cite this article as
Currents in Electronic Literacy
Spring 2002 (6),
- In 1984, George Hillocks wrote an article modestly
entitled "What Works in Teaching Composition." This
article reported the results of a meta-analysis Hillocks had
conducted, reviewing over 500 research studies investigating
a wide variety of methods of teaching composition and the consequences
for student learning. After removing those studies which were
seriously flawed in research design, application of method,
or findings, Hillocks performed a comparative statistical analysis
of the remaining studies. Hillocks' conclusions found that his
own approach, which he called the environmental method, effected
the greatest positive change in student writing of all of the
methods studied. However, in conducting his meta-analysis he
had also removed from consideration a single study that was
not flawed in any way, as he recently revealed on a panel at
CCCC. This research described a pedagogical method that had
resulted in improvement in student writing that so far surpassed
every other study he reviewed that he had removed it from his
comparative analysis, in order to avoid skewing the statistical
averages beyond recognition. The study was Lynn Troyka's dissertation
research on the effect of role-playing simulation games in her
composition classes. Students in these "remedial English"
classes made enormous gains in their writing, more specifically,
in their sophistication, effective use of rhetorical strategies,
and ability to accommodate conflicting views. When I asked about
her study, Troyka graciously provided a copy of her book, Taking
Action (Troyka and Nudelman). The simulation games she
had used were designed for conventional classrooms. But as far
as I could determine, her study had been neglected by our field,
and there was no evidence that this work had been extended into
rhetoric and composition in computer-supported environments.
Key Components of a Successful Role-playing Simulation
- Role-playing simulations have been a staple
in the social sciences, in business, in international affairs,
and in military and political studies for a very long time.
Abt refers to these as "serious games," and he provides
this definition of a "game":
Reduced to its formal essence, a game is
an activity among two or more independent decision-makers
seeking to achieve their objectives in some limiting
context. A more conventional definition would say that
a game is a contest with rules among adversaries trying
to win objectives. The trouble with this definition is that
not all games are contests among adversaries--in some games
the players cooperate to achieve a common goal against an
obstructing force or natural situation that is itself not
really a player since it does not have objectives (5).
- It is clear that role-playing simulations can
be very effective in helping participants gain a richer understanding
of multiple perspectives and of the "codependent arising"
of interdependent activity. By engaging in well-defined role-playing
games participants seem to move beyond both of these common
assumptions: the simplistic assumption of a "right/wrong"
dichotomy in complex social problems, and the strong relativist
position of "anybody's opinion is as good as anyone else's."
They come to see also that logical reasoning and factual support
do not always win the day, that pathos and ethos also play an
important part in decision-making and problem-solving. Within
the framework of the game, participants have the opportunity
to exercise creativity and imagination and to be playful in
exploring possibilities. Yet there are consequences within the
game world, which scaffolds activity and keeps it from becoming
- Here are
some components of a successful role-playing simulation game:
Computer Enhancement for Role-playing Simulations
issue: A controversy, problem or conflict that
must be resolved, a decision that must be made, or a course
of action that must be determined.
- The players: A variety
of roles that are representative of stakeholders in the
issue. These need to be individual roles, but they can
be played by a small group, for example. In model U. N.
simulations, a single individual represents a whole nation.
However, the nation is treated as a single individual
for the purpose of the simulation.
- The context: Context
includes the information provided for the participants,
which might include background on the issue or documents
pertaining to its impact and scope. It also includes the
situation of the issue within a larger social, cultural,
or historical framework.
- The rules: The rules
might also be thought of as guidelines. They constrain
the activity to keep the game meaningful for participants.
You might insist that over the course of the role-playing
simulation all participants act with the role during class
time, for example.
- The enactment: The enactment
of the game includes all activities and products in which
participants engage over the course of the simulation.
These might include research on their roles, the issue,
or the context; the creation of written papers, Web sites,
MOO environments, or other compositions; and, of course,
real-time discussion. It is important to get a sense of
an individual participant's take on the issue before assuming
a role in the simulation. It is also important to get
a "final take" on the issue as well as some
evaluation of the process at the end.
- The outcome: How will
the simulation end? What does the action build toward,
and how does it conclude? How can participants evaluate
the effectiveness of the simulation in developing their
own thinking and practice? How can we represent the learning
that has occurred?
- Online environments offer diverse possibilities
for supporting role-playing simulation, as evidenced by the
growing number of games and players. Most often these simulation
games are used for entertainment rather than for educational
purposes. On the other hand, online educational simulations,
commonly used in the sciences, for example, seldom take advantage
of the power and richness of role-playing. Instead, they tend
to depend on "interactive" elements in which students
work alone and interact individually with the computer or with
the instructor. To design effective educational simulation games,
or "serious games" in Abt's terms, we must give up
some control over a fixed "outcome" in exchange for
fostering the exercise of the imagination, resourcefulness,
problem-solving and decision-making skills, and flexibility.
