Educators and instructional designers share how they’re using simulations to inspire creativity, build community, and help students develop the soft skills they need for their careers

Simulated learning, real benefits

Educators and instructional designers share how they’re using simulations to inspire creativity, build community, and help students develop the soft skills they need for their careers

As a result of the remote learning experiment forced on students and instructors by the COVID-19 pandemic, educators have been looking for tools and strategies to engage students no matter where they’re learning. One solution, educational simulations, was gaining traction before the pandemic thanks to its ability to encourage students to think critically, choose the best resolution to a problem, and set student decisions within the context of a community.

Here are a few examples of universities using simulations to help students build skills and prepare for careers.

Thinking critically about sentencing

Dr. Greg Koehle is a lead instructor in Colorado State University’s Global Campus criminal justice program, where he periodically works with instructional designers to revise courses. “Because they’re fully online and fully asynchronous, we try to make our courses as interactive as possible,” Koehle said.

In their Introduction to Criminal Justice course, Koehle worked with an instructional designer to create a lesson that covers intermediate sanctions, which are sentences such as house arrest, electronic monitoring, or diversionary programs.

Students learn what types of cases these sanctions are appropriate for, and then they engage in a simulation where they take on the role of the judge and are presented with a variety of offender stories. “There’s a first-time offender who embezzled $100,000 from their company,” Koehle explained, “a chronic DUI offender who is on their fifth or sixth offense and ended up in a crash and killed someone, and a violent offender with a significant criminal history, including a previous violent act, among others. In each of these situations, students select from a variety of intermediate sanctions and receive feedback on their choices.”

The choices are not clear-cut. More than one answer is often correct, and students must choose the one that is most appropriate for the situation. “It requires higher-order thinking because the student has to make an assessment. They have to apply the information they’ve learned to a specific context, rather than just regurgitating memorized information,” Koehle said. “We want students to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving and to be able to articulate their reasoning. That’s going to help them a lot more in the field than remembering certain facts.”

Learning from Dr. Frankenstein

One of the strengths of simulations, according to Koehle, is the way they bring narratives into the learning process, which engages more of the brain and helps students retain and understand information. Kelly Morris, the multimedia writer for program development at Western Governors University, takes narrative inclusion a step further and sometimes adapts fantastical but familiar characters from fiction into the simulations he creates.

“I wrote a simulation that asked students to step into the role of Dr. Frankenstein,” Morris recalled of an activity he designed for the College of Health Professions. “Each time students threw the switch on their monster, his organs would get all out of whack. In the course of the simulation, the monster would describe his symptoms to students who would have to decide, for example, if he needed his pancreas, his liver, or some other organ reattached.”

Morris noted that most of the simulations he writes are more grounded in reality, “but more fantastical situations can be a lot of fun for students to work through, especially when it’s in a notoriously dry class like anatomy.”

Sometimes leaning on fantasy characters isn’t just fun, but a way to draw in students from a variety of backgrounds. “Another of the more absurd simulations I had the opportunity to write was also for the College of Health Professions,” Morris said. “This one was about blood types, so I asked students to step into the role of a bartender at a vampire bar. The wrinkle was that different vampires could only drink specific types of blood.”

From there, Morris’s simulation introduced a number of famous vampires, “from Blacula’s Prince Mamuwalde to Marceline the Vampire Queen from ‘Adventure Time.’ At WGU, the median age of our students is 35, as opposed to the national average of 26, so including characters that people of varying ages would recognize was a way to help students connect to the scenario in an unexpected way.”

Building community and soft skills

At Herzing University, instructional designers use simulations in courses for nursing, business, and IT. Herzing’s designers also use characters, though they are more prosaic than patrons of a vampire bar.

According to said Herzing instructional designer Linda Kaiser, “In nursing, we’ve been doing some scenario-based activities where the student is in an emergency room or doctor’s office, and they go through the process of talking to the patient, finding out what’s wrong, and diagnosing.”

To increase that interactivity even more, the team has created characters that revisit students in simulations throughout their academic careers. A simulated patient may come repeatedly, often with different ailments, giving students the opportunity to deal with people whose backgrounds and other health complications they know, and even to predict ailments that they’ll need to address at a future date.

It’s not just in nursing, however, where Herzing’s designers use simulations to give students practice interacting with human beings appropriately. “Whether you’re a nurse evaluating a patient or communicating to an end user as a network administrator, you have to have those soft skills that employers are looking for,” said Lesele Rose, an instructional designer at Herzing.

We’re living in a skills-based economy where simply having the appropriate degree is not enough. Students need to be able to demonstrate not only their technical skills, but the social skills required of the modern workplace, and instructors need a straightforward way to assess those skills. To address that challenge, Rose said she has even designed a whole interview simulation for IT students in which they have to choose the most politically correct choice in a series of questions.

“The whole purpose of an IT degree is to get a job, right?” Rose explained. “So one thing I use simulations for is to develop those soft skills.” Employers want to know, Rose said, “Do these people have the soft skills as well as the technical or hard skills?” Her simulations allow IT students to demonstrate that they have the ability to communicate and work together collaboratively.

More than just an engaging activity for students, simulations are adaptable tools suited to a wide range of educational purposes. Used appropriately, they can encourage students to wrestle with a messy world, embed course information within a narrative, welcome a diverse group of students into the learning process, and aid in the development of soft skills.

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