Using Online Roleplay/Simulations for Creating Learning ExperiencesRobert G. McLaughlan
National Centre for Groundwater Management, University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia
Teaching and Learning Centre, The University of New England, Armidale NSW 2351, Australia
School of Geosciences, The University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia
Holger R. Maier
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Adelaide University, SA 5005, Australia
Over 140 geography and engineering students from across Australia and overseas spent 4 weeks participating in an online roleplay-simulation set in the Mekong region of South East Asia. The online environment provides a setting for the construction of alternative points of view and a lively debate and creates an authentic context for student collaboration. The roleplay-simulation involves decision-making and conflict resolution regarding natural resource development. The Mekong e-Sim (electronic simulation) has been designed to support the learning of students studying subjects in the subjects Technology Assessment, Environmental Engineering or Asia Pacific Development Studies at different universities. The students share the online roleplay-simulation experience, which is then utilised differently within each of the geography or engineering subjects at the institution where the students are enrolled. Student and staff response has been very positive. Students report that the e-Sim provides a realistic experience, is engaging, develops their information technology and communication skills and increases their awareness of multiple perspectives on the issues involved.
University teachers are faced with the challenge of integrating the development of technical skills with 'soft' skills. A review of Australian Science graduates found that graduates agreed that their degree gave them analytical and problem solving skills. However there were lower levels of agreement about the extent to which their degree studies developed an awareness of social implications of developments in their discipline, understanding of other points of view, the ability to use information technology effectively, the ability to work with others and a capacity to deal with complexity and ambiguity (McInnis et al. 2001). The Mekong e-Sim was designed to address the development of these skills in a way that crosses discipline specific boundaries, engages students in authentic learning environments and has cross-cultural and international dimensions.
The Mekong e-Sim incorporates the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into a roleplay-simulation. Roleplays involve participants deliberately adopting a role for a specific purpose and a simulation is a simplification of reality that maintains the essential functions of the simulated environment. Roleplay-simulations combine the attributes of both a simulation and a roleplay where the simulation acts as the context and structure within which the roleplay occurs. Students learn about the adopted role, the setting of the simulation and the issues that cause interdependence among the roles as a consequence of their interactions within the roleplay-simulation. The use of ICT allows the conventional face-to-face roleplay-simulation timeframe to be extended thus providing greater opportunity for reflection and technical analysis of options during decision-making by the participants. It also allows the participation of students whose participation would otherwise be restricted by time or distance. Although the use of ICT has broken down some of the barriers associated with wholely face-to-face roleplay-simulation, we believe it is important to support some face-to-face contact among a subset of the participants to maximize learning outcomes. The e-Sim used a widely available Course Management software (Blackboard) to host the e-Sim. The software allowed for sending email, text chat, discussion forums (using bulletin boards), HTML content and group work areas.
Who was involved?
The Mekong e-Sim is a cross-disciplinary learning experience designed for use with undergraduate university students. It is specifically intended to develop learners' understanding of multiple perspectives of issues related to development and technology within the Mekong region of South East Asia. Consequently, it is applicable to a range of subject discipline applications. The activities within the e-Sim were designed to take about 50 hours and constituted one module of a semester subject or course. The current target audience comprises students in the following subjects at four participating institutions.
Why the Mekong?
The Mekong e-Sim was set in the Greater Mekong Sub-region of South East Asia. This provided an authentic setting for geographers and engineers to collaborate on understanding development needs of the region and issues related to engineering and technological approaches. The six countries in the region and the varied values and belief systems of the inhabitants add a rich political and social dimension to the setting. Aspects of development futures in this region stimulate highly charged debates featuring clear-cut differences, conflicts in values and interests and adoption of opposing and alternative points of view. In addition to information that is openly available on the Internet, specialized educational resources were available from The University of Sydney's Australian Mekong Resource Centre and at their associated web site.
Design of e-Sim
The Mekong e-Sim was constructed around four key stages:
What student learning occurred?
The Mekong e-Sim has been evaluated at all stages of its design and implementation. Evaluation was planned using Bain's (1999) framework as a guide. Student perceptions of their learning and responses to the e-Sim were evaluated using student comments in the debriefing essay, a paper based student survey and focus group discussions.
Survey results indicated the following levels of student perceptions that the e-Sim:
In addition to considering student perception of the learning that resulted as a consequence of participating in Mekong e-Sim we also examined student responses to the e-Sim as a learning activity. Ninety two percent of participants rated the Mekong e-Sim from satisfactory through to excellent and student comments elaborated on this: 'it is undeniable that the e-Sim as a whole does capture the complexity of natural resource management decision-making. The unique experience provided in the e-Sim is one which transcends the restrictions of a classroom, enabling learning to occur in an exciting and highly motivating context'.
Mekong e-Sim was intended to support students in understanding multiple perspectives associated with natural resource management. The extent to which students demonstrated this was evaluated through the examination of written assessment tasks that were designed to demonstrate student capabilities and understandings. Analysis of debriefing essays using SOLO taxonomy (Biggs and Collis 1982) indicated that 75% produced multi-structural responses to the problem supporting our belief that this approach effectively supports student learning about alternate perspectives on problems.
This work has been partially supported by Adelaide University using funds from a University Teaching Development Grant. Support from University of Technology, Sydney and the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at The University of Sydney is also acknowledged.
Robert G. McLaughlan
Holger R. Maier
CAL-laborate Volume 7 October 2001
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