Monday, May 23, 2011

The Interactive Content Cornerstone: Virtual Manipulatives

Every time I use the term virtual manipulatives outside the education community, my gaze is met with blank stares and funny looks. Being a teacher, “education speech” comes naturally to me, and I often forget that not everyone is a member of the club. Virtual manipulatives is a term that I always stop to explain to whomever I am speaking because virtual manipulatives are an integral part of using interactive content in the classroom effectively. I refer to manipulatives as online objects that can be moved and explored to help students understand concepts. A few examples would be base ten blocks, fraction bars and multiplication arrays.

As teachers begin to use interactive content in the classroom, I encourage them to use content that has already been created as a starting point for designing interactive lessons rather than starting from scratch to create their own content. I suggest this for three reasons:

1. It helps both tech-savvy and non-tech savvy-teachers begin to use interactive technologies right out of the box without having to spend time learning to use new content-creation software.

2. It increases teacher planning time by allowing them to focus on designing an effective lesson around the content rather than spending time with design elements of the content. ie: Teachers should be figuring out what questions to ask their students to guide their exploration of a manipulative rather than worrying about text size and finding appropriate graphics.

3. Teachers cannot create manipulatives with the same graphics and interactivity programmers can.  They simply don't have the same tools and skill set.  And, manipulatives with those elements are an essential part of using interactive technologies effectively. (These points will be well evidenced throughout this series of posts.)

This is the first in a series of seven posts sharing specific practical examples of reasons virtual manipulatives should be the cornerstone of interactive content in the classroom.
Virtual Manipulatives Help Students Visualize Concepts

Virtual manipulatives help students visualize abstract concepts. Using manipulatives for this purpose allows students to learn through inquiry and to explore a concept in a way that is not possible without the manipulative.

An obvious math example is base-ten blocks. These virtual manipulatives allow students to visualize the “sizes” of numbers indicated by their places in our number system. Below are three additional manipulatives that help students visualize concepts.

Mega Penny Project

Students explore images in this manipulative to help them visualize the size of large numbers using groups of pennies in relation to other objects.






Visualizing Percentages 

Students visualize the size of percentages by viewing different objects.




Alphabet Symmetry

Students explore line symmetry by folding letters and symbols vertically and horizontally.




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