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Glendon Psychology Professor Receives Two Major Research Grants


Dr. Evelyne Corcos (right), associate professor in Glendon’s Psychology Department, has received two SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grants from its ITST (Image, Text, Sound and Technology) funds. The first, awarded in 2007, amounted to $50,000; this year’s grant of $40,800 enables her to continue her leading-edge research for a project using the latest technologies to promote experiential learning.

Corcos’ research focuses on social communication in at-risk adolescents. Phase one of her project developed a prototype for using cartoons as tools for changing behaviour patterns. This second phase, aptly called screenPLAY, involves videotaping students who interact on-screen in situations commonly experienced by adolescents, such as discussing acceptable sexual behaviour, disagreements among friends and classmates, or difficulties with studies.

Corcos has created templates in which vignettes pinpoint particular thinking-skills involved in social learning. For example, in one template, participants watching the videos are asked to determine whether they are viewing an instance of a stated behaviour. Having access to a written and aural definition of the behaviour, they must provide a rationale for their response, and have access to the reasons provided by other users. Ultimately, they are asked to rank all the responses from most to least effective. To encourage consultation and add an element of fun, words contained in the definition are used in a timed Scramble game. Finally, users are asked to create a vignette, using the comic-strip creator that addresses the behaviour in question.

Some of the teen characters used in the videos

screenPLAY is committed to protecting the identity of users by requiring them to choose an avatar that will represent them on the website. The ones presently available not only allow users to choose a personality type, but also include a choice of emotions.

Corcos and her team have already filmed high-school students engaged in a variety of scenarios which teens have identified as personally relevant. Actors remain anonymous because film clips are converted to cartoon-like images using a process called rotoscoping.

Corcos has assembled an extensive team for this project, composed as much as possible of York faculty and students. These include Peter Paolucci, a member of York’s English Department on the Keele campus, whose special contribution to the project is translating the psychological aspects to the technological; database programmer Shirley Hu and flash and web programmer Boze Zekan; York student Fiona Dyshniku of Glendon’s Psychology Department, working on the videos and their content; York Fine Arts student Samantha Shute, who is working on the production of the videos; and graphic artist Fiona MacDonald. In addition, with the assistance of the RAY and Work and Study programs, students Javeria Arshad and Mohammad Affan Jalal are participating in the research of content, as well as the collection and analysis of data. Student videographers assisted in the filming of video clips.

“The technical challenges inherent in this project are quite significant”, said Corcos. “To date, all avatars are individually created on the computer; they are really an art form, a branch of painting. As you may guess, this is very time-consuming and expensive and we are exploring innovative techniques not only to simplify the process, but to add new and motivating functions.”

Right: A sample of avatars expressing various emotions

Corcos and her team have assembled a demo of twelve scenarios that is being tested on a focus group of students in grades 9 to 11. She has also successfully applied for a parallel standard SSHRC grant to examine the narrative skills of adolescents from a new angle. “We know that many kids with social problems tend to have problems with language skills as well”, said Corcos. “Although screenPLAY will be useful as a resource for teachers and students, it is the research aspect that will provide insights into the relationship of language, cognition and social skills, allowing us to test hypotheses and develop theories.”

Many additional benefits are expected as a result of using these tools. In describing what they observe in each scenario, players can hone their language and writing skills, as well as attempt problem-solving about the issues at hand. They can learn to ‘read between the lines’ in observing the behaviour of their peers, and place themselves in the ‘shoes’ of others. screenPLAY is designed to encourage adolescents to develop skills for creating win-win situations, a technique that is learned, not inherent. “In a multicultural society, such as ours, social skills are often learned outside the home”, commented Corcos. “Among immigrant children, for example, issues of dealing with violence, and the norms of the dominant culture are frequently discovered at school.”

“With this project, I am targeting the full spectrum of high-school students”, she added. “They can hear what others have to say in a particular situation and decide what is effective. The focus is on the rationale – on thinking things through.”

What does the future hold for this project? “I want to deal with scenarios that are part of teens’ everyday life in a way that is both fun and collaborative with other teens”, replied Corcos. “There is an infinite set of issues to be examined. New content can be added at any time and can be tailored to the needs of any specific group.”

Article submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on November 28, 2008