Simulations are an effective way of providing opportunities for students to interact with environments and situations that mimic the real world. These include a range of formats such as role-plays, computer simulations of scientific phenomena, complex prediction-based scenarios, interactive games (Merchant et al, 2014) and many other approaches. Whilst some simulations are based in the physical world e.g. role plays in a classroom, others combine elements of physical and virtual worlds. Those set entirely in virtual worlds can recreate physical or imaginary environments at many different scales, and even allow exploration of new and possibly dangerous environments. They can also allow students to practice in a space that is safe for both them and for others e.g. patients and clients (Weller, et al., 2012), where it is possible for students to make mistakes as part of the learning process, but without harmful personal or real-world consequences. The ability to explore these actions and their consequences provide rich learning experiences, further enhanced by careful design of accompanying activities to introduce the simulation or unpack the learning afterwards e.g. with peers or the instructor.
Computer-based simulations have been used to great effect in many disciplines e.g. economics, science, politics, social sciences, engineering, medicine and other health professions. What these disparate applications have in common is that they use scenarios that operate in a space defined by the instructor. The teacher will define the parameters, assumptions and variables within which the students must navigate. The simulation sits in between real world ambiguity and predictability, and the very controlled environs of most traditional teaching e.g. questions in the back of the textbook. This makes a simulation attractive to help students learn about the complexity and nuances of applying their classroom learning to real world practice.
The degree of “fidelity”, or how close the simulation comes to the real world can be adjusted to meet the needs of the learner (Weller et al., 2012). Many simulations involve complex, multi-dimensional issues and decision-making as a part of the process, sometimes with a time-pressure added to mimic real-life. For beginners, simulations can be designed or adjusted to reduce the complexity (e.g. by concentrating on one part of the process at a time) or by reduce time pressure, thereby allowing time to think and reflect.
Helping students to see the links between their studies and the real world can be highly engaging. This kind of student centred, active learning can challenge their knowledge, skills, and competencies and push them into situations that require critical thinking. The advantage of simulations are that the instructor can control the complexity so as not overwhelm the novice, but that at the same time can reinforce key concepts, and their application in practice.
Actually employing the simulation tools/software used in real-world practice is a good way to introduce students to the work environment. Students can also practice the skills of their profession including the so-called “soft” skills that are often difficult to teach in a traditional classroom.
Bachelor of Pharmacy
Maree Donna Simpson
One of the greatest challenges for preparing novice professionals such as student-pharmacists is developing the many facets of professional communication, including counselling and patient education. This is a core competency to be developed, maintained and enhanced over time. The virtual pharmacy was designed to foster this kind of learning. It is a simulation-based learning strategy to enhance practice-based education with professional identity formation and skills development for student-pharmacists.
This strategy incorporates role-playing particular responsibilities of the pharmacist as relevant to the subject and year level. It offers a low risk strategy to develop and practice professional communication capabilities, in advance of workplace learning placements. This enhances student comfort and confidence, patient safety and often reduces supervisory load of the clinical practitioner.
In the short video below Donna explains how the simulation works. Professional communication skills are often taught in the classroom by interacting with another student, staff member or virtual patient. Learning in role-play can be an effective strategy but is staff-intensive and somewhat artificial, lacking practice ambience. Students, for instance, often report being unprepared for how noisy and busy pharmacies can be. Thus, to give a more realistic and ‘immersed’ feel, the virtual pharmacy has three encompassing screens, each of which can project a different part of the pharmacy and the activities and associated noises.
INF506 Social Networking for Information Professionals
In this subject, activities in Second Life (SL) (a virtual world) support the exploration of professional topics in a simulation environment. It also provides an advanced option for exploring professional and workplace topics through guest seminars or exploration of library and/or education initiatives in virtual spaces. Students seem to experience a new level of motivation when presented with a 3D environment, which includes both social as well as academic interaction. As this is outside the normal online environment it also provides a sense of innovation and being part of leading-edge learning.