Furthermore, we need to design into the game the unique affordances
offered by the Web, MOOs, real-time conferencing, multimedia,
and email, as well as more conventional applications such as
word processing. This requires some thought and care, but even
a modest simulation can be greatly enriched through the use
of electronic media.
Exploring the Use of Role-playing Simulations in the
- I was
intrigued enough by Troyka's findings to try a small experiment
in one of my undergraduate classes. The first role-playing game
I developed was based on a current controversy. In Texas, there
had been a formal proposal to the governor that the state purchase
laptops for all students and suspend purchases of textbooks.
An informal poll of students in my class revealed that students
regarded this controversy as a simple binary opposition. Students
were either "for" or "against" the proposal
but seemed to feel the issue was quite cut and dried. Here is
the game setup for "Laptops for Textbooks."
for Textbooks Simulation
Background (provided to all participants):
Please read the following Houston Chronicle news item:
Laptops eyed as schoolbook replacements
State looking at cost, technology
By KATHY WALT
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN -- With Texas planning to spend almost
$2 billion on textbooks over the next six years, the state's
education commissioner said Thursday it is time to consider
putting a laptop computer in the hands of every school child
instead of books.
The day will come, said Commissioner Mike Moses, when the
state will be telling textbook publishers that Texas schools
need not only books, but materials on computer disk and
Moses and Jack Christie, the Houston Republican who chairs
the State Board of Education, contend that such notions
are more than pie-in-the-sky dreams. Christie called the
idea a "real possibility." Moses said the board
may have reached "the time to step back and really
change the paradigm."
Technology, they argue, is advancing fast enough and computer
costs are dropping enough that in two or three years, Texas
could conceivably get the laptops for $100 apiece.
That, of course, depends on manufacturers giving the state
a volume discount.
And with school enrollments expected to top 4 million, Christie
says he thinks manufacturers would be more than willing
to offer substantial price discounts -- maybe even donate
equipment for the marketing impact.
Christie has long endorsed the concept of providing laptops
to schoolchildren. Now, he says, technology has reached
the point that laptops are durable enough to withstand being
dropped and having coffee spilled on them without shorting
out the keyboards.
Christie said that when he talked with Gov. George W. Bush
about such prospects, the governor countered with a suggestion
that it be tried as a pilot project in a large school district.
"I say if it works, let's try it statewide."
No one is talking at this point about abolishing all textbooks.
But with the growing cost of books, Moses said, lawmakers
will be demanding to know what cost-cutting measures the
state board has examined.
He said the board needs to develop a long-range business
plan that examines whether having instructional materials
on computer disks or CD-ROM is more cost-effective than
textbooks. Computerized instructional material also could
be updated a lot faster, and presumably less expensively,
"I think in the long run it will save money,"
Christie said. "It's very imaginable. Why wait for
the rest of the nation? Let Texas ... be the example for
the rest of the nation."
Several education-related groups said they, too, are enthusiastic
about the potential for such a move, but others say it should
be approached cautiously.
"It sounds to me like a tremendously exciting possibility,"
said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom
Likewise, James Crow, executive director of the Texas Association
of School Boards, said the idea "is a worthy goal"
but adds that much thought needs to go into the decision.
First and foremost, he added, is whether buying laptops
for every child is the best use of money or whether buying
higher quality computers and higher quality software for
selected classrooms would be a better investment.
Moses raised the prospect of laptop computers as the board
began the next phase of textbook adoptions. He drew support
from all factions on the board -- a harmony that has been
rare, if not nonexistent, over the past several months.
In November, the board is scheduled to adopt textbooks in
art, biology, algebra and geometry that had been put out
for bid in 1995. The books, which will be placed on conforming
or nonconforming lists from which local school districts
will select, will not be in classrooms until next school
The Governor of the state of Texas wants to decide whether the
state should move ahead with the plan to purchase laptops for
schoolchildren, in place of textbooks. It is clear that the
budget will not allow for both, so a choice must be made. He
is sending an advisory committee to Austin to assess this possibility.
The advisor will hear testimony from various groups in a town
meeting Tuesday, September 7. On short notice, members of the
community will need to gather the information they need to present
facts and their opinions on the topic. The advisory committee
will make its decision based on the presentations by community
(Students, in small groups of two or three, were assigned roles
1. You are a single mother with three small children.
2. You are a high school principal in the city.
are a single mother with three small children, two in elementary
school, one still at home. Your resources are meager: You
are working as a sales clerk at Sears during the day, and
supplementing your income by cleaning offices at night.
