Relative Advantage of Instructional Software
When I can find software to use in class, everybody benefits. Obviously it means I don’t have to lecture that day, other than to explain how to use the software. Chances are the students will be more interested, especially if the software is fun to use. Unfortunately some of what I have had students use is less than ideal. For example, I had students do a webquest to learn about doing protein gels. I could have lectured, but it seemed better for them to see the animations. For this particular webquest, I gave them questions and links to various websites where they can find the answers. I learned that if I were to do this again, I may have to put the link to the website adjacent to the question it answers. As much as students like using computers, they don’t necessarily like to use them for research, or to find an answer that can’t be easily found in a Google search or a wiki.
To teach students how to analyze data by using software that gives them the opportunity to read graphs or the results of an experiment, is not as good as having them do it hands-on in the classroom, but it is better than them not getting any experience with the information. Unfortunately many of the virtual labs I have used with students are either so difficult that it takes me hours to figure them out, like Gizmos, or they are just point, click, and drag exercises that they actually end out being a waste of time. Until my abilities with creating software or using software to create lab scenarios gets better, I am afraid that if I use software with the kids, it is going to be written by somebody else.
Interested in what our textbook has to say, I started skimming through it. Sadly on page 77, they say, “Today, after more than 30 years of development and experimentation, there is less talk of computers replacing teachers…” which is actually an optimistic perspective. What is sad about it, is that from my experiences in the last 4 years, it is not true. Computers and scripted curriculum are replacing teachers. There are companies who are making lots of money by replacing the teachers that used to be in the classroom by replacing them with virtual teachers. These virtual teachers will often have a load of 200 students per day from whatever states they have a credential to teach in. While I realize this post is supposed to be about how educational software and technology tools help the classroom teacher, I feel the need to point out the disparity that exists between a classroom teacher and a virtual teacher. Software IS replacing the classroom teacher. I know this because I taught kids in Delaware who did not have a classroom teacher. The software and I replaced whoever should have been the classroom teacher when the school was restructured. For my Pennsylvania kids, I was their teacher, even though I never met them in person, and live 2000 miles away. I did not actually ever teach them anything. I tried to tutor them if they would stay focused enough during a tutoring session to let me explain things to them, but even then, I had some kids who were not used to the idea of being responsible for their learning. This is not at all what I meant this blog post to turn out as so I will curtail my digression on how bad virtual schools are at this point, but I do want to point out that in my presentation of tutorials, drill and practice, and other categories of instructional software, this is not the same software being used in virtual schools. The software links I am presenting for this post are stuff that I either used when I was in the classroom, or would use should I ever get back in a classroom. (The later seeming further and further away from possibility, but you never know. So far using a wheelchair rocks using a walker, and if I upgrade to a power wheelchair, who knows what my limits will be?)
Robolyer and Doerling point out on page 78 that “instructional software packages are developed for the sole purpose of supporting instruction and/or learning.” It is important they differentiate between technology that is merely a tool, technology that is replacing the teacher, and technology that supports the teacher. Granted, they are not acquiescing that software is replacing teachers, but trust me, it is. They go on to elaborate which types of software can allow for directed and / or constructivist approaches. Naturally, as the students are given more control of the software environment, the more constructivist it can be. For example, having students build a website gives them more freedom than merely doing a webquest where they go hunting for answers to questions. (I have had students do both.) I see a parallel between paper and equipment lessons and computer software ones. The tutorials and drill and kill are like the worksheets or notes I used to print out on paper for the kids to use. Simulations are like cookbook labs. Problem solving scenarios are like inquiry based labs. At the moment, I don’t have a parallel for instructional games, unless doing a Jeopardy review or having kids make board games qualifies as an instructional game.
In chapter 3, Robolyer and Doerling give advice on how to select good examples of software in each category. In addition they elaborate the pros and cons of each type. Many teachers scoff at having any rote memorization types of drill and kill, whether it is a worksheet or a computer program. It is comforting to see that I am not the only one who finds value in having students practice specific types of problems repeatedly. I am currently tutoring an algebra 2 student, and while preparing for her winter final, it became pretty chaotic with so many different problems to figure out. One thing I started to notice, however, is that what was becoming more important than getting the right answer, was learning how to evaluate the situation to determine which technique best solves each problem. We may never recognize we are factoring a binomial in the real world, but learning how to be calm while sorting through our resources and evaluating them is a skill both my student and I will benefit from knowing.
Tutorials are my favorite type of programs to create because I love learning how to use Articulate Storyline. I took the BSU class on Flash, and it was pretty much a nightmare. I used Articulate’s free 30 day download for two classes, and became hooked. Fortunately I have significant support from my husband and family, so I was able to purchase Storyline. Flash will integrate with Storyline so I may do some flying numbers in Flash to bring in to a Storyline project, but otherwise I think I am stuck on doing the “explanation screen” way of trying to help students with various science topics. I have not created many tutorials, but you are welcome to see what I have done at www.getzguides.com. For my students who were enrolled in virtual classes because they were at a treatment center, my guides were a way they could get additional support for the classes if a live tutor was not available. Robolyer and Doerling point this out on page 88, tutorials are useful for instruction when no teachers are available. You may be surprised by how many students are taking classes that don’t have a readily available teacher. It is for these students I write my tutorials.
