Rose Luckin, Shaaron Ainsworth, Charles Crook, Mike Sharples and Chris Dede

A good way to learn about a volcano is to visit one. Similarly, driving a racing car makes it easier to understand the physical forces involved. However, such lessons are difficult to organise and some – such as observing the effects of changing gravity to understand better how it works – may simply be impossible. Here’s where technology can help.

People need to be able to use what they have learned at school to solve problems in everyday life. But they find this difficult. Their struggles to apply or ‘transfer’ their learning have vexed psychologists and educators for decades and represent an important issue for society. We need citizens who can use their education to help themselves, their colleagues and society to prosper. They need to be able to come up with answers using the general principles they have been taught. And they also need to be able to do the opposite – to extract general principles from the experience of solving everyday problems.

At the start of the 20th century, the American psychologist Edward Thorndike showed that just because someone had the knowledge or skill to pass a test did not mean that they could take advantage of that knowledge or skill in a different
situation. Much has been discovered since then about how to help people apply their learning.

We now know that it helps if people are able to tackle a problem ‘for real’, if they can vary the situations in which the problem occurs, and if they can see it from a variety of perspectives. It also makes a difference if they can join in activities that are ‘multirepresentational’ – allowing them to see and manipulate representations of the same thing in different ways, exploiting the potential of
dynamic images, colour, sound and so on.

Computer-based simulations, games and ‘augmented reality’ – where the real world
is overlaid with information from the digital world – hugely expand the variety of problems students can study, and their ability to use this new knowledge. Simulation authoring tools such as SimQuest, enable them to explore, for example, the physics of motion with skaters on ice, trains on railways and lorries on roads.

Some people excel at judging the extent of their understanding and the standards of their work. This self-knowledge or metacognition influences their ability to apply their learning. Ideally, everyone needs to be able to evaluate the extent to which they have reached a solution and to assess their own learning needs.
Technology can help people develop their metacognitive skills, through, for example, enabling them to see and interact with a description of their performance on a task. Software also exists that can build a model of a learner’s developing metacognitive skill and offer personalised feedback to hone these skills.



Ecosystems are complicated, requiring students to be able to reason about complex causal patterns. As these patterns often clash with students’ preconceptions, they can struggle to acquire and apply their knowledge. To help them, Professor Chris Dede and colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education developed the EcoMUVE curriculum. This multi-user virtual environment offers students two immersive, simulated ecosystems in which to conduct scientific investigations.

One of these virtual worlds is a pond in which fish have been mysteriously dying. Students can explore the pond, including under the water. They can investigate the surrounding area, observing the plants and animals in their natural habitats. Their task is to work together, collecting and analysing data, in order to solve the puzzle of why so many fish have died.

The system helps students gain deeper understanding of difficult concepts, which helps them apply their learning in different situations.

EcoMUVE is now complemented by the EcoMOBILE system. This combines ‘augmented reality’ technology and
environmental probes so that students can visit a real ecosystem, such as a pond, and use their mobile devices to collect data.

Students walk to a ‘hotspot’ identified by the mobile device. It prompts them to investigate the organisms they find, asking questions about their observations, and giving constructive feedback based on their answers. They can also watch a video simulation of an atom involved in a process such as photosynthesis to help them understand the flow of matter. And they can accept some information and guidance from a virtual adviser.

Overlaying this virtual data, information, simulations and visualisations on to experiences in the real world helps students apply formal science concepts to the solution of practical problems.

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