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Evaluating Software From a Learning-Theory Perspective

By Jennafer Kuhns / November 2002

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The field of educational technology is growing by leaps and bounds. As new technologies emerge, avenues to progressive educational strategies emerge as well. This technology trend lends the education community an innovative, engaging, and instructional vehicle with which to teach. We want our classrooms to be interesting and our students to be involved. We know that in order to reach our entire audience we must utilize multiple learning theories and strategies, not simply use a cookie cutter approach. For many, the question isn't what to teach, but rather how to teach it. I believe that the answer lays in computer gaming and simulation software.

With the majority of students entering the classroom having played games on CD-ROM, Sony PlayStation, or Microsoft X-Box, integration of this type of teaching tool into the classroom would be seamless. Gaming software has come a long way since the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. There is a plethora of educational gaming/simulation software out there that instructs on basic principles such as math, science, history, grammar, and foreign language. They also have much to offer in the way of problem-solving, communications building, and cooperation skills. This type of software is extremely adaptable to almost any teaching environment—from elementary school to college, novice to expert, cognitive to behavioral, and from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom. The following is a review of just one of these gaming software products: RollerCoaster Tycoon.

The Software
RollerCoaster Tycoon is a piece of computer gaming software recommended for ages eight years and above. I enjoy this game because I am a huge fan of amusement parks, and I love to put together puzzles. I purchased it for my son, but have found myself using it more than he does!

The premise of the game is to successfully build an amusement park that functions properly and gains profits at year's end. You act as the park designer, which entails not only the designs, but also the construction and operation of the park. You must fill the shoes of landscape artist, real-estate developer, engineer, accountant, and human resources manager. It is quite challenging.

There are many things that you must take into consideration when designing the park. You are attempting to create a fun and affordable day for your patrons, so they must be kept comfortable, well fed, and amused. You must also make provisions for your needs while providing for all your patrons' needs. You have bills to pay, advertising costs, and wages to consider.

In the process of designing the park, there is one key factor that drives every decision you make: your target audience. Who are you looking to entertain? Do you want to attract children, families, adults, teenagers, or everyone...including grandmothers? You will need to keep your audience in mind when asking yourself the following questions: Do you want them to laugh or cry; do you want to amaze and mystify, or scare and amuse them? Rides need to be impressive, yet fun to watch. Rides should fit into the landscape and be visible from walkways. However, you also want to create some surprises around the park. There is nothing more invigorating than turning a bend of a wooded area in an amusement park and discovering a massive, intimidating ride staring right at you. These are all issues that you must consider when embarking on this complex voyage. You will find some of the designing aspects interesting and enjoyable, while others will be frustrating and tricky. Have fun and let your imagination get the better of you.

The Learner
Though the software is designed for ages eight years and older, I immediately noticed frustrations after watching my young son attempt to make this game function. I found that the software was just too demanding conceptually for his age group. The problem wasn't so much the navigation and layout; it was the need to tap into higher learning processes that he had just not been called upon to use thus far. I feel that this game is actually targeted more towards the middle school age range of 12 and over.

I think that this software is a great way to incorporate and test many different subject areas. The user has to have a basic understanding of math, engineering, accounting, and management skills. While these may not be traditional courses that would be offered at the average middle school, they are subject areas and skills that middle-schoolers acquire through courses such as business math, geometry, algebra, mechanical drawing, home economics, social studies, and environmental science. Interacting with classmates and parents can also give them an understanding of the business management and human resources issues. This product is an effective way to show students how all of the classes and subjects that they are learning can be incorporated to fulfill an outcome. They may not realize that they are tapping into all of these areas of study, but are sure to be impressed once they are told.

I would be delighted to see educational software of this caliber and content being use in middle schools. I think that this "game" could be a project that two or three students work on together throughout a semester as part of their final grade. A project similar to this can give students, teachers, and parents a sound understanding of the progress that their child is making in school. This is a way to show that students are learning the basics as well as pushing themselves to be resourceful and learn as they go.

