In online education, using high-quality simulation software can improve student achievement, motivation, and graduation rates more effectively compared with other teaching approaches, according to a Penn State researcher.

“Online learning environments have been plagued with student motivational problems, leading to high dropout rates,” said Brian Cameron, instructor at Penn State’s School of Information Sciences and Technology, whose findings suggest simulations may counter the low student satisfaction and motivation rates now prevalent in many online education programs.

The need for effective teaching tools in an online environment is underscored by a new report released by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) on July 18.

The report, “Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institu-tions: 2000-2001,” finds enrollment in distance-education courses–which includes online or virtual courses–has nearly doubled since 1995, to 3.1 million enrollments.

“Distance education is both a sign of the times and a harbinger on the future delivery of education services,” said John Bailey, director of ED’s Office of Educational Technology. “We’ll continue to see an upward trend–not only at the postsecondary level, but we’re seeing it in K-12, too.”

According to Cameron, “Tools like simulation can enhance the educational experience of distance learning.”

In his research, Cameron found that students who learned computer networking through a commercially available simulation (a product created by NetCracker Technologies Inc.) scored higher and

retained more course information than students taught with a traditional network-diagramming software package (Microsoft Visio).

“On every measure that used the simulation, they scored better on the exam; they expressed more positive feedback on the course; they spent more time on assignments,” Cameron said.

Cameron’s study data came from two sections of a web-based introductory networking and telecommunications course he taught to 85 freshmen and sophomores. One section used a commercial network simulation package; the other, a popular network-diagramming software tool that depends on instructor evaluation for feedback on the feasibility of a student’s design.

Most instruction occurred online, although Cameron had some face-to-face meetings with both groups. Cameron used multiple-choice tests, project results, and a survey to assess student learning.

The simulation software allowed students to build and test different components and different configurations of local, metropolitan, and wide area networks.

“Students got immediate feedback because they were able to run data through the networks to see if they worked,” Cameron said.

However, students using the static

package had no way to verify if their network designs worked other than submitting them to Cameron for evaluation. As a result, those students didn’t experiment with different network configurations, he added.

The article, “Effectiveness of Simulation in a Hybrid and Online Networking Course,” was published in the current issue of The Quarterly Review of Distance Education.

Computer networking courses traditionally involve hands-on projects, an experience that can be hard to replicate online. But finding good educational simulation software is not easy.

Cameron suggests educators look for programs that closely mimic real-world experiences. “The closer it comes to actually simulating the environment you are teaching–whether it’s networking or science–the better,” he said.

Affordability, ease of use, and how the simulation software will be integrated into the curriculum also are factors to consider, he said.

See these related links:

Penn State’s School of Information Sciences and Technology
http://ist.psu.edu

“Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2000-2001”
http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2003017