Games, simulations open world of learning

Virtual worlds enhance collaboration and networking

There is a quiet revolution happening in learning around the world. Simulations, games, virtual worlds and Web 2.0 collaboration are changing perceptions of how people learn. Some even anticipate technology will change learning more in the next 10 years than anything has since the invention of the printing press.

This revolutionary change has the potential to impact formal and casual learning at all levels of society, including public education, home learning, corporate training, military and combat readiness, economic development and nation-building. What’s more, these new methods have the ability to change how people think about learning — and how learning experiences are designed and delivered.

Web 2.0

Web 2.0 refers to online activity centred on social networking, business networking, media sharing, blogging and podcasting. There is a lot of informal learning happening in these environments, including countless instructional videos on YouTube, project collaboration on wikis and Yahoo! groups, and blogs providing expert opinions — both very good and terribly bad.

Web 2.0 applications can be used to deliver, support and expand learning in many ways. An additional benefit is many of these technologies can be used for free and often without requiring approvals or integration within the corporate infrastructure, making adoption fast and easy.

Games and simulations

IT research firm Gartner reported in 2006 that “a quiet revolution has been occurring inside leading enterprises worldwide. For mission-critical jobs (high skill or high turnover), simulation-based learning has become a standard part of an enterprise’s operating model and a competitive differentiator.”

The Federation of American Scientists declared that “video games can reshape education. (It’s the) next great discovery, a way to captivate students so much they will spend hours learning on their own.”

Games and simulations can take many different forms. At the risk of over-simplifying the options, let’s consider some examples. “Drill and repeat” games can be used for rote learning and for reinforcing concepts. Cisco Systems found that its certified network engineers around the world would be more effective if they were able to master binary math — converting between base 10 numbers and binary ones and zeros. As a solution, Cisco developed a binary game and made it available for free on its website and for use on mobile devices. This simple but effective drill and repeat game not only solved a key training challenge, but it also turned out to be an effective corporate marketing tool used at various events, with prizes awarded to top scorers. This same type of approach can be used to improve learning about investment concepts, accounting terms and management techniques.

Games and simulations can also be used to provide deep experiential learning, ideal for learning about concepts that have complex inter-relationships — all in real time. Learners are immersed in highly visual and interactive environments in such rewarding ways that they feel both intellectually and emotionally engaged in the experience.

Budding entrepreneurs can learn what life might be like by playing a business simulation that recreates the day-to-day experiences of being an entrepreneur. Customer service agents can participate in simulated role-playing exercises. Employees can learn to complete an expense form in a tutorial that simulates the task.

IBM recently launched ¬INNOV8, a business process management simulation program that it donates to educational institutions to better prepare students for the workforce. IBM’s game puts students in a 3-D world inside a virtual company, interacting with other characters to accomplish specific on-the-job objectives.

Games and simulations can be used for more than just training. French cosmetics giant L’Oréal uses an online business simulation as both a marketing and recruitment tool. Players take on the role of a general manager of a fictitious cosmetics company and compete for high profits. As of 2006, L’Oréal already hired 186 top players from 28 countries.

Finally, imagine a simulation of an entire company, where every employee can be the CEO. Consider the potential improvements to employee performance and loyalty when everyone is able to experience the entire company and the importance of their own roles within it.

Nearly any task, procedure, process or skill can be simulated, but not everything should. Designing a custom game or simulation is much more difficult and expensive than conventional training experiences but if designed properly, the investment has the potential to bring much reward.

Virtual worlds

The recent success of virtual worlds, sometimes referred to as massively multiplayer online games, has opened up even more creative and powerful training options. Virtual worlds often include immersive 3-D interfaces, where a player takes on a character (or “avatar”) and, inside a 3-D world, interacts with other avatars, both human- and computer-controlled.

The two most successful virtual worlds, in terms of number of subscribers and buzz, are World of Warcraft and Second Life. World of Warcraft is a fantasy-based combat game that, on appearance, may not have a direct place in the corporate training toolbox. However, players in this virtual world gain real business skills. “Guild masters” lead teams of avatars on quests, and to be successful they must use effective management, teamwork, resource planning, communication and strategy skills.

Second Life is the virtual world that has caught much of the training industry’s attention. Unlike most other virtual worlds, Second Life is not necessarily fantasy or combat-based. It is essentially anything its community wants it to be, because users create all the objects in the world — buildings, landscapes, clothing stores, casinos and currency exchanges. You can even get real jobs that pay real money by building objects for others or selling your services.

The flexibility and wide adoption of Second Life — over 12 million and growing — has encouraged trainers to host meetings and classes inside the world — admittedly, not much of a leap forward. But virtual worlds can enhance all types of collaboration and networking by providing visualization and personalization where before it was not possible. Emergency response groups are building training scenarios that immerse people in highly realistic exercises where they must do exactly the same things they would do in the real world — driving vehicles, operating machinery and co-ordinating activities. Unlike the real world, there is no risk or limit to the scenarios that can be created, and it can be done at a fraction of the cost.

Mathew Georghiou is president and CEO of MediaSpark, a Sydney, N.S.-based simulation training development company. He can be reached at (902) 562-0042 or [email protected].

Where to start
Interested in using technology?

With so many options available, it can be confusing to figure out where to start. Nearly every technology offers a free trial or subscription level. There are also numerous video demonstrations available on company websites and on YouTube.

If the organization is ready to take the plunge, try to find an off-the-shelf solution. It may not perfectly match the employer’s needs, but it will be a quicker and less expensive option. If a suitable off-the-shelf solution cannot be found, try a custom solution, but keep it simple to start and build on it later.

Start by identifying the primary learning outcomes desired and then match that to a game or simulation scenario that can deliver those outcomes in an effective and engaging way. There is real art and science at play here, as the game play must support and enhance learning, not get in the way of it. Successful design must properly integrate education, entertainment, gaming, simulation, graphic design, artificial intelligence and technology. It is not uncommon for companies to have failed attempts adopting a game or simulation because they did not have, or hire, the appropriate breadth of skills.

If budget is an issue, try to consider how the solution may benefit other departments in the company and pool dollars.

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