Lessons Learned from the
San Diego Microworlds Project

Bernard J. Dodge, Ph.D., San Diego State University
George Muñoz, San Diego Unified School District

Paper presented at the Sixth Annual German-American Dialog on Integrating Technology into Schools, Gütersloh, Germany, April 28, 1997, sponsored by Bertelsmann Stiftung


This paper describes a project that came about through the collaboration of an innovative school and its University partner. The project involves student-created microworlds in the form of historically-based adventure games, and it took place from 1990 to 1994. The project had a lasting effect on the school itself, and those who participated in it were well prepared for technological developments that followed. The lessons learned from this project have led the authors to their present involvement in web-based instruction and electronic portfolios.


O'Farrell Community School is an urban middle school, grades 6-8, in an economically challenged neighborhood in Southeast San Diego. The students are ethnically diverse with a breakdown of 34% African American, 32% Filipino, 18% Hispanic, 8% White, 5% Indo-Chinese, and 3% other racial/ethnic groups. Of the student population, 58% qualify for additional services based upon low test scores. Students from the O'Farrell community historically have not been successful in school. More than 25% of eighth graders in the neighborhood typically fail to graduate from high school. The impact of drugs, gangs, AIDS, poverty, racism, the economy, and changes in the structure of many American families has taken its toll on O'Farrell students. To address these issues, the staff of O'Farrell is committed to creating a climate of high academic expectations for each student.

O'Farrell's mission is to promote excellence by providing all students with a single, academically enriched curriculum in a student-centered environment. The school strives to attend to the social, intellectual, psychological, and physical needs of its students so that they will become responsible, literate, thinking, and contributing citizens. This has been accomplished in part through the imaginative use of computer -based projects.

Classrooms at O'Farrell are multi-graded, curriculum is interdisciplinary, and technology is integrated in all areas of instruction. In addition to six Macintosh computer labs, the school has placed at least one Macintosh computer in every classroom. Currently, the Macintoshes in the classrooms can: (1) communicate directly through E-Mail, (2) give students access to their work anywhere in the school, (3) connect to the Internet for research, (4) connect to the library and other server resources, and (5) connect to central data systems to access student records.

Curriculum projects involve the use of technology to conduct research, publish on the Internet, write supporting papers, design layout, create visual presentations, author programs, and print information. Technology is treated as a tool used across all subjects rather than as an academic subject in itself. Student performance is evaluated by rubrics based on standards developed at O'Farrell and keyed to district, state and national standards. All students maintain an electronic portfolio and are required to exhibit their work to panels of teachers and community members each year.

The Microworlds Project

O'Farrell opened its doors in an old school building in 1990 after a planning year in which a hand-picked core staff began to design the school. This planning process involved parents and community leaders from the neighborhood, business leaders, and academics including some from the Educational Technology Department at San Diego State University. The District had given O'Farrell wide latitude in this process and encouraged the staff to rethink every aspect of the school, including its curriculum, evaluation practices and governance structure.

During this planning period, Apple Computer invited San Diego State University to join a consortium of school-University partnerships. SDSU chose O'Farrell as its partner, even though the school had not yet opened. Apple provided a number of computers to SDSU and O'Farrell and enjoined them to come up with a plan for an innovative application of technology. After much discussion, faculty from both sites developed a plan which would engage the entire student population in the creation of interactive "microworld" adventure games which would be relevant to the students' heritage and culture, and tied to the curriculum of seventh grade.

Interdisciplinary approach

From the beginning, O'Farrell was committed to an interdisciplinary approach to learning. Classes throughout the school were able to use the microworld themes for instruction in their own disciplines as well as contribute to the overall production of the game material (Ritchie & Dodge, 1992). These contributions included:

Cooperative learning

A cooperative learning arrangement was developed by dividing each class into four teams, each team responsible for developing one quadrant of their microworld. The student roles and duties within each quadrant became:

The scenarios

The faculty developed five scenarios which classrooms could choose to develop into their microworld. This direction was given to help focus the microworlds around the historically accurate and cultural relevant requirement. The school librarian aided the project by acquiring texts and images related to each scenario, a task that required going far beyond the usual middle school holdings. The scenarios included:

During the course of twelve weeks, students developed story lines, researched the occupations, pastimes, government, language, measurement systems, religion, clothing, geography, climate and other elements of each site, gathered and scanned relevant graphics, and created maps of a small portion of each place. As a restructured school, the O'Farrell faculty worked in cross curricular teams throughout the project.

O'Farrell students had had some exposure to the Macintosh prior to the project, but no experience with programming. The challenge was to design an authoring system which would allow them to create adventure games without getting bogged down in programming. What resulted was a HyperCard template called Cabrillo, named after the explorer who was the first European to sight San Diego. Cabrillo is a tool for the creation of environments for exploration.

