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SketchUp Learning Center: A Phenomenal Phenomenaria?

                 Timothy J. Rogers

                 Purdue University
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                 SketchUp Learning Center: A Phenomenal Phenomenaria?

          This paper investigates the freely available online learning resources for the equally

freely available 3D modeling software package Google SketchUp ("Google SketchUp," 2007). A

subset of primary training materials and learning resources for SketchUp will be reviewed and

evaluated through the lens of the constructivist perspective—i.e. a few principles and insights

proposed by notable constructivist theorists such as David N. Perkins and David Jonassen.

          The materials will be summarized as they currently exist with the explicit understanding

that this package, like most active and popular software packages, is a constantly evolving and

adapting toolset and that training materials are required to evolve and adapt as well. That said,

this paper will be constructed with the goal of potentially influencing future releases of training

materials through constructive criticism and application of key principles of constructivist


                            The Context: Google SketchUp 3D Software

          The context of this “Theory in Action” exercise takes place in the educational domain of

applied computer graphics. More specifically, the focus is on the “crossover” point between two

sub-domains of applied computer graphics—i.e. the point in applied graphics education where

conceptual and practical “leaps” in cognitive (and psycho-motor) abilities need to be made—i.e.

the leap between creating 2-dimensional graphics and that of creating more complex 3-

dimensional images. As a result of the highly visual nature and increasingly complex information

requirements of many 21st century disciplines, the technical expectations of the trained computer

graphics professional rise as quickly as the technologies become more powerful and

sophisticated. That said, nearly any discipline that relies on visualization of objects, information,
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and/or environments—such as scientific visualization, product design, architecture, construction,

film/stage production, as well as gaming and animation—can often reach practical limits as to

what can be accomplished with just traditional 2D imagery and graphics. Therefore the crossing

of this dimensional “gap” is often a hard requirement for becoming a valued graphics

professional and as such, computer graphics educators and curriculum designers who embrace

the new paradigm of instruction (Reigeluth, 1999) must be particularly sensitive during this

crossover period and not consider it just a “weeding out” filter. Though there may be some

perceptual challenges that some learners are incapable of overcoming, care should be taken to

insure that potential talent and creative forces are not “cut off” prematurely due to faulty

introductory learning techniques to the 3D realm.

       Given that there are significant differences in technique between 2D and 3D design, it is

clear that both learners and instructional designers that encounter this dimensional gap, have to

think differently. The conceptually complex tools and manipulation spaces related to the creation

of 3-dimentional computer graphics is far more challenging than creating more traditional (an

easier to comprehend) “2D” content. This greater complexity of toolsets as well as the increase

of visual and conceptual dynamics related to manipulating and constructing objects and surfaces

in the 3rd dimension may certainly prove difficult for learners. However, one of the problems of

making the leap—especially for learners who have never created content in 3D—is the sheer

over-kill and intimidating structure of the user interface (UI) of professional 3D software

packages typically introduced in applied computer graphics curriculum. Though these advanced

features and toolsets are essential for greater levels of quality and capabilities as learners mature

within the medium--the bewildering UIs and the apparently boundless advanced features in the

submenus are often more difficult to learn and use by new learners than the basic concepts of
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creating 3D objects. Additionally, the enormous cost and limited access to personal copies of

professional software can also be a challenging obstacle to the learning process as well, i.e. if

one can only learn in a specific campus lab, then the flexibility and access to the tools is reduced

as well depending on lab schedules, building hours, etc. Fortunately for learners new to 3D and

instructional designers concerned about the “graphics dimension gap”--there is perhaps a

promising inter-mediate solution to some of these barriers to learning many of the underlying

concepts and processes of creating 3D content. Why not cut out all the bells, whistles, costs, UI

complexities, and barriers to access—and have 3D “first-timers” focus on the essentials? Google

SketchUp fits this problem area.

       In terms of an introduction to 3D, Google SketchUp is a fun, intuitive, and easy-to-learn

3D graphics “sketching” program that is freely available from Google. One indication that

SketchUp might be a good bet for a beginner in 3D might be their leading headline on the

SketchUp homepage that claims: “SketchUp is 3D for everyone.” Of course, one goal of this

paper is to assess—from the perspective of constructivist theory—whether or not that claim is

just a marketing ploy, or a legitimate claim. If “everyone” is a potential learner of this software,

assessing the needs of such a vast and potentially multi-faceted target audience makes the

specific task of this paper a bit more manageable since the primary concern is with learners that

are very new to the process of 3D creation.

