New frontiers for simulations: what matters?

In this series of posts (here and here), I have been considering some questions that have struck me as important in the continuing development of simulations as a pedagogy.  This stems from a workshop on simulations in EU Studies that I attended last month.

A key issue that emerged for me at the workshop was one that I had never really considered beforehand, even though it is clearly central to our understanding of the value of simulations in the classroom: What is it that matters in a simulation?

In all the discussions that we have about the benefits of simulations, we point to the value of active learning, of knowledge and skills development, of enhanced self-confidence and of practical application to a learner-led environment. Sounds great.

A bright future for simulations?

But what matters in this?

Put differently, what could we take away and still reap the benefits?

Are simulations a threshold pedagogy – where anything one does is beneficial, regardless of complexity, once a threshold is passed – or a variable one – where the more you do with it, the more you get out?

The question is important because the answer has a direct impact on how we use simulations. If it turns out that anything that involves students playing a role in a scenario produces measurable benefits in learning, then the incentive to do more is much reduced. Conversely, if more complexity adds more value, then we might press on to much grander schemes than we currently conceive of.

From my perspective, I run small, simple games. Partly this is due to limitations on time and space that I can have with my students, but it’s also driven by a desire to create generic scenarios that teach generic lessons about negotiation, without getting too distracted by the fine detail of a major simulation game. I see improvements in my students’ learning and practice, but I am not clear what specifically drives that.

In the context of designing more meaningful evaluations of the impact of simulations, defining the ‘simulation’ part is as important as defining the ‘impact’. Too often, we discuss simulations as if they were all of a piece and comparable in all relevant dimensions, even if they are patently different. Victor’s state of nature game is fundamentally different from a multi-day, multi-centred international recreation of the European Parliament, even if they share elements of play and student-focus.

The difficulty in this is obvious. Simulations are intrinsically flexible and adaptable, which is why those who use them like them so much. The variability of scale and focus lends itself to meeting very different requirements, be they skills- or knowledge-based. But the cost is that the ‘benefit’ is similarly not mono-dimensional.

My interest in skills development is different from someone else’s knowledge enhancement, but both are valid metrics from a simulation. Indeed, two users can use the same simulation in very different ways and produce different learning outcomes and that too is a valid process.

Again, this is not something with an easy resolution, for precisely the reasons outlined. However, if we don’t address it, then we run the twin risks of losing out on the full potential for student learning and of undermining the use of simulations by promoting practice that does not benefit learning.

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