From the student-designer's point of view, Cabrillo allows cards to be linked together intelligently without any programming. All branching is defined by pointing and clicking. The HyperTalk language is never visible.

From the player's point of view, Cabrillo allows the development of games that are easy to move around in, and which are tied to curriculum by their being grounded in historical reality. Navigation is accomplished by clicking on a compass. Directions that are not open are grayed out, so players don't feel the frustration of trying to "Go North" and having the program tell them "You can't go that way". Maps and a reference manual are available at the click of an icon.


Students in the first year of the project produced extensive microworlds in all of the five scenarios. When the project began, six weeks had been allocated in the calendar to its completion. As week six approached, it became clear that more time was needed, and the project was extended through the next six week term. Teachers were somewhat tired of the microworlds project in this last phase, but doggedly brought it to completion. Many students were enthusiastic to the end, and some wanted to continue working on it into the next term.

A few weeks after the project ended, an open house was held in which the students demonstrated their projects. In a neighborhood in which few households had personal computers, it was a source of great pride for students to show their multimedia creations to their parents and members of the community. They were proud, too, to be far more knowledgeable than most adults about the time period and setting that they had modeled.

When students were asked about their particular microworld they were able to demonstrate a deep understanding of the world it represented. The act of creating a storyline that is historically accurate and internally consistent requires knowledge of many aspects of a place and time. The brainstorming and debating that accompanied the development of the microworlds resulted in shared schema that all members of the team hammered out together.

Lessons Learned

Looking back at the project, we see that it has shaped our present interests in curriculum design, and that it has caused us to do some things in ways similar to the Microworlds Project, and other things deliberately different. What we learned from this project can be summarized in five general principles:

A constructivist project is most likely to succeed if it incorporates a certain degree of structure. Gauging the amount of structure to include is an art. This project succeeded because teachers had pre-determined the settings to be modeled, created specific roles for the students to play, and organized tasks that cut across the different groups. Had students been left on their own to determine what to do and how to do it, the project would have failed. Ultimately, of course, we want our students to become independent problem solvers and lifelong learners who set their own tasks and carry them out. At this early stage in their development, though, we were correct to narrow the focus and structure the experience. We have since witnessed other projects in which the notion of letting students construct their own knowledge is equated with giving students near-total control of the situation. In most cases, this leads to frustration.

Giving students the opportunity to play specific roles allows some to succeed who don't do well in the more typical classroom environment. The role of game master, for example, turned out to be well suited to students who see the whole picture at once, and who can think creatively and non-linearly. In one specific case at O'Farrell, a student classified as needing special education became a valued member of his team because his particular kind of thinking matched his role perfectly.

In a project that invites creativity and is open-ended, it's important to set realistic boundaries. For a few of the teachers at O'Farrell and for many of its students, it was difficult to stop extending and embellishing the microworlds. At some point, however, the amount of new learning that takes place reaches the point of diminishing returns. It's advisable to set a tentative project scope at the start, and to force an end to the project before the burnout point is reached. The second and third repetitions of the project were more successful in this regard because we learned from trying to do too much.

Time is precious. In designing constructivist units, it's important to minimize time spent that doesn't contribute to learning. Students spent a great deal of time looking for information and appropriate graphics for their game. Since the settings chosen were not well documented in easily accessible books, this search time was longer than if more conventional topics had been chosen. In an improved version of the project, we would have already prepared a database of texts, graphics and sounds appropriate to the content and indexed it for easy access.

In order for an innovation to become institutionalized, ownership of the idea needs to be deliberately shared. Two of the original three core technology teachers had left O'Farrell by Year 3 of the project. The school had also tripled in size after the first year, so the proportion of teachers who had experienced the Microworlds Project in its heady first outing was relatively small. While efforts were made to interest these newer teachers in continuing the project, there were no takers. The project was associated with the pioneering staff of the first year of O'Farrell's operation, and the next generation of teachers felt little ownership of it. In retrospect, it would have been wise to invite a select group of teachers to get together to brainstorm ways in which to improve upon the project, or to warp it in a different direction. For the project to live on, its authors needed to do better at sharing ownership.


The San Diego Microworlds project taught us valuable lessons about the design of interdisciplinary activities. In the years since the project ended, the World Wide Web has captured the interest of creative teachers. From our experience on this project, we're more aware of the need to use time well, to balance structure against freedom, and to create distinct roles for students working on a team. The WebQuest model (Dodge, 1995) draws directly on this experience. The technology keeps getting better, but many of the design principles remain the same.


Dodge, B. J. (1995). WebQuests: A structure for active learning on the World Wide Web. The Distance Educator, 1(2).

Ritchie, D; & Dodge, B. J. (1992). Integrating Technology Usage across the Curriculum through Educational Adventure Games. Paper presented at the Annual Conference on Technology and Teacher Education (Houston, TX, March 12-15, 1992). ERIC Document Reproduction Service Document #ED 349 955