In my last posting I advocated the design of learning tasks that were real and authentic in order to engage learners in their learning environment. Kearsley also indicated this as an important factor in their “Engagement Theory”.
But what if it is too difficult or costly to design the learning tasks this way?
One way around this is to create a simulated learning environment where students can “pretend” that they are actually encountering and undertaking real authentic tasks.
Ron Oliver from Edith Cowan University of Technology and his colleagues have done a great deal of work on creating these kinds of learning environments and have found that not only are they more engaging than a content driven model, but the depth of learning can be significantly increased.
Ron delivered a paper (.pdf) last year at the ASCILITE conference held in Adelaide Australia where he presented an analysis of learning designs using these environments and demonstrated the increased level of learning in these designs.
You can find examples of this approach to learning design in the Australian National Training Authority Toolbox.
Online role-play simulations are another example of how we can simulate the level of reality in the learning environment. This kind of approach to learning design is not widespread, but those who have used it quickly become true believers.
This approach is based on presenting a scenario that requires students to assume a particular role that they are required to play faithfully to the character assumed.
The role-play has contextual information supplied to the learner so that they fully understand the situation and act/react accordingly.
The information, and the communication channels available to the roles is differential as it would be in real life. However, participants have the ability to share information outside of normal channels and can use this to progress their roles agenda.
There are a couple of high profile examples of this approach to learning design: Mekong e-sim and the Fablusi suite of simulations
There a number of excellent examples of Fablusi simulations including one known as “Needle Stick”.
So where’s the catch? Why aren’t we all designing using the above approaches?
Well there is a couple of reasons. Firstly, some learners have difficulty is “suspending belief”. Jan Herrington, Ron Oliver and Thomas Reeves discuss this phenomena in a journal article published in the Australian Journal of Education Technology.
My own observations suggest that some learners have initial difficulties getting past this hurdle. You can think of it as analogous to going to the movies—we know that the film Titanic is not real, but we suspend our disbelief for the performance.
Some people, however, find this very difficult for particular genres of film—my wife cannot “ get into” Science Fiction.
The same can be true of your learners and this can pose difficulties if the learning design doesn’t provide for enculturation time and activities.
Role-play simulation seems to overcome this problem and I’ve not heard of any learners that, once engaged with the learning environment, have not been able to overcome the suspension of disbelief.
The second reason for a reluctance to create these kinds of learning environments is the ability to move from a traditional educational paradigm to a more contemporary approach. When you need to think differently and plan an alternate approach to what you are use to, it takes time and effort.
It is my belief that once you have designed an authentic learning experience, the next time is easier and quicker and ultimately, once familiar with the new approach, there is no discernable difference between the traditional and the new.