University of Exeter - School of Education B.Phil / M.Ed Modular Degree Programme
Learning Effectively with ICT - G161 Summer 1998 Professor Niki Davis
Evaluation of effectiveness in two case studies of learning using IT
Submitted by: Alastair Reynolds and Megan Dick Previous modules undertaken : G162

Literature Review for Case X
This page was written by Megan Dick


This assignment will study the use of a computer simulation program with History students and attempt to discover whether or not using this simulation is an effective was for the students to learn. This literature review will therefore describe and discuss literature which relates to learning theories and in particular, learning using computer simulations. It will also look at whether or not computer simulations are useful teaching tools and what research has been done on the effectiveness of using these programs to teach students. This research will then be applied to learning using a simulation program in a History lesson.

Situated Learning

The model of learning that relates best to teaching using a computer simulation is the model of situated learning. This model suggests that knowledge is always relative and must therefore be situated within a culture for effective learning to take place. For the student to gain this knowledge, they must learn within an environment and become involved in ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, so that they acquire knowledge through becoming a part if a community of practice. (Underwood, 1994) This model is an ‘apprenticeship’ model of learning and might be the best way of learning new skills, as opposed to new pieces of abstract knowledge.

Another way to look at situated learning is to see a distinction between learning something new and being able to use that new knowledge or skill. This is often called ''know what'' and "know how". John Brown et al (1995) argue that this split could be a product of the structure and practices of the education system. These authors state that, "methods of didactic education assume a separation between knowing and doing, treating knowledge as an integral, self-sufficient substance, theoretically independent of the situations in which it is learned and used." This means that a school’s attempt to give knowledge to students might overlook the fact that they should be taught how to use that knowledge as well.

This separation of what is learned from how it is learned and used can also be seen as artificial. Some argue that these two things cannot be separated, as the way in which new skills or knowledge is learned is an integral part of what is learned. John Brown et al (1995) say that, "Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity. Learning and cognition, it is now possible to argue, are fundamentally situated." This clearly explains how the two cannot be separated, if they ‘co-produce’ knowledge. This reflects interestingly in the use of IT in schools. If it cannot be said that students will simply be taught a new piece of knowledge, without taking into account that they must also be learning something new about using computers, a whole new dimension of the usefulness of IT in the classroom appears. Students are therefore situated to learn several things in one lesson, some of which will be about IT. Therefore, using an IT simulation to learn something, a task which requires the student’s active involvement, can co-produce the knowledge.

Lave’s theory of Situated Learning agrees and argues that learning is "a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs (i.e., it is situated)." (Kearsley (Ed.), 1998) How the student learns can therefore not be separated from the context in which the learning occurs. Social interaction is a critical part of this kind of learning. Students often work in pairs or groups when they use IT in the classroom. Their social interaction, therefore, must also be taken into account. Students who learn by using IT might do so unintentionally as they become more adept at negotiating the community of a computer.

Experiential Learning

Another model of learning that bears on learning using a simulation is experiential learning. Rogers identified experiential learning as significant learning. This refers to applied knowledge such as learning about engines in order to repair a car. (Kearsley, (Ed.) 1998) There are four qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on learner. Rogers felt that students naturally want to learn and that it is the teacher’s role to facilitate their learning. Learning is facilitated when:

  1. the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction
  2. it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems
  3. self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success

Though Rogers’ theory was applied mainly to adult learners, it does have interesting ramifications when applied to students learning using a computer simulation. Students are often motivated by IT and enjoy learning with it. They also often do not realise that they are learning something new, as they are directly confronted with problems and are not simply being told a new thing. They do also self-evaluate their progress, as a simulation often has a goal similar to ‘winning’ a game. Students can therefore judge their own progress against this goal and the progress of other students in the class.

Engaged Learning

Recently, research on learning has identified a need for engaged, meaningful learning. (Jones, et al, 1994) According to Jones, et al, a consensus has been emerging regarding what constitutes engaged learning. These authors have developed specific indicators of engaged learning that can help teachers identify engaged learning and maintain this type of learning in their classrooms. These indicators relate well to using simulations in the classroom.

  1. Vision of Engaged Learning
  2. Tasks for Engaged Learning
  3. Assessment of Engaged Learning
  4. Instructional Models & Strategies for Engaged Learning
  5. Learning Context of Engaged Learning
  6. Grouping for Engaged Learning
  7. Teacher Roles for Engaged Learning
  8. Student Roles for Engaged Learning

Indicator 1, vision of engaged learning, suggests that successful, engaged learners are responsible for their own learning and are able to define their own learning goals and evaluate their achievements. Engaged learners are energized by their learning and are collaborative. They value working with others and have the skills to do so. Indicator 2, tasks for engaged learning, asserts that tasks should be challenging, authentic and multidisciplinary. Authentic is defined as corresponding to, "tasks in the home and workplaces of today and tomorrow." (Jones et al) The tasks often incorporate problem-based learning a curriculum by project. Indicator 3, assessment, is performance-based. It should involve students in making their own criteria for assessment.

Indicator 4, instructional models and strategies for engaged learning, states that, "the most powerful models of instruction are interactive." Instruction should actively engage the learner, encourage the learner to produce knowledge in meaningful ways, and should allow for co-construction of knowledge. This promotes learning that is ‘problem-, project-, and goal-based.’ The learning context should be collaborative and should build on the strength of its learners. Groupings that are heterogeneous offer many perspectives to a task. The role of the teacher should be that of a facilitator, guide and learner. The last indicator, student roles for engaged learning, points out that an important student role is that of explorer.