As educators, we all know the reality of standardized tests: They don't tell us a lot about a child's true skill level. Teachers participate in showing students how to perform well on these types of tests, and afterwards the students forget the information that they memorized. The type of testing that is utilized in RollerCoaster Tycoon on the other hand, provides educators with a tool to measure reasoning skills, recall and recognition, and basic subject matter knowledge. When students are excited about learning they tend to retain more, and when learning is made to be fun and innovative students are more apt to become and remain interested.

In a time when we are attempting to give our children the tools they need to perform in an increasingly demanding work environment, why not arm them with a higher learning standard for themselves so they are ready to meet the inevitable challenges that the world will place in front of them? We speak of a need to get prepared and travel on the "information superhighway," yet we sometimes fail to provide our young people with the skills, knowledge, and/or tools to make the trip successfully. Bringing computer software into the classroom that is educational, innovative, challenging, and fun will only increase the motivation and potential that we so often say our young people are lacking.

The Learning Theories
I found the RollerCoaster Tycoon software to be overwhelmingly behaviorist. It utilizes reinforcement, confidence building, and feedback. When the user makes a decision it gives useful feedback with statistics, how many of a certain amenity you already have (restrooms, first-aid), where the closest food stand is located, etc. If the user makes poor decisions it also has consequences. Without enough food areas or restrooms, your patrons can die from starvation and dehydration, have toilet accidents, and bleed from injuries if there are not enough first-aid areas. If you don't have enough rides and the lines get too long, the patrons get disgruntled and demand to get their money refunded, they may also pass out from heat exhaustion if the lines are not adequately shaded. Confidence is built when there are profits being made and when the patrons are happy. If no one dies or gets injured on a ride there is positive feedback. The patrons can also give the park a rating once they have tested it out, and that is also a confidence builder.

There are constructivist overtones in this software. If the user/student has visited an amusement park in the past, they will be able to draw from their experiences as to how they would like to design theirs or perhaps change some things. The entire game is centered on the learner and his/her choices.

There are heuristic overtones in RollerCoaster Tycoon as well. There is no set step-by-step process on how to build the amusement park, so the learner is forced to make decisions along the way. This software offers something that many others do not, it provides the very thing that Lev Landa believes most computer software lacks; it attempts to figure out why an error may have occurred. When a user makes a detrimental decision, the software gives the learner a heads up, like a chance to change their choice prior to implementation.

I also made connections to Bandura's social learning theory. I felt that his whole idea of being able to remember what you paid attention to, and then translate it into an actual behavior, is the very idea that I spoke about earlier. Students are given a chance to pull together everything that they have been studying in the classroom and translate it into a meaningful behavior: a functioning amusement park. This software fulfills all of Bandura's motivation and self-efficacy requirements by providing a reason for participating (a grade, computer time, fun idea), and consequences for behaviors (showing students how all the subjects that they are learning are useful).

Vygotsky is another theorist that rears his head into this software. Students have a venue in which to interact with each other, their teachers, and the real world. If the project is based on a group effort, students learn cooperation, teamwork, and shared problem solving. This software provides a chance to really test out the idea of scaffolding. The teacher would get the students started by explaining the software, what they will be doing, and go through the provided tutorial with the students. The teacher could then withdraw little by little as the students gain confidence.

All of the theories listed are incorporated into the design of RollerCoaster Tycoon. Behaviorism is the most relied upon theory, simply because of the nature of the game, i.e. practice/reinforcement. I think that this is an engaging, entertaining, and educational piece of software that would be an asset to any innovative classroom. I believe that this game was designed with learning theory in mind as well as an inclusive attempt to employ various skills/knowledge levels and abilities. Kudos to Micro Prose for the development of RollerCoaster Tycoon!

Jennafer Kuhns received her M.S. in Instructional Technology from Bloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA. She received her B.A. in Psychology from Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA. While in graduate school she taught two online courses: "Introduction to Wine Tasting" and "Tackling Tables in HTML." She has 10 years of restaurant management experience and is currently employed as an Instructional Designer for Concurrent Technologies Corporation.


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