Aristotle’s wisdom that “the things we have to learn before we do them, we learn by doing them”, while being common sense, is often ignored in the realm of conventional education. Ironically, “learn by doing” is an instinctive activity, as can be seen by the role-play games by children that help them understand complex systems and dynamic processes in real life. Role play is a classic mix of simulation and emulation wherein a real situation is enhanced through imagination and helps in better perception of spaces and scenarios; Einstein knew a thing or two when he claimed imagination to be more important than knowledge.
Somewhere along the way, theory replaces experimentation and erudition becomes an alias for knowledge. Such a situation has been largely driven by lack of time, resources and innovation, or merely by the impracticality of designing hands-on experiments. This is where technology can help. Computer-based simulations can be used to provide a fertile ground for experience and the use of simulated activities is slowly being recognized as an important tool in education. The use of computer simulation in education is particularly relevant now because school students in tech-aware countries, unlike their predecessors, were born into a digital world where technology is an artifact of culture.
Computer simulation-assisted education has been broadly categorized into two – simulation focused learning wherein the student learns to simulate to solve practical problems and simulation-based learning, where computer simulations, in combination with animation and other visualization techniques are used to understand a topic. Such simulation-based learning is interactive where the student actively participates in the simulated environment.
Computer simulations are cognitive tools in education because they are practical, especially in cases where theory cannot provide the full “experience” of learning, and experiments are impractical or costly to setup. They are designed for trial and error learning and help in transitioning the student from novice to expert understanding of the subject matter. More importantly, they provide firsthand experience to the student who becomes an active participant, not merely an observer. This inspires and encourages active learning because the student assumes a responsible role, finds ways to succeed and develops problem solving tools by herself.
A unique feature of interactive simulation-based learning is that results change in response to input signals and students understand various scenarios and their effect in a seemingly chaotic world, without the risks associated with real life experimentation. For example, the effect of vehicle speed on crash damage is best understood through simulation rather than experimentation, for obvious reasons. Such dynamic simulations are often seen in what are considered (sometimes derisively) “games” (e.g. flight simulators, auto racing games etc.). Considering that 92% of children ages 2–17 play video and computer games, it is only logical to extend this “infotainment” into “education”. Computer simulations are already used in a variety of practical contexts, such as weather forecasting, analysis of air pollution, noise, logistic system, flight simulators, etc. and it is but one small step to move them into the classroom.
Another advantage of computer simulations is that graphics and animations can allow better visualization and offer an emulative feel. Use of three dimensional dynamic models is particularly useful in visualizing creative processes, such as building of molecules. Simulations also provide an environment in which learning is fast-moving, self-determining, demanding, graphically oriented and proactive [i]. Blake and Scallion, in an article in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, report that computer simulations allow time saving, easy manipulation of experimental variables and provide support in understanding representations, such as diagrams and graphs [ii].
Game-like simulations provide an opportunity to attract students who are otherwise indisposed to engaging in the classroom. It has been shown that game-based learning has the biggest impact for low performing students – students who do not engage through the textbook, lecture and other classroom activities [iii]. This could be a result of the opportunity offered by simulations for peer tutoring and task focus.
The management and implementation of simulated learning is very similar to “practical” experimental labs and involves the teacher providing content expertise and focus to move it along. Obviously, this entails that the teachers be not only knowledgeable in the content area that the simulation will anchor, but also adept at using the simulation itself or at least willing to learn it along with the students. The teacher must be aware of the aspects or phases of the simulation that will meet specific goals of the lesson. Apart from merely “having fun” going through the motions of the simulations, the student must be able to generate specific results and understand the fundamentals of the simulated scenario. Simulations must offer parallel learning experiences that connect the learning experience that is structured into the learning unit or lesson plan.
Computer simulation-based learning shifts the focus of education from “teacher centric” to “learner centric” and this discovery learning approach has become very popular. However, there is a limit beyond which the control cannot be transferred from the teacher to the learner. Insufficient “theory” support for the processes of discovery learning results in difficulties in generating and adapting hypotheses, designing experiments, interpreting data and regulating learning [iv]. On the other hand, over-guidance that condenses the simulations to a step-by-step recipe approach undermines their potential and restricts creativity in a richly contextualized environment. Balanced guidance is essential for inquiry learning and provides the scaffolding for simulation-based learning.
Simulation based learning carries with it the risk that the engagement of students could lose balance and could become a mindless addiction rather than the educational activity it is aimed to be. According to Dr. Heather Coffey, when the goals of simulations do not align with the learning goals of the classroom, students only waste time “playing” rather than becoming educated. Some other drawbacks include deterioration of interest in the simulation, driven by natural disinclination towards simulation, perceived cognitive challenge and decline of human interaction leading to lack of communication, discussion and feedback [v].
The costs and technical issues associated with simulation based learning could be a serious deterrent. The insufficiency of technology to support a digital simulation-based learning may lead to unequal access by students to this type of instructional tool. The availability of a myriad of educational technologies necessitates careful and informed assessment before integration.
Driven by the synergy of technological advancements and instructional innovations, simulations are rapidly gaining importance in the classroom in tech-savvy nations as robust add-ons, either as a supplement to traditional teaching methods or as a substitute for sections of the curriculum. Merging traditional methods with simulations can potentially enhance the experience of the learning process.
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[iii] Best Practices for using Games & Simulations in the Classroom, Guidelines for K–12 Educators, Jan 2009: A Publication of the Software & Information Industry Association (Siia) Education Division
[v] Lowe, K., Lee, L., S., R., Cummings, R., Phillips, R., and Lake, D. Learning objects and engagement of students in Australian and New Zealand schools. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (2), (2010) pp. 227-241