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, Pick Problem
  3. Determine the Happy Path
  4. Determine Problems and Challenges
  5. Pick a setting – background graphic
  6. Choose a character set
  7. Produce the Happy Path
  8. Add the common problems and challenges
  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 and Problem

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 Problems and Challenges

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 common problems and challenges

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!

DIY Serious eLearning

Introduction

In the past decade, leaders in the field of learning experience design have given us much to think about, much to strive for.  They represent a synthesis of  instructional design, learning sciences, and user experience design.  They also possess, in one form or another,  the resources to execute their ideas.  But, if you are an educator or, perhaps, a learning and development specialist in a mid-sized company, you know that you haven’t got a large team or a large budget.  You have highly specialized objectives.  You want your learning designs to be effective.  And you know that you can’t just pull something off the shelf.

In a series of posts, I’ll explore what the leaders are saying and then get down to DIY specifics.  I will parse out the skills that instructors and specialists need in order to implement some of these ideas – especially in the area of eLearning interactivity. But, in this post, let’s first contemplate some of the themes that are consistent with evidence-based learning design. Conveniently, many of them are listed in the Serious eLearning Manifesto.

The Serious eLearning Manifesto?

If the manifesto hasn’t lit your corner of the world, here is a little background.  In 2014, some highly respected thought leaders in eLearning convened to, in their own words, instigate the Serious eLearning Manifesto.  The instigators were Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Will Thalheimer, and Clark Quinn.  If these names are new to you, you’ll be delighted to learn that each name represents a treasure trove of ideas, insights, research, and reflections on how people learn and how to design effective learning experiences.  Joining in the pledge to promote ‘Serious Learning’ is a list that reads like the Who’s Who of learning design.  Among them: M.David Merrill, Allison Rossett, Roger Schank, and Sivisailam Thiagarajan, better known to the world as Thiagi.

If you haven’t read the Serious eLearning Manifesto, it is available at https://elearningmanifesto.org/   Parts of the manifesto might seem self-evident.  One of the listed attributes of serious eLearning is that it must be meaningful to learners.  We might think that it’s obvious we want our learning activities to be meaningful to learners.  But, the site discloses the status quo: too much eLearning is content focused, efficient for authors, attendance-driven, focused on knowledge delivery and so on.  I encourage you to visit the site for the full story.

Implementing the Supporting Principles

The Serious eLearning Manifesto is based on a number of supporting principles.  Each supporting principle is a study in itself. Some aspects of the manifesto and other evidence-based practices are not easily achieved with the traditional skillset and/or toolset of the college or corporation, including the Learning Management System.   I’ll sample a few of these.  I will place the language of the manifesto in bold.  The rest is my running commentary.

The manifesto states:

  • Do not assume that learning is the solution

This is a principle that was driven home to me by the Minnesota chapter of the International Society of Performance Improvement, MnISPI.  They espouse the Performance Improvement Model where training is but one outcome of a performance needs analysis.  At our firm, Redpath and Company, we are working on a Knowledge Management platform that will eventually be integrated with our learning management system. In the both the academic and corporate worlds, students and employees might benefit from a knowledge management center that gives them the cheat sheets, job aids, micro-learning and whatever they need to solve a problem or perform a task just when they need them.

  • Tie Learning to Performance Goals. A new breed of tool can help support this principle. At our firm, we recently implemented an employee engagement system that will soon integrate goals, feedback, and one-one-reviews with training and performance solutions. The system is currently integrated with our Human Resource System (HSRIS), but interoperability standards offer the opportunity to integrate some of the key pieces in learning development: knowledge management, learning management, curriculum mapping, resource library, and employee engagement.  The full suite of tools includes Bamboo HRIS; Microsoft Teams, SharePoint, and Automate; Prolaera Learning Management System; Microsoft Stream; and Quantum Workplace.  All of these systems can communicate to one another through application programming interfaces (API), which act as connectors between vendors. 
  • Provide Realistic Practice  In eLearning, providing realistic practice might mean a case study, decision-making scenario or simulation that simplifies the world into digestible learning chunks.  At our firm, we have generated a few of these and uploaded them to the SCORM cloud, which is integrated with our learning management system.  (The SCORM cloud supports traditional SCORM and a newer standard known as the Experience API or xAPI.)  
  • Adapt to Learner Needs  In eLearning that might mean an adaptive learning system that uses some form of artificial intelligence or smart decision-making to meet individual student’s needs.  These are systems that predict and/or evaluate student performance and prescribe a learning plan with resources that are matched to topic, reading level, level of knowledge, and their place in a learning hierarchy.

I have a personal interest in all of the supporting principles.  As a toolmaker/instructional designer, I’ve been slowly developing and promoting the  knowledge management center.  I’ve been helping our HR department with the employee engagement system.  I’ve researched a host of adaptive learning systems —  but have yet to adopt one.  I have a deep-rooted interest in promoting the benefit attached to the following supporting principle:  Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement.

