Nigel Warren, professional services director for STT, gives an overview of a new type of experience-based training that focuses on the learner's performance outcomes in a context that mirrors the real work environment.

With the growing reliance on technology to improve business efficiency, training on software applications is becoming a more frequent and ongoing requirement to ensure end-users are using technology optimally. There are many different types of training, the most commonly known is probably the traditional instructor-led training, often referred to as classroom-based training.

Since the late 1990s a new type of training is being used by hundreds of companies around the world. Simulations are enabling many companies to train hundreds to thousands of their system end-users quickly and cost-effectively, and also to achieve regulatory compliance by enabling them to prove end-user competency.

What is simulation-based e-learning?

A simple definition of simulation-based e-learning is 'learning by doing' since it focuses on the learner's performance outcomes, in a context which mirrors the real work environment. The user is actually required to perform a task and experience the results just as if they were performing it on the live system. Similar to how a flight simulator works, software simulations enable experience-based 'learning moments', usually by allowing users to fail... but fail safely. 

How do simulations relate to traditional e-learning?

Excellent training is the type that sticks in the trainee's mind but many training managers are complaining that with some training methods little is translated into improved behaviour or performance. Some training managers are seeing low completion rates for expensive e-learning titles which they have already bought. Perhaps this indicates low satisfaction amongst users of typical asynchronous e-learning - now commonly referred to as 'page-turner' training (due to the boring nature of the types of presentation and recall assessment).

By contrast to 'page-turner' style e-learning, simulations have the potential to offer a dynamic and relevant learning environment in which the user is much more immersed. As a general rule effective simulations will provide a variety of possible paths to achieving the desired goal and will generate realistic outcomes based on actions performed in the lesson. Simulations create a pseudo reality that mimics the real work environment.

Characteristics of effective simulations

Great simulations are like reality but do not have to be perfect replications of it. They should also have three additional structural components:

  • a well-developed working model or storyline;
  • staging which pushes the learner to failure;
  • a simulation mentor for the learner.

The idea of 'failure staging' is perhaps a little surprising. Learning moments are created for the learner, when they are confronted with failure or potential failure. Failure can be problematic and must be treated carefully or else it could result in the demoralization of the learner. Consequently the following guidelines are recommended:

  • Make mistakes recoverable, avoiding the message that failure is absolute.
  • Make sure that failure is not overly contrived - as this undermines the realism of the training.
  • Make semi-contrived failures occur early in the course so that users become accustomed to the boundaries of the simulation.
  • Build stages into the course so that different learners can fail at different points, as a result of their interactions and choices in the simulation, or else every one will fail at the same point and render results less valuable.

The concept of a 'simulation mentor' should also be understood. Comparisons can be drawn with your experience in school. Your favourite teacher was no doubt someone who showed empathy and helped with your work, rather than someone who just graded your work.

In the same way the best simulations will have a similar capacity to show (albeit artificially) some empathy and provide help. It should have the capacity to provide not just instructions, but advice or help as well as feedback on progress in real-time. So the mentor is in effect the interface through which instructions, help and feedback are provided. Here are some further attributes of the mentor that you should look for:

  • 'Context help on steroids': rather like the MS Office Assistant but it should be more conversational and helpful, and provide feedback as to your progress in real time. It should prompt you to act, provide suggestions as to alternatives and provide useful information on demand.
  • 'Lifelike engagement': some protagonists argue for the mentor to be a character with human characteristics - someone with whom the learner can readily form a bond. Some dramatic presence may be a key success factor.
  • Support for 'scaffolding and fading': these rather strange terms refer to the support provided to the learner during the simulation (scaffolding) and the gradual reduction of this as the simulation progresses and the learner becomes more self-sufficient. The mentor should be capable of working like this - initially frequent and content-rich support that fades out over the duration of the simulation.

The spectrum of simulations

Simulations are not all alike. They can range from simple to extremely involved, virtual reality or game-like mediums. Below are some examples that illustrate the wide spectrum available:

  • Activity simulations focus on job activities, with titles such as 'How to operate xxx machine'.
  • Soft skills include sales training, customer service, coaching skills etc.
  • Process simulations typically require and use models of the process; titles such as 'How does an Oil Refinery Work' or 'Plant Safety' would be good examples.
  • Business simulations typically examine business issues through a 'what if' scenario; titles such as 'Creating Competitive Advantage' and 'Evaluating Market Opportunities' are examples.
  • Software simulations are a common subject matter for simulation training since the subject matter is so amenable to this approach; examples include transactional training for ERP implementation.
  • Product simulations typically review a particular product that familiarizes the learner with its components and functions.
  • Diagnostic simulations - typically problem finding, troubleshooting and other diagnostic situations - are suitable for engineering and safety situations where equipment failure and its identification and remedy are crucial; diagnostic branching models may underpin the simulation.

Simulations suit a blended learning approach

One of the most important aspects of simulations is their closeness to reality. It is not surprising that some of the greatest successes for the simulation approach have been when it is used in combination with more traditional instructional methods. In other words, a blended approach.

Such a blended approach would include facilitated group training (perhaps classroom-based) in which learners are encouraged to apply and refine the skills they have learnt from self-study e-learning by using simulations to practise and gain confidence.

Such an approach has been shown to actually deliver higher performance improvements than a purely instructor-led approach, and naturally can also have significant cost savings in terms of shorter classroom durations and the associated travel and accommodations costs that typically accompany such undertakings.

Over and beyond this, consider the longer-term view. You might be implementing an ERP solution today. In a year or two's time you'll be upgrading to new software versions, new front ends, enhancements, web access etc.

Rather than relying on classroom-based training to update users' knowledge and skills, rollout such update training programmes as self-service e-learning. Where change management is no longer an issue, a simulation approach to e-learning will typically achieve the desired results at dramatically lower cost than traditional training.

Achieving regulatory compliance

Across both the private and public sectors there is an increasing culture of regulatory requirements and compliance, which very often requires the employer to prove that staff are competent to perform procedures and use software applications.

Ebusiness and egovernment initiatives add to this burden of staff training, particularly when such complex systems have to be implemented and upgraded within tight and usually immovable deadlines. Software simulation is emerging as a key component of training initiatives, and has the potential to enable organisations to react more quickly, reduce traditional training costs and prove compliance.

Simulation-based training is cost-effective as large numbers of users can be trained synchronously across many locations. Training content created can be published and distributed for various situations: traditional instructor led-training, self-service training or just-in-time refresher training or support.

The simulation approach should certainly be considered as part of the solution to any software training and user support initiative as training is a critical success factor for any software implementation.

However, rather than think just in terms of training, organisations should be taking a holistic view of what it takes to firstly achieve competence and then sustain it in the longer-term. It's likely to be the longer-term challenges that lead to compliance problems, and if the training solution doesn't adapt to the changing needs of the organisation over time, then however good the content and trainers were, it could prove to have been a very expensive exercise that has to be repeated again and again.

As professional services director for STT (A Kaplan Company), Nigel Warren manages the Professional Services division for STT, which provides such services as project planning, content development and skills transfer for large-scale end-user training projects.

About the author

Nigel has been involved in selling, managing and delivering IT education solutions for major organisations for over 20 years. Throughout his career he has promoted the development of e-learning, specifically as a member of the steering committee for the Henley Management College KM Forum during 2000-2002. He has also presented at numerous conferences and events, including SAPPHIRE in the US and Germany.