                                    The Instructional Materials

       After searching out all of the available training materials and related information

resources on SketchUp in preparation for this study, it was discovered that there is an enormous

amount of information and resources available for this package. To give a glimpse into the
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quantity and diversity of primary sources or learning materials are outlined in Appendix A. In

general, there are at least nine broad categories of resources, which can be grouped into “In-

Software” resources that are coupled tightly with the installation software and “Additional

Resources” that are more peripheral and/or web-centric. The “In-Software” resources include:

the “Learning Center” that opens immediately (and is fore-grounded) when the program is first

started; the “Help Menu” that organizes (or redirects the user) to many of the primary sources;

the 7 innovative and “immersive” self-paced tutorials; as well as the “Instructor” module. The

“Additional Resources” include: dozens of short, topic-specific, Google produced (and hosted),

video tutorials; multiple YouTube channels by SketchUp Support Team members with a broad

range of topics and updates on items; published textbooks including “SketchUp for Dummies”

with an accompanying YouTube tutorial page; and, finally, an active online SktechUp

community with a couple blogs and a pair of SketchUp Google Groups (for both the free version

of SketchUp and the Pro Version) that lists as many as 10,000 subscribed members. Of course

for the purposes of this paper, the scope regarding these materials need to be scaled down

considerably. After a summary review of all of these resource paths, it was determined that the

best approach would be to “keep it close” to the software, i.e. to begin with the assumption that

access to the internet may not be an option for the learning environment. Another factor that

influenced this decision was the discovery the most interesting and innovative learning

component is SketchUp’s “Learning Center” that leverages many of the features of the software

itself to construct a clever introductory learning environment within the SketchUp environment

itself. That said, the focus of this paper will be on the “In-Software” learning resources with a

particular focus on SktechUp’s Learning Center.
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       To tighten the practical focus of this paper even further, there will be a few basic

assumptions concerning the learning context. It is assumed that the target user/learner has just

installed the SketchUp program for the very first time with only the understanding that it is a

software package to learn how to draw in 3D. It will also be assumed that the learner knows

nothing about the software beyond the name and function of the package nor is it assumed that

the learner is familiar with any of the available online resources.

                        The Instructional-Design Theory: Constructivism

       As mentioned earlier in this paper, the lens of the constructivist perspective will be

employed to analyze and assess aspects of the SketchUp learning materials. Aspects of the

learning environment will be of particular interest since the learning takes place within a

computer mediated work space. A selection of various constructivist principles and insights

related to important aspects of learning environments will be highlighted including references to

constructivist theorists such as David N. Perkins and David Jonassen.

       The inciting constructivist notion that will be used to frame this investigation of the

SketchUp materials is the curious term “phenomenaria” coined by David Perkins. Perkins, in an

important early work on constructivism—Technology meets constructivism: Do they make a

marriage?—defines phenomenaria as “an area for the specific purpose of presenting phenomena

and making them accessible to scrutiny and manipulation” (D. N. Perkins, 1991). He mentions

examples such an aquarium, experimental apparatus around a physics or chemistry question, as

well as simulation games and interactive tools for creating and learning geometry theorems.

Phenomenaria are classified by Perkins as one of five critical “facets” of a constructivist learning

environment. The other facets being: information banks, symbol pads, construction kits, and task
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managers. The notion of phenomenaria has been embraced by other prominent constructivists aw


        David Jonassen’s book chapter Designing Constructivist Learning Environments (D.

Jonassen, 1999), invokes and describes the term “phenomenaria” while elaborating on his own

conceptualization of problem manipulation spaces. Jonassen indicates the similarity between

phenomenaria and his problem manipulation spaces by describing phenomenaria, or

microworlds, as “a physical simulation of the real-world task environment” that present “a

simplified model, along with observation and manipulation tools necessary for testing learners’

hypotheses about their problems”(D. Jonassen, 1999; D. H. Jonassen, 1996). These descriptors

and characterization of phenomenaria will be used to investigate the instructional design

technique used in the very first lessons of SketchUp’s Learning Center.

                                   The Learning Environment

        While doing the summary review of the SketchUp training materials, it was discovered

that a particularly innovative learning environment technique was used in the SketchUp Learning

Center described in the previous section. While analyzing the structure and value of the

technique it was determined that the instructional design could perhaps be easily classified as a

very unique and effective form of phenomenarium. Assuming a new user has never encountered

the software, nor have constructed geometry in the 3rd dimension, the Learning Center creates for

the user a clever blend of 2D information that frames the actual 3D software environment in

order to guide and scaffold the new user while learning the very rudimentary basics of the

program. What is wonderfully unique about this technique is that all the inherent capabilities of
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the software are used in a unique way to construct this learning environment within the software


                          Figure 1: Phenomenaria Example on YouTube

       Figure 1 shows an image of a video example captured for this paper that demonstrates the

visual context of the introductory Learning Center module. This particular window uses only an

animated .gif that frames a traditional 2D drawing environment with a 2D paper drawing of a

drawing environment (desk and chair). Then the paper drawing comes to life and rises off of the

page and becomes an interactive 3D drawing, thus illustrating how the desk can be explored,

manipulated and redesigned. It turns out that the .gif also explicitly shows (in order) all of the

basic tools that are to be taught in the next step of the lesson. (The video of this preliminary

experience can be viewed on the YouTube Phenomenaria page or by clicking the image or link

in Figure 1).

