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.

In Practice


Bachelor of Pharmacy

Teaching Staff

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

Teaching Staff

Carole Gerts


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.


In her video Donna outlines some of the additional and practical steps required for a successful simulation:


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.

Additional Resources

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.