Interaction with the physical world and with other people allows students to discover concepts and apply skills. Students are then encouraged to reflect upon their discoveries, which is essential for the student as a cognitive apprentice. Apprenticeship takes place when students observe and apply the thinking processes used by practitioners. Students also become teachers themselves by integrating what they've learned. Hence, they become producers of knowledge, capable of making significant contributions to the world's knowledge.

(Jones et al)

Sharon Gatz and Stephen Meehan (1998) have studied teachers’ understanding of engaged learning. They feel that,
Engaged learning is more than just an interesting and fun activity for students to do. Engaged learning is more than just group activities. Engaged learning puts the student in the driver's seat and requires the teacher to shift roles. You are now the facilitator of learning rather than dictating the learning process.
This view corresponds well with using computers in the classroom, as often the teacher becomes the facilitator who allows students to access new knowledge and skills.


Many subject areas use computer simulations in schools. Some simulations are seen as games by students, with ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ as the goal. Others can be simulated situations that students wouldn’t be able to normally encounter safely in a classroom. The best example of this would be a flight simulator, which trains students safely before they are put into the real life situation of flying a plane. Koopal, (1998) in studying the design and development of educational software, explains what simulation is like:

  1. Simulation is considered to be a technique used by a teacher (a teaching method, exercise, training procedure) whereby
  2. the learner exercises some behaviour (is actively involved), and
  3. in an environment that duplicates aspects of the real world (the model).

Using computer simulations can increase a student’s motivation to complete a task. There is a solid goal, which is playing the ‘game’ or achieving the next level. Students often enjoy using simulations for this reason. Cleary and Schank argue that, "simulations allow for a return to the strengths of the apprenticeship method. They provide a guiding context within which students can integrate what they learn." (1994) They maintain that a simulation puts the new knowledge that the students should be acquiring into context. Students are therefore not faced with decontextualized facts. Simulations can be used as a way of engaging learners in `learning by doing', or experiential models of learning. They are also a way of providing goal based approaches to teaching and learning. (OLTC Information Services, 1996)

Different software can encourage different types of interactions and learning outcomes amongst students. When working in groups and using simulation software, students interact with their peers to solve problems. Research has suggested that verbal interactions in collaborative settings facilitate higher-order thinking. (OLTC Information Services, 1996)

Others warn that though simulations allow students to develop and test ideas, they must be reminded that simulations are simplified representations of real life situations. Students can be encouraged to see the differences between the simulation and real life. For the teacher, computer simulations should not be ‘games’, but should encourage students to explore, experiment and take risks. (Maricopa Community Colleges, No date). Simulations can never exactly copy real life. They are abstractions of reality which can never contain all its inherent complexities. Once students learn something from a simulation and then try to do this task in the real world, they are going to have to map the experience over from the simulation to the real world. The more complex the simulation, the easier this is, and the more effective the learning has been. (Cleary and Schank, 1994) There are many historical situations that students can not encounter in the classroom, such as building a Motte and Bailey castle. However, the simulation cannot mimic the historical situation so that is prepares students for doing them, as often the historical situation is one they will never encounter. One exception to this might be an archaeological simulation.

Cleary and Schank also provide an interesting set of principles which explain how to design quality educational software. They note that these principles can also pertain to teaching in general.

These principles seem an effective way of judging whether or not students are engaged in the simulation they are using. Principles 3, 4, and 8 respond well to the need to motivate students. If the software they are using is interesting, fun and provides students with the chance to be in control of their own learning environment, students will be motivated. An important point is that the software must contain the knowledge that the teacher wants the student to learn.

Cleary and Schank (1994) assert that simulations offer students a fun and effective way to learn by doing.

When it's not feasible to create real-life situations in which learners can engage in the tasks they want to learn, and be coached while they work, simulations must be created that effectively mimic those situations so well that they prepare the student for them without actually having to be in them.

Schank and Cleary (1994)

This admits the question of whether or not simulations are authentic learning. This question depends on what it is the students are being asked to learn. In the case of a flight simulator, students are learning authentic skills they will use when they become pilots. However, building a castle is not a skill students will generally use if they become historians. Therefore, the Motte and Bailey simulation can be seen as an occasion when the real life situation cannot be feasibly created. However, the simulation can still be used by the teacher as an alternate tool to engage the students in learning the knowledge that the teacher wants them to learn.


In the History simulation program that I will be studying, the teachers’ aims are to teach students about building Motte and Bailey castles. The aim is not to teach them how to use the simulation program or to improve their IT skills. According to the theories of situated learning, these skills may be co-produced while the students use the simulation. However, I will focus of whether or not this simulation is an effective way of teaching the students new knowledge. In this respect, principle 1 of Cleary and Schank’s (1994) instructions of how to design quality software will be crucial. Does the application contain the knowledge that the students are being asked to learn? This factor, and many others discovered in this review, will have be considered in order for a decision to be made on the effectiveness of using this IT tool to help students learn.

You may now wish to go to the literature review for case Y if you have not already read it.
Otherwise you can move on to the introduction to the two case studies or return to the contents.


Click here to go to the assignment references page.

Assignment Quick Links
Title Page | Introduction | Contents | Case X Literature Review | Case Y Literature Review
Introduction to Cases | Case Study X | Case Study Y | Conclusions | References | Appendices