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National Library of Virtual Manipulatives

Novel concept could deliver even more learning with better interactivity

Learning rating

Community rating

Based on 10 reviews

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Expert evaluation by Common Sense

Grades

K–12

Subjects & Skills

Critical Thinking, Math

Price: Free
Platforms: Web

Pros: Simple to use and free of charge, with virtual manipulatives for almost any topic and grade level.

Cons: Not so easy on the eyes, and won't play nice with iPads, iPhones, or iPod touches.

Bottom Line: Students who struggle with difficult math concepts may like the trial-and-error format, but the vintage design and unclear feedback may scare some away.

Asking students to explore new concepts with these virtual manipulatives can be great when combined with a lecture or reading activity. Afterwards, it can be powerful to bring the class together, look at the virtual manipulative again, and have them reflect on what they've learned. Also, these manipulatives could be assigned as homework, or as a supplement to traditional practice problems. Parents may find it helpful to be able to "play" with these tools alongside their child. While the site doesn’t give many specifics to teachers, there are lots of potential uses here. Teaching algebraic thinking to elementary school students? Just display one of the interactive games or demonstrations on the board, or let students explore it on a laptop with just some simple instructions. Even in small groups, these tools are engaging and effective.

Editor's Note: While the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives is still available but the manipulatives require outdated Java software that's incompatible with most web browsers.

Dating back to 1999, the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives (NVLM) is a collection of Java-based interactive tools that teach math concepts. While some of the concepts can be quite complex, most of the tools have a very simple (and dated) appearance. However, they'll run on any Java-capable browser (not on Apple's mobile devices). On the site's home page, users find a Virtual Library containing tools under the following categories: Numbers and Operations, Algebra, Geometry, Measurement, Data Analysis and Probability. Each category is divided into resources for different grade levels, from Pre-K through 12th grade.

The idea alone of a library of manipulatives like this is a novel concept; after almost 15 years in the making, the site still has a lot of potential. However, an update –- not only to design but usability –- would be a great way to make this site accessible to more kids. That said, given the tools' exploratory nature, the site can be great for allowing students to discover math concepts on their own. By experimenting, students are often more successful in building deeper understanding, and even though the site gives little in the way of direction, it can be great when used in this way.

If using these tools to support specific parts of your curriculum, you'd be wise to help students along; either direct them toward areas of focus, or give them some context by showing them examples beforehand. Because not all the manipulatives give kid-friendly feedback, the site would do well to build in some better interactivity. Also, for your visual learners, the NVLM can be great for helping kids see and understand abstract concepts like variables and statistical probability.

Learning Rating

Overall Rating
Engagement

Kids will like the visual nature of these interactive tools, but the appeal may be limited by their stripped-down, "old school" look.

Pedagogy

Kids enter numbers and adjust variables to see the outcome on graphs and visual displays. By experimenting, kids can learn through experience. When paired with reflection, this can become a powerful learning opportunity.

Support

The site doesn't give many descriptions or explanations, but the interactives are designed to be used primarily by teachers or with the guidance of a teacher.

Common Sense reviewer

Community Rating

Website no longer Chrome-compatible; link to App is dead.

I couldn't find a "contact us" form for CommonSense.org - writing this review is my way of giving you a heads up about this dead tool for the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives. While I know that the "updated" link on this learning resource listing is 2013, the phase-out of Chome/Java compatibility happened shortly thereafter (they stopped offering it in the Chrome store around 2014 or 2015). It would help if materials on the CommonSense database looked fresh; it may help to have staff review any Website that still requires Java. Sadly, in Dec. 2020, sites requiring Adobe Flash will begin to face the same problem. Screening for these major browser incompatibilities - not small ones, but these really really big ones - could eliminate a lot of frustration.

Note - the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives website tries to link to an "App" version that can be downloaded, and doesn't therefore require Java. However, that entire site - MattiMath.com - is no longer working, and I can find few references on the web after 2018.

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