Short Sims

Introduction

Some of us aren’t content with simply presenting information in a linear fashion in an online course.  We have dozens of words to express what we wish to achieve: interactive, game-like, thought-provoking, challenging, problem-based….   We are also hard-pressed to find the time or the budget or the design that will fulfill our highest aspirations for eLearning. 

It’s easy to get discouraged – but occasionally we’re offered a strategy that works within our budget and time constraints.  One such strategy is the basis of  Clark Aldrich’s recent book, “Short Sims” (Aldrich, C. (2020). Short sims: A game changer. Boca Raton: CRC Press.)  

In his book, Clark Aldrich discusses the methodology of the short simulation.  He begins by lauding the virtues of interactivity.  Interactivity allows learners to experiment, customize their experience, role-play, make decisions and apply skills. He writes that game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  We all recognize that.  Short Sims, on the other hand, can be built in the “same time frame as linear content”.  Short Sims engage students in making decisions, doing things, meeting challenges, solving problems, learning from mistakes and so forth.  Essentially Short Sims offer us a strategy – a methodology – to do things differently and more effectively.

The hook comes from this excerpt: 

“From a pedagogical perspective, the more interactivity the better.  Connecting user action with feedback has long been proven to be critical for most neuron connections”. 

Aldrich, 2020

Aldrich credits the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology for that insight.  But again, in Aldrich’s words, “game-like interactivity is expensive to build.  It is time-consuming.”  Aldrich offers a new Short Sim methodology as an antidote to linear-style presentation the death-by-PowerPoint approach.

Short Sims

                Show, not tell

                Engage learners quickly and are re-playable

                Are quick to build and easy to update

Short Sims square with the Context-Challenge-Activity-Feedback model that we’ve heard so much about from Dr. Michael Allen, Ethan Edwards and the designers at Allen Interactions.  They are a solution to M. David Merrill’s lament that so much learning material is shovelware.  ShortSims are not shovelware.  They are a cost-effective means of engaging students.

Quite frankly, the LodeStar eLearning authoring tool was made for the Short Sim.  Instructors have used LodeStar for years to produce Short Sims but never used that term.  We called them Simple Sims, which sometimes included decision-making scenarios, interactive case studies, problem-based learning and levelled challenges.  We solved the same problem.  We made it easy for instructors to create Short Sims quickly. 

Our design methodology has a lot in common with Aldrich’s methodology as described in his book.   The following ten points outline our approach to creating a simple decision-making scenario, which, in our view, is one form of Simple Sim.  To avoid mischaracterizing Aldrich’s methodology, I’ll use our own terms in this outline.

  1. Select Challenge
  2. Pick Context
  3. Determine the Happy Path
  4. Determine Distractors
  5. Pick a setting – background graphic
  6. Choose a character set
  7. Produce the Happy Path
  8. Add the Distractors
  9. Add Branches
  10. Add Randomness                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Select Challenge

Selecting the right problem and the right scope is, in itself, a challenge for the instructor or trainer.  Straightforward processes that present clear consequences for each decision are easy to simulate.   Processes like strategic planning that are influenced by dozens of variables are much more difficult.   The Short Sim methodology itself would be good candidate for a Short Sim.  Another example would be the backwards design method of instructional design.  In my early days at Metro State, a decade ago, we discussed the backwards design approach with instructors.   We then used a Short Sim to rehearse instructors on the key questions to ask during each phase of the backwards design process.  We based a lot of our thinking on Dee Fink’s “Creating Significant Learning Experiences” and  Grant Wiggins’ “Understanding By Design”.  Our objective was to help instructors design with the end in mind.  In Backwards Design, outcomes and assessments come before the development of activities.   The Short Sim did the trick.  Planning instruction is complicated business.  A simple and short simulation is not, in itself, transformative.  But we just wanted assurance that instructors understood the basic principles of backward design by the decisions they made.

Pick Context

In the Backwards Design example, a dean asks an instructor to design an online class to help K12 teachers use educational technology in their classrooms.  So, in this context, the learner is playing the role of online course designer.  The learner is challenged to make the right decisions at the right time.  If the learner holds off on designing activities until completing an analysis, defining outcomes and creating assessments, then the learner succeeds in the challenge.

Determine the Happy Path

The happy path is all the right decisions in the right order.  Situational Analysis -> Learner Outcomes -> Assessments -> Activities -> Transfer.  It is all of the right answers with no distractors.  It’s like creating a multiple choice test with only one option: the correct answer.

Determine Distractors

Now come the distractors.  What are the common pitfalls to Backward Design?  What might tempt the learner to go astray.  If we were designing a Short Sim on the Short Sim methodology, the pits and snares might be what Aldrich calls the Time Sucks:  choosing the wrong authoring tool, too many decision-makers on the project, custom art, and so on.  The learner might be tempted with “the medium is the message.  Invest in the medium.  Commission a graphic artist to create a compelling interface.”  The point of Short Sims is to not invest heavily in artwork or graphic design.  The focus is more on describing the context, presenting choices to the learner, and showing the consequence of learner choices.

