New frontiers for simulations: Building community

For those of following me on twitter at the end of last week, you’ll know I was attending a workshop on “EU simulations: Scholarly reflection and research on an innovative teaching methodology”. This was an excellent event, with participants from both sides of the Atlantic presenting some very thought-provoking papers, all done with some of the best organisation I have seen for some time.

As we all observed, it is not often that one gets to spend two days talking about simulations, and it was something we all relished. However, in the course of our discussions it also became apparent that we face a number of collective issues. It is those issues which I’d like to discuss in this post and several more to come.

The major issue is one that all academics face in all areas of their work, namely how to build community, and then to maintain it.

As I noted in my paper for the workshop, the growing popularity of simulations is great, but it also causes some issues. The literature on simulations has also grown, but there remains a dearth of ‘how-to’ guides, so those who want to start using sims (or try out different kinds of sims) typically have to find someone who already does it and then have a chat.

Now, I like a chat as much as the next man, but if we accept that sims (as part of the more general push towards active learning) are a valuable pedagogy, then ‘chats’ represent a considerable bottleneck to their widespread uptake.

Moreover, if we have an interest in improving the pedagogic robustness of sims (which I suggest we do, and which I’ll discuss next time), then we need to get much better at sharing good/best practice. Even with my relatively extended experience with sims, I’m still picking up good ideas most times that I discuss them with someone new, and I certainly saw that happening at the workshop.

So that’s the first proposition: that community is desirable.

However, it poses the immediate question of how we achieve it.

With the rest of the ALPS team, I have had this discussion at length and I would love to say that I/we have a good answer. But I/we don’t.

The barriers are two-fold.

Firstly, sims are intrinsically flexible and adaptable. That’s a key reason for using them, since they can fit so many situations and needs. But it also means that needs are also likely to be diverse, so it becomes harder to match the supply with the demand.

Secondly, no one has any time, or at least they have competing demands on their time. I have yet to meet anyone who complains about not having enough to do (but you do exist, then please feel free to step forward).

This seems to point in a set of options that make a trade-off between depth and scope.

The ‘chat’ model that we currently use is good, because it’s individual (i.e. narrow, but deep), so we might suggest something along those lines. This means organising more workshops, or panels in conferences: basically getting people together to spend time talking. This keeps that face-to-face element, but still lacks wider sharing. It also implies a big time commitment from those involved.

At the other end of the spectrum, we might create more resources. I’ve tried that with my website, and that can certainly offer something to those passing through. However, it is necessarily static and generic, so the utility to individuals is less (i.e. broad, but shallow). Certainly, I’m more than aware of what my site doesn’t do.

In between, we have things like this blog. There’s some interaction, some specifics, but also some broader pieces. We’ve all been very impressed here with our up-tick in readers since we began and with the feedback we get at events we attend. At the same time, we remain only five people and we also don’t cover every aspect of sims.

Idea note_20130927_145921_02
Sketchy, but nothing more (yet)

The answer would seem to be a mix of these things. That means more events, more resources and more discussions. The ALPS team are talking about getting more people involved in the blog in different ways (which we’ll tell you about presently).

However, all of this comes back to the point about people and what they can put in. I have been exceptionally lucky to be part of ALPS and I’m more than aware that such a performing group is not common. The energy and enthusiasm that people showed in Mainz was great, but it’s very hard to maintain that over any period of time, especially when you have all manner of things being thrown at you. As a case in point, my very interesting discussions with one participant on building a modular sim for multiple partners only got as far as some initial sketchings (literally), and I can see we will struggle to get much further in any hurry (let alone into operation).

Part of me wants to say that we just do what we can and that’s still better than nothing. But another part says that we should push on and stimulate others to participate and share. The more people we have, the more we can spread things around and the richer the quality of discussion will be.

So consider this a call to action and a request for help. Without people like you, we risk losing out on making sims all that they can be, and that would be a real loss.