Tuesday, October 11, 2011

When are System Simulations Appropriate?

By Dean Hawkinson

System simulations, created using software such as Adobe Captivate, serve several purposes when used in eLearning. They are a great way to learn system navigation without using the actual system. You can create simulations in several different ways, depending on the type of interaction you are looking for in your course.

Types of Simulations

Demonstration (aka Show Me) - Learners watch this type of simulation as a video. A learner can watch the steps in a procedure with text describing what is happening. Or, you can use audio using a recorded narration or text-to-speech technology. While this may be a good way to introduce system navigation, it lacks the interaction required for the learner to truly get “hands on” experience in using the system.

Guided Practice (aka Try Me) – This simulation guides the learner through a procedure. It is as if the learner is actually clicking in the system, but it includes text and/or audio to tell the learner what to do. This is by far the best way to use a simulation in an eLearning course to teach the user navigation, because it includes click-by-click instructions either by text or audio. It is a safe environment where the learner can make mistakes without interfering with actual customer information in a live system. However, it is ineffective at truly testing a learner’s skill, as it is guided.

Assessment (aka Test Me) – This simulation, similar to the Try Me mode, has the learner click through a sequence of steps to reach a desired result. The difference is that there is no guidance. The learner has to rely on his or her own knowledge to complete the simulation. This is the most effective way to identify if the learner has truly learned to navigate the system. However, you can only set it up to follow a specific path; and with no guidance, the learner can become confused and can get “stuck” in the simulation if he doesn’t follow the correct path and cannot proceed. Fortunately, you can overcome this with feedback “bubbles” that appear when the learner clicks in the wrong places.

Simulations vs. Other Alternatives

Let’s assume that your client informs you that there have been some changes to the system used by sales associates. He knows that simulations have been effective at teaching the system to new hires, and he is asking for a simulation to describe the changes to the system. Upon discussing the changes, you find that there are only a few screens changing and only a few fields on each page. Your audience is already familiar with the current system.

Would you create a simulation for this?

What if the system changes are extensive and the new system looks and feels completely different?

These are the kinds of questions you should consider when it comes to simulations. As I discussed in a previous post about technology advancement, we should never choose the technology to use before understanding the goals training must accomplish.

When deciding whether to use a system simulation, consider the following factors:

How complex is the navigation you are trying to teach? Is it a simple step-by step process with two or three steps? Or, is it a very involved process that includes decision-making and branching? A complex process is often a good fit for a simulation. If it is a simple procedure, consider creating a job aid with screen shots that highlight important areas of the screen and include simple directions. Just make sure your job aid does not turn into a novel! Keep it succinct, focusing on the screen shots and keep text to a minimum.

Do you have access to a training or test environment that allows you to capture images of the procedure without impacting customer accounts and/or proprietary information? If not, creating simulations can get quite challenging. Software like Captivate lets you create simulations with a series of screen shots. Without a training or test environment, you may end up spending a lot of time cleaning up the screen shot images and making sure they all match in size and resolution. You may also spend a lot of time taking out proprietary information if they come from a live system. In the end, this may be the only alternative you have to teach the system if there is not a test or training environment available.

Does your audience have the hardware and software to access the simulations (i.e., do they have Flash capability)? Captivate publishes simulations as Flash files as the default, so you need to ensure that the computers your audience uses includes the capability to play Flash files. Remember, for mLearning, Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad do not run Flash. However, newer versions of simulation software allow creation of HTML5, which alleviates this issue.

What experience do you have in selecting simulations as a learning tool?

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