Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Virtually better than the real thing

We hear a lot about simulations lately. It seems that they are popping up everywhere and there is no small buzz about them in the educational community. But are they really better than the real thing?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes and no”. I think that whenever possible students should have hands-on learning opportunities with the real thing – in our world that means technology. The more experience they can get designing, planning, installing, configuring, maintaining and troubleshooting real technology the better. But that experience can be costly and even disastrous.

For example, not too long ago I was working with our SQL-based CRM system and I inadvertently erased the entire customer database! Oops! I must confess that it was a lesson that I will NEVER forget - but at what cost? Fortunately we were able to recover the vast majority of the data but it was expensive and disruptive to our business. So I am compelled to argue that although an extremely effective learning event, it was not an efficient or recommended learning path.

My point is although experience is often the best teacher it may not be the most efficient way to go about it. This is where simulated-labs come into focus.

Simulated labs, if done properly, can provide students with as much reality as is necessary to give them the hands on experience they need to learn real skills. The upside is that they do not have to erase the entire corporate database to learn one feature of SQL. They are other reasons that simulated-labs are a good idea. Here are a few:

First, they are simulated labs are scalable. Real technology comes in the size that it comes in with all the features and functionality intact. Simulated labs can focus on just one feature set or one aspect of the technology. I do not need an entire live network, for example, to add a user. With smaller “chunks” of functional technology hands-on learning become affordable and feasible. It can also be delivered from the desktop or laptop – something very difficult to do when you consider the size of you average computer lab, server rack or hardware lab.

Second, simulated labs are flexible. Because simulated labs are a digital recreation of the technology that they represent they can be configured in an infinite number of combinations, situations and technical configurations. In the real world to help students learn troubleshooting skills the instructor would have to literally break something on a machine so the student could diagnose the problem and then fix it. If the teacher student ratio were one-to-one and if there were an amazing hardware budget then this scenario might work. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most of us. To configure machines for 20 students for one simple exercise could take all day and that would be for only one exercise that would not even fill the entire lecture period. To adequately provide students with the hundreds if not thousands of hands-on learning experiences they need to adequately learn how to use technology simulated labs become a viable option.

Third, simulated labs can be portable. With the advent of the internet the ability to provide hands-on experience at a distance is now possible. Not too long ago, they only way to gain hands-on experience was to physically go to a computer lab. This has obviously limitations in both capacity and accessibility. Now with simulated labs, students can take a copy of their own computer lab home with them. This has significant ramifications for distance education, homework and those with disabilities.

Fourth, simulated labs are designed for learning. Real technology is not designed to teach. It is designed to accomplished the tasks it was intended to accomplish (i.e. route packets, process data, serve web content etc.). Simulated labs, on the other hand are instructional by design. Their purpose is to teach. Therefore they are designed to provide performance evaluation, feedback and even instruction. Learning scenarios can be reset and practiced over and over again. Technical processes can be artificially slowed down to demonstrate difficult concepts or time consuming processes can be sped up to not waste time waiting for the process to be completed. Try doing that with real technology!

Fifth, simulated labs are affordable. When you consider the cost of technology and the rapid rate of technical obsolescence and multiply it by the number of students that are in the program, the result is a significant budgetary issue. Unfortunately few schools are funded to the level they would like or need to be. Earlier simulations and simulated labs were very expensive and cost prohibitive to the average user. Now a online simulated labs can be found for the cost of a text book.

So, I must confess that although I am die hard technology fan and believe that hands-on experience with real technology is an essential component of the skills acquisition process it is not the only way to learn. In fact, I would dare say that hands-on learning via simulated labs is a much better way to prepare for more sophisticated experience with real technology. Let learning occur with hands-on experience with high fidelity simulated labs and wait to erase the corporate database until you are fully qualified.


At 11:14 AM, Blogger Lindsey said...

What are some ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a simulation in meeting the learning goals you set out to accomplish? I am working on a simulation of the futures market, which is designed to give students the opportunity to apply risk management strategies in a real market environment. What kind of data can I collect to show the value of this simulation?


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