While virtual spaces, such as OpenSim and Second Life exist, it is worthwhile considering a more permanent CSU branded presence, such as the School of Information Studies virtual campus. In INF506, although it is not mandatory, students are invited to explore Second Life. In a recent announcement students were advised, “Even if you have no relevance for your situation, it’s worth thinking about as virtual world technology is just another means of reaching client groups, providing a service and networking with colleagues across the world. Some of these links from Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab are interesting to explore and Stanford is one of the places we usually take in on our SL tours. Students are inducted into SL via a training sessions where they get a grip on the basics, how to move, communicate, etc. These training sessions are held in the SIS Learning Centre in Jokaydia Exploratorium. Then on the next session students are offered a tour around some SL sites such as Stanford university, Health Info Island.
- Time and Resources Simulations can be resource intensive and take considerable time to set up, but the ongoing benefits are likely to make this time worthwhile. It is also important to consider time needed by students to undertake simulations, especially immersive ones, and plan curriculum and consider workloads to take account of this.
- Careful planning The simulation needs to be carefully designed to meet the intended learning outcomes. Instructors need to be trained and practiced in the use of the simulation before opening to students. Instructions can be useful in assisting students to get started, and covering common issues or mistakes can make the overall experience easier for learners and instructors. Monitoring of class participation by teacher is needed, as is finding ways for all students to participate.
- Integrate in the curriculum Research has consistently shown that careful integration with the curriculum generates the best results (Weller et al., 2012). Students need to know why they are doing the simulation and where it fits in their learning. Ensuring students are well prepared beforehand and matching the level of difficulty with the skill level of the student will help bring about a positive outcome.
- Class discussions - Reflection and debriefing are needed so that students gain maximum benefit from the simulation. Feedback from the instructor and peers is also important step (Merchant et al., 2014). Thus there needs to be enough time for reflection and discussions with peers to make sense of the experience, including how this fits with the rest of their classroom learning.
- Assessment: - Simulations can be used to test specific competencies e.g. in counselling in psychology.
- Emotions - Depending on the subject matter and how realistic the scenario is, students may encounter situations that trigger emotional responses (Weller et al., 2012). Some planning about how to monitor and effectively deal manage these emotions may be necessary.
- Beware negative learning Depending on how the simulation is set up, there is a possibility of students learning things you would rather they did not learn e.g. taking short cuts or ignoring real world signs and issues/situations not highlighted in the simulations (Weller, et al 2012). Careful design may help, but you need to be alert in student discussions and in observing students to point out where the simulation does not fit into real life.
In her video Donna outlines some of the additional and practical steps required for a successful simulation:
- Identify vignettes and backgrounds, varying in complexity that will allow greatest use of the technology across the four years of the course.
- Develop scripts for various scenarios and plan out the roles that may be required.
- Source audio-visual support to develop (film and record) the scenarios.
- Provide a way to facilitate scaffolding and skills development prior to engagement with the scenario.
- Train staff in the use of the technology.
Tools like Adobe Captivate and Smart Sparrow provide simple ways of creating branching scenarios and can utilise existing tools like PowerPoint to design and create the visual elements. Smart Sparrow also includes a rules engine that can create quite in depth interactions based on choices and interactions that the student performs. Various virtual worlds such as Second Life can be employed. Be aware that some students may not be able to enter SL because their computer systems cannot handle it.
Huang, H., Rauch, U and Liaw, S. (2010). Investigating learners’ attitudes toward virtual reality learning environments: based on a constructivist approach. Computers and Education 55. 1171-1182
Merchant, A., Goeta, E.T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W. and Davis, T.J. (2014) Computers and Education 70, 29-40
Weller, J.M., Nestel, D., Marshall, S.D., Brooks, P.M. and Conn, J.J. (2012) Simulations in clinical teaching and learning. Medical Journal of Australia 196 (9) 1-5
Wills, S. (2012). The Simulation Triad. In C. Nygaard, N. Courtney & E. Leigh (Eds.), Simulations, Games and Role Play in University Education (pp. 23-40). Faringdon, UK: Libri.