Exploring e-Learning Options

I’m always interested in exploring technology and how it can be used at home and in the classroom as a learning tool. As I’ve written in the past, I’m a big fan of the online Starfall games for helping preschoolers learn phonics and basic math skills. We’ve also had great success with free PBS Kids Lab games, which focus on math, reading and science featuring some of my children’s favorite characters like Sid the Science Kid and Curious George. As an instructor for the University of Phoenix, I’ve used computer-based marketing simulations with my students to help them visualize how marketing changes they initiate affect how customers perceive the product. Recently, my high-school friend Abby introduced me to two, more-focused e-Learning tools: ExploreLearning’s Gizmos and Reflex Math, and I’ve been playing with both through the company’s free trial.

Reflex Math has one specific purpose: to improve math fluency, in other words how quickly children can answer basic math facts. Before computers we did this with flash cards, timed worksheets or, one of my major memories, reciting times tables everywhere I went. Reflex Math has turned this practice into a series of games that hold children’s attention and motivate them. Students first create their own avatar and journey to an island to explore several math games. As they solve facts and earn coins, they can buy things for their avatar at the store.

I tested out an Egyptian-themed facts game where I “shot” serpents each time I answered a problem. I also solved a picture puzzle, earning pieces for each problem I mastered. I later chose the ninja game and climbed higher and higher each time I typed in a correct fact. For early elementary students, this game-based method of practice is far superior to flash cards, etc. I’d rather shoot a serpent or be a ninja any day. And for $35 for student for home users, the price is right.

The company’s other product, Gizmos, is a series of science and math simulations geared for grades 3 and up. I focused my attention on the science Gizmos, which allow you to conduct “hands-on” investigations in a classroom or home environment where you may not have expensive lab equipment. Gizmos also has a time advantage. Many of the experiments I preformed would have taken days or weeks in a traditional lab, whereas I was able to conduct them in just a few minutes on the computer.

Gizmos simulations run the gamut, from biology to astronomy and physics. I studied genetics by breeding mice, for example (a high-school simulation). I experimented with the effects of sun, food and water on the growth of different plants, carefully controlling for each variable. And, I learned about the phases of the moon by viewing a simulation that showed the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth. For each Gizmo, ExploreLearning provides a student exploration sheet, which walks the student through the simulation, helping her to explore all its aspects. They also include a teacher guide, vocabulary sheet and an assessment.

Should Gizmos replace the science lab? I hope not. Getting your hands dirty, being forced to slow down, think and observe are all irreplaceable benefits of actually doing science. These are the moments I remember from middle and high-school science. With that said, schools and home school environments often don’t have the resources, time or ability to breed mice or equip boats with sonar to explore the oceans. In these instances, the Gizmos simulations stimulate inquiry and help learning come alive. For the homeschool market, Gizmos is $59 for first time buyers then $99 upon renewal if purchased through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op.


12 responses to “Exploring e-Learning Options

  1. There’s no substitute for actually doing things – like you say, getting your hands dirty! – but computer games and simulations can make learning so much fun that kids don’t even realize how much they’re learning, so I’m a fan of both methods 🙂

  2. I agree, Susanna. I also think there is a place for educational TV. I know shows like “Sid the Science Kid” and “WorldWord” reinforce science and reading concepts. I think it would be fun to use some of these simulations — the plant simulation for example — and then try to replicate the experiment at home by planting seeds. Then you can have an educated discussion about your successes and failures.

  3. I love your review of my company’s products, Kirsten! Thanks for taking the time, and I hope they will benefit some more kids as a result. You were spot on with what you said about Gizmos: “schools and home school environments often don’t have the resources, time or ability to breed mice or equip boats with sonar to explore the oceans.” It’s not our goal to replace hands-on experiments, but rather supplement existing curriculum. They are correlated to all state standards, and over 300 textbooks, so it’s easy for educators to incorporate them. Thanks again!

    • Abby, I had a lot of fun testing out the products. I was just sad that the boys were a little too young yet, though Cooper did enjoy some of the science simulations. I look forward to using them with the boys when they are a couple of years.

  4. Very interesting Kirsten. All boils down to time spent with a machine for me. I hate how almost all HW on the computer has separated our family in the evening. They can’t keep themselves from surfing or Fb-ing while they are completing HW, and I can’t keep at them all the time. I thought we had done such a fine job keeping them unplugged with no TV for so long, so although I am sure these products have merit, I definitely think real learning happens hands-on and eyes-on…nature!

  5. Darn – can’t stand it when I write a long comment without my wp-account open and it gets lost! Just wanted to add how HW assignments are almost only completed on the computer these days, and I wish I could keep my kids unplugged like the old days. Still no tv reception, but the computer allows them to access everything and they have been sucked into the interweb. As much as there may be merit to these products I would keep my kids’ fingers in the dirt as much as possile!

    • I agree it’s hard to keep kids focused on their schoolwork and not Facebook, Twitter, etc. Fortunately ReflexMath is aimed at early elementary, hopefully long before Facebook. And teachers can use Gizmos in class and project them onscreen, which prevents kids from goofing off.

      • I hope you’re predictions are on target Kirsten. Our school district handed out laptops to every 9th grader this year and everyone jokes about how even the teachers have no control of how the kids are viewing youtube videos in class. And they are more weight to schlepp back and forth along with fat text books – never has my own daughter had less than 30 pds in her pack!

      • Ahhhhhhh! Don’t tell me that, Julie. I already encounter this in my college classes. Students think I have no idea they are checking game scores and bidding on ebay.

  6. Interesting post. I’ve been looking for math games, so I might check these out. I think it’s all about balance between the computer games and real-life experiences. They both can play a role in education and entertainment.

    • Julie, ReflexMath is specifically for math fluency, making kids faster at their math facts. PBS Kids Lab also has some great, free math games as well, which aren’t focused on speed.

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