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Visualisation and e-learning.
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 41]

Current e-learning or e-ducation tends to maintain old schemes with new technologies. We need to find new educational paradigms.

In a recent paper that appeared in the journal Communications of the ACM entitled "The Computer isn't the Medium, It's the Message"  (you have to be a subscriber of the ACM Digital Library to download it), Roger Schank, holds the opinion that the impact of computers in education will not be noticeable until the educational model changes. Prof Schank teaches computing Science, Psychology and Education at the Northwestern University and is Chairman of Cognitive Arts Corp.

As has happened in other fields, the advent of computers has been used to do the same things in the same way but faster than they were done manually before. The same operations have been "mechanised" but the models remain the same. For example, today we go to the classroom with a laptop computer full of nice PowerPoint slides with graphics and well-written equations but, in the end, we still give lectures as before.

The same happens with digital courses, most of which are the interactive "mechanisation" of mail courses. Schank thinks that the real challenge is in changing the learning model, since computers have the potential to switch from being a way to do the same things faster to being a way to do things in a way that is impossible in the real world.

My 13 year old son is very fond of "Age of Empires" and "Roller Coaster Tycoon". Both are strategy games that simulate, quite realistically, the conditions and elements that allow you to create Empires on one hand and manage the business of Theme Parks on the other. In them you can take decisions that lead your company to disaster or success. What is more, you learn the basics of the real things (attractions, prices, hot dog shops) and the relationships among them, (if the price of a ride is expensive I will get few people, if I don't sell umbrellas I will lose money when it rains…).

When I play with him he often explains to me the appropriate strategies in order to avoid driving my funpark to ruin or on how to avoid being engulfed by Genghis Khan's hordes. Probably he has learnt more things about Genghis Khan in the game than at school. The best thing of all is that his strategies appear to work.

In these games Visualisation plays an important role, be it through 3D graphics or by other more conceptual graphical artifacts. They allow the perception of a non-negligible amount of multidimensional information.

The idea underlying "learning by doing" is to use simulators that give the student the necessary information in order to experience something similar to what he will find in his/her professional environment (see learning by doing from The Institute for Learning Sciences). Nevertheless simulation systems, although effective for e-learning from a practical standpoint, have some difficulties in order to learn abstract and formal, conceptual knowledge.

As learning a language by speaking doesn't allow you to understand its grammar, playing a marketing game doesn't allow you to learn economics. Maybe you can understand intuitively the mechanism of the market but this is not enough in order to get a degree in economics.

How can we teach mathematics without explaining abstract foundations? Is it really possible to learn how to fly without understanding how a plane works?

According to Schank "the coming years will see the creation of educational technologies by those few people who understand both computer science and education".

In other words, by those who understand that computers allow you to do things differently and that replicating old methods with new technologies doesn't make sense.

Dedicated to Andreu, who is deeply involved in these topics.

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