Working-, Doing- or Learning-Environments

Designing Dynamical Learning Environments for Simulation: Micro-Worlds & Applets on the World Wide Web

paper for proceedings EARLI SIG 6 workshop, june, 27-29, 2002, in Erfurt.

Dr. ir. Rik Min
researcher / designer / developer
Faculty of Educational Science and Technology (EDTE), University of Twente (UT)
Postbus 217; 7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands.

This text is a chapter in the proceedings of the SIG Workshop in Erfurt (2002) (EARLI). Published in 2004: Waxman, Munster/New York/Munchen/Berlin. p.57-69. (Eds. Helmut Niegemann, Detlev Leutner and Roland Bruncken). ISBN 3-8309-1384-2.

Key-words: multimedia; web-based; web-based materials; web-based elements; web-technology; simulation; model-driven simulations; parallelism; concepts; phenomena; simulation environments; learning environments; open learning environments; parallel instructions; e-Learning; courseware; web-based courseware; higher order courseware; higher order web-sites; dynamical e-Learning environments; design theories; and the Parallel Instruction Theory.


At our university, the University of Twente in the Netherlands, we have developed a new serie of techniques for building dynamical e-Learning environments and a new serie of practical courses for designing and developing web-based courseware. In these courses we use libraries with special and normalized Java-applets for our students. So our students have the possibilities to learn developing - on a relative easy way - with building blocks learning- and instruction-environments. Our university is specialized in research and developing environments for simulations and micro-worlds. For this kind of courseware we do studies to the concept of parallelism and we found a theory for designing such environments.


A student today no longer spends his time in a lonely little attic room, a noisy lecture room or the deadly silence in the huge reading room of a university library. These components of his environment still exist but their functionality has changed. Essentially is that all students at the campus of our university, the University of Twente (UT), have an excellent connection with the world wide web. The web is extremely popular, both among lecturers and students. It fills the almost natural need of young people to want to travel all over the world and to try and understand texts and have fun with games and simulations (micro-worlds); all these at minimum cost.

Our students of our university and especially in our faculty, the faculty of Educational Science and Technology (EDTE) (in Dutch TO), have to learn building these sites. Our solutions are also useful for production groups and web-site builders.

During the past academic year we have conducted pilot studies into the possibilities and the 'performance', i.e. the 'strength' or the 'power' of Html, JavaScript and Java. Technical new things are the basics for us for more theoretical things. We have three important research and developing projects (R. & D.) now, as we shall describe in this paper:

All these projects have lead to a huge number of different interactive innovative prototypes and a huge number of different on-line tests for empirical argumentation. We have study that in particular for on-line learning-, working- and doing-environments for simulation, micro-worlds and problem solving tasks on a normal sized PC and monitor. In our research projects we discovered new ergonomic concepts, new techniques and a new design theory: the parallel instruction theory. [3] [5]

Figure 1. 'Transistor', an e-Learning environment for simulation, based on a mathematical model implemented in Java and build with our JavaTHESIS system, inclusive our library 'SimLib, according to the Parallel Instruction theory.

During the past twenty years, technology for learning environments experienced an enormous evolutionary development in the field of computers that, over the past five years, may even be called revolutionary. No one in education and educational science can pass by the computer in its latest form: the world wide web. Many people are daily in front of a screen: working, doing tasks, solving problems and learning. All content is digital and many things take place at a distance, in other words: teacher-free. In the future, learning will become increasingly common in working environments. It will be done in front of screens; and online. There will not be anyone present - it will be 'teacher free' - on the world wide web. Software is relatively small and compact: e.g. java-applets for simulations with proper instruction and connected with streaming video [3].

In the past five years, about half of the working and learning population in the Netherlands spends a few hours daily in front of a computer or screen. There are: computer-based work-environments, instruction-environments, do-environments and complete study-environments. They all have digital contents: digital instruction-texts, interactive digital video and virtual reality (VR), all connected to the world wide web.

No one in the academic world can escape the powerful influence of the world wide web. The web will be increasingly used for course material, texts, books and moving image material. Students will have to find their own way in 'study landscapes' and 'study homes'. One can just look at something or download it completely. All this corresponds perfectly with the perception children have of their environment. They are daily engaged in searching worldwide for all kinds of wonderful stuff. They zap from one television programme to the next. A completely different world from the one their parents used to know. The web is ideally suited to this lifestyle. To them the web is one huge hard disk with all kinds of files: text, images, sound, video and even complete learning tools in the form of applets. In other words, it is a multimedia library par excellence ('e-learning'). Everything is easily accessible and in the eyes of children either for free or cheap. Anything can be found, and found again, nothing gets lost. Teachers can see the web as a multimedia broadcasting station that is on air 24 hours a day. Or they see it as an enormous fast duplicator that includes envelopes and stamps: e-mail functionality. In other words: plenty of tricks both for teachers and pupils. The web in itself is of course not better, cheaper or more effective than other media such as books, television or video. However, it is more convenient, faster, easier. In other words it is more efficient under certain conditions to be determined by the government. In particular dynamic items on the web such as 'simulations' and intelligent 'agents' will add an important new functionality to existing educational tools. Within the next ten to twenty years, online learning-, working- and doing-environments with all kinds of digital contents will have become a common commodity at prices everyone can afford.