Your mother watches the children while you are working,
but you are worried that she doesn't provide enough supervision
or help with their homework. You dropped out of school in
sixth grade to help your family. You believe education can
help your children get a better life, but you don't know
how to manage all of their needs. Every week there is another
request from school for money for field trips, musical instrument
rental, or playground fund-raising. You are not able to
go to the parent-teacher conferences because of your work
schedule, so you do not have any idea what your children
are doing in school, or how well they are faring.
3. You are an elementary school teacher in a
suburb of Austin.
You are finding it increasingly difficult
to balance the conflicting demands of the state department
of education, parents, teachers, and staff. You are trying
to keep a positive atmosphere in the school, but recent
events have caused you to tighten security and parents have
insisted on stricter policies that are unpopular with students
and teachers. It's been three years since the staff have
had pay increases, and they are demoralized. In fact, you
are finding it difficult to keep a computer specialist to
manage the district and state record-keeping requirements.
The last one quit after one week, complaining that the administrative
computers were outdated and the district network unnecessarily
complex. Since then, the administrative computing system
has been run by a series of temps, with occasional support
from a couple of technologically gifted students. Teachers
are doing their best, but the science labs and the textbooks
are at least 10 years out of date, and resources for supplies
are very limited. Most teachers are paying for supplies
out of their own pockets. The school computer lab, located
in the basement, consists of some recently purchased machines
as well as some machines too old to run the current software.
At least half of them are out of order at any given time.
You would like teachers and students to make better use
of the Internet, but there's no money to provide training
are a representative from a textbook company.
Your school has been adopted by several
high-tech businesses in the area and is fortunate to have
dedicated parents who have been active in raising money
for new computers. During a workday last year they wired
the entire school for the Internet. There are now computers
in every classroom, and teachers and students spend a good
part of every day working on them. You are trying to balance
students' time on the computers with more typical classroom
activities: reading picture books, acting out stories, doing
science projects, and so on. You have up-to-date computer
software that makes learning like a game, and recent textbooks
to support your classes. Additionally, there is usually
at least one parent volunteering time in the class to work
with students individually.
5. You are a representative of Apple Computer's
Your company manufactures several well-known
textbooks which have, in the past, been ordered by schools
in AISD (Austin Independent School District). However, you've
noticed that as budgets get pinched, schools are not updating
textbook series as often. You have an electronic media division
that develops instructional materials for CD-ROM and the
Web. You've found that it costs $5 million in research and
development costs to develop a basic reading series. Production,
printing, and distribution costs are as much or more, and
they are increasing rapidly. Electronic publishing does
not reduce the research and development costs, or even the
production costs, surprisingly enough, but it does reduce
distribution costs almost to nothing. You are working on
ways to ensure that you can get paid for delivering instructional
materials online, and you are optimistic about the cost
savings this will mean for your company. Your job is to
make a reasonable profit to satisfy stockholders, but publishing
is a great gamble. You might spend $10 million dollars to
bring a textbook series to market, only to find that it
does not get adopted. On the other hand, there is the potential
to win big if a state like Texas or California makes large
6. You are the administrator of a computer lab
in a large middle school.
Your company has just released a brand new
computer that is aimed at the education and home-computer
market. It is portable and wireless, and tough enough to
put into a kid's backpack. It can be used without wires
or cables through a dock which can control up to 10 computers
at a time within 150 feet. The design is appealing, and
there is a great deal of educational software available
for teachers and students. You would like to get an early
adoption of this new computer to give sales a boost and
serve as an example to other school systems. You are willing
to provide a certain number of these computers together
with a software bundle free to inner city schools which
are strapped for funds. In your opinion, the book is a dinosaur,
and soon everyone will be doing all of their reading, teaching,
and learning online. You are eager to show off the innovative
features of your laptop.
7. You are a high school student in a small high
school where everyone knows everyone else.
Some of the most rewarding parts of your
job have been the light that goes on in kids' eyes when
they learn how to do something new on a computer. You enjoy
watching the most timid and shy gain confidence as they
learn to draw, write, and read online. You are responsible
for deciding what software and hardware get purchased for
the labs, and for keeping the machines up and running. That's
a tall order for a lab that gets active use every hour of
every school day. You spend a lot of your time troubleshooting
problems and removing stuck disks from disk drives. Kids
can be hard on electronic equipment. You are proud of how
resourceful you've been on a very limited budget. Often
you provide workshops after working hours for teachers to
learn the technology. But many teachers treat the lab as
a kind of study hall, with little or no supervision of their
students. If all students have laptops, you are not sure
what will happen to your lab, or to your position. You are
not ready to retire yet! On the other hand, you can imagine
yourself running all over the school trouble-shooting problems
and trying to keep 2,000 laptops up and running and connected
to the network. And you have serious doubts whether the
existing school network can even handle the traffic.
