August 17, 2006 Not all that long ago, simulation software was only available to a select few for military decision-making, architectural analysis and flight simulation, where a mistake could costs a lot of lives or money or both. Then came the democratization of computing power (the PC), and a rash of simulation games of every reality genre beginning with MS Flight Simulator and SimCity, and evolving to Sim*(everything). Business simulation games such as Railroad Tycoon and Sim City were the first to reach the population at large, transfixing players with convincing virtual environments designed to entertain, but they were not geared to specific, measurable, teaching goals and it was only a matter of time before software developers set out to harness the appeal and complexity of computer games to teach and assess business skills. Knowledge Matters introduced its first product, Virtual Business – Retailing in 1999, and the company now has two other software-based simulation Virtual Business (VB) programs, VB – Sports and VB – Management (VBM). After eight years of unqualified success, the lessons learned in business simulation are about to be applied to historical simulation.
The VB-Retailing simulation is now in version 2.0 and is a convenience store simulation where the player controls pricing, promotion, merchandising, market research and … every aspect of a retail environment, learning retailing experientially.
VB - Management 2.0 (VBM) is a simulated distribution business where players locate and build a business, hire and supervise employees, deal with unions and strikes and collective bargaining, industrial accidents and lawsuits, performance warnings and pay raises and all the other day-to-day business realities. The latest upgrade adds a multiplayer capacity to the original version allowing teams to steal each other’s customers and employees while motivating cooperative thinking and team strategy … just like in real life.
To mimic real life management situations, VBM developers worked in conjunction with a major food distributor to embed variables in the simulation that test players’ abilities to score ever-higher profits running a distribution company. Sounds simple? Not at all! The playing process involves increasing complexity, such as more finite control over trucking routes and the consequences of changes to those routes, virtual life experience with different forms of business ownership and their consequences and dealing with new out-of-left-field surprises that hinder business operations such as road construction.
Knowledge Matters’ simulations require the comprehensive thought processes of entertainment games AND are based on curriculum teachers use and have been so successful the company’s products are now used in 3500 middle and high schools around the world, offering students interactive learning experiences as virtual business owners, managers, and supervisors. In research conducted for her masters of arts in education at New Jersey University, Diane Bolger found an overwhelmingly positive response to Knowledge Matters’ Virtual Business software among teachers surveyed across the country. Bolger found that even the least interested students became highly motivated through using the software.
She “watched one such student score their first “A” on a test after using VB [Virtual Business]. Previously, that same student scored “D” or “F” on every test… Interestingly, after further observation, the same student ranked among the top students in the class using the VB software.”
Played at increasing levels of complexity, VBM offers assessment options that include printable lesson worksheets, projects, and performance journals to help the teacher evaluate student performance. VBM 2.0 supports courses in introductory business, management, supervision, entrepreneurship, marketing, logistics, supply chain management, warehousing, business math and others.
Moving into history
This month Knowledge Matters is releasing a simulation on ancient Egypt for middle school students (grades 5 – 8), the first in its new line of educational simulations for social studies. The product is based on techniques honed with three Virtual Business products used by half a million students in 3500 middle and high schools.
The multi-level , 5 – 7 day, Virtual History - Ancient Egypt module is intended as a capstone to a traditionally taught section on ancient Egypt. Designers used depictions from 4000 year-old cave paintings to build realistic experiences of daily life along the Nile. Students assume the role of village leaders who assign work tasks, monitor signs from nature, construct housing, and provide food and protection for their ever-expanding population. The students’ decisions determine whether their village succeeds or its inhabitants die of starvation. Assessment tools include quizzes and tests administered throughout.
Knowledge Matters spent two years developing the program. Its creators worked with principals, teachers, special needs professionals, curriculum and technical coordinators in 15 individual classrooms observing 350 students interact with the software.
“Only on rare occasions do I walk by and see an entire computer lab of students fully engaged in what they were doing. With Virtual History I saw it three days in a row,” reports Ken Eschrich, technology coordinator at Walsh Intermediate School in Branford, CT, one of five beta sites where Knowledge Matters tested the standards-based program. Feedback prompted 200 discreet changes.
“Every decision was education (not entertainment) driven,” says Harvard MBA founder Pete Jordan who previously worked with McGraw-Hill, the text and educational materials publisher.
Virtual History - Ancient Egypt features cross-curricular connections with reading and reading comprehension, subjects that No Child Left Behind legislation now requires social studies classes to incorporate. “The students also need to exercise analytical thinking, resources management, and risk assessment in order to grow their villages,” explains Jordan. “Learning takes place at both the cognitive and emotional levels, creating a more immediate, personal experience. If a student loses her crops because she misjudged when the Nile floods, for example, the inundation is no longer an abstract, arcane fact she reads in a book.”
And after Virtual History - Ancient Egypt, expect to see Virtual History - Settling America some time in 2007 where students will be immersed, through simulation, in the daily life and history of the early American settlements.