Sunday, April 30

SimWord of the Day: Coach

Unlike, say, in branching stories, more dynamic simulations, from interactive spreadsheets to practiceware, need live coaches. Coaches are critical members of any simulation community, and of any sim deployment, and both technology and process must be built to support them.

Coaches can be co-located or remote, synchronous or asynchronous.

At least three factors drive the need for coaches
  • The divergence of the learning (increase need for coaching)
  • The importance that the learning actually occurs (increase need)
  • How well designed the sim is (decrease need)

SimuLearn has two master-level coaches, Graham Courtney and Tom Parkinson (Tom seen here with an US Army group). Their mantra is: "Our role is 99% to motivate. Let the simulation do the teaching." This is really hard for so many people with training backgrounds, who are, by necessity, control freaks.

Coaches can give specific assignments, break students into teams, ask students to redo, or skip ahead. They can run facilitated group sessions. They can sometimes explain parts of the simulation. They can make issues more specific (many of our coaches review 360 data before students begin taking the simulations). They can do live After Action Reviews or review uploaded or submitted AAR data hours or days later. And they can still grade.

Preparing coaches requires a facilitator's guide and even a train the trainer program, all typically part of the simulation deliverable.

This role, from being a traditional instructor to be a coach, has often been talked about. But simulations provide a transition strategy for instructors to leverage many of their traditional skills to increase their own value considerably to end-learners.

Friday, April 28

First Batch of SimWords in ASTD Article

ASTD's Ryann Ellis has organized the first batch of SimWords in this here Glossary. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 27

SimWord of the Day: The Sim Experience

"Mother Nature/Experience is the worst teacher because it gives you the test before the lesson." - attributed to multiple sources

Learning anything in real life, especially big skills like ethics and relationship management, but also learning how to speak a foreign language, is filled with frustration (and resolution). It is uneven, with moments where you want to give up and moments of exaltation.

Simulations do not smooth out the peaks and valleys (or perhaps, but only minimally), as much as compress them and make them more predictable.

The valleys present a bit of problem, however, not in the learning (where they are critical), but in the expectation of the sim experience.

There is a "threshold to quit" for different end-learners, that if the experience dips below the threshold, the learner will opt out of the course with a negative bias.

Factors that raise the threshold, making it more likely a student quits include:

  • The student is "evaluating" or "surveying" the material.
  • The program has little support.
  • Poorly set expectations for the sim experience.

Factors that lower the threshold, making it less likely a student quits include:

  • A live coach
  • The students understand that they really need the content
  • The program has a lot of credibility.
  • The students are being graded in an academic setting or ordered to take it in a military setting.

SimWord of the Day: Shopping

Shopping can be used in many ways as game elements, something to motivate the user beyond the intrinsic learning.

A shopping environment can be a fun and familiar environment in which any activity can be placed, from learning math skills (the lower tension of the environment softens the higher tension of having to learn an unfamiliar skill) to an ironic zombie frag fest (a la George Romero’s satire Dawn of the Dead.)

Earning virtual money is a great motivation in and of itself. It becomes slightly more powerful when there is a high score list, either private or public.

But shopping can also have a more direct game-play element.

Shopping can lead to buying better equipment to make subsequent levels easier, bringing simulation elements in that mirror real life and real decisions. (Buying Better Equipment in EA’s Tiger Wood PGA Tour 06)

And increasingly, buying things can just be for fun and status. Ever since players could buy a giant plasma television in The Sims, the floodgates have opened. Today, walking onto a virtual multiplayer golf course with thousand dollar sunglasses sends a message to the other golfers as to your status, even if it does not help your game directly.

Wednesday, April 26

SimWord of the Day: Ownership

Seven years from now, when we look back at educational simulations, we will see quite a few themes that are used and adapted across multiple examples and even genres, just as much as weapons and vehicles have proliferated in computer games.

One such theme that will be used, and ultimately standardized in its depiction, will be ownership.

There are so many flavors of ownership across enterprises.

Just to rattle of a few:
  • Ownership of clients
  • Ownership of ideas
  • Ownership of team
  • Ownership of employees
  • Ownership of a cell phone
  • Ownership of managers
  • Ownership of projects
  • Ownership of territories
  • Ownership of ownership of organizations
  • Ownership of company
  • Ownership of deliverable
  • Ownership of your own time

I know the concept of ownership will proliferate in educational simulations because:

  • Ownership require finesses. If you have too much ownership, you loose support and buy-in, and you may define the opportunity too narrowly. But if you have too little ownership, you loose control and accountability.
  • Ownership is a classic "fourth paradox" skill, easy to describe and challenging to appropriately apply.
  • Ownership of something with actuator properties involves trade-offs and benefits
  • Ownership often requires indirect influence, something that works well for simulations.
  • The nuance of ownership is not handled in traditional formal learning programs, in part because it can't.
  • Ownership can also be depicted graphically nicely, even if real-life isn't so clean.
  • And finally, the notions of both increasing and decreasing ownership is critical in all big skills.

