Recently, I've been wondering how effective virtual manipulatives are because I know that typing uses different muscles and does not provide the same kinesthetic experience that handwriting does.
After quite a bit of reading it appears that both have merits but it appears the bottom line in any manipulator use is that the teacher must be comfortable with the use of them.
First of all, the problem with concrete or physical manipulative is the individual pieces that can get lost. On the other hand some students need to feel the physical piece in their hands. Its like some of us love the feel and smell of paper in our hands. It helps our memories. On the other hand, virtual manipulatives can take a while to download. If the internet is messed up, it can make use of the virtual manipulatives difficult to use and they become frustrating. I know from personal experience, students often see either one as a toy to play with.
One issue that come up is simply making sure you don't over use manipulatives including calculators to the point that students loose track of the math. It was noted that sometimes the lessons focus more on the manipulatives than the math. I've had my students in Algebra I using an app to help them learn to factor basic trinomials. I realized my students have not figured out that the c and b go in specific places in the diamond. They had the connection on paper but not on the app. This gives me something to work on with them on Monday.
The interesting thing about virtual manipulatives is that most papers were not looking only at virtual representations of the physical manipulative such as the base 10 boards etc but as including visualizations of the concept which may be why it is often suggested both types be used in the classroom.
A commonality among everything I read comes down to three or four main points.
1. Manipulatives either virtual or concrete should be used in all grades from K to 12 to help students develop a greater understanding of the mathematical concepts.
2. We need to monitor the use manipulatives so students do not focus only on manipulatives but on the concept.
3. In general, manipulatives are not used enough in the upper grades/middle school/high school.
4. Many teachers do not have proper training in using manipulatives effectively in the classroom.
I fit the last one. When I went through teacher training, there was nothing on using manipulatives in high school. Only elementary teachers receive that training. I've had to teach myself about them. I suspect there are others out there in the same boat. Have a nice day.