Learning with Microworlds

Microworld is the academic term for a simple learning simulation. The simulation will focus on a dynamic but limited environment with only a handful of operating variables with at least one variables under the learner’s control. In my post on using simple games to teach linear algebra, each game I discuss is based around a microworld. Add gaming elements to a microworld, and you have a simple game.

One of my favorite microworlds allows the learner to play with momentum and gravity. Unlike the linear algebra games, this simulation of gravity in a solar system has no mathematical or gaming elements. The learner manipulates velocity and size of objects orbiting around a star to see the effects.

If students took measurements from a planetary gravity simulation such as this, they could derive principles of gravitation and orbital mechanics in a way similar to the way early astronomers did. Research shows that this type of learning, often called discovery learning or recapitulation, is profoundly more effective than instruction received via lecture or traditional textbook. The affordances of digital devices, broadband, and wi-fi make including elements like microworlds in classrooms easy.

Apple’s iBooks2

Apple is getting into the e-textbook business with iBooks2. However, this may not be the death knell for the big players in the industry, as a few of the big names have been working with Apple on this project. Maybe we’ll get a hint of the direction this takes textbook publishing with a new academic year this fall. Perhaps the $14.99 max price tag will save schools a lot of money compared to $100+ for many traditional textbooks?

1/25 Update: Fox didn’t agree about the pricing. iPads aren’t exactly cheap, even if the texts might be.

My hope is that this release will seed the ground for some open source projects that really do push this idea of interactive textbooks forward.

1) Nearly all of what is taught in schools is public domain. Why do schools pay for textbooks? e-textbooks should be free, and the money should go to other needs in schools. One Slate writer agrees.

2) Bill Gates was on Bill Moyers last night, which I didn’t see, but this brief article relates what I think is THE most important, yet unrealized ability of using computers to deliver instruction: individualization. I don’t just mean a fast student taking 4 months instead 8 months to go through the same course as every other student. I mean courses that can react to student’s learning styles and adjust complexity, depth, or review of material according to a student’s grades or learning style. Individualization does not mean a course won’t be rigorous, or that every student shouldn’t have to do well on standardized test. My thought is that a great e-textbook will offer a student several paths to achieve state learning standards, or do well on the SAT or an AP exam. There is no reason a state, say California or Texas, couldn’t take 10 of their great teachers (capture the “paths” they provide in their own classrooms) and give them a year to write, say, a biology e-textbook with the help of a few graphic designers and software developers, and then provide that e-textbook for free to all the students of the state. Teachers can submit updates that go through committee to keep up with advances in research. Seems simple enough to me.

3/8 Update: Some background on e-books pricing methods in this WSJ article on DOJ’s threat to sue five publishers for alleged price fixing.

Experiencing Failure Is Important to Learning


A teacher I know shared this article on the effectiveness of lecture in the classroom, commenting that this made him rethink his teaching technique. The articles states that lecture quality does little to aid learning. Students who master the objectives of a given class do so with or without the professor. The problem is that this number is minority of students. Test results suggest that peer learning in an experimental environment scaffold learning much better than lectures do. Why is this? It seems that the fundamental concepts are understood at a deeper level when students experience them together instead of than hearing them through the words of the lecturer.

A second article  explores another aspect of learning: making mistakes. According to this article, mastery of a subject requires learning how not to do things at least as learning how. In other words, experiencing both the how and the how not go hand in hand when it comes to building effective learning environments. Consider the possibility of failure while listening to a lecture. It doesn’t even make sense, unless you count falling asleep. From this perspective, the lecture model really fails students.

Lesson for learning: build options for both success and failure into interactive learning environments.