The web contains many types of digital learning environments. There are ordinary texts for reading, simple data files, more or less simple or complex and/or relational data banks etc. But also many types of canned lessons: from plain text about a certain subject with pictures to teachers on video files, 'talking heads' or college sheets with parallel linked audio-visual explanation with the voice and moving picture of the teacher in question. Besides there are discovery environments, games, learning texts, drills and practice-like programs etc. And of course digital learning tools in the form of 'applets' (small applications), such as simulations, the subject of this article. From an educational point of view the concept simulation covers many types of learning methods and very concrete multimedia products.

First we describe here the power of simulations and micro-worlds in relation to discovery learning. Than our methods and techniques we have developed; and in the last part of the paper we describe our design principles our design theory: the PI theory.

1. Simulations, micro-worlds and discovery learning

At our university a large number of target groups will face new digital learning tools or discovery environments such as simulation and other micro-worlds, viz.: children, students, young adults etc. All these target groups should be approached differently by the researcher, designer or teacher. But there are also many matters that can be applied in general. Children of today don't want to listen to or watch a long or boring speech. Maybe they are able to do so under very strict terms, but the age in which you zap from one station to the next and do different things during a lesson is has irreversibly come. Study homes, the web and open digital learning environments do not accidentally meet at this particular moment. You are able to do things like work, play, learn, cut, paste and communicate all at once.

Discovery learning

Discovery learning is one of the oldest and commonest forms of learning. The e-Learning concept with simulation applets is based on discovery learning and problem solving; and is case based. Adults apply this principle daily although they are not aware of it. So do children in different stages of their development. Toddlers discover words and their meanings accidentally. They become aware of relations between words and physical quantities and in particular between cause and result. Children and young adults pick up a lot without effort. Piaget and Papert wrote extensively about this in the seventies [4]. As early as the sixties, 'discovery learning' was officially promoted by educational scientists in the United States as a method of learning. The 'International Simulation and Gaming Association' (ISAGA), with among others Cathy Greenblatt, published a lot in the eighties about the effect of games, simulations and role plays in particular [4]. Recently, complete scientific schools have arisen around micro-worlds, constructivism and concept mapping [4].

Certain interesting parts from the real world can be copied on computers by means of simulation and micro worlds. In this way, children and students can try and learn something with the help of the tools offered or with a simulated reality. Meanwhile we have found that if you want to achieve your targets, 'coaching' is essential. Discovery learning on one's own has proved inefficient in the most serious cases. If a teacher wants his pupils to achieve a target, he/she will have to offer assignments, cases, manuals and/or instruction, parallel to (computer-based) learning environments: either paper-based, computer-based or web-based.


In this paper we consider simulation from a perspective of trying to learn by oneself and to see the simulation program as a learning tool. We restrict ourselves to computer-based simulations. Virtual reality (VR) is not discussed; except as an open, rich learning- or discovery environment. Training simulators are discussed in passing. VR and large mechanic training simulators for aviation and shipping are typically subjects that deserve a separate book. They are expensive to make and complicated to apply in education. This article is restricted to the more or less ordinary, 'model-driven computer simulation': computer simulation based on mathematical models of phenomena that we consider essential to import into education - via the web and computers - in a lesson or to pass it on to a child as a worthwhile experience.

Ordinary model-driven computer simulation brings phenomenas from the world of children and grown ups into the home: sometimes with graphical output; sometimes with animated and highly visualized, dynamical output; but always 'smart' and/or with intelligent respons. Suddenly one has 'something' available that shows the growth of crops in the tropics, or information about the Dutch economy or in the field of medicine at a low price and with little trouble. Teachers and educational planners love to use such learning tools in education, at school, for in-company training or extra mural training in general at institutions such as the open universities, tele-universities, training centra in large companies, or at home, on cd-i, cd-rom, or downloaded from the world wide web. In general: computer simulations are valuable multimedia products. Now, graphics, animations, movement, video and other dynamic forms of representation have become affordable and so they can play a major part. Such simulations can not run without mathematical models (i.e. 'model-driven') to describe the relative phenomena or, if knowledge-based, to give intelligent feedback. Apart from the fact that simulations that should be based on mathematical models do not function without a computer, it is indispensable for its part in digitizing all kinds of information and feedback.

