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Going the “Simulation Way”: Q&A with Clark Aldrich

First published November 03, 2003

E-learning has a special kind of love for simulations. It's not the head-over-heels, holding-hands variety, but the "Intolerable Cruelty" type of awe, respect and admiration variety, where the love is in the tension of the interaction. And all the audience (learners in our case) wants is for them to "just do it."

Clark Aldrich has done just that. He's gone ahead and created a leadership simulation, Virtual Leader, and written a book, Simulations and the Future of Learning, to share his experiences in creating the simulation and to offer a roadmap for those interested in going the "simulation way."

Having read his book and gone through Virtual Leader, I'm beginning to fully appreciate the value of simulations, and more importantly, the thrill of learning.

Here's a Q&A with Clark that focuses on getting detailed insights for going the simulation way.

- Maish

elearningpost:You've said, "organizations that care the most about training use simulations", and such organizations are the ones that have "no margin for error-as in, if their employees are not trained, people die." Airline pilots, soldiers, civil defense, baggage screeners etc. would nicely fall into this category, but what about those requiring day-to-day learning and training --the sales guy who needs to know the right strategy or the manager who needs to know more about motivation. Would simulations be the right approach for such situations too?

Clark: Simulations have been developed in these life-critical areas not because they are cool, or fun, or gee-whiz, but because they work, and they are often the only thing that works. These organizations cared so much about simulations that they both custom built software and also custom built hardware, over years and years. The need for custom built hardware has diminished significantly or gone away as computers and graphics cards have gone through the recent revolution, making simulations more accessible.What is left is the software. Organizations that care about a given dynamic skills will either have to build their own (small s) simulation or buy and perhaps modify an off-the-shelf (big S) Simulation.

elearningpost: What do you think of "low-fidelity" simulations like MSNBC's Baggage Screener?

Clark: A: This is a great example of a (small s) simulation. Four (small s) simulations are being used today: branching stories, virtual products (such as this one), interactive spreadsheets, and reskinned games. These all are well understood, very different from each other, and great ways to get started. But they do not produce the results of (big S) simulations, and so are only an incremental step.

elearningpost: Can you describe the relation between your "primary colors of content" and learning effectiveness?

Clark: Sure. Let me start a little bit indirectly. Some of us remember the coming of microwave ovens. These are great examples of technology, as they were oversold, captured the imagination of consumers and futurists, and in fact turned out to be only a partial solution that at best was two steps forward, one step back from conventional ovens. We collectively got over our rapture around this technology, and ended up understanding it and using it for where it actually helps.

Let's look at books also as technology. The advantages of books are mind-boggling. But the limitations of books have not fully been appreciated and compensated for, namely the amount of content that had to be ignored to make the medium work. There is the old quip that you can't learn how to ride a bicycle from a book. Lectures and movies have the same limitations. The alternative to books for learning used to be labs and apprenticeships, all very expensive and unscalable.

What computer games introduced is content that is much richer than books, but just as scalable. There are two additional types of content that computer games bring to the conversation. One content type (or color) is systems based, and the other is cyclical (or interface) based. Systems based content exposes users to complex interactions, allowing them to ping the system in various ways and watch the results. I believe learning that does not involve understanding a system is vacant, and of no real use beyond learning simple processes.

Cyclical content addresses muscle memory, which is just as critical in soft skills such as public speaking, negotiating, dealing with difficult people and situations, as it is with hitting a tennis ball. From a simulation perspective, cyclical content is dealt with at the interface level. If the interface does not line up with a real task in some ways, the learning at best will be academic and not applicable.

Let me stress that I still love linear content. This should be the first step of any simulation - exposing people to some background, models, and inspiration.

elearningpost: You've devoted an entire chapter on "the myth of subject-matter experts" where you've debunked the role of the "branded experts." From your experience, what are some effective strategies to deal with SMEs in general?

