Wednesday, 20 October 2004

Gotchas in Using Computer Simulations

In today OLDaily, Stephen Downes cited two papers from The October issue of the International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, the first one being Computer Simulations in Distance Education.

Let me just pick up a paragraph from this paper:

Computer simulations do have distinct disadvantages compared with other modalities. First, because computer simulations are often used with “problem-based learning” methods, they stimulate learners to immerse themselves in a problematic situation and experiment with different approaches (Heinich, et. al., 1999). This type of learning may require significantly more time than other methods of instruction. Second, research has shown that, without coaching, the learner gains little from “discovery learning” from computer simulations (Min, 2001; Heinich, et. al., 1999). Third, constructivists argue that computer simulations “oversimplify the complexities of real-life situations”, giving the learner a “false understanding” of a real life problem or system (Heinich, et. al., 1999). Finally, development of computer simulations may involve extensive planning and require significant investment of labor and financial resources.

The author, Les M. Lunce, is absolutely right in pointing out the issues of using such a media, but I would not refer to these as "disadvantages", rather as issues that we should look out and prepared for.

I recalled the excitement I have when I first laid my hand on a pressurized water nuclear reaction simulator (ran on a BBC Model B). I was playing with all sort of parameters all night. The next day when I show to my students, they showed excitement (like I had) at the beginning, but quickly turned the excitement into frustration. To my students then, all these parameters made no sense at all. They just could not "plug" into the model. I learnt this lesson and these days I put a lot of emphasis on "pre-briefing" - preparing the players to handle the situation, both simulation and role playing.

I would also like to comment that "constructivistic" paradigm does not equal to throwing the learners into the deep end of the pool and let them swim or die. Scaffolding is a common technique in providing help (and progressively take away support when the learners become more confident).

Simulations (and many other techniques) involve the "suspension of belief". Learners should have a clear sense of "entering" and "existing" a simulation, a clear distinction between real life and simulated world. Without such a demarcation, it is dangerous and I would consider the moderator does not fulfil his/her "duty of care" to the learners. As such, a simplified world represented by a computer-based model is only a model to the learners and this point should be made very clear. The purpose of the simplification is to focus on the issue which we want to focus on and study. Life is more complicated than simulations!

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