Wireless Interactive Teaching Simulations
Undergraduate lecture courses at many institutions of higher education are
quite large, making it difficult to actively involve students and maintain their
attention. Ongoing and current budget crises make it difficult to hire additional
instructors and reduce class sizes to levels that would allow for more faculty-student
or student-student interaction. Wireless interactive teaching simulations (WITS)
are seen as one solution to this dilemma. By leveraging emerging wireless technologies
and low-cost, hand-held computing devices, we are attempting to integrate more
interactive learning experiences into the very large classroom.
The classroom interactions programmed for the WITS system fall into a category
of tools known as manipulation tools, simulations, or microworlds (Hannafin,
Land, & Oliver, 1999; Rieber, 1992). These tools tend to have the same overall
structure; they allow students to externalize their thinking by playing
some value or inputting some variable into a system. This input has some effect
on the overall system, which is shown to the student. The student analyzes the
results that their input had on the system, and if it is not desirable or not
what they expected, they revise their initial input or attempt some modification
of it. The games typically proceed through several cycles, each of which provides
the student with more information to revise their initial understanding or personal
This process has been termed reflection-in-action (Schon, 1987)
and theories-in-action (Land, 1995). The cycle leads to the development
of robust and flexible mental models in students (see Vosniadou,
1994). Students are able to appreciate a system from multiple angles, having
inputted differing values into the system over multiple cycles of the game.
Students will have a better understanding of course concepts via their experiences,
and the instructor will not have to re-teach poorly understood content. Inquiry
cycles are difficult to conduct, but not impossible, without technological systems
that allow students to rapidly test and experience many models in a short period
The WITS project has undergone a proof of concept stage at Virginia
Tech, involving the development of software to run economics games on the Cybiko
wireless hand-held device. We have been successful in linking up to 30 students
together simultaneously to participate in simulated markets and trading scenarios
for a Principles of Micr'economics undergraduate course.
Each student is provided with a Cybiko device, which links via open radio frequency
channels to a host or broker Cybiko at the front of
the room. The host device is connected to and passes student signals to a laptop
at the front of the classroom. The laptop accepts student registration data,
randomly pairs students with other players in the market, sends
a student pair a particular game scenario, receives and processes game inputs
from students, then delivers game results back to students. Cumulative game
results across all student pairs are graphed on the laptop and projected on
a screen in front of the class.
The decision to utilize Cybiko was based on cost-effectiveness, since wireless
capabilities are already incorporated into the unit and wireless cards do not
need to be purchased on top of the base unit price. The project is funded by
the Mellon Foundations Cost Effective Uses of Technology in Teaching program
(CEUTT) as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF). A key goal for both
grants is to design a system that is not only pedagogically sound, but also
feasible within typical university budget constraints.
While our beta system may be cost-effective, it has functional problems. One
primary bottleneck in the described system has been the single host Cybiko device
which has difficulty receiving and passing all of the student data to a laptop.
We need to scale up the system to larger classes and have been unable to do
so with this bottleneck.
Alternative options are under consideration, including the purchase of more
expensive handheld devices with wireless cards to communicate directly with
a laptop. The removal of a host handheld device should increase connection speeds,
however this could be a costly system if dependent upon emerging campus wireless
zones that might require additional connection fees for each device.
A second solution is possible, but further down the road. Students at our university
must purchase a computer, but they are not required to purchase a laptop. With
a portable computing requirement, students could bring their own wireless-enabled
laptops to class for initial setup and interactions. Students would not have
to pick up a loaned handheld device or purchase their own for class activities.
It will be critical to illustrate the learning effectiveness of such systems
and encourage several classes and majors to participate. Added costs to students
will be difficult to sell if lecture halls are not widely transformed
to activity halls.
A long-term goal for WITS is to create a customizable system. Economic games
are but one example of the aforementioned cycle, where students make some input,
analyze the results, then revise their initial ideas about the situation. This
reflection-in-action is a valuable instructional strategy across
numerous fields: sociology, political science, engineering design, chemistry,
physics, and many more.
Our software requires further refinement, specifically a user-friendly interface
that allows instructors to program their own unique game models with specific
conditions and to rapidly change game conditions in response to student questions
(e.g., What if we add variable X into the system?). For example,
one can envision a class studying genetics, with students inputting various
mutations into a system with some overall effect as the output. As the cycle
is repeated multiple times in succession, students quickly see the different
effects their inputs/actions have on the system.
This allows the students to build flexible and robust mental models about the
systems they are studying. Students dont just understand the effect X
has on Y, they also understand the effect V, W, and X have on Y from a second
modified example of the game, the effect V and W have on Y without X from a
third modified example of the game, and so on. Understanding is broadened. While
a generic interaction is probably better than a lecture class with no activity,
a multi-cycle interaction designed to build robust student mental models will
be better than a simplistic multiple choice response (e.g., If you are
satisfied with todays lecture, select A, unsatisfied, select B.).