Educational simulations are a broad genre of immersive learning simulations focused on increasing participants' mastery level in the real world. They differ from computer games in that their goal is not to be fun for participants (although they do engender a level of engagement).
Instead, educational simulations are part of a formal learning program and are built primarily to nurture specific learning goals in participants, while adhering to program goals to achieve desired results.
Yet as with all simulations, educational simulations require participants to develop real skills, and do so through emergent learning. They can be single player, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer, and include many genres.
Branching stories require learners to make a series of decisions through a series of multiple choices to progress through an event (or story) that develops in different ways according to the choices each learner makes.
Specifically, learners start with a briefing. They then advance to a first multiple-choice decision point, or branch. Based on the decision or action they make (such as "I'll take the red pill" or "I'll take the blue pill"), they see a scene that provides some feedback, advances the story, and then sets up another decision; learners continue making decisions until they reach either a successful or unsuccessful final state.
The simplicity of the interface is both branching stories' greatest strength and their greatest weakness. Their ease of use, ease of deployment, use of discrete decisions, and dynamic visual content style make them highly appropriate for reluctant learners.
This genre typically has learners try to impact three or four critical metrics (primary variables) indirectly by allocating finite resources (money, time, good will, swag) among competing categories over a series of turns or intervals.
Learners get feedback on their decisions through graphs and charts. The entire simulation might continue for anywhere from three to 20 intervals. For example, the head of a not-for-pro?t organization might try to optimize the variables of funding and community impact by allocating each week's working time among such categories as fundraising, creating new services, or sleeping.
Interactive spreadsheets are often done in a multiplayer or team-based environment, with significant competition between learners, and often with a coach or facilitator. Interactive spreadsheets typically focus on business school issues such as policy, supply chain management, product life cycle, accounting, and general cross-functional business acumen, which are their historical roots.
Despite the genre name, spreadsheets are not a realistic platform for deploying these models, although they may be used in the design document. The genre's subtlety, unpredictability, and variability make it appropriate for training b-school students and high-potential supervisors up to and including direct reports to the CEO.
In interactive diagrams the entire screen display becomes a living, organic visual diagram of key concepts, relationships, and patterns.
Interactive diagrams are often used in school programs to show, for example, food webs or how Congress works. The content is heavily layered. Arrows and graphs typically pepper the display. Control buttons and throttles present options to players. Interactive diagrams themselves become a model and pedagogy to apply to real-life situations.
Usually without trying to achieve any victory conditions, learners begin to understand at a gut level what a piece of data means and how it relates to other data. The interface is simple and immediate, even if the relationships are complex.
With virtual products a collection of simulation elements creates a high-fidelity, virtual model of a real-world item. Participants can play around with these items or test hypotheses regarding their behavior.
Virtual products have many advantages over their real-world counterparts, including ease of transportation and in fact ubiquitous availability, freedom from physical limits such as cool-down times and little pieces that break, and annotations as to internal workings.
As with interactive diagrams, virtual products have neither tasks nor levels. Participants require intrinsic motivation or they won't bother with them.
In this type of educational simulation genre, participants engage a virtual product in an experience structured by tasks and goals to learn about using some real-world item to solve problems or complete products (rather than just to explore what it does). For example, a learner may have to repair a Geiger counter in three minutes or less to pass.
In more complex virtual labs, with each subsequent level, a student may receive less and less helpful information, such as no longer having access to an x-ray view, or may have to face more complicated situations. Virtual labs are often used for formal learning experiences that result in certification, and are successful in the learning goal of application of new content.
Practiceware encourages participants to repeat actions in high-fidelity real-time (often 3D) situations until the skills become natural in the real-world counterpart.
The?rst practiceware genre was the flight simulator, used for training pilots. Today, practiceware has been developed for a variety of big skills. The interface constantly presents participants with five to 20 different actions, aligned with real-world options. Many of them require mastery of split-second timing (when to do an action) and magnitude (how hard to do an action).
Virtual experience spaces
With the genre of virtual experience spaces, learners role-play practice some real-world skill, such as consulting or creation of intellectual property, or even disaster recovery using web-based materials as props.
Using relatively common-place web technology, instructors can create scalable fictitious situations using large linked, state-based multimedia repositories to explore. The elements can include emails, video interviews with the CEO or other clips, and PowerPoint presentations, all accessed through a common portal.
Here's the key: only certain links in the repository are available at the start of the role play. As it proceeds, new links open up based on different types of triggers, typically time and contacts.
At intervals, the instructor (or the simulation on its own) opens up links that create the effect of time passing. This could simply represent the start of a new week or, more dramatically, the occurrence of an external event such as a hostile takeover or the death of a senior executive (which may change the mission).
By accessing this type of space, consultants can learn enough to create recommendations, projects, and plans, even introducing fictitious characters to each other. The resulting products can then be evaluated by real humans for all sorts of projects - evacuation plans, new websites, IT infrastructure, and strategic plans.
This article has been excerpted from The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games by Clark Aldrich, available from Jossey-Bass.