Sunday, September 19, 2010

Evaluating Sites as Effective Problem-Based Technologies: Dreambox, simCEO, and simCity

Our last post developed the criteria for effective educational technology solutions - solutions that have the ability to transform education by integrating Challenge/Project-Based Learning. We outlined criteria that would help develop resources like the Oregon Trail with 2.0 technologies.

Today, we’ll apply these criteria to a few resources, knowing that it is next to impossible to find sites that meet all the criteria. And I’m hoping others can share sites that they feel merit attention!

We’ll start with a quick review of our criteria before reviewing the following three sites.
DreamBox :  K-3 Math site
simCEO: cross-curricular simulation primarily for HS/MS economics
simCity cross-curricular simulation primarily for MS/HS social studies

(Criteria to evaluate effective technology solutions for Challenge/Problem-Based Learning)

What we need then, are educational technology solutions that meet the following criteria:
1) are naturally engaging, placing students in authentic situations which require students to “think like mathematicians / historians / scientists / …” as they apply knowledge and construct their own understandings.
2) are collaborative (and take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies where applicable), promoting an environment that requires learners to discover and make meaning of content together in order to be successful
3) are tied closely enough to content to merit an easy integration in the classroom, but flexible enough so that objectives in varying complexity / disciplines can be met
         3b) are naturally holistic connecting multiple disciplines, contrasted with solutions that allow for extension activities that MIGHT possibly be added to provide connections to other disciplines
4) have a timely (immediate) feedback mechanism, whenever possible
5) allow learning to occur on the learner’s schedule in a relaxed environment
6) meet as many of the other characteristics of best practices in Brain-Based Learning and Project/Challenge - Based Learning as possible.

There are numerous examples of effective uses of technology into which content is naturally embedded - and I define effective technology as “able to re-define how learning occurs” contrasted with simply being a more efficient deliverer of traditional learning.  A few examples that I like are WebAssign   or Jason Science.

But we’re looking for effective examples of Challenge/Project-Based Learning technologies into which content is either embedded or inherent. So, lets get right into applying our criteria to our three sites.

Dreambox Learning
Summary:  A K-3 math site which operates in a closed environment (teachers register and then add their students) in which individual students navigate their way through on online map by answering math problems along the way. Think Dora the Explorer solving math problems to find the treasure !  The instructions/problems go beyond mere computation and offer exercises in truly understanding concepts such as place value. The lessons are personalized to the student’s past navigation and a longitudinal record of growth is shared. Parents can access result as well.

Review: As a multi-award winner, Dreambox has a lot of offer and scores quite well in the latter criteria, numbers 3-6. The immediate feedback and longitudinal record of progress are true assets. The site lacks any inherent collaboration for students - perhaps not surprising given the students' age.  While I can attest to the natural engagement for students from my own daughter’s personal experience,  Dreambox does not perfectly fit the criteria of asking students to “think like mathematicians” in order to succeed in the environment. As mentioned, the tasks themselves are well-developed and aim at mathematical understanding, not necessarily number-crunching. However, the authentic task (navigating the map) is not mathematical in itself. The math lessons are “breaks” along the way of this navigation instead of useful in navigating the terrain.

Summary: (full disclosure, author is the co-creator of this site)
A MS/HS cross-curricular closed simulation (teachers register and then add their students) in which students:

  1. CREATE their own companies
  2. RESEARCH each others' companies online
  3. TRADE:  Manage a portfolio of $10,000 by buying and selling shares in each others' companies which immediately influences share prices.
All of this takes place in a customized environment (place, time, duration of simulation, complexity) that is set by the teacher who can also integrate content by sharing dynamic news (real of fictional) with users, encouraging users to make adjustments along the way.
Participants "win" in one of two ways:

  1. “winning” entrepreneurs create the business that ends with the highest share price
  2. “winning” investors end with the largest portfolio value

Review: SimCEO scores well on all six criteria with two potential weaknesses.
The primary asset of simCEO is that is engages the students in an authentic task that is easy to understand. Students are engaged and excited to succeed. The environment also allows teacher to customize the simulation for age groups or specific outcomes.
The drawbacks:
1) The “content” involved is inherent and not directly stated. This allows more instructor creativity, but poses potential problems because specific content cannot be evaluated as effectively/objectively as DreamBox
2) The collaboration is limited. Individual students have a running message board with the instructor, but not each other. And, while students benefit from seeing how other students respond to specific situations (by reading each others’ business plans, portfolios, and the adjustments to each along the way), individual participants* do not interact with each other to further one another’s knowledge and collaboratively provide a solution to the authentic task. (*Exception: Multiple students can be grouped to constitute an individual)

Summary: You have to be hiding to have not heard of simCity. What began as software that allowed users to create / develop their own cities within a dynamic environment, has expanded now to include additional stand-alone programs focused on creating “destinations”, “societies”, and an added module that allows a more detailed look at transportation issues within simCity.

Review: (note: I have not experienced all the modules mentioned above.)
simCity provides an intriguing and engaging environment for students to apply skills. It scores high on our 6 criteria. The obvious benefits include the clearly defined authentic task that students are engaged in.  There are 3 potential downsides.
1) The simulation engages students in the multi-faceted skill of “city-building”, asking students to apply higher-order skills in an authentic environment. However, the content inherent in city-building does not lend itself easily to traditional classroom content. Creative teachers will need to carefully develop their outcomes and structure the simCity environment in such a way as to allow students to apply their knowledge of this content successfully.
2) The finished product is not, in itself, a product that addresses the content. Whereas, in simCEO or Dreambox, the process of the simulation leads to products and natural feedback on content  (understanding of math problems (for DB) or analysis of news, investment decisions, or persusive business writing (for simCEO) ). simCity instructors must build in these formative and summative assessment prompts into the simulation.

3) Similar to simCEO, the simulation does not provide inherent collaboration between students who are working to come up with one solution.  It could also be argued that there is no obvious "winner" and solutions need to be evaluated much more subjectively.

All three are effective classroom tools. They simply represent examples of what is possible. I’d love to hear of others that stack up well on the proposed criteria. Lets get them out there.

I close this little mini-analysis by sharing an interesting note I picked up from one of my favorite blogs regarding gaming in education: Play Think Learn.
From a March 26 post, Nicola Whitton shared Three challenges for game-based learning
The latter two (of the three) have significance for further developing our list and the challenges that remain for educational game programmers in developing effective technologies.  She shares:

  • The commercial focus on the development of behaviourist learning games, which highlight repetition of fairly trivial tasks, because they are easy to design and easy to evaluate the immediate learning impact. I’m not saying behaviourism doesn’t work, or that it doesn’t have a place in learning, but simply that if the focus is on behaviourist games then we are missing out on a big opportunity. While many games exist that clearly show higher-level learning (for example, the lateral thinking, problem-solving and strategizing required in the Zelda games) these have not yet been translated into games for formal learning.
  • The barriers to entry into the field for most educators. Except in areas such as computing and engineering, it is almost impossible for a teacher with a good idea to develop a learning game, which means that innovation is limited to commercial developments (where markets for sophisticated constructivist games are unproven), research projects or enthusiastic individuals in technical disciplines (where the outputs are often unsustainable) .

As always, your thoughts are welcome and needed.