One of the so-far unfulfilled promises of e-learning is the proliferation of easily-created inexpensive simulations that help bring the application of learned skills into a realistic context.
While there are plenty of low-end simulations in the field of software tools training, we are not seeing the same in soft skills training. Simulating the behaviour of a software application is relatively trivial – buy an inexpensive tool such as Camtasia or Captivate, and away you go. Simulating the behaviour of real people is another thing altogether. Trainers are put off creating such environments because they think they need to build complex computer models of reality. Not true.
Often the most effective (and cost-effective) simulation is reality. That's why people learn so much more "on the job" than they do "in training". It's why online massively-multiplayer role-play games have always been so popular and so compelling. It's (sadly) why reality TV is such a large part of our entertainment landscape.
You don't necessarily need to script a scenario or code an engine for a simulation if you allow reality to be its driver. Need to sharpen your abilities in marketing strategy? Work on a real project. Need to get beyond the theory in motivating staff? Work on a real issue. Need to become more fluent in your new foreign language? Spend some time in the real foreign country.
Where simulations make a whole lot of sense is where the downside of a failure in reality is so expensive that the cost of developing the simulation is acceptable (as in learning to fly a 747). Or where the cost of the simulation can be amortised over extensive use (as in computer games). Or where it costs very little to build something effective.
Simulations are not always hi-tech or expensive. For decades, sales trainers and other soft-skills trainers have worked with simulations, more often referred to as role-plays. Transferring those to an e-learning mode does not have to cost a lot of money if you accept that reality is a better driver than a computerised engine.
If you need to have people role-play online, hook them up with fellow learners instead of with some clunky machine logic. The responses of real people are always more interesting, unpredictable, and valuable than anything you could program into a computer.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, e-learning should be about people learning from (and with) other people, via facilitated online communication. E-learning should not be exclusively about people learning from machines.
E-learning developers should focus on how networked learning can support, facilitate, and guide learning as it takes place in the workplace. In the future, we won’t have a mentor physically watching every skill being applied by every employee, but maybe we will have a computer system helping with some of that work. I'm not talking about having Big Brother watching your every move, or being constantly second-guessed by that annoying animated Microsoft paperclip. But something subtler, less intrusive, and more nurturing might work.
Until that happens, designing blended processes to make much of the learning take place as part of the learner’s day-to-day workflow is a good step forward. Instead of merely blending online coursework with classroom coursework, we should blend workplace application with both modes of learning. Have people learn on the job, using their actual work tasks as the simulation. You might want to avoid doing this if there are lives or major clients at stake, but most people will be doing their jobs anyway. We just need to help them apply their new skills to the work so that the work can help them learn.
As our abilities progress, applications will become available that allow us to create more and more sophisticated replications of reality at lower and lower costs. But we are a long way from that state right now – fortunately, because I suspect that once simulations are really quick and easy to create, we'll be consistently abusing the technology in the same way that we abuse PowerPoint.
Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 1 April 2005