Use Interactivity to Prompt Deep Engagement. 

Interactivity can mean a number of things.  eLearning texts often cite the Community of Inquiry framework, wherein the complete educational experience is described as student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-content engagement or interactivity.  I’ve observed instructors use the first two to good effect.  Many experienced online instructors deftly use discussion boards, chats and video conferencing.  The tools are there.  The instructional support is often there.  One of my favorite memories of effective student-to-student interactivity is from a marketing course.  The instructor set up the discussion thread so that students pitched ideas to the sub-grouped discussion board as if they were pitching to clients.  Students recalled the text and drew from their own knowledge to discuss the merits of the pitch.  The discussion wasn’t formulaic as too many are.  It was not ‘Read a chapter, post by Wednesday, respond to two posts by Sunday.’  In contrast, the marketing pitch simulated an authentic context (serious eLearning), and provided real-world consequences to the student.  Their pitch got a positive or negative response.

Student-to-content interaction is a bit more challenging for both instructors and learning and development folks to implement.  The manifesto talks about using interactivity to support reflection, application, rehearsal, elaboration, contextualization, debate, evaluation, synthesis and more.  Some of this can be accomplished with the traditional tools of the LMS as described above.  Some require 3rd party authoring tools like ZebraZapps, StoryLine,  Captivate, and LodeStar.  They are vital tools in the eLearning instructor’s toolkit.  But making elearning meaningful with the use of authoring tools requires a new set of skills.  Without those skills, we settle for what the Serious Learning Manifesto decries:  page turning, roll-overs and information search. 

Some skills are technical; others related to psychology and cognition. One of the manifesto’s instigators, Michael Allen, wrote more than a half-dozen books and built two incredible tools to enable instructors and instructional designers to build rich learning experiences: Authorware and ZebraZapps.  Both tools gave non-computer-programmers the ability to design something interesting:  realistic scenarios, storytelling,  challenges, environments that invoked action and showed the consequences.  The other instigators of the manifesto gave us additional insights into cognition. Julie Dirksen in her highly acclaimed book, Design for How People Learn, gave us insight into why people persist in their negative behaviors, how they remember things, what motivates them, and what strategies are effective. Wil Thalheimer bridged research and practice in topics related to memory, evaluation and presentation, and he led the charge to debunk many of the learning myths that we hold near and dear to our hearts.  Clark Quinn has written numerous books that cover learning science and design.

Underlying all of this is research-based evidence.  Michael Allen and Julie Dirksen, especially, soft pedal the research.  That’s their style. Their writings are lighter and not riddled with citations.  Some of it is even iconoclastic – like this title of Michael Allen’s Designing Successful e-Learning: Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting.  In this field, creative, insightful practices often take a back seat to formulaic approaches.  Stating the objective on page one, presenting information on page two, and quizzing on page three would be an example of a formulaic approach. 

Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learning is illustrated with these quirky line drawings that simplify serious ideas and make them more digestible.  But these books, style aside, are grounded in research.   A recent book, which incidentally recognizes the contributions of Julie Dirksen and Wil Thalheimer, focuses precisely on evidence-based practices, and exposes the myths. 

Evidence-Informed Learning Design  was authored my Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirchner, both highly respected for their contribution to learning sciences. In their book, they list top five ingredients in order of effectivity and efficiency.  The practices include spaced practice, practice tests, overlapping the practice of one topic with the practice of another, and questioning and encouraging learners to explain a process or procedure to themselves. 

If you look up these authors, read their books, read their blogs, listen to their podcast interviews (see resources below), you are further convinced that the serious eLearning manifesto has merit. 

In academia, many have read How Learning Works and contemplated 7 research-based principles  for smart teaching offered by Susan Ambrose, Michele DiPietro and others.  In How Learning Works,  you will find the same themes:  Students and trainees are not blank slates.  How they are prompted to organize knowledge influences how they learn. Addressing motivation is paramount.  Component skills need to be identified, addressed with targeted strategies, mixed and remixed.  Meaningful eLearning should offer practice, practice, and more practice with guidance, feedback, scaffolding, elaboration and so on.  A page-turner PowerPoint with little engagement doesn’t cut it.

Conclusion

So, in the next post, I will tackle one aspect of serious eLearning.  I will parse out what it takes to design a meaningful interaction between student and content.  I will use our own tool, LodeStar, to illustrate the ideas but not confine the discussion to our own self-interest.  I’ll expand the discussion to include other authoring tools and, hopefully, contribute in some small way to the cause of Serious eLearning. In the meantime, please check out the resources listed below.

Resources

Michael Allen’s Books

Julie Dirksen’s Book: Design for How People Learn

Wil Thalheimer’s Site: Work-Learning Research Site

Clark Quinn’s Blog: Learnlets

Mirjam Neelen and Paul Kirschner’s Blog: 3 Star Learning Experiences

The Learning Hack Podcast

International Society for Performance Improvement

Minnesota Chapter of the International Society for Performance Improvement