Future ICT directions – Assessment 2

Future ICT directions

I have been asked to investigate ‘disruptive learning technologies’ as described by Hedberg (2006) in the year 7-12 curriculum with a view to contributing toward future directions teachers take with ICTs and associated pedagogies in science and mathematics. I will discuss some available software simulations and provide an experimental trail of how these simulations might be presented to students.

Disrupting the disruptors

My position is that meaningful learning in ICT is compatible with existing pedagogies and that we should treat the concept of disruptive learning cautiously.  I will also argue that the concept of disruptive learning is based on a flawed understanding of modern technology.

The Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition of the word ‘disrupt’:

Disrupt, Verb, Interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem:

The word itself suggests we should be wary.

Hedberg refers to  Zemsky and Massy (2004) who are concerned that e-learning hasn’t lived up to the hype it has generated.  He quotes statistics supporting the idea that many students and teachers see e-learning as the provision of information only.   We should be looking to technology for methods to add more ‘meaningful learning’ to education.

Jonassen, et al. (2008),  tells us that meaningful learning is required to achieve conceptual understanding and is driven by understanding the tasks we are doing and investing effort in those tasks.  Jonassen, et al. identify five characteristics of meaningful learning. Meaningful learning is:

  • Active
  • Intentional
  • Constructive
  • Cooperative
  • and uses authentic learning processes.

Hedberg’s disappointment is understandable.  Much of the technology used in classrooms doesn’t assist with these characteristics.  Hedberg believes the problem is with the current pedagogies, so they should be disrupted.  He latches on to the idea of disruptive innovation where a new innovation takes over an existing technology and replaces it, such as digital cameras disrupting the home photography market.  He doesn’t point out that investing in potentially disruptive innovation is extremely expensive, and extremely risky.  There are endless technologies that tried to disrupt and failed.  Others did manage to disrupt and still failed, for example Beta Video recorders, Apple Newton, virtual reality devices, etc.

This is the wrong model to use on our children’s education.  We need to tackle the impediments that prevent teachers using technology in a meaningful way.  (Vrasidas & Glass, 2005, p. 8) point out some obstacles to integrating ICT in the classroom.  These include lack of time, incentives, teacher preparation and even a lack of the technology itself.

The fundamental problem is that most teachers simply don’t have the skills to use ICT well.  Technology is difficult, time consuming and often fails.  The last thing teachers need is another layer of impenetrable pedagogical abstraction wrapped around the core problem, that being that they don’t know how to use the technology.  There are two solutions to this problem.  We need more teachers who do understand the technology, and we need technology that is literally ‘child’s play’.

Incidentally, those who like Hedberg are concerned about e-learning’s failure to live up to the hype should think about Gartner’s hype cycles (Linden, & Fenn, 2003).


This diagram is wonderfully self explanatory.

Key question

How can simulations be used effectively in secondary education?

To answer this question, I have developed a product and tested it on secondary students.

Child’s play – Using simulations in education

Simulators have been around for quite a while.  Sim city was developed and sold as a game by Maxis in 1989 but quickly found its way into town planning departments as an education tool.  Organisations such as PhET, Nobelprize.org, Wolfram now provide a wide range of free interactive simulations designed for educational purposes.

Simulators such as these can be used to meet the all the characteristics of meaningful learning suggested by Jonassen, et al. (2008).  In many cases it is sufficient to sit a student in front of a simulator, and within minutes they will come away with conceptual understanding well in excess of what many other teaching approaches take hours to achieve.

Simulators are often designed for an authentic context, for example the Blood Typing simulation by Nobelprize.org.  Herington and Kervin (2007) explain that authentic contexts reflect the way the knowledge will ultimately be used and present the whole environment first, rather than introduce elements one by one.  All of the simulations in the demonstration cover authentic contexts and authentic activities to varying degrees.

Some simulations are very easy for students to pick up, and use.  These simulations are generally simple with few parameters that can be modified, and tend to focus on helping students make a conceptual leap.  As simulations get more sophisticated, they require effective instruction and scaffolding.

