Computer software, whether stand-alone or web-based, can support powerful mathematical thinking and processes. Often termed “computer environments,” these technology applications support the processes and broad content areas of mathematics at all levels. Although overlapping in features, these special environments are loosely classified for mathematics applications as virtual manipulatives, learning objects, and microworlds. Other environments, such as computer and web language development, are beyond the scope of this text.
Students and teachers can access virtual manipulatives on many websites, including the NCTM Illuminations and National Library of Virtual Manipulatives sites. Virtual manipulatives are simulations of actual concrete manipulatives or representations such as graphs, created using JAVA, a robust, but neutral, dynamic computer language (Heath, 2002). JAVA “applets” are immediately accessible to the student; these tools don’t require special keystrokes or syntax like other software. They have applications from kindergarten through graduate-level mathematics. Applets can also be created by using the directions found on many websites, such as the English/Japanese site “Manipula Math with JAVA.”
Another powerful learning tool for mathematics are learning objects, modular digital resources that include various forms of software such as simulations, calculators, animations, tutorials, video clips, graphs, and assessments (Wiley, 2001). Learning objects (sometimes called “widgets”) have the potential to provide individualized learning experiences with teacher-selected instructional objectives and can be used with any content area or level. The Wisconsin Online Resource Center includes the following criteria for quality learning objects: small (2 to 15 minutes), independent, stored in a searchable data base, based on a clear instructional strategy, interactive, reusable, and groupable. An example of a learning object on the Washington State University website is the Dollars and Cents Widget for practicing making change up to $5.00, estimating cash back, and identifying exact amounts for purchases (Miller, Brown, & Robinson, 2002).
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