Hands-on learning through computer simulations

As learning and development professionals understand too well, adults learn through many different modes and methods. E-learning, in its early days, generated much hype on the premise that online programs could incorporate many different media elements to create a rich, interactive learning experience while addressing different learning styles and preferences. But this was too costly.

So, to reduce time, effort and development budgets, many e-learning initiatives focused on distilling original classroom-based programs into online text presentations and posting content from in-house subject matter experts to intranet sites. But this form of online content does not engage learners. The result is a perception that e-learning is boring, dull and ineffective.

The question then becomes: how do trainers provide learners with engaging, interactive e-learning content in a cost-effective way? One answer may be simulations: computer-based training programs that provide the learner with hands-on training for a particular task or tool. They replicate on-the-job processes and the function of tools or systems to allow the learner to practise and master knowledge and skills in an interactive environment, with feedback for correct and incorrect actions and choices.

Simulation makes for great learning content because it’s non-linear. The learner can apply critical thinking in making choices that can take him down different paths with different outcomes. At their core, online simulations employ the most basic of learning strategies: present the learner with a scenario or task, allow him to try to accomplish it, determine where he went wrong and go back to try it again until he completes the task.

By delivering training in a virtual environment that replicates a learner’s actual work assignments, simulations allow the learner to develop and practise skills and aptitudes that previously, he could develop only with hands-on or on-the-job experience. This exploratory approach to learning can dramatically increase motivation and retention rates.

Simulations can take many forms. The most common example is complex, high-fidelity flight simulators in the aerospace and defence industries. Flight path and aviation animations using simple web technologies are increasingly finding their way into Department of National Defence and NAV Canada e-learning initiatives.

But the use of simulation extends beyond these traditional examples. Canadian Blood Services has implemented a national e-learning program that simulates their blood management software application package. Employees learn how to use the software in a risk-free environment that allows them to make, and learn from, their mistakes while mastering skills and process.

Mr. Lube also makes use of an online simulation activity for new technicians to learn and master the tasks and processes involved in completing an oil change. While an oil change is a relatively simple procedure, the simulation training program takes the new technicians through all the needed checks and assessments, times them on the tasks and trains them to use a process consistently employed across the country. The simulation program provides a safe learning environment before new hires work on an actual vehicle, reducing on-the-job training time and errors.

Many organizations are also using simulations in e-learning programs to train for soft skills, including leadership, operations management, project management, information and knowledge management, sales, customer service and financial services. In these types of simulations, knowledge, judgement and critical thinking skills are applied. Typically, the simulation describes or replicates a learning objective, business goal, issue or situation and lets the learner apply herself, make decisions and see how choices affect outcomes in the context of work and real-world examples. Common forms of scenario-based simulation include interactive games, role-playing, scenarios and case studies.

How difficult and costly is it to develop simulations?

Cost and effort to develop simulations are correlated to the complexity of the simulation exercise. The degree of fidelity to the real-world context is typically correlated to the technical development effort required. Thankfully, Internet technologies, including Macromedia Flash and simple HTML, now allow for rapid and relatively inexpensive technical content development. Most e-learning providers are competent in these industry-standard tools and specialize in developing cost-effective and easy-to-maintain solutions.

In developing simulations, effort should be focused on instructional design. Effective planning and development expertise are required to avoid missing the mark. Issues such as the purpose of the simulation and how it is to be integrated into an overall learning program need to be established before the content is developed.

It is critical that learning objectives are clearly defined, and that the content and context are relevant and appropriate for the learner. The complexity of simulation, decisions points and number of choices all impact the development effort and cost. A balance must be struck between engaging the learner with great content, providing a real-world situation and context, and enabling the achievement of learning objectives.

Simulations can help reduce the costs of training in circumstances where a training environment would be too costly to set up or too difficult to access for segments of the employee population. The comparative cost of developing e-learning applications incorporating online simulation, which can be accessible to employees at all locations, could be an overall savings for the organization tasked with ramping up and verifying that all staff in multiple locations master a core process or competency.

Anita Bowness is vice-president of operations of ACERRA Learning Inc., an Ottawa-based provider of professional learning services. She can be contacted at (613) 237-6388 ext. 226 or at [email protected].

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