So many of the online educational places I visit are dominated by annoying ads or are a front for getting you to participate in a social networking community or are trying to sell you one thing or another. Wonder Rotunda
is like a breath of fresh air with hundreds of educational opportunities, but no commercial come-ons.
Start by creating an avatar (and a companion if you like) that represents you as you walk around the park and explore its nooks and crannies. It’s loosely based on the layout of the 1964 New York World’s Fair but with a multitude of educational possibilities. It has everything from a barrier reef journey and roller coaster ride to place to create your own symphony orchestra or business.
The rotunda can keep kids occupied for hours. All of the 15 activities are well thought out and have educational elements tuned to between fourth and seventh graders. Each takes between 10 and 20 minutes to go through and are entirely self-directed.
For instance, there’s a very informative section about the American government and what goes on in Washington, DC that can replace a few chapters in a fourth grade social studies text book. The section has easy-to-understand descriptions of the monuments, the Supreme Court and how bills get passed, and only lacks a good description of lobbying. It has descriptions of the monuments, the Supreme Court and how bills get passed and only lacks a good description of lobbying.
It’s all well organized with a helpful check list of adventures. As the child goes through each item, it gets checked off the list.
While children can use the rotunda on their own, it is just as appropriate for small groups working together. For those who want more depth in the subject area, many of the sections have additional readings as well as suggested museums to visit and a deep sources list. Unfortunately, none of the sources are linked for quick Web navigation.
There’s a hidden control panel that slides out of the side of the screen to show what’s going on and lets you pause the action to go to the bathroom or listen to the teacher. My favorite is the glossary, which has definitions for many of the more esoteric activities, although they’re not context sensitive so you have to sift through all of them to get to the one you want.
Along the way, kids can pick up Wonder Dollars, the park’s digital money, by completing tasks within each adventure. They start with $20 and can then buy digital food and drinks to keep their avatar active, eager and alert or get online souvenirs.
The Make a Difference Experience is unique in the online education world. It is an area devoted to getting kids to donate their time and energy to help a charity with Wonder dollars that you earn at the park. It’s all make-believe but the thoughts are in the right place and just might stimulate some students to volunteer at a charity.
Wonder Rotunda is Web-based so it can run on just about any computer, even older ones that can’t handle the latest software. On the downside, the animation is crude and not even at the level of BrainPop, but is acceptable in an age where Sponge Bob is a media star. It can take 10 or 15 seconds to load an activity, many have corny music and the zoom-ins and other effects are choppy.
As cool and impressive as the Wonder Rotunda is, it misses a few digital tricks. For instance, there’s a nice interactive map that shows what’s available in the rotunda, but none of the items are described when you can see the full park. Only when you zoom in on an area do the pop-up descriptions appear.
At $45 for the first year and $35 for each after that, the Wonder Rotunda is too expensive to consider for an entire class. The company does offer educational discounts on a case by case basis and teachers can try to get parents to pay for and register their children. The Wonder Rotunda is an excellent first effort and every bit as engaging and engrossing as online video games built around robots, wizards and medieval warfare, only there’s a lot to learn.
$45 for first year, $35 each year after that
+ Innovative educational activities
+ Supplemental readings available
+ No ads
+ Nice control panel
- Crude animation
- Sources aren’t linked