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Exploring New Learning Technologies
An Interview with Wirth Professor Chris Dede

Harvard Graduate School of Education
March 1, 2003

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Wirth Professor Chris Dede believes that emerging technologies expand our capability to create, share, and master knowledge. His current project is the development of Multi-User Virtual Environment Experiential Simulators (MUVEES), in which students explore virtual cities and interact with each other in order to answer scientific questions. Preliminary results show an increased student interest in classroom activity among all students, including those who were previously uninterested in classroom activities. Later this month, Dede will convene a group of leading scholars who have used technology to solve the problem of scaling up innovations in education.

Wirth Professor Chris Dede
Wirth Professor Chris Dede (photo: Karlyn Morissette)  

Q: How does teaching scientific concepts through MUVEES differ from more traditional forms of instruction?

A: MUVEES is based on guided, collaborative learning-by-doing in which students "travel back in time" to solve mysteries set in late 19th-century America. The River City curriculum unit presents learners with an engaging, multi-user virtual world consisting of a city with a river running through it, different forms of terrain that influence water runoff and insect propagation, houses, industries, and institutions such as a hospital and a university. Through exercises in their Laboratory Notebooks, teams of students explore the town and gather data to answer questions such as "Why are poor people getting sick in much greater proportion than rich people?" Class sessions in the virtual world alternate with whole-group interpretive sessions led by the teacher.

Q: What do you hope students gain through the River City simulation?

“In school, many students implicitly learn the unrealistic view that there is a single right answer in science that is easily discernible.”

A: The main goal of this curriculum is to help students learn experimental design, a key skill for scientific inquiry that underlies science-fair projects and similar independent investigations. Middle-school teachers identified experimental design as a very difficult topic for instruction; the River City curriculum is designed to respond to this need. Also, in school, many students implicitly learn the unrealistic view that there is a single right answer in science that is easily discernible. In exploring River City, however, students are guided to develop hypotheses regarding many different interacting phenomena that present apparent complexity explainable in terms of three underlying, linked causes. At the end of the unit, they compare their results to those of the other teams and discover several different hypotheses that bear on the same question. Students also learn content in biology and ecology closely linked to national science standards and state tests, as well as ancillary material in history. In addition, their skills in reading, writing, collaboration, and computer literacy are enhanced.

Q: How do teachers assess a studentís progress?

A: While they are exploring the city, students answer questions and record ideas in their Lab Notebooks, which can later be used for assessment purposes. The Lab Notebook starts with questions that guide exploration of the environment and develop mastery of the interface, building towards later investigations that are content-specific and require completing a data table or graph based on the water samples encountered in River City. In addition, the MUVEE automatically archives all student actions, generating a "cognitive audit trail" for examination. Finally, the quality of experimental design in students' independent investigations as evidenced by a report they prepare for the 'Mayor' and their performance on content tests of biology and ecology provide measures of achievement.

Q: In the classrooms where the project has been implemented, what results have you seen thus far?

A: In the pilot implementation of River City, we found that the program motivated all learners, including lower achievement students typically uninterested in classroom activities. All of the students quickly mastered the interface, and a strong engagement in the unit persisted throughout detailed work in the Lab Notebook, even after the initial novelty of playing a computer simulation during class had worn off. Many students typically in the bottom-third of achievement made substantial gains in understanding the knowledge and skills taught by the unit, and upper-achievement students also found the environment productive for learning. However, much more research is needed to fully understand the strengths and limits of this interactive medium for teaching/learning.

Q: What would you say to educators who are skeptical of this method of instruction?

A: Outside of school, the entertainment industry is presenting students with motivating, but mindless, experiences that compete with school homework and informal learning. Kids also are fascinated by virtual interaction with their peers, as exemplified by the ubiquity of instant messaging and similar synchronous communication. Repurposing inexpensive devices bought for entertainment to use for learning in and out of school potentially offers powerful leverage for increasing achievement and equity. Research on whether and how this type of teaching/learning can complement conventional forms of instruction is important.

For More Information
More information about Chris Dede is available in the Faculty Profiles.

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