Clark: I suppose that depends on how you find your SME. We started making the stupidest mistake of all - to look for SME's through well-rated professors, great speakers, and successful authors. These were all masters of linear content, which is much more distracting than useful. What turned out to be necessary was to work deeply with the best of the practitioners to generate both the systems, and the interface (where you have to make discreet often subtle interactions).

elearningpost: You've written that it was your "search and research" for content on leadership issues that led you to richer content (3-to-1 principles on leadership) and not vanilla content from branded experts. Do you think that this "search and research" on content -- and not just repurposing SME content -- will come to play a major role in e-learning design, be it simulations or otherwise?

Clark: Let me take it even more broadly than that. Simulations will impact all research organizations, be they academic or others. As simulations play-out, doctorate students will be creating not just long research papers (linear content), but complex dynamic models (systems content) and a better, almost anthropological understanding of discrete steps in a process (cyclical interface). Homework will often be in the form of spreadsheets, not just words or pictures. There will be an intellectual revolution as we go through our collective archives and look at content through these new lenses. In the same way that feminism or Marxism created mini-revolutions of looking at traditional content through new eyes, so will the simulation (massive) revolution force us to re-examine and recreate. We will eventually look back at today's classrooms the same way we look back at doctors before pharmaceuticals, with a sense of pity and smugness.

elearningpost: Developing simulations is serious business. You mention that Virtual Leader required a "dialog system", a "physics system", and an "artificial intelligence" system to work, all of which require advanced technical skills. How do you see simulations going mainstream with such a high development barrier?

Clark: My question would be the reverse: why would we expect the learning industry to be truly effective without this kind of deep knowledge and work? Can you imagine that question asked to any other industry? How can pharmaceuticals ever go mainstream if we need experts creating them, and they take many years to produce? How can automobiles every make it to the big league if we need highly trained individuals designing them, and they take more than quarter to spit out?

The question is not that of money - a huge amount of money is spent on education every year on this planet. It is a matter of discontent with how things are, a vision of how things could be, bravery to try what is unknown, and business model to pull it off (both from the vendor and implementer perspective).

elearningpost: What was the composition and skill set of the team that developed Virtual Leader?

Clark: Virtual Leader consumed about 15 man-years (MYs) of resources.

The team had a core of five people (10 my's), ranging from people who built the entire 3D graphics and game engine from scratch to people who took all of my AI metacoding and making it real. These were hard-core game programmers.

We had 4 people for 6 months doing some leadership, anthropological, and cognitive science work (2 more MYs). We brought in a team of 6 animation and graphic specialists for four months (2 more MYs).

We used a small pick-up team to do the launcher and tracking pieces (.5 more my). The rest were things like voice talents, visual designers, etc.

elearningpost: What are some of the points to consider when giving an elevator pitch for going the "simulation way"?

Clark: I can make the broad observation that you made as well: those organizations that care about training use simulations.

My pitch to use Virtual Leader specifically in an organization is easy enough - I can make employees 38% more valuable to their managers. To an academic organization, I say - your students will learn more and care more in less time.

But the biggest problem right now to pitching a broader simulation based curriculum is that there are not enough truly great business simulations out there, nor organizations that have a competency in rolling them out.

The other point that has to be compensated for is that simulations right now is a loaded word. Everybody thinks they know what a simulation is, and everybody's view is different.

elearningpost: What are some resources, apart from your excellent book, that would help designers get a foothold into the world of simulations? Are there cheap tools we can use to get our hands dirty? What about professional courses?

Clark: Most people tell me, essentially:

  1. My corporation/institution created/bought a lot of low-cost content.
  2. The end-learners were not impressed.
  3. Simulations are the hot new thing.
  4. How can we cheaply build a lot of simulations?

That thinking will kill simulations as an approach, and if there is a backlash against simulations in the next year, it is because a lot of people cheaply made simulations. Having said that:

For those who are looking long term, get a book about programming computer games. The most important thing is to do something. In most cases, the challenge will be not just around creating simulations, but successfully launching them in an academic or corporate setting.

For those interested in learning more on Virtual Leader/SATFOL, join the discussion at http://www.simulearn.net/cgi-bin/yabb/YaBB.pl

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