Goal-based scenario/simulation vs. learning 2.0

The most invigorating job I ever had was working for CognitiveArts programming learning “simulations”. Founded by Roger Schank, CogArts was truly a company with a mission — to revolutionize education through technology rather than simply extend the current system. And we pushed the envelope in every way we could. I worked with a large team of programmers whose goal was to make the ultimate Choose-your-own-adventure multimedia learning experiences.

The core idea was simple: people learn by doing, so learning should simulate doing in a low risk environment. Schank’s favorite talking point was this “Which would you rather your airplane pilot have — 90 hours of the flight simulator, or 90 hours of book study?”

Simulations would generally lead a person through a “goal-based scenario”: perhaps as a Governor’s economic advisor they had to make decisions for a hurricane torn state on things like price controls and rationing, and observe the effects of the action. Perhaps they had to negotiate a house price as part of Harvard Business School Publishing’s Negotiation class.

The key to the system was failure-based learning paired with just in time instruction. Students would be encouraged to develop expectations about what would happen as a result of their actions. When they failed, they would be provided with context-sensitive instruction, and encouraged to try again. It had been shown in a number of studies  that by providing the bulk of the instruction after failure that you could get retention of information significantly higher.

The system was later copied (often poorly) by other corporate training companies, and is now a pretty standard offering of most custom elearning vendors (although I would argue that the desire of many vendors to push such modules into a one-size-fits-all assessment harness profoundly degraded the experience — at CogArts we built an LMS that was precisely tailored to the needs of our scenarios).

This autodidactic gaming approach to elearning seems miles away from the PLE and the Inverted LMS (I still haven’t quite resolved if those are the same thing yet — please excuse my transitional use of both terms). The Inverted LMS is inherently social and collaborative; the CogArts model was solitary and self-taught. Indeed, if there was one flaw with what we did at Cognitive Arts, it was probably that in the move from CD-based non-networked learning to web-based instruction we were not radical enough in our rethinking of the social element of education.

Despite that, I’d argue that simulations are very close to the PLE/Inverted LMS in theory. Why?

Because both focus on learning by doing. Where there is high-risk to real life failure simulations make a lot of sense. And where the definition of success in a field or task is very narrowly defined, simulations shine. The flight simulator, one of the first computer applications ever built, still remains the model here.

But the web has introduced us to plenty of low-risk ways to engage in disciplines. And that’s where the new approach comes in.

An example? At CogArts, one of the apps I admired most was the “Is it a Rembrandt?” simulation, which provided students with detailed pictures that could be faked paintings or undiscovered Rembrandts. The students, through learning about Rembrandt’s style, had to make the call. Experts were there to give them the just in time instruction should they fail — explaining this or that about brush strokes or subject matter.

I’d still pay good money to use that sim — I think it remains a wonderful way to learn, and one that appeals to our gaming culture. Put software like that in a current high school, and you’re going to blow the doors of education. In a good way.

But what is striking nowadays with the web is how it supplies plenty of real low-risk problems for students to engage in. The Rembrandt simulation was built during a mid-90s rash of discoveries that certain Rembrandts were fakes. Ten years later if such a thing happened, there’d be a good chance you could get hi-res photos of detail from the fakes, if you asked nicely.

So what happens then? You gather your students, you put up a wiki and series of student blogs, you roll your sleeves up, and you get your class analyzing the paintings. Google becomes your just-in-time learning application, which is cool, because that’s what your JIT solution will end up being in real life. Success or failure is determined, as in life, somewhat fuzzily by the reaction of the experts in real life: if you can get them to engage with your work at all, that’s a high level of success; if they actually start agreeing with you or noting things as valuable insight, even better.

I miss both producing and playing with the Schank software, just because of how much fun it was, and if I could buy those titles shrink-wrapped from the local Staples today, I’d spend my own money to buy a title a week. Heck, I may go home tonight and play the Cable & Wireless simulation, which I still have a disc of somewhere. In a perfect world the government would fund more of these sorts of simulations.

But the brilliance of the internet is how much it matches, for a certain subset of problem, the perfect learning environment CogArts was simulating in its courseware. As with the simulations, on the internet you can try out ideas without much risk, you can get information from Google on a Just-in-Time basis, and you can talk to experts about the validity of your decisions. And, yes, it’s a lot fuzzier, and I certainly don’t want my pilot to have put in 90 hours of BLOGGING, but for certain types of learning (and possible for most learning), it’s a preferred method of engagement.


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