Teaching maneuvers

Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Nicholas Tuschhoff, left, and Eilly Garrett played "Making History," a World War II computer simulation game. The Southeast Missouri State University students used the game in class to aid in learning about history. (Diane L. Wilson)

A World War II game and laptops are part of a college history class.

With quick mouse clicks, college students "bombed" London earlier this month as they fought to take over the world in a high-tech classroom where laptop computers and a World War II computer simulation game are tools for learning.

A classroom filled with electronic gadgetry makes sense to today's college students, said Southeast Missouri State University associate professor Dr. Steven Hoffman. Most of the students have grown up with computers, iPods and other devices.

In the game "Making History," each group of students was in charge of running a country. What one group did had a ripple effect on other countries.

"Our students walk into the classroom with more gadgets than your average Radio Shack," said Hoffman, "and we expect them to stare at a chalkboard and feel motivated?"

That's unrealistic, he said.

While Hoffman teaches history, he isn't living in the past when it comes to using technology. Last fall, he taught an American history class in what school officials tout as the classroom of the future. His lesson plans included "Making History," a World War II simulation game.

School officials said Southeast is one of the first universities to incorporate this kind of software into a classroom.

This semester, Hoffman again is teaching the course and using the computer game in the high-tech classroom in Southeast's Kent Library. The classroom has two dozen wireless laptop computers for students to use and an interactive whiteboard that can display computerized information and images.

All the computers are connected to the Internet. Students can take notes with a stylus on the computer monitors and e-mail their notes home or to dorm-room computers.

Students increasingly are taking notes by typing on computer keyboards, Hoffman said. "Laptop computers are yesterday's notebooks," he said.

With all the students in the class connected to the Internet via the laptops, students can quickly access information when a question arises in class.

Managing a country at war

Playing the history simulation game teaches students about managing a country at war, Hoffman said. Students negotiate treaties and build armaments while also focusing on domestic needs. They also can confer with allies and enemies.

The computer program updates each player on how the government is viewed by different labor groups within that virtual nation. Its real-time scoring system shows how each country is holding up and how the students' in-class performance compares to actual events in the world war.

Under students' management, the war has had some surprising results. Last fall, for example, students on the U.S. team accidentally bombed Australia and Canada invaded the United States.

Hoffman said the game provides an opportunity to teach history in the same way that students learn from discussing a historical novel. "Educators always struggle with ways to connect to our students and to make learning meaningful to them," he said. "Today's students use digital communication in all they do, and this is a medium many of them are accustomed to having fun with."

The simulation doesn't unfold like a textbook but teaches all the same. "The simulation can't be used to show them exactly how World War II happened," Hoffman said, "but it can teach them the underlying elements, like why did it happen that way?"

'Let's bomb Denmark'

It also illustrates the interaction between nations, he said.

Students representing England repeatedly sought defense partners only to be rebuffed during a second day of playing the game in class earlier this month.

The history simulation allows players to run countries including the United States, Germany, England, Italy, Japan, China and the Soviet Union.

"Let's bomb Denmark just for the hell of it," said student Eric Haake of Germantown, Ill., as he joined with another student to maneuver German troop divisions across a computerized map of Europe. The map changed colors to reflect whose army is in control of a particular region.

In another corner, two classmates directing the Soviet Union spent much of the class trying to provide material goods for its citizens to survive a harsh winter. "You've got to focus on providing people with long underwear," Hoffman advised.

The game, he said, teaches students that a nation's manufacturing capabilities are the key to winning a war.

The computer simulation -- which resembles the Risk board game in terms of military strategy -- covers 1936 through 1945.

Student Melissa Marshall of Edwardsville, Ill., and two other students hunched over a computer monitor trying to find a way to keep England afloat as competing classmates "bombed" away.

None of their defensive strategies worked, but Marshall didn't complain.

"It's definitely better than a lecture," she said.

She also likes the high-tech equipment. She said it's easier to keep up in class by computer than through conventional note-taking. "A lot of people can type faster than they can write," Marshall said.

Students in Hoffman's history didn't have enough time to run through the entire simulation. They managed to complete only about half of the 15 rounds before the end of the second session.

Hoffman wasn't looking to crown a winner, although the students managing the Axis nations seemed to be ahead on the military front.

For Hoffman, the real victory wasn't in the game but in the technology that allowed students to interact with each other and the instructor.

"I think the potential is huge," he said.


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