8. You are
a Spanish-speaking student from a large Hispanic family who
has recently moved to Austin.
Although you like to take it easy and kid
around with friends, you are pretty serious about your interest
in biology. You are hoping to become a doctor some day.
You have a computer at home that was handed down from your
dad, but you mostly use it for typing school papers and
playing games now and then. Your favorite part of the school
day is when you are in science lab, working on a tough experiment
with your lab partner and best friend. You also like to
play the saxophone and swim competitively.
9. You are a parent of three elementary school students.
You are in middle school. Your parents are
working hard and determined to provide you with a good education.
Although you can understand and speak English pretty well,
you are still a little uncertain in your writing. You want
to fit in, and have a group of friends from your neighborhood
that you hang out with. Like you, they study hard and try
to succeed. Although there are no computers in your home,
you are curious about technology. This year you are looking
forward nervously to your English class, where you will
be learning how to use computers for writing class papers.
You work for one of Austin's high-tech firms
as a software engineer. In your view, technology is fundamental
to every aspect of life. You are ambitious and driven; it's
not uncommon for you to put in 70-hour weeks. You are convinced
that you can build a better life for your family through
your unflagging efforts. Your position has made it possible
for you to buy a large comfortable home and to provide lots
of resources for your children. They have their own up-to-date
computers and have been using computers since they were
toddlers. You have a fast network connection and spend a
lot of time online in the evenings, continuing your workday.
Your daughter barely looks up from the monitor when you
come home, but lately your older son seems to spend hardly
any time with the computer and prefers to play with a couple
of his friends outdoors. Your younger son has been blind
from birth. He uses a screenreader on his computer and is
learning Braille. None of your children has much interest
in children's books, except at the end of the day, when
they still like to hear their bedtime story. You've been
very involved with getting your firm to provide computers
and networking at their school, and even served as a consultant
to the school's software purchasing committee. Unfortunately,
your long hours have prevented you from volunteering in
the classroom, so you are not sure exactly how technology
is actually being used in the school.
There were several phases to the laptops for computers simulation.
Students were teamed in small groups of two or three. Roles
were distributed randomly to each group, just as in "real
life." Each group teamed up to develop its character and
enact its role. There were three major assignments:
1, Who Am I?
The first part of this project is an exploration of identity
online. Based on your role in the first simulation game,
create a Web site, using no words, that represents your
character. The one exception is the page of credits that
list the sources for the materials you've used. You may
also create a title and list the names of your group members
as authors. You will need to do some research on your role
to understand what this person thinks, feels, and believes.
To gain more insight, you may want to interview someone
who fits the profile of your role.
2, What is my position?
Post a statement to the class message forum of your character's
position on the "laptops for textbooks" controversy.
You will want to help readers understand your concerns
and opinions, based on your character's perspective. Once
again, you need to research the issue and your character
in order to provide a compelling position statement. Please
be sure to read all position statements to gain a sense
of how the other participants view the issue.
3, Convincing the Governor.
In an online real-time interchange that represents a town
hall meeting for the governor's advisory council, discuss
the "laptops for textbooks" issue with other participants,
advocating for your character's point of view and keeping
in the role. A panel of the governor's advisors will listen
to the discussion and evaluate the arguments before coming
to a decision.
- With these
very simple instructions, as well as some classroom introductions
to html, scanning, PhotoShop, and Fetch, students plunged into
the simulation, actively consulting with their team members
and with me. How did it turn out?
Consequences of the "Laptops for Textbooks"
- This simulation
was a very modest experiment that unfolded over the first two
weeks of class. I was not sure how students would respond, or
precisely what might be the outcomes for their learning. It
was invaluable to be tracking student progress via the Online
Learning Record, a portfolio-based assessment system used
for evaluation, to gain some understanding of student experience
with the simulation.
- Here are
engagement was high, and there were no students who reacted
to the assignments with apathy or disinterest.
was a distinct shift in all participants from making binary
right/wrong distinctions to recognizing and being able to
articulate much greater complexity.
