Virtual Manipulatives

For me, it was a simple two-word phrase that brought these ideas into collision: Virtual Manipulatives. During an interview with Bill Gates, Jessie Woolley-Wilson, CEO of DreamBox, shared a wonderful example of the adaptive learning built in to their educational software. Her company’s online learning program will adapt which lesson is recommended next based not only the correctness of an answer, but by “capturing the strategies that students [use] to solve problems, not just that they get it right or wrong.” Let’s suppose we’re both challenged to count out rods and beads totaling 37. As Wooley- Wilson describes it:

You understand groupings and you recognize 10s, and you very quickly throw across three 10’s, and a 5 and two 1’s as one group. You don’t ask for help, you don’t hesitate, your mouse doesn’t hesitate over it. You do it immediately, ready for the next. I, on the other hand, am not as confident, and maybe I don’t understand grouping strategies. But I do know my 1’s. So I move over 37 single beads. Now, you have 37 and I have 37, and maybe in a traditional learning environment we will both go to the next lesson. But should we?

By observing how a student arrives at an answer, by monitoring movements of the mouse and what students “drag” over, the system can determine if someone has truly mastered the skill(s) needed to move on. This is certainly an inspiring example of adaptive learning, and a step forward toward the holy grail of personalized learning. But, it was the two words that followed that I found jarring: she described this online learning program, using a representation of the familiar counting beads, as virtual manipulatives. Isn’t the point of a manipulative that it is tangible? What is a virtual manipulative then, other than an oxymoron?

But this did spark an idea: what if we could take the tangible counting beads, the same kind kids have been playing with for decades, and endow them with the adaptive learning properties Woolley-Wilson describes? How much better might this be for facilitating understanding? And, with the increasing ubiquity of cheap technology (such as RFID tags and the like), is this concept really that far off? Imagine getting all the sensory (and cognitive) benefits of tangible objects, and all the intelligence that comes with “smart” objects.

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