Practical Issues with the Sims

The simulation-demonstration product was created as an experiment to see how well simulations can be integrated into our lessons.  Two environments were chosen, a Blendspace lesson and a WordPress environment.  The same simulations were embedded in both.  In addition, the Blendspace version has been embedded in the WordPress environment using the Blendspace embedding feature.  This has caused some minor issues with rendering, but it works reasonably well.

On the whole, most of the simulations do not embed well into Blendspace which opens them in a new window, but Blendspace does provide a variety of features that are very desirable when setting up managing a lesson, such as classes, quizzes, comments and feedback.

From a usability point of view, the simulations written according to the HTML5 standard are by far the best. They embed seamlessly into Blendspace, and only require a link to be clicked in WordPress (see Pressure Simulator).  Best of all, they require no installation and are platform independent. HTML5 really is the way of the future for simulations.  PHeT are now producing their new simulations according to HTML5.  At present, some of their best simulations are flash based so don’t support HTML5, but this is sure to change.  Flash doesn’t work on iPads.

At the other end of the scale are the Wolfram simulations which require their own document format, CDF, which requires a program to be downloaded and installed.  This allows them to produce beautiful sims, but teachers cannot expect that their students will be able to do this on their own devices.  We also often don’t have sufficient of level of control over our own environments to be able to do this ourselves.

Included Sims

Here is a list of the wordpress links to the sims included in this project. They can also be accessed as submenus under the ‘Digital Learning’ menu item from my digital learning site.

PHeT Thermal Sim (requires Java)

PHeT Pressure sim (HTML 5)

PHet Conservation of Momentum (requires Java)

Blood Typing Game by Nobelprize.org (requires Flash)

Wolfram Potential Energy Sim (requires CDF)

Classic Asteroids (requires Flash)

Student trials

Some simulations are very easy for students to pick up, and use.  These simulations are generally simple with few parameters that can be modified, and tend to focus on helping students make a conceptual leap.  As simulations get more sophisticated, they may require more effective instruction and scaffolding.  These simulations were tested on two students with a bare minimum of instruction. Both of them ignored all the instructions and jumped straight into discovery learning mode.

Screen recordings are available here.

Student A is a year 7 student.  He found most of the simulations easy to use, but balked at the Blood game because it was not intuitive enough for him to use.  This sim is not age appropriate, so it is not a surprise.  He loved the asteroids game, and was able to discuss how force could be applied in a different direction to motion.  This is concept commonly misconceived in year 11 physics (Newton’s 2nd law) where students often believe force and velocity are always in the same direction.

The video shows him learning thermodynamics by discovery, and the audio makes it clear that he understands energy conversions and where the energy goes.  He also had fun playing with the Conservation of momentum simulation, and afterwards was able to give a good explanation as to what elasticity is.  It is hard to describe how brilliant these simulations are at conveying otherwise difficult to understand concepts to children years before they would normally come across them.

Student B is a year 9 student.  He was able to work out the rules for testing blood groups and applying blood transfusions in a matter of minutes, and could recall them clearly the next day. He also worked easily through the other simulations, altering parameters and making astute observations.

Future Improvements

As quality sims in HTML5 format become more readily available, I expect to replace existing sims with those.  The quizzes in the Blendspace version are awkward because you need to return to the previous page to work out the answer.  I would like to find a way to make these quizzes more user friendly.  However the most important improvement I will make will be to modify the set of simulations and quizzes to supplement a unit of study.  Currently the product is only a proof of concept experiment.



Hedberg, J. (2006). E-learning futures? Speculations for a time yet to come. Studies in Continuing Education, 28(2), 173-185.

Herrington, J., & Kervin, L. (2007)”Authentic learning supported by technology: Ten suggestions and cases of integration in classrooms.” Educational Media International 44.3: 219-236.

Jonassen, D., et al. (2008). Meaningful Learning with Technology, 3rd edn, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, pp.1-12.

Linden, A., & Fenn, J. (2003). Understanding Gartner’s hype cycles. Strategic Analysis Report Nº R-20-1971. Gartner, Inc.