George Orwell wrote about how not having a word limits one's ability to think about the topic. Ownership today might be an unskill, a concept that we can't get a handle on because the definitions are so vague and we apply them so irregularly as to seldom learn to master them. Hopefully, that will change.

SimWord of the Day: Technology: Frames per Second

Frames per Second (FPS), also called “frame rate,” is the number of still, distinct images displayed per second to trick our eyes into believing objects are moving.

It is a metric of fluidity.

A normal television show in the States (NTSC TV) is broadcast at 30 FPS (frames per second). PAL TV is 25 FPS. Movies are shown at 24 FPS.

20 FPS are considered by many to be the minimum to trick the eye, and is the minimum to enable the simualtion genre known as practiceware.

Higher frame rates (like 60 FPS) results in more appealing animation, and some console games sacrifice other elements to maintain this level. Fewer FPS are the results of system limitations, poor programming, other applications consuming system resources (such as AI), and detail of image, including screen resolution and complexity of objects, and lighting.

Tuesday, April 25

SimWord of the Day: Easter Egg

In interactive media, such as a computer game or DVD, an Easter egg is a piece of bonus content that is in someway “hidden,” and yet still accessible by a user. The content can be a message, a hidden level, even designer art. The Easter egg is initially found by accident by a causal user or deliberately by a determined user through entering certain key codes or going to obscure places on a map, and then made public on a chat room or forum. Easter eggs were originally the work of programmers trying to sneak content into the finished product under the radar of the publisher; they are now included deliberately as an extra “game” activity to build the user community.

Saturday, April 22

How do you teach leadership? And what is it?

Perhaps the most important "Big Skill" is leadership.

It certainly is the Big Skill to which I have put the most personal research, captured in the below diagram from page 9 0f this Learning Circuits article (email me if you want a copy of the chart as a nice powerpoint slide, quite small filesize-wise, and where everything is actually readable).

Leadership is the ability to get people to do the right work. Leadership connects actions to results, and sometimes even changes the metrics of success.

The challenge of over-simplifying leadership can be summarized in this typical example.

Many organizations in their leadership mission say they value innovation. But do they mean/measure/reward:

  • Individuals coming up with a new idea?
  • Groups creating an atmosphere where new ideas, even bad new ideas, are activly sought and met with serious consideration?
  • Groups actually implementing new ways of doing things?
  • Groups actively sacrificing some level of optimal short term productivity for the sake of innovation?

How does your organization teach/nurture/identify leadership? And how does it define it?

By the way, this past post has a chart that shows how I believe most organizations roll out leadership training, and perhaps most Big Skills.

Friday, April 21

Stories: bad for your mental health?

The pairing of frustration and resolution is at the heart of, well, probably everything to do with life and growth.

But if you look at two example, frustration/resolution in passive stories and frustration/resolution in simulations, you can see why, as I mulled earlier, that stories might be the new white bread, making us feel smarter by tricking us, rather than actually increasing our capacity, leaving us just bloated instead.

In creating a passive story, it is fairly easy to set up a good frustration/resolution pairing.
  • Shark attacks swimmer.
  • Physically attractive ex-girlfriend/boyfriend re-emerges after 10 years with a dark secret.
  • The instructions for a better life/how to avoid a major problem are to follow.

In all of these, whether it be a novel, a movie, or the evening news, we just have to sit back and consume more, and we will get the resolution. Mmmmm. It feels so satisfying, for a few moments. But we are instantly hungry again, and the right masters of the medium will once again tantalize us with another frustration/resolution pairing (or have three or four recursive pairing going on at once, so while we are told the resolution of a more specific paring, we still have the bigger one to resolve).

In an educational simulation, much like a computer game, and of course in learning to ride a bike, swim, speak a foreign language, close a big deal, make a customer happy, or build something, that frustration-resolution can not be closed by passively consuming more. The frustration can only (and not even all of the time) be resolved by actively doing something.

Passive stories are thought to be crowning achievements of our civilization: books, movies, magazine, and most of our school system. We all have intense, positive relationships with at least a few examples of each.

But like white bread and refined sugar, they may just be tricking our minds into addiction, actually reducing our ability to act, not increasing it. And maybe, just maybe, the manifest destiny of our profession is to help people overcome this addiction, not feed it.

