What Are Simulations Good For?

Here's an imaginary Q/A session about simulations I had in my head. Why do so many people talk about simulations in learning?

I’d never considered using simulation-based training. I’ve been hearing too much about it recently, so I’m wondering: What exactly are simulations good for?

Bad question. It’s probably more like “what are they not good for?”

So you can use simulations for every kind of learning?

Definitely. In some cases, though, it might be like using Photoshop to resize an image.

You mean it would be too expensive?

Two points here. First, simulation-based courseware (or just “simulations”) is always more expensive to produce than an “equivalent” course that involves no simulation. Second, the cost is too often a deterrent when it shouldn’t be. There are many situations where simulation-based training is the way to go. Still, if your purpose is to introduce new employees to company policies, say, then a simulation would be like using Photoshop to…

I get it. So what kinds of training are best served by simulations?

We’ll get to that later. Look at the idea first. At this link you’ll find that Washington University psychologists did some research that suggested that, guess what, our imagination may actually help us reach our goals. In one line: “The power of the mind.” Here, that means (to me, at least) that if you’re immersed in something (your imagination is strong and active), you’re more likely to learn.

How come? The research speaks about imagination and our goals, right?

Yes. I understand it this way: When your imagination is active, things you see and feel get to you. Thus, if you imagine negative/positive things, you’ll have a negative/positive attitude, and that’ll reflect in your actions. In a simulation, the learning is “injected”… you’re not so conscious that you’re “doing learning” or “undergoing training.” You’re immersed in it, your imagination is active, and the learning gets to you.

The learning getting to you is like the opposite of you getting it?

Nice way of putting it, really. You don’t need to “get it”; it gets to you.

Sounds like a powerful way of doing things.

It is, in theory and in practice.

So it’s more real and less hype?

Anyone can hype anything if they really want to. Someone selling you a simulated learning product can hype it. The point is, using simulations in learning is not hype. No.

What’s the theory?

Oh, there are many. I found this at the Simpact site, and it’s a good way of putting it: “Unlike education acquired through textbooks, lectures, and classroom instruction, what takes place… is what we call accidental learning. It’s learning to be—a natural byproduct of adjusting to a new culture—as opposed to learning about.”

And “accidental learning” happens in a simulation. OK, how about a more down-to-earth explanation of what learning via simulation is?

It’s learning by doing. Like in a flight simulator, where you feel like you’re flying a plane, as opposed to, say, reading about it, or going through a visual presentation of how it differs from driving a car.

Simulations are like video games...?

Some are. Those are the more complex, physical simulations. There are other types—in a “social” simulation, you act as though you’re interacting with people. Then there are simulations by which you learn how to use software by actually using the software within a guided interface.

Social simulations would be for soft skills?

Not necessarily. You interact with people, and that’s the key point. You could have a customer service training program as a simulation of this sort, for example.

So “learning by doing” is what simulations are all about.

Pretty much. In all true simulations, you actually do something within an interface. The interface gives the context, and that’s what you experience. The “content” is merged into the interface. That way, the Test or Quiz part of the course changes from a “do you know this” to a “how would you do this.”

I’m still wondering, In what scenarios would simulations be the obvious type of training…

Wherever there’s immediate application of what you learn, and if “learning by doing” is applicable. That covers a vast area, so it perhaps comes down to: “Does my training budget allow for a simulation?” You could use an existing product (modifying it to match your scenario), or you could design from scratch. Simulations make learning interesting and also more effective. Both are important, I’d say.

Tags: