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How Online Simulations Work in the Classroom

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
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Thanks to simulations expert Christopher Walters for providing the following thoughts on virtual simulations for classroom use.

For years, corporations have used computer-based simulations with employee-training programs, augmenting traditional on-the-job training with virtual reinforcement, regular updates on company issues, and so on. Classroom use of simulations, however, has been sporadic, even though many teachers report that children of the MySpace generation thoroughly enjoy online work and simulated activities.Pair that interest with the push for twenty-first-century skills -- collaborations, problem solving, group work, decision making, real-life problem solving, and the like -- and you have an ideal situation for simulated computer activities.

Proponents of simulations suggest that they offer a somewhat risk-free environment, one where learners are free to experiment, make mistakes, and rethink and redesign without fear of destroying something that cannot be easily replenished in a traditional setting. For example, a classroom set of frogs might be the ultimate method for teaching biological concepts though a dissection activity, but perhaps that setup isn't practical or even acceptable.

However, a dissection can take place in the simulated world through programs such as Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Virtual Frog Dissection Kit or the University of Virginia's Net Frog. The procedure follows a typical lesson -- teacher introduction and focus on a set of standards, student experimentation, manipulation, assessment, and so on. But simulating the experiments might allow for more individualized variation and the addressing of mistakes in a way that could easily be reset. A simulated experiment allows us to make mistakes and learn from them -- and even make more, new mistakes, and learn even more, over and over.

Taking a classroom full of students to the Smithsonian Institution might be the ultimate field trip. Financially speaking, though, that's a tough task if you're more than a few hours away from DC. However, take a look at the Smithsonian online. If your students aren't able to visit the real one, perhaps the next best thing is a virtual tour.

Also, check out Kar2ouche, a product of Immersive Education that asks students to work together in groups to "compose role-plays, storyboards, movies, and animations"; according to the Web site, this experience "encourages creative self-expression, engages learners to develop narration and storytelling, and fuels collaboration, peer discussion, and debate."

Lack of funding and resources is one reason to venture more into the simulated world. In addition, our students are becoming more and more tech savvy, allowing us to let them use simulated tools and experiments with more ease. I think online simulations offer a great chance for students to work in a realistic learner-focused environment, as either an addition to the classroom or a substitute for the real thing. Being able to use technology, work in groups, simulate real-life scenarios, and make and correct mistakes emphasizes the twenty-first-century skills our students need to survive in a flattened world.

So, tell us what else is out there. Do you use simulations? What role do they play in your schools or classrooms? What are your favorite ones?

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Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Sandra Stargell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought the article had some importants points. If more opportunities were given to promote advance technology software it would allow more opportunities for success in our classrooms. Then we would be more likely to embrace No Child Left Behind.Act.

Marie Sontag's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at a public middle school, and am in the final stages of completing my doctorate in Instructional Design for Online Learning. I have created several online virtual world that teachers can use for free. These worlds use enCore Xpress 3.2, and students ineract using a "moo" environment. I will be using the Poetry moo next week with my students after we finish reading 24 poems by various poets such as Frost, Longfellow, Whtiman, etc. The site at provides directions. To view the online world, go to and log on as a guest. Then go to the Time Machine, then to the World of Words, and finally, to Poets Corner to get into the virtual world. Students roleplay either one of the poets we have studied, or take on the role of a publisher. If you would like to use one of the virtual worlds, email me for directions at

Chris O'Neal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, thanks for sharing these resources.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to use simulations in the classroom. However, the time it takes to research and create one seems mind boggling. Are there simulations to borrow out there somewhere? I am in a traditional school setting and would love to stretch out to allow my students the opportunity to explore in a simulation setting. G. Ladd

Susanne Commisso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


I finished up my thesis research on science simulation software in the upper elementary classroom - Dec 2007. We used software that we bought but I also found software online that was useful. England provides resources online for all their schools. I ran across a website for elementary level education that had simulations. You can find it at:

Please feel free to email me if you need more information...
Susanne Commisso

Susanne Commisso's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Simulations can also be used to help explain concepts that are too difficult or impossible to explain via experimentation. They give students a way to visualize something that they can not normally see. Taking the abstract and making it real.

Danys Betts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Students today are becoming more and more computer savvy. Teachers today need to come up with more ways to keep students interest in order to keep students focused on learning. I hope to use simulations when I become a teacher.

John Campbell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If interested in computer simulations for math and science education, you should look at the best collection for grades 3-12 that I have found:

Kristy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I use the ole oregon trail software (v.3) to have students work in groups of 3 to travel across the midwest/west. Using 3 computers side-by-side, one student journals in Word the journey, the middle player is the "wagon boss" - making the daily decsions and "controlling" the game and pace and the 3rd student uses kidpix to be the cartologist to document the route of the group and turn each state map into a collection (like powerpoint) of slides (mini-book). They play for 30 Minutes...then the next time they play, students rotate chairs so they ALL get a turn at each job. Survey of the students and a short self evaluation is the tool I use to assess each the final product: the journal - printed and the "map book" from kid pix.

Have done this 3 years now...always enjoyed and classroom teacher says it really enhances the learning and enthusiasm of learners toward learning about the western expansion.

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