Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Creating elearning simulations

What is a simulation? A simulation is a system built artificially, mimicking a real-life environment and situation that allows a participant to interact with the system or alter it for the purpose of observing, learning or experiencing the changes or responses to that interaction. We build simulations for participants when they do not have access to the real-life environment or are not permitted to access it. The reasons for not gaining access to these real-life environments are usually cost, security (of the environment), safety (of the participant) and rarity. Since simulations are used for observation and learning, they find a place inside elearning courses as well.

Elearning Simulations

In elearning, simulations are higher in the order of interactivity and are usually denoted as L3 (Level 3) interaction and above; L1 being static (or a page turner) and L2 being simple interactivity. Some of the common areas where simulations are used in elearning are in courses related to Leadership skills, Sales skills, Technical skills, K12, etc. For example, Banking applications are taught through simulations that are built from screenshots of the software. This helps the learner learn the software application without the risk of accidentally compromising the security of the application or deleting important data.

Characteristics of a good simulation in elearning

When it comes to engagement, a simulation is expected to be as good as a computer game. Not only must it have all the features that get the full attention of a learner, but it must also meet the learning objective. Below mentioned are the main characteristics that you should pay attention to when building a simulation:

  1. Learning objective

    An elearning simulation is not built for pure experimentation. It is built for learning and so, it must have a clear well-defined learning objective. When building a storyboard or a design document for the simulation, you must keep a check on this aspect. Even though a learner may make several observations during a simulation, you must ensure that the end outcome from using the simulation meets the desired learning objective. For example, if you built a warehouse simulation with the objective to teach the process of moving goods to the despatch area using a fork-lift, you must ensure that a learner follows the steps in the prescribed order. When the learner does not follow the steps in order, the simulation must respond adversely in real-time.
  2. Designing the simulation

    An elearning simulation is designed through the process of visualizing the scenario and documenting it, which is usually done on a design document such as a storyboard. When you develop a storyboard for a simulation it is very important to design it in a manner that allows discovery during the course of the simulation. The structure must not force a user to follow a linear path. The system must respond in accordance with the actions taken by the learner. The below mentioned are the elements in play during a simulation:
    1. Environment

      The environment refers to the ambience of the simulation including backgrounds, objects and sounds. If the simulation is for safety in mining, the visual look and feel of the simulation must look like a mining tunnel or other areas of a mine. The objects (or properties) and sounds must also be as realistic as possible. Having a realistic environment better prepares the learner to deal with a situation while they are in the physical location. 3D graphics can help us achieve realistic simulation environments.
    2. Actors

      Actors in a simulation are characters that have roles and an objective in the simulation. The learner, other participants (in case of a multiplayer simulation), and system generated characters are all actors in the simulation. Actors must have defined roles, objectives and abilities (or powers). It is the interest and / or conflicts of these actors that advances the simulation forward.
    3. Objects

      Actors interact with objects in the environment during the simulation to achieve the end result. Objects respond to these actions in a specific manner. A fork-lift in a warehouse simulation or a control panel in mining simulation is an example of an object that learners would interact with.
    4. Behavior

      Defining the behavior of the simulation is the hardest part of designing it. However, this process can be simplified by first identifying and documenting the objects, their properties and their actions one by one. A simulation is an interplay of actors and objects in real-time. Some of them may be automatic and some may be triggered by the participant.
    5. Rewards

      While the dynamics of the ambience and events themselves provide motivation for interaction, simulations for learning must have an additional reward system. The learner must get a sense of accomplishment in the little wins during a large simulation. This could be a mere appreciation from another actor, scores (points, ratings), medals, likes or just a text message (notification).
    6. Feedback and Messaging

      A learner must be provided with continuous feedback and messaging during the simulation. This makes them aware when they make the wrong choices and gives assurance when their action / choices are correct. The messages must be short as long texts can take away the fun and involvement of the learner. The objective of the feedback and messaging is to help the learner complete the simulation.
  3. Duration and Complexity

    The length and complexity of a simulation has an impact on cost since simulations are expensive to build. If the learning objective can be met with a seat time of 20 minutes, it would be wasteful to build a 1 hour simulation as it would only attenuate the experience without bringing in additional value. When deciding the complexity, you should find out the minimum number of assets and behavior that is necessary to meet the learning objective. For example, if you need to show a simulation that involves only one factory location, two actors and two elements, you may want to strictly restrict to building only that. It is better to prevent a learner from exploring areas that are not part of the simulation as it would save time and resources.
  4. Graphics (UI) and Usability (UX)

    You should try to keep the User Interface of a simulation clean. You can do this by paying attention to simple things like not over-crowding the work area, using a pleasant color scheme and using legible fonts. Try to keep the graphics light weight as it can affect the user experience on a slow internet. The measure of good user-experience is how quickly a learner can get their work done without having to search for ways to do it. The learner must have a seamless experience when accomplishing the tasks.
  5. Mobility

    Simulations must be mobile responsive covering popular mobile screen dimensions to address the segment of learners who prefer using smartphones because they have limited access to desktops. The ratio of learners who use mobile and desktops is 1:1. So, whether the application is a simulation or not, the program must be mobile compatible.
  6. Learner Progress (measurement)

    Learner progress in an elearning simulation can be measured in two ways. The first is tracking the actions of the learner. While this gives insight into the progress of individual learners, the greater benefit comes from finding if learners are able to use the application in the intended manner. If not, improvements can be made to the simulation to ensure that learners are able to achieve the learning objective. The second way is through post-simulation assessment. This can be either a survey or a standard multiple choice quiz to check the understanding of the learner.

Advantages of elearning simulations

Elearning simulations are highly dynamic and like any other simulation, the interactions are close to those in real-life. Although simulations (L3) are expensive to build, it has some clear advantages.

  1. Engaging (L3)

    An elearning simulation cannot be completed without the learners full attention span. This is because a simulation requires the learner to perform actions. In other words, the learner must actively participate in the simulation in order to complete it. Since it is about doing and not merely reading, watching or listening, the learner gains knowledge with higher retention.
  2. Practical Knowledge

    The level of reality (i.e, near replica of the physical environment) in a simulation imparts practical knowledge over theoretical knowledge. So, the learners are much better prepared to deal when facing a similar real-life situation.
  3. One-time cost

    An in-person training in a facility has many recurring cost elements. These include travel and stay for trainer and participants, equipment and consumables and above all repeated training fees. Simulations helps us eliminate these recurring expenses as the cost to build a simulation is a one-time affair.
  4. Overcoming Security and Access related issues

    Learners can explore simulations without the fear of accidentally causing damage to a live active system.

The future…

With the advent of Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality, Metaverse and several tools that use these technologies, elearning simulation development will very likely become cheaper to build in the near future. You should start experimenting early with these new technologies as we’re going to see more and more elearning simulations being built with these in the coming years.

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