Evaluating Pollutsim: Computer Supported Roleplay-Simulation

Article excerpt

Abstract

The e-environment promises solutions to three challenges currently facing higher education: Flexibility, access and cost. While e-learning has been enthusiastically embraced by administrators and teachers, to date there has been more attention directed to development than to judging the effect and effectiveness of new approaches. Pollutsim, a computer supported roleplay-simulation, was implemented in 1996 and has been systematically evaluated from technical, educational design and student learning perspectives. In this paper we provide an overview of the evaluation process that began with a review of existing curriculum and provided formative feedback throughout several iterations of the project.

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The growth in the use of the online environment, particularly communications information technologies (CIT) is accompanied by high level expectations regarding the effect these will have on higher education and changing teaching and learning. The environment promises solutions to three challenges currently facing higher education: Flexibility, access and cost (Daniel, 1997). These technologies have been embraced by administrators and teachers, particularly in higher education contexts. Notably, despite claims for the positive outcomes of teaching with online technologies there has been a shortage of rigorous research or evaluation evidence to support such claims. A recent investigation of Australian teaching innovations using information technologies highlighted the absence of serious assessment of the effect of the innovations on learning outcomes (Alexander & McKenzie, 1998). Alexander (1999) has suggested that the paucity of serious assessment of the effectiveness is a consequence of lack of understanding about the ways in which effectiveness can be gauged and Laurillard (1993) argues that it is development that is the focus of attention with only `lip service' paid to the evaluation of educational technology projects.

In this paper we describe the processes of assessing the effectiveness of a computer supported roleplay-simulation (CSRS) used in teaching university students about the complexity of decision-making involved in managing a contaminated site.

Role Plays and Simulations

Roleplay-simulations (McLaughlan & Kirkpatrick, 1998) combine the attributes of both simulations and role-plays Where participants adopt a functional role or persona within a simulated environment or scenario. They are problem-based units of learning set in motion by a particular task, issue, policy, incident or problem. Roleplay-simulations create learning environments that immerse learners in authentic learning. They may be designed so that the problems that are to be addressed by participants are either implicit or explicit. Participants learn about the person or role, problem and/or the situation specific to the subject area as a consequence of the interaction between participants in their personae and the scenario (Errington, 1997). In recent years there has been growing interest in using CIT to support roleplay-simulations (McLaughlan & Kirkpatrick, 1998; Vincent& Shepherd, 1998).

PollutSim: An Environmental Decision-Making Simulation

The computer supported roleplay-simulation Pollutsim, provides a context where learners develop an insight into issues related to the management of a contaminated site. Pollutsim was first used in 1996 and has been refined in response to evaluation and student feedback. The Pollutism scenario involves an industrial company, which operates an arsenic-producing smelter. Company-owned vacant land adjacent to the smelter has arsenic and petroleum hydrocarbon-contaminated soil and groundwater. The Pollutsim scenario is designed to create conflict among the personae centered around a range of environmental issues resulting from the potential impact of the contamination on community resources in the area.

Pollutsim is designed to achieve the following learning objectives:

   * Identify the political, social, economic and scientific dimensions to
   decisionmaking in an environmental conflict at a contaminated site;

   * Identify the responsibilities and appropriate responses for characters in
   the roleplay-simulation and;

   * Develop communication, negotiation and decision-making skills (McLaughlan
   & Kirkpatrick, 1999)

Learners adopt various personae in the scenario in order to respond to issues and problems that arise as they seek to deal with potentially impacted community resources. …