       The next step begins when the user clicks the link to the SketchUp model on the bottom

right of the window. At this point, the animated gif “literally” comes to life because the link

opens up the model viewed in the demo .gif in the software. This step is probably one of the
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most impressive design elements, given that the actual environment is framed with a clever use

of the software capabilities—i.e. a standard 2D foreground image (with transparency used as a

way to mask an opening of the model behind the image) is designed with text-narrative, stylized

imagery, indexical icons, and a human character as “narrative guide”. To demonstrate this

sequence shows a wonderful example of visual (and animated) scaffolding embedded in the

learning materials. (A video of the step 2 experience can be viewed on the YouTube

Phenomenaria page or by clicking the image or link in Figure 2).

                               Figure 2: YouTube Video Example 2

       But can this unique example be considered an actual “phenomenarium”? To examine

this, it might be helpful to propose an appropriate analog of this high-tech technique in the

context and scope of this study. If we use Perkins’ example of the aquarium, consider immersing

a sealed aquarium of fish into its natural habitat along with the learner…hence you have the

natural environment of the phenomena, paired with a controlled example of the phenomena, and
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the careful placement of the learner all together in the same macro-environment. From this point

of view, it would seem evident that the SketchUp Learning Center and linked resources may

qualify as a quite successful example of an interactive, computer-enabled, phenomenaria.


       In general, for the learning goals established early on in this paper, the “In-Software”

learning resources are effectively designed and generally succeed from a general constructivist

perspective. Though the primary focus was only on SketchUp’s Learning Center—due to the

uniquely effective and successful application of the constructivist principle of phenomenaria—

the SketchUp materials include numerous examples of accessible and well-designed techniques

for deeper understanding of both the available toolsets of the software, as well as ways to

understand foundational 3D computer graphics concepts. However, depending on how “deep”

one travels into the prescriptions, ideas, and suggestions of various constructivist theorists,

perhaps there are aspects that neither these training materials, nor the software in general possess

that might help contribute to a truly “deep” or “comprehensive”, constructivist, understanding.

       One major problem area could be related to the potential for isolation in the learning

process of any software package. If there are unique problems that arise that the automated

learning materials do not account for, the user/learner may become “stuck” in a frustrating

situation for an indefinite period of time. Of course this depends on the context behind the

motivation for learning the given software. If the training materials were assigned for a class,

then structures may be established to make available the “just-in-time” feedback that both Laurie

Nelson and Roger Schank identify as important, timely, resources for learners (Nelson, 1999;

Schank, Berman, & Macpherson, 1999). Another “isolated learning” problem may stem from the

inability to express specific understanding of some processes. For example, Perkins, when going
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into detail about “understanding performances” when elaborating on the TfU framework, stresses

the importance of “publicly demonstrating understanding” (David N. Perkins & Unger, 1999)

Though working through the tutorials and related information in isolation gives the learner

plenty of room to “stand back from what they have done and appraise it,” the ability of others

such as fellow students, teachers, and parents to “be in a position to offer feedback” becomes a

bit more problematic—particularly in a “just-in-time” context. Automated or algorithmic

responses of the learning materials to errors are not currently present in the SketchUp software,

i.e., there is neither software responses nor other automated responses to operational errors

during user processes. That is, at least in the “In-Software” resources.

       Once learning activities move beyond the “In-Software” resources and are oriented

online, more options are available for feedback. Options include posting responses to video

tutorials, posting questions to active and relevant categories in online SktechUp forums and

community groups, or simply uploading models to the 3D warehouse and sharing with other

users. Clearly, once the online resources are interacted with, options for feedback may improve.

Though given the anonymous and enigmatic nature of online communities, there is no guarantee

that the feedback will be timely, relevant, personal, or even constructive. However, once the

user does move beyond the immediate and foundational training materials—i.e. navigating and

interacting with the great range of shared resources, archived questions/answers, as well as

numerous user-initiated independent development projects of the greater SketchUp

community—learners can significantly improve upon and expand the 3D learning enterprise.

Probably the greatest “gateway” between application level interaction and manipulation of

content and the powerful leverage of being able to “get under the hood” of software to tweak and

customize specific capabilities of any given graphics engine, is the Application Programming
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Interface, or API. SketchUp has a RUBY API that allows more adventurous learners to “pop the

hood” of the software package and customize properties and capabilities through scripting.

Perkins emphasizes the importance of this process in constructivist terms when he states on page

97 of Teaching and Learning for Understanding, “Learning for understanding becomes a

progressive process of attempting more and more challenging understanding performances,

gradually expanding the flexible performance capacity of the learner” (David N. Perkins &

Unger, 1999). In this case, SketchUp fits the model quite well, as the online community at large

is rich with adventurous learners who have probed beyond the basic learning goals explored in

this paper (as well as many others not introduced in this subset of materials) to get a deeper

understanding of the fundamental aspects of 3D computer graphics. Along these lines, the

current “In-Software” training materials do not have a very helpful introduction to the RUBY

API. The API is presented as most API’s are—which is not at all very intuitive to new users to

the concept. Yet another “leap” similar to the 2D-to-3D gap, that could be addressed in future

SketchUp training materials.

       In general, however, that the SketchUp software, its training materials, and the learning

community at large have so effectively “constructed” themselves upon to the foundations of a

discipline—3D geometry and computer graphics—may be an impressive paean to the validity

and accessibility of constructivist theory.
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