Our contribution will discuss our experiments, our products, our studies and our hypotheses about e-Learning, based on our simulations.

2. Building blocks

At our faculty Educational Science and Technology (EDTE) (in Dutch TO) we have developed special courses around Html and JavaScript in the first three years [1], [2] [3]. We have some top-down-oriented courses around DreamWeaver and some bottom-up-oriented courses there around JavaScript. So we have no practical course around Java in the obliged part of the curriculum; only a not-obliged course about simulations, games and micro-worlds in the fourth year. Our management doesn't accept real programming courses with Java for our students in the first three years. They only accept some experiences there with JavaScript and of course: Html. That means that graphical and dynamical parts of web-sites and web-based courseware have to handle on other ways.

Figure 2. 'Sandra', a learning environment based on a simulation, build with building blocks from our library 'WebLib'. There are 5 building blocks: a graphical output, two sliders and two counters. These are all applets, driven by a mathematical model in javascript.

To make students learning the power of Java we have developed some libraries 'WebLib' and 'SimLib' with special designed Java-applets. These didactical very special applets (small applications; here also called 'components') diverge from very easy to 'complex' and 'intelligent'. These applets or components can be handled from the html-file and driven by JavaScript. So our students have the possibilities to learn designing and developing e-learning environments with complex components on a relative easy way. These libraries are called: 'WebLib' and 'SimLib' [1] [8].

Simultaneously we have collected old multimedial materials from other courses such as audio elements, video fragments, pictures and photographs in a library with what we called 'mono-multimedial' elements. This library is called 'WebStuff' [1]. We combine these courses with our research & development-projects so our students can reuse or redesign more components and elements. All these components and elements can be used and reused by our students for their own web-based products.

Figure 3. 'Statistics', a working-environment, build with building blocks from from our library 'WebLib'. There is only one building block used by the designer: the graphical output. This output device is a standarized applet, driven by formulas in javascript. The input is a interactive form.

For our students, our PhD students, our master students and for our own research-projrects we have developed a designing system: JavaTHESIS. This system is based on a java-template and the library 'SimLib'. The years after finishing this we did a lot of research with this system and with the products, the computer simulations, as produced with this system. All these products are based on our hypotheses from the 'PI' theory. [1] [8]

More complicated building blocks as 'Vijver', 'Transistor', 'Sandra' can be ordered or designed by specialists and build in in your own web-site. Our contribution will discuss these products, our libraries, our courses, our research and our hypotheses.

3. Designing methods and theories

The central research problem studied in this project is how to find a theoretical base for the theoretical and physical distance on the screen and on the desk of the learner between his computer-based problem solving space ('A') and the coaching elements in open working, learning or doing environments ('B'). We do research how the concept of 'parallelism' and the 'Parallel Instruction' theory of Min in simultaneous processes can be founded on psychological principles, such as: bad short time memory and adequate reference guides Min (1992 - 2002). [1][2][5]

Figure 4. Full screen parallelism: on the right the skill 'A'; on the left the instruction 'B'. The distance 'x' between 'A' and 'B' is important for the cognitive load and an important quality in these e-Learning environments.

Figure 5. Second order parallelism: on the forground the skill 'A'; on the second window the instruction 'B'. The distance 'x' between 'A' and 'B' and the perceptibility of the content is an important quality in these e-Learning environments.


We want to know or this will be important not only for simulations but also for other kinds or open learning and working environments especially in training situations and for solving complicated or less complicated tasks. All kinds of perception canals, dimensions of media (text, visuals, audio, etc.) and forms of feedback will be examine. We want to find a way to make digital environments richer and better for all kind of learning profiles. We work together with Holland Signaal Thales in Hengelo (the Netherlands) and use their equipment and other things as their VR-room, animation tools, geometric models and skills [5]

The Parallel Instruction theory

The ideas about parallelism and behind the 'PI-theory' are not only based - as it looks - on multi-windowing principles and desktop concepts, but our theory is based on some strange aspects of our short term memory. Our theory is based an lot of aspects as described in the Split Attention theory of Mayer and is related to some aspects of the Cognitive Load theory of Sweller. See therefor the other publications of Min and his students. [5] [6] [7] [8]

A lot of users don't like computers, hypermedia or web-media because they lost their way - and information - in hyperspace. They want to have much better overviews about what they are doing in computer- of web-based working- or leaning-environments.

