Michael Jacobson: learning with technology

Michael Jacobson’s research challenges young minds to tackle complex scientific problems.

By Tim Groenendyk

Michael Jacobson

“Although boys might like to blow things up in computer games, they—as well as girls—get very engaged in interesting virtual world scenarios.” Professor Michael Jacobson

Jacobson is Co-director of the Centre for Computer Supported Learning and Cognition (CoCo), a centre focussed on the sciences and technologies of learning.

“We engage in the integration of research on how people learn, how we can design both environments of learning as well as the use of technologies that support and enable these types of learning environments.”

In one of Jacobson’s projects, this learning environment is the 3D
Omosa Virtual World (VWorld), a game-like environment his team has developed, where students work together on scientific fieldwork similar to real biologists.

This virtual fieldwork involves transporting the student players to another planet where they help indigenous people understand why certain animals are becoming extinct.

“The students collect data, they run computational experiments with computer modelling and tools, and then they analyse and make presentations on their findings.”

Computational biology algorithms lend unique behaviours to each predator and prey in the VWorld to ‘self-organise’ in a simulated ecological system. One of the chief investigators on this project is biologist Dr. Charlotte Taylor, who won an Australian Teaching and Learning Council Citation in 2011.

Jacobson said kids naturally engage with virtual worlds and game-like programs and even students not usually interested in science have shown great interest in these virtual field trips.

“Although boys might like to blow things up in computer games, they - as well as girls - get very engaged in interesting virtual world scenarios.”

This project has carried out school based studies this past year and found significant learning gains about scientific inquiry, as well as understanding concepts about how complex biological systems function.

And the young year nine students - in both a selective and comprehensive class - seemed to actually get it.

In another research project ninth grade students are using a powerful computer modelling program, NetLogo, to learn about climate change.

Here, students actually use a computer model developed by his research team that broadly generates climate data reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to replicate historical conditions and conduct hypothetical experiments about the planet’s future in terms of carbon concentrations and temperature.

As well as being engaging and enjoyable, Jacobson was pleased that the school based research from last year found the students showed significant improvement in their knowledge about climate systems.

“This is one of the first studies to show that students can learn about climate systems using tools qualitatively similar to a scientist’s.”

Although these projects rely on new learning technologies, Jacobson was quick to add that interpersonal collaboration between students was also very important.

“We know from a lot of research that collaborative learning can be a very powerful way to learn: you’re talking and reifying your ideas, and then the students, as they’re talking back and forth, co-construct understandings.

“It’s also a way for us as researchers to get glimpses into the mental models they’re using and the ideas that they come up with as they’re engaging with the activities.”

By educating students using new learning approaches and technologies, this research hopes to not only redefine what students are capable of learning, but also, Jacobson believes, to more generally enhance our democracy.

“One might say that ideas about climate systems are too hard for regular folks to understand.

“However, the research we’re doing suggests that even kids in 9th grade can understand many of these ideas just fine.”

“We need to make sure our citizenry and our students have the best understanding they have of these kinds of ideas.

“Moreover, I believe education that helps students understand challenging ideas, especially about important issues such as our global environment, is a key part of how informed democracies function.”