ Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful
the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful. ” – George Box
Through engaged interaction with applied visualization tools, a learner can facilitate higher order learning more efficiently, with better understanding and greater comprehension.
Studies have shown that human beings acquire more information through vision than all the other senses combined.  Visualization and mind tools provide the ability to translate our mental images into rough, tangible, and digital representations of those images so that we can better understand our thoughts and more actively engage in the development and exploration process of what we are learning and why we are learning it.
Today, with new web technologies such as HTML 5, visualization tools have become part of how we interact online.  For example, the MacSpartan visualization tool enables chemistry students to view, rotate, modify and measure molecules through direct manipulation. This interaction allows the learner to visually understand the abstract chemistry concepts that are invisible to the naked eye, thereby helping chemistry students to analyze the information, brainstorm and develop new comprehension of this abstract process.  Another example is the Adobe Kuler application which allows designers to interactively create, save and share custom color schemes for design projects. 
As useful as mind tools are in empowering the learner to visually interpret and analyze a subject matter, studies have also shown that visualization tools alone can’t promote higher order thinking and analytical skills based on the learner’s unique vision and experiences.  When computer technologies are used as the primary source of acquiring information, the learner can develop deficiencies in their critical thinking and learning skills, eventually becoming passive learners.
Seymour Papert, a pioneer in promoting “self directed learning,” argues that by using visualization tools to brainstorm and reflect our inner feelings and ideas, we can make those ideas tangible and shareable. According to Papert, these ideas in return can help us inform, shape and acquire new knowledge and understanding that is based on our own individual experiences in interacting with the world around us, resulting in a deeper understanding about ourselves and our environment. 
In “ What Constitutes Systems Thinking,” Will Costello proposes that cognitive tools such as a well designed simulator can simplify a real world experience by actively engaging the student in the learning process through problem-solving and decision-making while shedding light on the complexity of the system that the simulator is representing. He argues that this could be any system that promotes higher order learning and contemplative analysis on any given subject matter. 
As an online photography instructor, I have been researching for comprehensive visual simulators that could facilitate the understanding of abstract photography techniques, so the students could capture and communicate their personal vision more clearly and effectively.
There are some online photography simulators such as Kamera Simulator  and DSLR Simulator  that allow the user to physically manipulate different camera settings such as the film speed or aperture settings in order to see immediate results.
After testing these applications in my photography classes, and based on students’ feedback, it became clear that the interface for these simulators were too complex and confusing for a beginner learner. In addition, none of these tools provide any instructions or support in how to use the tools efficiently.
Based on this research and testing, it was concluded that these self-contained simulators can be useful for hobbyists with some basic knowledge in photography. But these applications are not effective teaching and learning tools for a beginner learner, since they don’t provide a clear understanding of how to use the techniques so that the learner could better articulate and materialize their mental vision.
As proof of concept, and to engage and improve higher order learning, this paper proposes building a customized simulator as a visual mental model through direct manipulation and interaction with a virtual digital camera for online beginning photography classes.
By allowing the learner to manipulate the virtual settings and dials and instantly seeing changes and results on an image, the student can visually and directly learn about the abstract technical photography concepts, such as film, shutter and aperture settings, and immediately establish the relationship between how the interaction between these settings can affect the overall image.
What makes this application a more powerful learning tool than standalone simulators or traditional online textual lessons is that through direct manipulation providing immediate visual feedback, the learner can instantly bridge the gap between the abstract technical photography concepts and the theory behind those concepts. Furthermore, through “self directed learning,” the learner can actively engage in interpreting, analyzing and acquiring new knowledge and understanding, thereby communicating their unique vision through photographs more clearly. 
I plan to design and program this simulator in Flash using Action Script 3 as part of a complete lesson plan. Based on the feedback that I have received from my photography students on the available simulator’s confusing interface, I will simplify the design of the initial prototype interface to include only the shutter speed, aperture setting and film speed control dials and their individual effects on the image. As the lesson plans advance, the level of complexity in using the simulator also will advance to include a complete interaction between the shutter speed, aperture setting and film speed control dials and their overall effects on the image.
I will test the initial prototype in my photography classes to evaluate its effectiveness in
bridging the gap between the abstract technical photography concepts and promoting higher order learning, so the learner could more effectively understand, articulate and organize their ideas, and more clearly materialize their mental vision with others.
Based on the collected data and test results, I will make any additional changes needed for my final thesis project prototype, which will be presented in Winter 2013.
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< Website: > http://www.ifs.tuwien.ac.at/~silvia/wien/vu-infovis/articles/book_information-visualization-perception-for-design_Ware_Chapter1.pdf
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