- There was a marked increase in participants'
ability to recognize and empathize with different perspectives.
was a greater recognition that social problems are thorny
and subject to multiple stakeholders' opinions.
were more effective in locating, selecting, and mobilizing
research materials in support of claims.
developed a more nuanced view of research materials.
was also increased recognition that the extreme relativist
position (everybody's opinion is as good as anyone else's)
is untenable; there must be a basis for decision-making.
reported it "didn't feel like work."
worked harder on reasoning and linking evidence and claims.
concepts "came to life" for them.
- Obviously, these are anecdotal observations,
but they suggest fruitful possibilities for further study. Such
studies should include ethnographic observation, discourse analysis,
and case studies as well as systematic evaluations of changes
in student writing which results from work with simulations.
Meanwhile, there are a number of issues that need to be addressed
in developing a robust application of simulations to teaching
and learning with technology.
Challenges in Design and Implementation of Simulation Games
are some significant challenges in developing and running simulation
games. These challenges do not mitigate the promise of role-playing
simulations, which have proven effective in so many fields,
but they do represent some considerations for design and application.
- Initial setup: The game must
be thoughtfully designed to support students' learning.
Any resources that will be provided for players must be
located, acquired, and then made available in the appropriate
format such as online, in handouts, or on reserve at the
library). The environment in which the game will unfold
also needs to be prepared. For example, a MOO space in which
players will act out the game may need to be built.
- Balance of what is provided by teacher
vs. what students provide: Instructors need to decide
whether and if so to what extent students will share in
the design of the game, the acquisition of background materials,
the construction of the game environment, and the ultimate
evaluation of the game play and outcomes. If there is time
for several games during the semester, the teacher might
scaffold student participation, gradually involving students
in more and more of the design and construction.
- Creating a compelling, immersive environment:
Most instructors have little experience designing and building
immersive environments. Fortunately, role-playing games
can be successfully carried out with simple text-setups
and the use of conventional research materials for students.
However, with the additional potential of the MOO, message
forums, Web sites, multimedia, and email, the game environment
can be much more richly developed. This prospect can seem
daunting, but it offers the opportunity to engage students
in the construction or extension of the game environment.
- Assessing outcomes: Instructors
may be concerned about assessing the results of role-playing
simulations for student learning. The first issue is to
decide what performances might demonstrate that students
have made significant progress toward learning objectives.
The final step of a role-playing game might include the
preparation of a paper or project that addresses the controversy
with which the game started, for example. This is a familiar
outcome for instructors and one that lends itself to either
internal evaluation (by the instructor) or external evaluation
(by outside assessors, for example). There are many richer
possibilities in the form of projects created by students,
transcripts of "town hall" meetings, and other
kinds of performances that will equally demonstrate what
students have learned.
- Assessing process: A more significant
issue for instructors is assessing the process of the game
as it unfolds. It may be necessary to intervene during the
game to help participants move forward, to address conflicts,
or to stimulate interaction. Instructors might help students
become more reflective about their interactions, suggest
that more research might better serve the character in a
role, and so on. The instructor's role in assessing the
process is active and creative. This role becomes both more
comfortable and more expert with experience.
- Dealing with difficulties such as conflicts
between participants: Abt points out that conflicts
can lead to productive learning experiences, especially
when they are addressed within the simulation context. Teachers
need to develop a sense of when to make a meaningful intervention
that can help support students' learning even as they are
engaged in conflicts.
- Perceptions that this is just play,
not serious learning: There are several audiences for
every course: our students, our peers, our discipline, and
the administration within our institution. For each of these
audiences we need to provide, as needed, a rationale or
justification for the use of role-playing simulations that
helps each of these particular audiences see the educational
value in what looks so much like popular entertainment.
For this reason, we need to be clear about how the role-playing
simulation helps students move toward our educational objectives,
and we need to be aware of the research that supports this
mode of instruction.
- Scaffolding progressively more challenging
and sophisticated tasks: Properly designed courses
build progressively on students' emerging skills and knowledge,
moving toward increasingly more challenging, sophisticated,
and complex work over the course of the semester. In designing
or adopting simulation games, teachers need to determine
how they will scaffold this progressive learning process.
In the world of computer games, players who persist and
excel at one level are typically confronted with the next
level, more difficult and demanding than previous ones.
With care, role-playing simulations can offer the same engaging
challenges for students.
challenges suggest that role-playing simulations cannot be casually
deployed as an entertaining diversion for students and teachers.
The potential gains in terms of student engagement, enthusiasm,
and improved performance are too great to ignore, however. We
need to explore the promise of role-playing simulations in computer-supported
classes with careful attention to both process and performances.
As we gain experience and understanding over time we will be
able to develop supporting resources both for existing simulations
and for teachers and students authoring new adventures in learning.