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Ideas on Effective Simulations

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Elearning is about making simulations. We should be making effective ones.

Another of the podcasts I listen to regularly is a developer-focused show called Developer Tea. Recently, the host Jonathan Cutrell released a great episode on effective simulations. And in it, he offers his 3 points for creating effective simulations.

Like our coding counterparts, elearning developers are in the business of creating effective simulations. We hope to mimic real-life systems and situations in order to elicit emotional and thought responses and thereby help people prepare for their work. That may be obvious. But what isn’t necessarily obvious is what’s necessary to make a really effective simulation. Does it always have to be high-fidelity with realistic images and voice acting? That’s where these 3 aspects from the podcast really caught my attention.

Understand the Big Rules

Cutrell says that the big rules of a situation are about understanding that every simulation has a system with rules and all of the actors in that system must abide by those rules. For example, the rules of a workplace are that there is a problem to solve, certain constraints, and certain opportunities for empowerment. The example Cutrell gives is that a developer in a workplace may have a problem and a limited amount of time to solve it, but she would also have access to other developers on her team as well as resources and communities on the Internet. So it wouldn’t make much sense to create a simulation for someone in this situation that cuts them off from the world and expected them to have internalized all of the knowledge they might need to solve a problem. This same sort of thinking applies beautifully to an onboarding simulation or sales training or any of the other task-focused simulations we might design. We need to understand all of the big rules that would effect our learners and simulate those, including having an understanding of the ways in which the learner is empowered to solve problems for the organization.

Know Which Rules to Break

As I learned as an English major, you should first learn the rules, and then break them. Cutrell makes this his second aspect of an effective simulation. He gives an excellent example in email. Email is a simulation of the postal system in the real world, including a system of addresses, a mechanism to carry the message, and a mailbox to put the message in. However, having understood all of the rules of mail systems, they understood that an effective simulation in the digital space would eschew some of those rules, such as needing to buy stamps, or real-world time delays between sending and receiving messages. This breaks down to getting rid of everything that is not essential. In our case, it makes sense that we should strip down what we put in a simulation into the essentials. Instead of trying to mimic every possible thing that could happen in a given situation we are trying to simulate, we should seek to include on the big rules that make up the essence of the experience.

The Process is more Important than the Resolution

This one was my favorite. Here Cutrell posits that the process, the rules, the experience of the simulation is far more important than the resolution, the level of detail or fidelity to the original. Cutrell gives the example of a book vs a 3-D movie. The resolution of a book is really quite low. It’s made up of words on a page and you have to imagine everything that happens. A 3-D movie, on the other hand is very high resolution, you can see everything that’s happening in great detail. However, as you may be able to attest, just because a 3-D movie is high fidelity, it doesn’t necessarily make the experience any more engaging or effective than the book the movie is based on. Books remain incredibly important tools for telling stories.

In our case, this plays out in the difference in resolution between a really beautiful course with all the bells and whistles and perhaps in interactive fiction experience. The hi-res course with the voice-over and the characters or virtual or augmented reality, is not, on its own, going to be a more effective experience than a simple interactive story made in tool like Twine where the essential processes (the rules of the simulation) are in place. The experience, in other words, is dependent more on its ability to elicit the appropriate emotions and problem solving abilities than in the bells and whistles that make up its resolution.

If you follow the Allen Interactions group or Cathy Moore, each of these aspects is probably familiar to you. I was just really struck by the reference to creating effectives simulations for coders and the similarities it had to the way we should be thinking about the experiences we create. Have a listen to the episode and let me know what you think!

1 Comment

  1. August 23, 2016 - Reply

    Thank you so very much for being a listener, and for taking this information into your field. I appreciate the plug, but more, I appreciate the willingness and dedication to learning!

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