(By the way, just because computer games involve active frusteration-resolution, doesn't mean they are not a) self-referential and b) addictive. They hint at solutions, rather than represent them).

(And yes, we have all read books or seen movies that have shaped our lives.)

Thursday, April 20

If you have been in the training industry for more than 3 years, don't bother reading this

I have given my share of speeches on simulation in the last six months. And I have come to a casual observation. It is the people who have been in the training profession for less than three years that actually make simulations happen in their organization.

This is not an age thing. There are plenty of people representing all different ages that are moving ahead. This is not a male-female thing.

The "newcomers" are excited to drive results. They think in terms of weeks and maybe months of making things happen, not months and years. They care about driving results now, and take a few personal risks when the pay-off is significant. They are not interested in proving to me, the sim guy, how smart they are. They are not trying to score intellectual points with their peers. They do not mistake cynicism for wisdom, nor are they process-centric out of the hope that the process will keep them from having to act. They instead want me to make the case, are tough, fair, and then they really want to move ahead. They are problem solvers, not problem creators.

I hope that randomness has placed so many "new-to-training" people who can't wait to act in front of me, and kept away all of the people with a long training background who know how to get things done. But boy, please, someone, prove me wrong!

Tuesday, April 18

SimWord of the Day: Pedagogy: Coaches, Virtual

A virtual coach gives customized help to the player. Unlike a Dictionary, Glossary, Wiki, or Instruction Booklet, coaches tend to have personality. They pop up at the right time, either proactively or in response to a question, and give some help.

Like all pedagogical elements, the virtual coach has to balance giving neither too little help nor too much. A good coaching system can dramatically reduce the amount of real coaching necessary to support a simulation deployment.

Some simulation Genres are easier to coach than others. Branching Stories use discreet nodes, each of which can be tagged with a very specific coach entries (i.e. for node 127b, the coach might say, "you have so far in this situation been very lenient, and now the group is trying to take advantage of you. It may be time to be a little tougher"). You can even have two or three levels of coaching for each node, aligned with the end-learner’s chosen difficulty level or past success.

The more open-ended a simulation is, the harder it is to employ such highly targeted virtual coaches. Some coaches in an Interactive Spreadsheet can be trigger based around milestones (i.e. if at [third quarter, second year], customer satisfaction is below 30%, play coach clip showing advice on how to improve customer sat). Some coaches in interactive spreadsheets can also be table based (if market share drops for more than three consecutive terms, play video highlighting problem and suggesting solutions).

Coaches also don’t have to be perfect, a nice crutch in more open-ended sims. Like life, one can have a virtual board of directors (and using a board of directors well is a critical Big Skill). Each can offer one, “pure” view, such as one advocate for advertising, another for consistency.

Monday, April 17

Simword of the Day: Choke

A mental condition where performance of an individual in an event diminishes in response to his or her perception of the importance of the event.

NetDimensions Insights

A nice endorsement of LCB from Niall Rigby onNetDimensions Insights in which Niall ranks LCB as one of the top 10 resources for programs looking at purchasing an LMS.

Thanks for the thumbs up, Niall. We'll keep working to deserve it in the future.

Sunday, April 16

SimWord of the Day: Accumulator

Accumulator: A repository where “stock” can increase or decrease. The capacity to accumulate is often part of a unit, including the player him or herself.
The stock can be conceptual, abstracted, or real, such as good will, health, or monkeys respectively. Stock may have to be transported by units in a sim, or transported automatically.
The amount of stock may be limited by the capacity of any single accumulator (i.e. one can’t have more monkeys than cages; to get more space, one has to build more cages), per unit (the player can never have more than 50 monkeys) or unlimited (monkey dung). The destruction of the accumulator may result in the destruction of all of the stock, the freeing up of the stock for other units to possess (such as in MMORPGs), or the shifting of the stock automatically to other accumulators.

Scores, where used, are "accumulated."

Saturday, April 15

First Person Shooters represent over a Billion Dollars of R&D

One genre of computer game is the First Person Shooter (FPS).
I wrote in Learning By Doing, "If you are male, first-person shooters are the Manolo Blahniks of the computer game world."
The player seeing the world through the eyes of his or her onscreen counterpart, usually down the barrel of a weapon. The player is a hero (such as in this example from Dark Forces). He or she traverses a 3D map in real-time, trying to reach key locations and solving puzzles while shooting and being shot at by AI controlled units .
The interface is built around movement and aiming. Primary variables include health/armor, location on map, amount of supplies, and perhaps capability.

