The Virtual Earthquake allows students to simulate the process of developing a curve of seismic travel time versus distance, and then triangulate to obtain the position of an unknown earthquake.
Virtual Earthquake is very pleasant to look at, with good graphic design qualities. Teacher/reviewers praised the interactive character of the exercises: '... I think this is a fantastic example of an interactive exercise that provides the students with real experience using graphs, working with data, etc.'
The 59 student reviews were mixed. On the positive side, we have comments like 'It was fun and I understand things easier when I'm having fun,' and 'I learned a lot and learned how to do new things,' 'after this I want to learn more,' and 'I thought it was an interesting lesson that was fun to do.' On the negative side, we have 'it was a little confusing and made very little sense,' 'kind of confusing, directions weren't clear enough,' 'I was lost the entire time,' 'directions were confusing and I didn't know where to go after I completed a step,' 'it was a little hard to keep up and figure out what I was doing,' 'I didn't understand what I was looking at well enough to complete the task without the teacher.'
The specialist reviewers also anticipated confusion on the part of students ('Do they get confused?') or confessed that they themselves were sometimes confused ('I got lost in the process.' '...lacking the knowledge I have of seismology, this exercise would be a frustrating and unsuccessful experience for ME.' 'I felt I didn't have enough information to get started (from a student's standpoint) in that I wasn't totally sure of the goal or of what I had achieved at the end.')
Many reviewers and the editors found bugs or had technical difficulty with the software. One reviewer found that she had to change to a different browser to access the software, one reported that the software quit unexpectedly, another that the browser quit, another that it crashed the computer, another that the lat/long tool gave a blank screen, another that the travel-time graph did not appear. Another teacher/reviewer reported that several students' simulations froze at various points. On the other hand, 32 community reviewers reported 'I/we experienced no technical difficulties.'
Clearly, it is possible to have an excellent learning experience with the Virtual Earthquake, because some of our community reviewers, both teachers and learners, did so. But many did not. The keys to having a successful experience with the Virtual Earthquake, seem to be:
* Set up and test out technology on the classroom computers in advance. In the words of a community reviewer: 'Make sure the computer you are using is Java-enabled, especially if it 'worked' at home the night before.'
* The instructor must provide the motivation: Why is it interesting or important to be able to locate earthquakes this way? (Don't we already know where the earthquake was by where the damage occurred?)
* The instructor must understand the exercise thoroughly and should be ready to provide additional direction and explanation if students get seriously confused. Thus the activity is probably better suited to be done in class, rather than as an independent assignment.
* The instructor must guard against mindless button clicking, perhaps by adding some open-ended questions as a written assignment, or by engaging in class discussion of the reasoning behind the steps.
Kim Kastens, 15 Sept 2005