March 22, 2004: As a member of the New England Learning Association (NELA), I have been noticing a shift in our conversations about e-learning. There is less talk about blended learning and more talk about a quantum leap into something completely different.
Recent NELA events have focused on simulations, a technology that is transforming the way we learn.
What are simulations?
Clark Aldrich, author of Simulations and the Future of Learning, defines Simulations as interactive, representational environments that can provide effective learning experiences that require learners to construct their knowledge actively.
As this definition suggests, if we speak of simulation merely as an imitator of reality, without mentioning its relationship to the learner, we are likely to miss the point. Engagement is key. Actively constructing knowledge leads to ownership of the knowledge and the ability to apply it.
If the software doesn't actively engage the learner, then simulation wouldn't get us beyond what has become, to some of us, ho-hum e-learning.
Simulations for systems, such as those used for certification training, flight instruction and medical procedures, have existed for years. Today, we can build simulations that imitate processes with increased numbers of variables, which allow us to model more realistic situations and facilitate complex interactions.
Who is doing it?
Not surprisingly, management schools are trailblazers in this area, because MBA students must learn human relations, organizational behavior and management concepts to be successful in business. Adult students easily embrace simulations, because they enter business school with real-world experience in their repertoires, and they are comfortable with technology.
Al Essa, chief information officer at MIT's Sloan School of Management, presented his vision for simulation at a NELA event in September 2003. He said that the Sloan School is changing the model of management education from case studies to problem-based, real-time learning.
Sloan students must learn how to formulate strategies to manage risk in unpredictable situations. This is not a skill that can be acquired through book knowledge alone. There are no "right answers." There are only "right questions." What enables students to ask the right questions is active engagement in the use of new tools for visualization and simulation.
For another example, we can look at the University of Phoenix, which has retained Tata Interactive Systems to build simulation software for its MBA program. Dave Beauchamp, who heads Tata's New England office, explained that each simulation will be based on clearly defined learning objectives, an imitation of a real-life process (with limited variables), decision points and role playing. The simulations make use of branching stories, interactive spreadsheets and choices that drive consequences.
This approach is aimed at imitating the operation of a real-world process over time in order to engage the learner. The goal is to "increase instruction efficiency and to make it easier for instructors to handle larger classes without affecting the quality of learning," according to Tata's statement in "Simulations for University of Phoenix Online."
Related to business schools' use of the new simulation tools, Aldrich reported at a NELA event in January 2004 that "by substituting educational content for trivia, the combination of game theory, technology and experiential learning suggests simulation is much more than just another software product."
What makes these developments particularly exciting is that they are creating an atmosphere of competition among universities and in the marketplace. Competition that will benefit end-users (students and teachers) will also benefit the institutions.
Where is it going?
How would we teach relationship skills such as leadership, interviewing and hiring without simulation? It's as if these skills that border on art simply cannot be set out, committed to memory and deployed. These questions are of particular interest to me as a search consultant, because I learned how to recruit the "old-fashioned" way.
Recruiting firms experience revolving door syndrome, precisely because it is so difficult to learn this sort of skill without a rehearsal before "going live." Imagine if students of recruiting could actively construct their know-how, and before applying it on the job. Imagine further, what a tremendous boon to human capital management it would be, if universities taught recruiters and managers how to interview, hire and retain employees.
If simulation can be a breakthrough tool for the acquisition and application of knowledge, then what better place than in our educational institutions to advance this learning technology?
Sunny Eaton Steadman chairs higher-education events for the New England Learning Association, an organization that facilitates the implementation of technology in learning.