The genre is mature. It has evolved dramatically. As the title implies, it is first person, which is great. You can move around physically, which is satisfying. The physics, interface, graphics, level design, and puzzles are all so much more refined than even ten years ago. Innovative games have added sneaking around, decisions about which weapons to bring, even what skills to develop. When one adds up all of the developer time spent on creating and improving the genre over the years, it probably adds up to about a billion dollars of research and development. Few other computer applications have been the recipient of so much resources. The result is that most FPS are very accessible.

On the other hand, FPSs are optimized around fun, not learning. The underlying framework is not very interesting. There are very few real activities in the last few centures that line up with the systems and interface that are modelled in FPSs (traversing mazes, finding, picking up, and delivering things, killing things). In fact I would suggest that FPSs are a red-herring when it comes to educational simulations. Expecting them to provide a model for education is like asking a brilliant surgeon to prepare your tax returns.

To me, what are more interesting are games/sims like Full Spectrum Warrior, shown here, that while superficially look like FPSs, have completely different interfaces, strategies, and nurture the develop of different situational awareness and scrambling techniques. But of course it represents a new genre that is necessarily much more raw, less refined by several orders of magnitude, than FPSs.

Sports games, such as golf, can also look superficially like a FPS, but again have completely different systems and interfaces, and are correspondingly more raw as well (somewhere between FPSs and Full Spectrum Warrior).

I look forward to when the conversation increasingly shift from "computer games, yeah or nay?" to ""what is the expertise that a given game does contain, and then can contain?"

Part of the SimWord of the Day Series....

Friday, April 14

SimWord of the Day: Game Engines

Game Engine -- the application/code that is used as the basis for building a game. In games there is generally one primary engine (The graphics engine, for movement, 3D rendering, and resolution) and a few smaller engines that power other aspects of the game (AI, Sound, Input). Game engines represent a trade-off between ease of use and diversity of possible experiences. Many game engines are optimizes around one type of game genre, like first person shooter or real-time strategy, compromising its ability to enable educational simulations.
Oh, and selecting the right game engine, from the hundreds or even thousands, is an adventure.
Famous examples include the Quake, Unreal, Half-Life, and Lithtech 3D engines.
  • MIT’s Revolutions uses the Aurora Engine from Bioware
  • RoadQuiz and many other educational simatulions uses RenderWare as the 3D renderer
  • Delta3D is an open source game engine being built at the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
  • There is free game creation system called Game Maker.
  • There is Unity Pro.
  • Blitz3d is an indy engine, costs $80.00, and has a huge support online community.

There is also PopCap Framework, Torque 3D, Blitz BASIC, and even Director and Flash. Funnily enough, even large game developers are increasingly using the smaller tools to quickly mock up game play and interfaces.

Part of the SimWord of the Day Series....

Thursday, April 13

Simword of the Day: Genre - Virtual Experience Space

Welcome to another month of Simwords of the Day!

Today's word is Virtual Experience Space.

I have argued that there are four types of "common" simulations out there today, branching stories, interactive spreadsheets, game-based models, and virtual labs.

One emerging type of simulation genre is Virtual Experience Space.

Students in traditional role plays often explore some created experience space as input to their work. This space is defined though prop documents handed out over the course of the role play, and interactions with people, including the instructor, playing assigned roles.

Now, using relatively commonplace web technology, instructors can create fictitious, scalable situations using large, hypertexted, multimedia repositories for students to explore (for examples, go here). The media can include emails, video interviews with the CEO or other clips, and PowerPoint presentations, all accessed through a common portal (or portals if there are multiple teams).

Furthermore, only certain links in the repository can be open at the start of the role play. Then new links could open up based on different types of triggers.

  • At certain time intervals, the instructor (or the simulation on its own) opens up some links that create the effect, for the students, of time passing. This could simply represent the start of a new week or, more dramatically, of an external event happening, such as a hostile takeover or the death of a senior executive. Again, video clips and emails would become available to the role players that were not there before. Of course, time can also cut off certain links, making them no longer accessible.
  • If a player in the role play was reading an email, he or she might want to ask a follow-up question of the fictional character. He or she would “email” the character. Then either an automated system or the instructor would “reply” to that email, opening up a link that would result in a new email appearing in the person’s in-box. During the beta roll-outs of virtual experience spaces, the instructor has to be “live,” carefully monitoring the queries of the students, creating new information that will then be refined and added to the canned experience in the next iteration.

By accessing this type of space, consultants can learn enough to create recommendations, projects, and plans, even hooking up ficticious characters, that can then be evaluated by real-humans for anything from evacuation plans to new web sites to IT infrastructure to strategic plans.