Fidelity and complexity : aspects of reality in interactive learning environments for physics learners

Hatzipanagos, Stylianos (1998). Fidelity and complexity : aspects of reality in interactive learning environments for physics learners. PhD thesis The Open University.



Computer-based interactive learning environments in physics can help students to differentiate between their intuitive views on natural phenomena and the formalisms of Newtonian physics. This thesis describes empirical investigations of a specific type of interactive learning environments, computer-based simulations. In many cases computer simulations deal with a simplified and idealised version of the natural phenomenon. Presenting the user with a simplification of reality is seen as one of the advantages of simulations, since too complex and too realistic simulations may sometimes be overwhelming for learners and may not permit the identification of the underlying model. Yet implications arise about the degree to which students either expect or perceive simulations to be real and how these expectations and perceptions affect their interaction with the simulation.

Reality for the purposes of this research is considered to be a construct comprising the visual fidelity (fidelity) and the complexity of the underlying physical model (complexity) of the simulation. Evaluation of a number of simulations, two case studies and interviews with simulation designers and educators suggested these components. Altering the relation between fidelity and complexity levels affects students' learning and contributes to the students' perception of reality. This is demonstrated in a study of a number of simulations of the same physical phenomenon (Newtonian collisions) with degrees of fidelity and complexity which have been examined to test this hypothesis. Two empirical studies were then conducted to investigate the use of simulations which represented different fidelity and complexity levels.

Analyses were carried out on videotapes and questionnaires of students interacting collaboratively with the simulations (40 hours of computer based activity). The empirical approaches to these studies, reports on work done, including the emerging data in multiple forms (questionnaires, video and audio tapes of the students interaction) and its analysis are presented in this thesis. The work reported looks at students' interaction with the simulations (pre to post test learning gain and issues concerning pre and post testing), their comments on the interface and the model underlying the simulation.

The thesis supports the view that well designed computer-based simulations can promote learning and that design issues are essential to the creation of successful simulations. The findings claim that:
a) enhanced fidelity of an instructional simulation has positive effects on the learner outcome,
b) interfaces which use multiple representations offer valuable information which facilitates problem solving strategies and
c) low complexity simulations are better suited to novice learners.

These outcomes are presented as implications for simulation design and the use and development of a syntax in simulation design is also discussed (design criteria for how systems might be built). Finally the outcomes' applicability, the limitations of the studies, as well as the scope for further research that should lead to an understanding of the factors which promote successful use of simulations in the teaching of physics are presented.

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