The screen of a PC is a terrible small viewport. Our theory is a design theory to understand problems in solving problems, skills and procedure-training. In our learning- and working-environments the student can see the model behaviour in the (open) simulation program simultanious with the instructional materials (parallel to each other); to see and compare the effects in one part of the application in relation to interaction in another part of the application (or in a parallel application). A good designed program - for instance a simulation environment - should also allows the student to change model parameters and to monitors the variables at other window at the same time.

Information can be categorized on the basis of its contents (domain), appearance (picture or text), size and modality (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory). The philosophy behind the concept and the idea of parallelism is: using different viewports, more or bigger screen or different layers of information or modalities; parallel as far as its works.

The problem of implementing our theory is that it was very hard to implement this in the hardware. It is technically very difficult to open two windows with moving and dynamical parts in it at the same time. Therefor our designing system JavaTHESIS was developed.

Schematic you see in figure 3, a simulation based open 'learning environment' with a lot of 'parallel' windows even 'parallel' paper-stuff. As we say: "all in view" and "all under control" [2].

Figure 6a. 'Vijver', an e-Learning environment for simulation, based on a mathematical model implemented in Java and build with our JavaTHESIS system, inclusive our library 'SimLib', according to the Parallel Instruction theory.

The advantage of computer simulations is known: students can experiment with almost real situations without the dangers that experimenting always includes. The PI-theory is very useful for building simulation environments in relation to instructional materials because it can combine the advantages of learning by experiences (open 'two-ways' environments) and the most natural way to handle instructional and help information ('one-way' environments). [4]

Figure 6b. The same 'Vijver'. Left: some parallel instructions (exercises).

Model-driven simulations only works for learning if the skills are based on real problems and there are good instructions in the neighborhood of the simulator. The instructions in relation to the skills or the problems need a good design.

Our design theory as describe here, is important for scientists, designers and developers. The PI theory, in relation to the the Split Attention theory of Mayer and the Cognitive Load theory of Sweller, is powerful to predict the succes of your working-, doing- or learning-environments.

Figure 6c. The same 'Vijver'. Right: a parallel notebook for hypotheses; works on basis of cookies. (Sometimes called scratchpad.)

For educational designers the concepts of the PI-theory are a wurthful asset in their knowledge how to design learning environments. Therefor we want you to have access to the programs we already developed.

Our contribution will discuss our experiments with parallelism and the PI theory in relation to problems in doing tasks in working-, doing- and learning-environments. For more information about 'simulation', 'learning environment', 'parallelism' and the 'parallel instruction theory' see on my scientific reports, papers and my other web-pages. [1] [5] [8]

4. Conclusions

Model-driven simulations only works for learning if the skills are based on real problems and there are good instructions in the neighborhood of the simulator. Discovery learning theories and problem solving is important. The instructions in relation to the skills or the problems need a good design. For building simulations our tools, our methods and our techniques are very usefull; especially our libraries with building blocks. With our building blocks and our libraries everybody can build web-sites for learning. More complicated building blocks as 'Vijver', 'Transistor', 'Sandra' can be ordered or designed by specialists and build in in your own web-site. Also our design theory as describe here, is important. The Parallel Instruction theory, in relation to the the Split Attention theory and the Cognitive Load theory, is an important tool to predict the succes of your working-, doing- or learning-environments.

5. References

[1] Min, R. and J. de Goeijen (2001). Building blocks: applets and scripts. [Online] Available on:

[2] Min, R. (1992). Parallel instruction, A theory for educational computer simulation. Interactive Learning International, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 177-183.

[3] Cleassens, M., R. Min & J. Moonen (2000) The use of virtual objects in multimedia for training procedural skills; a theoretical foundation. In: proceedings IWALT, Intern. Workshop Adv. Learning Technology, IEEE Learning Technolology Task Force (4-6 dec 2000 Palmerston North, New Zealand) p. 229-230. IEEE Computer Society, Los Alamitos, PR00653; ISBN 0-7695-0653-4 (Eds. Kinshuk, C. Jesskope & T. Okamoto)

[4] Min, R. (2001). Simulation and discovery learning in an age of zapping and searching; a treatise about the educational strength and availability of digital learning tools and simulation on the world wide web. [Online] Available on the web:

[5] Min, R., (1999). Interactive Micro-worlds on the World Wide Web. Int. J. of Continuing Engineering Education and Long-life Learning, Vol. 9, no. 2/3/4, pp 302-314.

[6] Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive Load Theory. Learning & Instruction. Vol. 4; pp 295-312.

[7] Mayer, R. E. and R. Moreno (2000). A split attention Effect in multimedia Learning: Evidence for Dual Processing Systems in Working Memory. J. of Educ. Psych., Vol. 90, no. 2, pp 312-320.

[8] Min, R. and J. de Goeijen (2002). Simulations, applets and scripts. [Online] Available on:

Enschede, mai, 31, 2002. Other papers Rik Min