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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Unofficial memorandum

Request For Tender (RFT) Background briefing for publisher/ software provider

As discussed at our recent meeting, the National Curriculum Foundation (NCF) has made the momentous decision to commission a series of simusols for primary and secondary schools.

(Note to marketing department: do we need to clarify ‘simusols’ and explain that the term is derived from simulations-solutions, and that we are talking about online learning packages that provide students with virtual worlds, where they can check out information and use both creative and real-world problem-solving skills to come up with solutions?)

While the Foundation is experienced in providing briefs to publishers for curriculum requirements—and could readily state what is required from any particular textbook—we must all recognise that commissioning a simusol is a ‘first’ for the Foundation, and we therefore encourage positive feedback from educational innovators within the software industry.

The Foundation recognises that this is an enormous project and that not everything can be done at once. It has taken more than 500 years to accumulate the ‘infinity’ of books that are our heritage, and that have formed the basis of past learning: we cannot expect to—overnight— replace this rich resource of printed matter with online information.

After due consideration, the Foundation has elected to start with Australian history as the first online learning package—or simusol.

The Foundation appreciates that this is a green field project, and that there are few models available that can serve as guides. But we would like to draw your company’s attention to some existing online learning ‘games’ that we think are on the right track, and which could prove to be helpful. For example, there are the Australian Stock Exchange Share Market simulations:

As we understand it, each student (or teacher) who wants to participate in the ‘game’—and who undertakes the preliminary training for a number of days—is provided with $50,000 virtual dollars to create their own share portfolio: they then have access to a simulation of the real share market conditions, and can buy and sell shares (according to the rules) for a set period.

And there are winners and losers with valuable prizes to be won. (We also understand that students who otherwise have to be cajoled and threatened into doing their school work, now need to be prised away from the computer, when they are able to learn about the stock market, economics, financial literacy and decision making, through simulation.)

Members of the Foundation committee have been informed that there is a similar ‘game’ which could also fit our history brief and which is associated with the rise of the squattocracy in Australia. It evidently simulates the conditions under which the squatters took up land, although we are not sure whether any attention is paid to the resulting displacement of the Aboriginal communities.

The whole thing is brought up to date when the player is allowed (after reaching a certain level) to run such a property today. As the ‘manager’, students would have to make use of all relevant contemporary data—from commodity prices and transport costs to government subsidies and weather reports: familiarity with legal requirements in relation to land rights, water rights, and land clearing, etc., would also be necessary.

At a more modest level, the Foundation has become acquainted with another simulation—Diner Dash.

One of the committee members of the Foundation has a four-yearold daughter who through her engagement with Diner Dash, now claims to be able to run a restaurant—as long as there are not too many child customers.

The NCF is convinced that the simusol offers amazing learning benefits including the potential to provide a range of perspectives. Indeed, with the simusol, the committee foresees the end of the complaint that history is always written by the victors. For example, we anticipate a simusol of the arrival of Captain Phillip which equally simulates the reality of the Indigenous people as well as that of the ‘boat people’. Likewise we would expect to find both the world-views of the officers and convicts given equal time, the experiences of the Chinese on the goldfields to be portrayed from the perspective of the Chinese—and of course we want to see the experiences of women equally represented alongside those of men.

(Note to developers: beware such statements that ‘the settlers went west and took their wives!’ While the committee is not into revisionist history it does seek to expose some of the old prejudices; for example, in any discussion of the history of sheep in Australia, it would be more accurate to refer to Elizabeth Macarthur as the mother of the wool industry. We regard this as an important correction given that John Macarthur—generally given the credit for the feat of being the father of the industry—was out of the country for most of the time that the wool industry was being established. We have many other examples, which we are more than willing to share—if they are necessary.)

The committee, of course, does anticipate a certain negative response to educational games (though nothing like the reaction that accompanied the introduction of the printing press when books were banned and publishers burned at the stake). But we do know that we must make every effort to persuade many—in influential positions—to take the leap to simusols. Too many adults are still dismissive of ‘games’ and simulations (often without even doing them), and regard the skills of those that are good at them as a sign of a misspent youth.

We realise that in our day, being able to compile music tracks, put broadcasts together, or make a movie, was only for the rare, gifted specialist. (We have also discovered that it was much the same during the manuscript era when it was widely believed that only the talented few could ever learn to read—and that the process took fourteen years.) However, these new insights place the committee in a difficult position: we cannot understand how or why some critics could believe that online activities are a form of ‘dumbing down’.

The delights and satisfactions of books, novels, and literature, are not in dispute, and we most certainly wish to see them recommended as references in all simusols. (Kate Grenville’s Sacred River is of course a must!) But digital—and the simusol genre—are the source of a different range of intellectual and imaginative responses. It is our belief that in creating a virtual world they can offer students the most engrossing, demanding, satisfying—and more complex and ‘real’—experiences, for learning. No other medium is comparable.

(Note: research in this area is still in its infancy but neuroscientists have already found that ‘tracking’—which is how some of the brain peopledescribe reading—is not nearly as cognitively demanding as ‘matching’, which is the primary mental activity associated with simulations and actively putting things together.)

Young children who are motivated to move up the levels of Diner Dash aren’t in it for marks, or to please the teacher: they are doing it for themselves, and for and to their own satisfaction. And we would like to see the same behaviour with simusols. Where the students are independent learners, managing more and more variables as they ‘do’ the history of the explorers, or votes for women or even the reasons for war.

When it comes to books, students are always on the receiving end, studying someone else’s information: and this can provide a valuable reference. But digital goes beyond this: the new technologies put creativity and innovation and the power to make new communication forms into the hands of the students, so that they become researchers and information makers.

The Foundation recognises that in the information economy, the prosperity of a nation depends on its ability to produce and trade in information. Simusols are the playground for information making.

(Note to education departments: should the next priority be a simusol for training teachers to teach with the new technologies?)

With thanks NCF Committee Chair

author picture Dale Spender is a researcher, writer and consultant, and the principal director of Digital Style P/L.