Ceci n’est pas une Mouse‐Trap Car: Physical Versus Virtual Materials in the Classroom
The increasing availability of computers as instructional media in elementary school classrooms makes possible an exciting range of new tools and techniques to support learning. For example, by using computer simulations students are able to manipulate virtual objects and materials in ways that would be totally impractical, unsafe, or prohibitively expensive in the physical world. Virtual experimentation is also time efficient. Per unit time, students are able to run many more experimental trials in a virtual lab setting than in an actual school laboratory.
But we instinctively place a high value on real‐world experience. One does not master the violin by reading about musical technique. So it is counter‐intuitive that the unique learning advantages that ‘must’ be offered by physical manipulation have been difficult to identify experimentally. With rapidly increasing use of technology in the classroom, it becomes important to understand how to deploy those tools to students’ best advantage.
The learning differences, if any, between virtual and physical object manipulation is a central issue and the focus of this project. In our study, 4th and 5th grade children were divided into two groups. One group used virtual (i.e. computer generated) materials and the other used physical materials to learn about designing simple unconfounded experiments. In agreement with previous research, we found that the two types of instruction were equal in both domain general and domain specific learning objectives.