Advantages and disadvantages of model-driven computer simulation

Abstract from e-book of Rik Min: chapter 1, paragraph 3

Many advantages can be cited with respect to the use of computer simulation programs in education. A number of these do not specifically relate to simulation only but also to the validity for practical laboratories or the use of the computer in education in general. There are some specific advantages connected with computer simulation. First, some general advantageous aspects of simulation as a form and method of learning will be indicated.

According to Elron (1983) the best simulation does not have to resemble reality in the most accurate way. The power of simulation often lies, according to him, in the simplification of reality. Good simplifications provide students with a better insight into reality than by examining all components of a complex situation.

While working with a computer simulation program the student is experimenting, so he or she is playing an active rather than a passive role. This active engagement contrasts with the situation students often experience during 'face-to-face' teaching when they listen passively. Simulation creates, according to Foster, an interactive educational setting which offers the possibility to effect changes in relation to the learning experience in a more efficient way than is normally possible with other didactic methods.

It is obvious that computer simulation does not work to its intended advantage on face-to-face teaching (lecture type). Nor does it stand alone. Only when computer simulation is appropriately alternated with other didactic forms, will it render a positive result. Working with a computer simulation program often evokes enthusiasm in the student and as such it has a positive influence on his motivation. Spitzer remarks on this:

'Simulations are highly motivating, both intrinsically and extrinsically.'

However, no educational tool is effective for everyone. A differentiated supply of educational support tools is therefore important. A computer simulation program is one of them. Working with a computer simulation program can increase the interest of a student about a subject. This can express itself in the fact that students will often study relevant literature concerning the subject after using a simulation more than they would have done with the traditional approaches to learning. The subject is discussed more among students and special experiences are mentioned.

The computer can be used as a didactic medium and in this form it can serve as a tool to realize a chosen educational strategy and to reach the set goals in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. But what justifies the use of computer simulation within the situation of the classroom? Which specific didactic functions can computer simulation fulfil in education?
Often the technical possibilities and the particularly effective calculating capacity of the computer are advanced in order to justify a switch to the use of computer simulations in classrooms. These reasons, according to Wedekind (1981), are not enough, especially from an educational point of view. The didactic functions that are possible with computer simulation are much more important. Students are then offered the possibility to experiment with the real world system, though it is simulated. Computer simulation also offers the possibility to repeat the experiment as often as necessary, i.e. until the intended insight into the system has been acquired. It is also possible to do extreme things in computer simulation and to observe the results, contrary to many traditional experiments.

The use of computer simulation does not, however, can not replace the practical laboratory. However, when experience with aspects of a real experiment is considered important but a practical laboratory only has a limited capacity, then working with a computer simulation program can increase the impact of practical work.

As was said earlier there can be different reasons why the traditional experiment cannot be used in the educational situation, even though the experiment would be desirable because the student's insight could be positively enhanced by doing so. Then computer simulation can be a blessing. We now mention some possible advantages as well as some disadvantages of computer simulation as an educational tool for instruction and training.


Some advantages of computer simulation as an educational tool or for training are:

  • The apparatus necessary to be able to carry out an experiment in reality is too expensive and often this apparatus can only be operated by specialists, if it can be obtained at all. In some vocational training courses e.g. the subject 'robotics' is taught in which attention is paid to the functions and use of a robot. Not every training department however, can afford to buy a robot. But the behaviour of a robot can be imitated by a computer simulation program. The student or trainee can now exercise as much as necessary. After sufficient exercise the student or trainee may be given the opportunity to handle a real robot in an actual setting. Owing to the practice beforehand precious time and apparatus can be put to optimum use.

  • The process to be investigated takes place so quickly in reality that it can not be examined through the traditional experiment, e.g. certain chemical processes. Changes in a chemical reaction should be presented at such a pace in educational situations that observation is possible. In reality those changes can hardly be noticed and they are not interesting for calculations, but only for the acquisition of insight.

  • The process to be examined can proceed too slowly in reality, e.g. biological growing processes.

  • The system to be examined can be too complex for traditional research, e.g. economical systems.

  • The system to be examined can be on too large a scale, e.g. planetary movements in space.

  • The system to be examined can be too small, e.g. molecular movements.

  • The system to be examined can be dangerous to manipulate, e.g. a nuclear reactor, a ship or a human body.

  • It can be irresponsible from an ethical point of view to do research through traditional experiments as e.g. with certain diseases.

  • Simulation experiments can be used prior to a course for students or trainees as an introduction to a new subject or certain parts of it.

  • Simulation often goes hand in hand with visualization. The results of changes that a student puts into a model are directly shown on the screen. This generally appeals to students.

  • Simulation can be very purposive and for certain students very useful, such as students who need some insight before they are able to learn and understand a new concept.

  • The student can insert those parameter values that he or she thinks will produce a result which is of interest to him. The student can devote his attention to parts that interest him. The student can skip other parts or aspects. This way he or she learns how to experiment systematically.

  • A student can choose how he or she wants to approach a simulation experiment, how often he or she wants to repeat the experiment and to which degree he or she wants to intervene. In computer simulation there are usually many ways to achieve the goals the student has set himself.

  • If well-designed, learning how to operate a computer simulation program generally requires little effort. A short introduction by the teacher is often sufficient to enable the student to work with the program.

  • It can be an advantage that the student perceives that not everything can be used as input. The student realizes that variables and parameters have their limits, and learns what input is reasonable for a particular variable and what input yields relevant information.
  • Disadvantages

    There are not only advantages connected with the use of computer simulation programs in education and training. Limitations are in some cases the result of the wrong or inappropriate use of such programs. Possible limitations of a general and educational kind are:

  • Simulation concerns the manipulation of a number of variables of a model representing a real system. However, manipulation of a single variable often means that the reality of the system as a whole can be lost. Certain systems or components of a realistic situation are not transparent. Some factors have a lot of influence on the whole, but they have indistinct relations in the whole and can therefore not be represented in a model. These factors, however, cannot be forgotten in the learning process.

  • A computer simulation program cannot develop the students' emotional and intuitive awareness that the use of simulations is specifically directed at establishing relations between variables in a model. So this intuition has to be developed in a different way.

  • Computer simulation cannot react to unexpected 'sub-goals' which the student may develop during a learning-process. These sub-goals would be brought up during a teacher-student interaction but they remain unsaid during the individual student use of a simulation.

  • Computer simulation programs may function well from a technical point of view, but they are difficult to fit into a curriculum.

  • Often a computer simulation program cannot be adapted to take into different student levels into account within a group or class. A computer simulation program can certainly be made to adapt to different circumstances if the designer bears that in mind; however, for many computer simulation programs this has not happened.

  • During the experience of interaction with a computer simulation program, the student is frequently asked to solve problems in which creativity is often the decisive factor to success. The fact that this creativity is more present in some pupils than in others is not taken into account by the simulation. Mutual collaboration and discussion among students while using the software could be a solution for this.