Designing aspects of software for learning and simulation environments

This chapter discusses:
What are the most important aspects of an instructional environment, a learning environment, a computer simulation program and the written material that goes with it?

1. Learning environments for computer simulation

The production of a computer simulation program that merely functions is not sufficient. The entire program has to have an educational purpose. A good program has to be accompanied by texts, demonstration material, worksheets, teachers' guides, student manuals, etc. as well as programming tools for the teacher in order to be able to make changes in the computer simulation program, like a text-editor, a graphic editor as well as a resource editor. A teacher should be able to add a personal touch to the program with a resource editor. The fact that the teacher can still change things is important, for it also promotes the acceptance of the medium. When the program is supplied with the requisites mentioned above, one can speak of a courseware package or a really complete educational program.

One of the theories for the construction of an educational tool or instruction environment has resulted in a method based on the model 'Didactische Analyse' (Didactic Analysis) by Van Gelder (1967), which is used often in the Netherlands. The model distinguishes the following components:
Docters van Leeuwen (1983) developed a model for the development of courseware which is also based on the Van Gelder model. This model can offer some support during the development of courseware. It is of course not the only possibility.

There have to be a number of elements in a courseware package ensuring that it can function in the right way. These elements are:

The program itself, the basis of the courseware package, has to meet a number of conditions, didactically speaking. A differentiated supply of educational tools is important for students. One student learns much better with an non-interactive method, another learns by working with an interactive CAL program (Computer Assised Learning). Designing a good computer simulation program based on a mathematical model is not easy. A CAL design should almost always be constructed by a educational software expert or an expert on modelling. The actual programming (or better: encoding), in particularly the procedures libraries and/or tools, should be left to CAL programmers or computer scientists. The educational engineer coordinates the project and designs the outline of the computer simulation program. In this paragraph it is sufficient to give a list of points which have to be checked while developing a computer simulation program that will be more useful for education and training.

2. Designing aspects (steps) for simulation environments

There are a lot of stages to transform the mathematical model into a complete computer simulation program. A computer simulation program is only then a complete educational learning environment when all the mentioned efforts have been made: the aim, the possibilities, the cases, the instruction materials, etc. (see figure 2).

For the computer simulation program as well as the student and teachers' guides or the multimedia materials, a program is only effective when the assignments, pertaining to the program structure, meet the aim.


So the aim should not be changed afterwards, because it appears that certain elements of the learning process cannot be converted into a simulation program. It is of great importance that in designing a simulation program it is carefully thought over whether what one wants to simulate is necessary from a didactic point of view. Moreover one has to ask oneself if what one wants to simulate can be transformed into a well functioning computer simulation program. Profound preparatory study of the object or system to be simulated is of crucial importance. If it turns out that the aim can not be realised, then one should not try make a program anyhow, because this will probably fail.


Make a plan for the structure of the total computer simulation program. Give the computer simulation program a unique name.


Make an inventory of the mathematical model. Look up all variables and constants. Find out which meaning they have. Find out which values they have or can get. Look up matching dimensions.

Concept model

Make a visual (conceptual) representation form of the mathematical model. Register the model in the analog notation (see chapter 4). Check whether the dimensions of all variables tally everywhere in the scheme.


When all data are present and the model is thus complete, it can be registered (encoded) in Pascal or a different language.

Testing of the model

Implement this model in a simple test program or 'modelling system', for example in a Pascal environment; or in a special computer simulation system, as is also described further on in this chapter. It is convenient to choose a numeric representation form beside a visual representation form of the simulation , because then it is possible to check what can go wrong with a few decimals. So try to make the model 'talk'.

Possibilities of intervention

Examine the intervention possibilities in this model which are suitable for education. Block irrelevant intervention possibilities. Also pay attention to the interesting possible interventions at which two or more model parameters have to be able to be changed at the same time.

Accessibility to the student

Make the program accessible to the student. Remember that every technical action is one too many. For example, a program has to come up immediately with the title page when the computer is switched on ( such a program is then 'self-starting' and 'turn-key'). The student should never be able to enter the operation system in a CAL program or be put into a situation when he or she has to instruct a system to be able to proceed. For educational instrumentation technology contains knowledge concerning the making of educational tools and not how to work with a computer.

Case studies

Good and well-considered case studies should be developed for the most relevant simulation experiments that can be invented and the matching intervention possibilities found . The separate lab workbook or manual has to be arranged especially around assignments and cases. Finding the right assignments, exercises and cases and testing them, is most important in every educational computer simulation program.

Student manual

Make for the student (or course-member) a good, complete student manual including a block scheme, the intervention possibilities and the normal values of the variables. Explain the possibilities of the model, the problems which can be simulated with it and the technical operation of the computer simulation program. It has to be clearly indicated in the manual which steps a student has to take in order to be able to work with the program. It has to be clearly indicated: Moreover one can in a manual: Certain overlaps in parts of the program are no problem, on the contrary. Certain parts of the computer simulation program should be points of recognition in the student manual. If possible: make an electronic coach, for instance in HyperCard and in a parallel process on the student's screen.

Teachers guide

Make a teachers guide with all relevant information about the model and the computer simulation program. It should include among other things:

Figure 1 The learning environment for a computer simulation session with a complete computer simulation program, included worksheets, manuals, hardware, software and courseware. The mathematical model is the heart of such computer simulation programs.

System manual

Write a good program documentation for those who have to keep up the computer simulation system and the computer simulation program including essential parts of the source and the complete model-listings and such.

Learning environment

Make a good learning environment with efficient furniture, good lighting and a bookcase with useful reference literature. The learning process in computer simulation can only take place in a well equipped learning environment. A learning environment in a computer simulation in education or business training courses looks as is shown in figure 1.

In such a learning environment the following parts are found:

Implementation in a curriculum

In order to make simulation actually work in education, the program has to be implemented in the right way in the curriculum. It is well known that working with one didactic working form will never lead to an optimum didactic result. That is why working on a computer simulation-program always has to be combined with other didactic form.

Figure 2. Various stages of the transformation of a mathematical model into a complete computer simulation program. A computer simulation program is only then a complete educational model when all the mentioned efforts have been made!

A computer simulation program could serve as an introduction to a new subject. After students or course-members have gone through the program, the theories underlying the subject can be discussed. By asking questions the teacher can test the knowledge acquired. The procedure can also be reversed. After a classical introduction the students (for example in groups of two) can run through the program. In this situation simulation is not meant to be an introduction but more the ability to apply the theories and facts that have been dealt with. Applications like these are independent of the subject to which it is applied.


In the background there should always be someone who can function as an interlocutor if necessary. Ideal would be a computer lab attendant, a teacher or subject specialist, e.g. when the group consists of more than 30 persons. Also ideal would be a support depends on the character and level of the computer simulation program. If free activity, then a minimum of support is required. Help has to be offered when the student is in danger of getting stuck. In programs where there is no expectation of free activity the support will have to be more intensive. The amount of support required influences the support. In the teacher's manual it has to be indicated precisely which form and which nature possible assistance should have. In many cases the other students play such a role, either consciously or not.


For the developers of all sorts of CAL it goes without saying that the new educational tools are evaluated in the right way. Formative evaluation can happen already at various moments during the development. Longitudinal evaluation is also important, but is a matter of thorough preparation. Methods of evaluation, however, are beyond the scope of this book.

First version 1996; updated 2003