Considerations For Systems Simulations
Simulator, NASA

Systems Simulations: Some Considerations

Computer simulations were around long before I was born and have become increasingly more realistic and complex. As a child in the early 90s, I remember sneaking a quick go on my friend’s dad’s copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator, only to rapidly lose interest because it was too realistic. However, for that same reason, he was glued to it, practicing at every opportunity in the comfort of his faux-leather swivel chair.

Microsoft created Flight Simulator to give the public a basic understanding of how to fly an aircraft. Although realistic to a degree, using this type of simulation alone is seldom sufficient for mastering the practical skills of flying a plane. Fortunately, pilots also have the luxury of being able to practice in a real aircraft under the supervision of trained professionals.

Astronauts, on the other hand, are less fortunate. With the cost of launching a rocket coming in at around $500 million, taking one out for a practice run is not an option (Wall, 2012). There’s also the fact that one bad decision made in space could be your last.

These are just a couple of reasons why astronauts use some of the most (if not the most) sophisticated simulators there are (Martin & Siceloff, 2016). These aim to perfectly replicate both the virtual and physical environments of a spacecraft and are programmed with scenarios designed to test knowledge and skills in critical situations.

Instructional Design Considerations

The above introduction poses a number of questions that an Instructional Designer should consider, having made the decision to use systems simulations to facilitate practice and learning.

How Realistic Does The Systems Simulation Need To Be?

I recently completed a systems simulation project with a well-known retail client that aimed to teach store managers how to complete the five most common administrative processes of their human resources system (Figure 1).

Retail human resource system screenshot

Figure 1

Aesthetically, the simulation needed to be accurate enough for learners to feel like they were using the real thing. This is for two reasons:

  1. The immediate familiarity with the interface meant that they could fully concentrate on the learning activities.
  2. They would feel more comfortable when applying their new knowledge and skills in practice (Boulet, 2009).

In terms of functionality, we only needed to accurately simulate the steps of each process, rather than have a complete working model of the system.

Bear in mind that the more accurate the simulation, the more it is likely to cost. Take time to consider the level of accuracy necessary for your learners to meet their learning objectives.

How Motivated Are Your Learners?

The answer to the above question will also guide the way you design your simulation.

Astronauts typically spend hours training in simulators for every minute they fly in space, so they are familiar with planned activities and can react quickly to unusual events.’ (Martin & Siceloff, 2016)

Astronauts are motivated to practice because, out in space, there is no room for error.

It was slightly less critical for the retail managers to meet their objectives, but there were consequences nonetheless and they were reminded of them at various points throughout the simulation, to keep them engaged (Figure 2).

Example of using consequence to promote engagement

Figure 2

The application of gamification principles is another means of promoting engagement in a systems simulation. For example, Microsoft Flight Simulator has a reward system that allows the users to collect badges in recognition of their achievements (Figure 3).

Flight Simulator badges of achievement

Figure 3

What Additional Support Do The Learners Need?

Again, take time to understand the experience and the pre-existing knowledge of your learners. I used to work for a local hospital that had a training center full of simulators for practicing surgical techniques.

The individuals who used simulators required varying degrees of support.

For example:

  • As shown in Figure 4, junior doctors used the simulators in groups, learning from each other, with an expert on hand to provide feedback and guidance.
  • More experienced doctors practiced alone, relying on the feedback provided on screen by the simulators.
  • Lastly, the most experienced doctors, adept in carrying out each procedure, would simply practise their motor skills, knowing instinctively when they had made an error and how to correct it.
Junior doctors using a surgical simulator

Figure 4

To me, this illustrates the importance of providing support that is tailored to the needs of your audience.

Take-Home Messages

So what have we learnt from all of this? Based on my own understanding of the subject matter and my experience in the field, I have put together a list of recommendations for designing a systems simulation.

  • Define your learning objectives and design your simulation specifically to meet them. Anything more will cost you both time and money.
  • Get a feel for your learner’s attitudes towards the training. This will help you to decide whether to incorporate motivational techniques in your simulation design.
  • Use gamification to help motivate your learners, if needed.
  • Motivate learners by helping them to understand the benefits of using the simulation and the possible consequences if they do not.
  • Incorporate job-realistic activities that aim to address the learning outcomes. This will help your learners to appreciate the relevance and importance of the training.
  • If the budget is tight, focus your efforts on creating engaging and job-realistic activities, rather than aiming for a perfect aesthetic design (Herrington, Reeves, & Oliver, 2007).
  • Use visual cues to direct inexperienced learners through new processes.
  • Provide constructive feedback to let learners know how they are performing, and highlight areas requiring improvement, if necessary.

Final Word

The above messages should give you greater confidence in deciding whether a systems simulation is the right tool for the job. You should also feel better informed as to how to approach the design of a systems simulation, to ensure that it meets the needs of your target audience.

Remember, the key to success is getting people to do the right thing at the right time.