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When do online/computer simulations add the most value?

The ideas presented at the State of Play session on education this past Saturday triggered a realization that online/computer simulations add the most value as compared with traditional teaching methods when:

  1. The subject is best learned through role-playing
  2. The subject must be modeled using complex data and formulae
  3. The subject is amenable to learning through exploration

On top of this, using online simulation adds value when the participants are geographically dispersed, as in any distance situation. (Or perhaps it is better to say that putting the simulation online reduces the loss imposed when the participants are dispersed).

Why? Some thoughts:

  1. An online simulation, especially in a virtual world, almost automatically puts the participant in role. Without leveraging that possibility, the simulation becomes a “spreadsheet game” (see next point). I may be defining “role-playing” somewhat loosely here; for example, the classic prisoner’s dilemma game, which would benefit wonderfully from being online, is very marginally a “roleplay.”
  2. Without the need for an underlying data model (the “spreadsheet” part of a “spreadsheet game”), it’s debatable whether the simulation couldn’t be more easily and cheaply deployed as a face-to-face roleplay (assuming geography is no problem). For example, interviewing and counseling can be taught fairly effectively over telephone, and inserting a computer as mediator could seriously detract rather than add to the simulation’s versimilitude.
  3. GTA Vice CityThis perhaps delves most deeply into the nature of both games and constructivist learning. It seems that the key value of a simulation/game is the ability for the participant to make meaningful choices — that is, to explore. A simulation or game that has only one right path is not really a simulation but rather a disguised lecture or multiple-choice exam. The need to build in human agency into a computerized simulation is an incredibly difficult skill / artform. (It is this element that made Grand Theft Auto such a hit — not, in my opinion, its glorification of violence). The element of participant agency also fits in wonderfully with our current notion of constructivist learning.

(Also note that I’ve posted an MP3 recorded during the State of Play session to my prior, stream-of-text post).

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