This post was originally published by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research here, in December 2011.
Students enjoy learning about the environment. The process usually involves trekking out to the nearest prairie, waterway, or forest. But given the time and expense involved, field trips can be unrealistic.
One alternative is to use computer-based programs that simulate the experience a student would have out-of-doors.
Our increasingly urbanized society and our technology-mediated lifestyles distance most of us from the biological and non-human physical world. Environmental problems present a challenge for education and outreach because they are inherently complex, interdependent, and interrelated. The need for environmentally literate citizens has never been greater. We need people who can work toward an ecologically and economically sustainable environment.
Students who use the computer game Urban Science learn to think like professional urban planners and, in the process, improve their ability to address environmental problems. The game creates opportunities for students to develop science, ethics, and practice to build a professional urban planning frame of reference, or epistemic frame.
In a recent study WCER researcher and former graduate student Elizabeth Bagley found that students who played the game used more scientific language and gave more specific recommendations for addressing environmental problems.
Bagley found that “virtual” environments made possible by computer games are well positioned to provide students with high-quality environmental education.
Students use Urban Science in a supervised setting where mentors play a central role. Mentors
- Help students carry out complex tasks
- Facilitate cycles of real-world learning through frequent and strategically-placed conversations with the students
- Model a professional “epistemic frame” by asking players to reflect on what worked, what did not, and why
- Scaffold a way of seeing and solving problems that the players can adopt.
Bagley’s research focused on whether and how these reflection meetings created opportunities for students to develop a combination of the skills, knowledge, values, and identity of environmentally literate urban planners. In particular she wanted to determine whether virtual (online) interactions between learners and mentors were as effective as in-person interactions. Specifically, how did mentoring communication change (a) the quantity of the discourse, (b) the quality of the discourse, or (c) the impact on players’ learning outcomes and engagement?
Bagley’s study found no significant differences in students’ level of engagement or learning outcomes between the in-person condition and the virtual condition. Players in the online condition were as engaged as those with face-to-face mentoring, and they derived similar benefits from playing the game.
Whether face-to-face or virtual, mentors led students to use similar professional discourse. The occurrence of elements of the “epistemic frame” within mentor-player discussions followed similar patterns, and students in both conditions produced professional-quality documents and learned professional ways of problem solving.
These results suggest that the key function of the mentors—to communicate professional ways of thinking—was not diminished in the online chat condition.
In other words, mentors should consider “stop talking and type” since Bagley’s results suggest that the mentoring condition didn’t affect the players’ reflection meeting discourse, learning outcomes, or level of engagement.
Moreover, the results of this study have the potential to influence the design, implementation, and assessment of virtual environments. This study suggests that learning in a virtual environment like Urban Science is viable and desirable because virtual environments can expand the range of what players can realistically do and thus also the problems they can address, the possible collaborations they can participate in, and the communities they can inhabit.
Learning in a virtual environment gives players a chance to see how the world—or at least some piece of it—works under the guidance of a mentor.