PLATO Web Learning Network: Earth and Space Science with Assessments

Company: PLATO Learning;
System Requirements: Learning Network delivery: Windows 98 SE, Pentium II 400 MHz processor, 64 MB RAM
Price/Grade: Pricing varies/6-12
Pros: Excellent graphics and animation; solid onboard assessment and records system; based on individual's pace
Cons: Pace of the program cannot be changed; user cannot skip past narration to next part

In Earth and Space Science, students assume the roles of astronauts, rangers, or seismologists as they explore everything from plate tectonics to the atmosphere’s layers.

Evolving Internet applications and broadband connectivity mean students are using the Internet in new and more powerful ways. Whereas in the past, most computer courseware was housed locally and maintained by school district personnel, today students are looking to the net for instructional content. PLATO Learning has responded by offering the animated, imaginative, browser-based Earth and Space Science with Assessments through its PLATO Web Learning Network.

Earth and Space Science offers instructional content, assessment tools, and course management. The program can be monitored by an instructor, but much of it is designed for the learner to self-monitor. Students log into the PLATO Web Learning Network using an assigned account name and password. The system then takes them through a set of menus to the courseware, where they can continue where they left off or start on another section. Section menus have symbols that let students know which modules have been completed, are in progress, or are finished. In some sections, students play the part of astronauts or researchers discovering components of the Earth or space.

Students navigate though Earth and Space Science lessons with clearly marked controls.

The software provides an animated, interactive look at Earth and space science. Subject areas include Earth composition, Earth's surface, landforms, and mapping. Other sections feature earthquakes, plate tectonics, the rock cycle, weathering and soil erosion, and the water cycle. Significant time is spent looking at weather, climate, and the atmosphere. The sections on space include in-depth looks at the solar system, the sun, the earth, and the moon, and also include stars, galaxies, and the universe.

Earth and Space Science contains all the information of a well-written textbook, but the user interface, graphics, and content delivery is given in doses that are fun and easily consumed by students. Students run simulations like the gravity challenge by selecting a speed and a direction for an object orbiting around a planet. In learning about the structure of the atmosphere, students roleplay as astronauts and learn about the atmosphere's layers as a rocket travels toward space. The students must interactively show their knowledge by correctly identifying the layers by their characteristics (for instance, the mesosphere is the coldest layer in the atmosphere, but it's also the place where rocks and meteors burn up upon entry).

Other interactive sequences ask the learner to match vocabulary words with their correct diagrams. For example, the word constructive needs to be dragged over a diagram of two tectonic plates colliding and creating a mountain chain to correctly label it as a geologic constructive event.

Controls allow for starting, pausing, quitting, and jumping to other sections in the current module, and help and glossary buttons are available, too. Users can open a window that shows the text being narrated and read along with the pleasant and clear voice of the narrator who accompanies the lesson. (Fast readers may grow impatient waiting for the narrator to finish before moving on.) It is possible to choose which modules to work on and which subsections to attempt; sections can be skipped, too.

Each module of Earth and Space Science comes with a set of assessments. There are practice tests available for each section and an in-depth, multiple-choice mastery test. Students get immediate feedback; right answers produce a big green check mark and a happy chime sound. Wrong answers are met with a small red x and a different chime. A passing score means getting 80 percent of the problems correct.

The modules include assessment tools that keep educators informed about student progress.

The software has great comprehensive reporting abilities, as well. Detailed reports that show which module students have been working on and which mastery or practice tests they've taken can be printed for ease. The score, how many times they've tried it, time on task, whether they mastered it or just completed it, and the dates the module was first attempted, as well as the last time it was used, are all recorded. When a student successfully completes a test, a completion certificate for that module can be printed out, which is a great student motivator.

Earth and Space Science with Assessments is a very good program. Whether it asks a student to be a seismologist learning to label earthquake faults or a ranger touring landforms looking for minerals, it will definitely encourage learning. The program's roleplaying element adds a small career component and lets the student look at all the information through the eyes of the researcher.

Because the program is Internet based, schools will have a powerful way to deliver course content without the overhead of maintaining it themselves locally. That makes Earth and Space Science a powerful learning vehicle for students and an important teaching tool for educators.

Mike Brown is an educator and the director of the Coastal Studies and Technology Center at Seaside High School in Seaside, Oregon.