When Simulations Work – Jenny Saucerman

Image of speaker Jenny SaucermanThis guest post comes to us from Jenny Saucerman, an instructional designer at Web Courseworks. She’s also an upcoming speaker at Learning Solutions 2018 Conference & Expo, where she’ll be facilitating a hands-on workshop on building branching scenarios.

As instructional designers, we are constantly on the lookout for new educational tools. Some tools come and go in popularity, while others have staying power. One educational tool that has been around for a long time is simulation-based learning. The educational rationale behind simulations (or “sims”) is easy to understand: if learners perform a task in a learning environment that is similar to the professional environment, they will be able to transfer the skills they learned in the simulated environment to the real-world environment.

Sounds great, right? Simulate all the things!

Enthusiasm is important, but so is pragmatism. Different learning problems require different learning solutions. Some learning solutions only work for particular learner populations, or specific technological devices, or for certain learning objectives. Constraints also shape your projects. Building a virtual reality simulation might be cool (okay, awesome), but does it make sense for your budget?

Consider the following when deciding whether a simulation would be a good solution for your learning problem:

  1. Does the learning objective require a high-fidelity simulation? In other words, how lifelike does the simulation have to be in order to properly educate your learners? If you need to train your learners how to navigate social situations such as customer service, a branching scenario may be sufficient; on the other hand, if you need to teach your learners how to properly intubate a patient—a skill that requires precise tactile movement—you may need a more realistic educational intervention such as a mannequin. A branching scenario would be significantly less expensive in terms of budget and time, but it would not be an appropriate educational tool for learners who need to practice physical movement.
  2. Would this educational intervention be more effective in-person? For example, virtually simulating a patient interaction would be great for distance learners or medical professionals who are refreshing their currently existing skill set, but for novices who need to learn how to navigate complex patient interactions, it may be more beneficial to run simulations with live people who can react in real time and respond to the learner’s body language. Technological learning interventions are not always the most effective learning solutions, and it’s important to recognize when your learners might benefit more from in-person training.
  3. Are there any existing tools you can use to build your simulation, or do you have to start from scratch? Learning problems are very specific to the learners’ domain. This means that there aren’t many domain-agnostic learning tools out there for instructional designers. For problems that are more social in nature, there are tools such as branching scenarios or role play, but if you are trying to teach your learners how to use specific software, these tools are unlikely to be helpful. Earlier in my life, I worked at a lab that simulated an urban planning internship. We built everything ourselves because there weren’t pre-existing programs that could integrate GIS mapping software into a virtual learning program for high school and college students. So before committing to a simulation-based learning approach, you need know whether any solutions already exist or if you’re going to need to build everything from scratch. The tradeoff may or may not be worth it to you.

Simulations are just one tool in instructional designers’ toolbox, and it’s up to us to determine whether they’re the best educational solution for our learners’ problems.

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