Pick a Setting

A background photo helps to set the context.  Images that display settings without people can be found on sites like Pexels, Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain section of stock image services and, of course, on stock image sites. Because one image often suffices in a short sim, authors can snap their own photos and not waste too much time.

Alternatively, vector artwork can serve as an effective background.  Vector art can be found and  downloaded from such sites as https://publicdomainvectors.org/.    (LodeStar Learning doesn’t endorse any of these sites – but we have used them all.)

In either case, if the scene is relevant to the learning context and not just a vain attempt to gamify, it might actually contribute to content retention and recall. 

Choose a character set

A popular approach to Short Sims is the use of cutout characters with different poses and expressions.  Cutout characters can be photo-realistic images with transparent backgrounds or illustrations.  To see examples, please google ‘elearning interactive case studies’, select ‘images’ and you’ll see thousands of examples.  Despite their popularity, finding cutout characters cheaply can be frustrating.  Several authoring tools offer a built-in catalog of characters.  These tools tend to be expensive.  Many stock photo sites offer character packs but usually one must subscribe to these sites for a monthly charge.  Some sites offer pay-as-you-go services, meaning that you pay for the character pack once, without signing on to a monthly subscription.  The character pack can be as cheap as $4.  One such site is eLearning Templates for Course Developers – eLearningchips.  A complete character pack purchased from eLearningChips with more than 137 poses costs as little as $54. No subscription.  No additional fee.  (Again, we’re not endorsing eLearningChips, but we have used their service.)

Produce the Happy Path

With the LodeStar authoring tool, we had several options for producing the Happy Path.  We used the ActivityMaker template and, after the title page, added a sequence of Interview Pages.  The ActivityMaker template offers a range of page types. The Interview Page is one of them.  In an Interview Page, we dropped in a character and filled in the best choice.  We didn’t concern ourselves with the distractors (the wrong options) quite yet.  Again, we were focused on the Happy Path.

Here is the author view:

Authoring a short sim happy path

Here is what the student sees:

A short sim happy path

Add the distractors

Once we sorted out the happy path – a sequence of perfect, well-informed choices, we thought about the pits and snares—the problems and challenges.

In our course design example, a common problem is that we think too early about the content–that is, what topics should the course cover.  We anticipated those problems when designing our Short Sim.  If a learner unwittingly falls into our trap, we have the opportunity of providing feedback. It’s a teachable moment.

A short sim

An alternative to the Interview Page type is the Text Page.  In a text page, we can add images and widgets.  These give us a bit more flexibility than the Interview Page Type.  On a Text page, we can add an image (left or right aligned), then a Text Layout Widget.  Here you can see the page with image and the Text Layout widget.  The image was composed in our SVG editor. 

Authoring View

Here is what the student sees.

Student View of a LodeStar Activity

Add Branches

In one sense, a branch is a place where we get sent based on our decisions.  If this were a customer service sim and we made poor choices, the customer would appear more and more irritated and ultimately we lose his or her business.  Programmatically, the place where we get sent is a page that shows an irate customer and choices that represent a difficult situation.  The branches could lead us down a path of destruction but we may also have the opportunity of winning back the customer’s trust with a string of good decisions. 

Branching adds variety to the sim.  It gives us a customized experience or allows us safely to ‘test’ bad choices.

Branching can also be viewed as the consequence of a decision or choice.  In LodeStar, branch options include going to the next page, last page or jumping to a page.  They also include bringing up a web resource, adding an instructive overlay, setting a variable value, etc.  It could also mean the execution of a script or series of commands to make a lot of things happen simultaneously, such as setting a variable (that tracks our failings), sending us down a path, changing the image of a happy customer to an unhappy one, showing feedback, marking the choice with red, and more.

It’s probably most effective to show the learners the natural consequence of their decisions–an unhappy customer for example.  As designers, we might also need to be explicit and display feedback, or introduce a coach who provides feedback.  As Clark Aldrich writes, the sign of a good Short Sim is one that is played over and over again.  Branching helps us make the sim a different experience each time.

LodeStar Branching options

Add Randomness (optional)

Randomness might be difficult to achieve and should, therefore, be considered optional.

Randomness is more than randomizing distractors.  (Randomizing distractors happens automatically on an Interview Page.  It’s done through a simple checkbox in a Text Layout widget.)  More sophisticated randomness might include a randomly generated sum of money, or a randomly selected path or scene, or randomly generated assets that are assigned to the learner.  It might be a randomly generated length of fuse that represents the customer’s patience.   In our course design example, it might be randomly generated student characteristics that include age, gender, and subject interest.  That level of randomness is best achieved with the help of LodeStar’s scripting language and is best left to its own article.

Conclusion

Short Sims represent a level of interactivity that goes beyond the linear presentation of information.  They have the potential of promoting learner retention and application.  With the right tool (and there are plenty),  everyone can build short simulations.  One tool, LodeStar, was designed from the very start with the short simulation and the intrepid instructor in mind.  Short Sims may vary in sophistication and design but, in any form, they cause learners to think and to see the consequence of their actions.  The short sim is a strategy that is doable and repeatable within our budgets and time constraints.  Make it happen in your world!

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