This article was written June 14, 2001
I just returned from the Training Directors’ Forum in Las Vegas. Like any conference, there was buzz about a few hot topics. E-learning appears to have passed from the hype stage to actual implementation at about 50% of the firms represented at this conference. It was obvious that training departments are struggling to create a cohesive e-learning program, as one day proved with 4 or 5 well-attended sessions each entitled “Creating an e-learning strategy”. Other highlights included celebrity author Tim Galwey (of the “Inner Game of Tennis” fame) presenting ideas with surprising implications for the use of simulations. Al Franken mercilessly skewered Republicans and Democrats alike (well, mostly Republicans) in a speech that was irrelevant to the conference but somewhat funny.
On a personal level, I kept hearing people talk in the hallways about the new, hot concept of “Blended Learning”. More than once I was asked “Are your simulations blended?”
If you are not familiar with this concept, it refers to using a mix of delivery techniques to teach learners. This phrase first surfaced at conferences early in 2000, but now is accepted industry-speak. Searching Google reveals 1400 web pages that contain the phrase “Blended Learning”. As Learning Circuits said earlier this year “The idea behind blended learning is that instructional designers review a learning program, chunk it into modules, and determine the best medium to deliver those modules to the learner.” Typically this involves mixing various forms of classroom and internet-based training.
This common-sense concept applies particularly well to simulation based learning. While Forio specializes in offering technology for online simulations, our simulations can also be used in the classroom. More importantly, they have almost always been coordinated with other instructional activities delivered both on and off-line. Several quick examples:
A major food and beverage company built a five-year simulation for mid-level managers used during a three day strategic decision-making course. The simulation provided an interactive business case in which participants could make decisions such as launching new products, adjusting prices, and hiring staff. Participants alternated hour-long simulation sessions with presentations on strategy topics and organizational learning (for example, Chris Argyris’ “Ladder of Inference”). After the course, participants accessed the simulation over the web for further practice.
The “blending” increased the effectiveness of the session dramatically. Participants enthusiastically used examples from the simulation during discussions. They also actively tried to apply new concepts during the simulation decision-making process. The result was a memorable experience that has become one of the core training offerings of this firm.
A second example involves a group of high school biology teachers in Arizona who were frustrated by the number of students “tuning out” of traditional classroom education. We created together a “Public Health Clinic Simulation” that was used in what would normally be called a “Microbiology” unit but was referred to here as “Public Health”.
Students ran the simulation twice. First for several days at the start of the simulation. The sim presented them with a series of fictitious patients who needed to be diagnosed and treated. A daily “mortality report” heightened the drama. (this was rather large during the initial run). Over the next few weeks, the now motivated students learned about bacteria, viruses, and public health issues through library research, laboratory sessions, and presentations from local doctors.
The assessment of the unit was a two week run of the simulation, in which students treated “patients” on a daily basis, for a grade. If the learners had trouble treating patients they went back to the books and had to figure out what information they were missing. Interestingly, it was often the students who had the greatest difficulties with traditional education who were the most motivated to perform well with the simulation. (For more information on this type of Performance-Based Assessment, I recommend reading guru Grant Wiggins).
My experience is that simulation offers some unique opportunities for learning.
- Practicing business decisions in a simulation is engaging and helps learners retain information.
- Simulations work well over the internet and with a global audience.
- Simulations can demonstrate the relevance of other content, motivating participants to learn.
However, there are a number of reasons why other forms of instruction may complement a simulation.
- Other techniques may be better at teaching straight factual information.
- Some concepts can be better taught by an instructor or shared through peer interaction. (this is true for many soft skills).
- Meeting face-to-face in a conference (especially sales conferences) can be highly motivating.
Blending e-learning and classroom training is more controversial than it sounds. Key-note speakers and analysts Marc Rosenberg (DiamondCluster International) and Bryan Chapman (brandon-hall.com) had some very different thoughts on this matter. However, as a rule of thumb, “Blended Simulations” makes perfect common sense.