I am a huge fan of physics simulations. Even making apps with Corona or other simple programs lets you use physics. Even though I did not figure out how to make an app by coding in lua for one of my BSU classes, I did come to appreciate how physics can easily be integrated into simple software programs. As much as I am addicted to Minecraft, it is odd how they only have physics apply to two types of blocks. Then again, because they suspend the laws of physics, students can easily make three dimensional representations of objects when building in creative mode. Redstone mimics electronics and minecarts can travel based on gravity, so Minecraft is not completely void of physics. The redstone and use of minecarts on trails can give kids an opportunity to participate in something a teacher created, therefore making it a simulation or game, or they can create their own situations which would fall into the problem solving category.
I am torn when it comes to digital dissection because I know I truly learned more about animals by dissecting them, than if I had just gone through a point and click way of learning body parts. I wonder, though, how necessary it is to kill so many animals just for tenth grade dissections. Our book quotes from studies that showed digital vs physical manipulation does not seem to matter in terms of what information students retain (Roblyer & Doerling, 2013, p.91). For many teachers, the benefits of no set-up or clean-up, less costly equipment once the software is acquired, unless its license has to be renewed annually, and less supervision needed during the class period, outweigh the negative perception that what the students are doing is not actually real. The American Chemical Society (ACS), and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) have come out against virtual labs. Even the College Board will not accept credits in classes where students did a virtual equivalent of a lab. (Robyler & Doerling, 2013, p. 93). This means students will be doing PCR and running agarose gels for their AP biology lab, instead of imagining the bands migrating through the gel.
The last two categories, Instructional Game Software and Problem-Solving Software, are more difficult for me to see in the science context. The book recognizes Geometer’s Sketchpad, which is a very good program. It helps make geometry more spatially available. They also mention Spore as a game for studying evolution. I can’t comment on Spore because I’ve never played it. I do have to say, though, that I did an internship for a nanotech company in Emeryville, and the folks who created Spore were either on our floor or above us. It was interesting to ride in the elevator with them. But I digress, once again…
You may notice in my presentation , instructional games and problem solving software have very few entries. Hopefully I will be able to add more links after I post my blog. Fortunately the book treats the last two categories like it did the first three by giving example scenarios, and pro/con lists. One possible con that struck me was the idea of having to choose software that can handle limited physical dexterity (Robyler & Doerling, 2013, p. 95). I don’t think many students like having me in class because I can find faults easily in student work, and I will mention it. It is not to be mean; I’m actually trying to be helpful. People who don’t have disabilities really have no clue what it is like to have some. Just ask me about how ludicrous some of the ADA adaptations are where I live, and I’d be glad to tell you how we need people with the disability to create the adaptive physical changes, or in the case of my classes, adaptive software. We used Minecraft as a game, and as a way to do problem solving when I took EDTECH 531. In 531, we created an example of how to use one of three software packages as an educational tool, and there were some lessons I could not physically do because of the way they were designed. I did not have the manual dexterity to click and drag fast enough. If you know how to contact me, and you want me to evaluate any website or program you create for its difficulty with my limitations, just ask. I happily volunteer my eyes, hands, and defective brain as a testing environment.
In 531, I was incredibly impressed with how Minecraft (MC) can be used to simulate many social studies situations. I thought of a few ways it could be used with science, and I plan to make quests in 3dGameLab that have students use Minecraft to look at some science concepts. I feel like Minecraft is predictable enough that you can act like a scientist, and evaluate the game in survival mode as if one is going through the scientific method. I wish I qualified for minecraftedu so I could create scenarios that have students go mining for organic and inorganic resources. I can do that with regular MC, but it will be much more difficult to control student access to specific areas, and to protect blocks. The possible lessons in Second Life are also amazing, but from what little I’ve experienced, they are not on the level of games or problem solving. I can see World of Warcraft being used for problem solving because that is what you have to do continuously- the first problem being how to play the doggone game. I felt that way with Minecraft, too. I think any of these software programs that are easily intimidating at first are actually really good tools for students to learn resilience, endurance, and perseverance. I was a MC misfit when I first started playing it. I later became addicted to it. The book makes a distinction between doing problem solving software activities merely for the sake of learning how to problem solve. (Robyler & Doerling, 2013, p. 97). I can totally see using software for that purpose, at least until someone figures out how to create something that can be open ended enough for students to be able to make mistakes and therefore be able to learn from them
One thing that should be in any of the interactive software games is a chance for failure. When click and drag scenarios are too predictable, students won’t be challenged and will complete the activity because they are required to, and not necessarily because they are enjoying what they want to learn. We need to be careful, though, to not build in failures that students will take too strongly or too personally. I still don’t know where I am going to fit into education in my next stages. I’m hoping it will involve creating quest based courses in 3dGameLab that other teachers will want to use. If I can figure out how to turn a quest or a course into how to problem solve something in science, other than an easily predictable physics or genetics lab, I will be ecstatic.
Roblyer, M. D., & Doering, A. H. (2013). Integrating educational technology into teaching [6th edition].