Saturday, September 22

Can one create a great educational simulation around ethics?

Can one create a great educational simulation around ethics?

One should be able to in theory. One point of Sim is to make an experience that allows people to see the consequences of their Actions in a safe environment.

If you made a pure "ethics" sim, however, then of course students would just always "do the right thing." It would be as useful as the official Enron Ethics Handbook.

Rather, my own thinking goes, one would build a life sim, or a business sim. One would challenge students to some realistic activity, and then toss in some ethical problems along the way.

But then what? Would it be a challenge to recognize ethical problems, or would they be obvious? If they were obvious, is the best game play thing to always do the right thing, to accept an "ethics" friction? Or would they somehow represent interesting choices?

Would you ever make people go bankrupt for making ethical decisions? Would you ever create a situation where people made some ethical compromises and were better off for it? Would the ideal strategy to be a little immoral? What is the role of realism vs. learning objectives?

Can karma have the properties of an accumulator, where one might be able to work off debts? Can this moral ambiguity exist in an environment supported by corporations, for whom ethics have to be black and white?

Can one's negative actions create indestructible demons waiting to spring upon one, perhaps visualized in a heads up display (HUD)? (In WILL Interactive's branching story on Sexually Transmitted Diseases, drinking too much eliminates options for getting out of a high pressure situation; in Tropico, where you are the president of an island-state, you can put off elections, but that increases discontent of your people that might rise up in arms.)

And, would you want to seduce people into becoming bad? Would you engage in moral entrapment? Would you want to pull people to the dark side, and then surprise people with a mirror of themselves?

Is this a matter of aligning strategies and tactics? One's degree of morality becomes a strategy that has to work into a larger context? Cheat, but only in certain industries?

Would the ethical problem really be just a single solution puzzle, like the beer game? Would students go through it once, be tricked, and then never be fooled again? Would older students tell younger students "the solution?"

Likewise, how might one deal with ethical violations in others? What if a great salesperson committed slight moral breaches? Do ethical violations spread in a chain reaction if not stopped? Are ethical violations contagions to be caught and spread? Or is there a balancing loop? Might one set up a containment strategy around a necessarily or incurably corrupt group? And how do you even find ethical violations? Does it require an act of probing?

And if you were a manager, would you be concerened if an employee playing the sim engaged in highly unethical behavior? Aren't sims supposed to be safe places?

All of this talk is academic, to some degree. The most important design consideration is that corporate sponsors can't even acknowledge that breaches of morality might have anything but bad consequences. It might be a paradox of this industry that in areas where sims could do the most good, they might not be able to do anything at all.

See selective enforcement or breaking of rules: the critical skill that no school or training group will even admit exists.


Unknown said...

Have you looked at the Learning Ethics Game that Jim Schulyer did? Despite the name, it feels more like a simulation than a game.

Clark Aldrich said...

No, I have not. I gather I should?

Anonymous said...

Hey Clark,

That's the nemesis for all behavioral or soft skills courses :( and teaching ethics would be more or less like teaching safety to someone not used to it - I think the primary point to drive here would be the repercussions - best created in a decision tree/adaptive learning model...what say?

Anonymous said...

Many years ago, I was involved in the development of an ethics course that was used for NASD re-certification.

Our sim-engine was a pretty simple model, so each sim had one "best" solution, and a pretty narrow decision tree. The focus was more about the educational process of making the decisions and seeing the results. You could go down a bad path, see the problem, and then have the option to back up and get it right. We decided with the client to not track the number of times people went down a bad path, because we wanted to encourage learning through the experimentation.

We also had a pool of story-lines so that different employees received different stories. New stories were developed each year, and the old stories were retired.

I would love to do one again now with some of the better sim engines. I would still want to let someone experiment and see what would happen if they intentionally made unethical decisions.

Interesting problem.


Stephen Becker, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I used to work as an instructional designer. The small company I worked for created simulation-based multimedia e-learning for corporate clients. A couple of the best pieces we did were ethics oriented--one dealt with diversity in the workplace and the other sexual harassment.

From what we could tell the courses were very effective. One day we even received a phone call from an employee who said the diversity course had changed her life.

The stop points in the scenario were used to generate expectation failure by presenting enticing but incorrect answers--at which juncture consequence were presented and remediation was given. The design went beyond so that learners could explore "semi-correct" pathways and see the results of their actions.

I am now helping out a company called EctoLearning.

Ecto has launched an online networked learning environment coupled with online LMS tools and an open library of user-generated, user-rated learning items. Basically, Ecto has attempted to design the ultimate Web 2.0 platform for education.

One of the cool things you can do in Ecto, if you are crafty, is auto-graded create multimedia simulations. There's also an enterprise version of the site called, which companies and organizations can use for collaboration and e-learning.

I strongly encourage everyone to check it out. A good starting point is this brief video, which contains interview clips with a number of teachers and students at various levels.


Peter Isackson said...

Why bother with such complication? Here's a simpler solution: get everyone to see the film Wall Street and then read the following article that appeared this week in Slate:

The task would then be for learners to try to figure out why and how Michael Douglas's totally unethical character Gekko has become a role model in the real world financial community. A learning community that dealt with this issue would certainly achieve a deep understanding of what ethics is all about. The exploration would start with the ethical conflicts in the film but have its real impact when learners take up the issue of the perception of ethical issues by actual business people, delving into the phenomena of identification and the influence of personality that are observable and documented in the real world. Film is always more efficient than sims at giving a holistic sense of social context and personality and Wall Street contains a nice mixture of levels of social complication (family, social class, business, career, power, etc.).

Why do we assume that learning must always be confined to an abstract, schematic universe of principles on the one hand and right (or partially right) and wrong (or partially wrong) answers on the other? Ethics, by the way, is probably the one area where there logically can't be such a thing as a partially right answer (whereas mathematics and physics actually do allow such things). Which doesn't mean there aren't partially acceptable behaviors in the real world! Discovering their relationship with ethics (as a subject) is one of the vital insights to be acquired.

If we really feel it’s necessary to spend money on production (to assuage our conscience and tell ourselves we’re making an investment in ethics) I’d prefer spending it (and probably a lot less of it) producing a documentary film developing the points made in the Slate piece and then using it as a resource in a community of practice or a learning community.

Clark Aldrich said...

Hi Peter,

Business schools are highly partial to what are essentially after-action-reviews of other people's behavior (i.e. the case study method). While they are easy (always a big plus) in an instructor-centric environment, and great at teaching the meta skills of arguing and analysis, it is less clear to me that they nurture ethical behavior.

Peter Isackson said...

In my view, the methods of nurturing ethical behavior can only be social. Becoming aware of ethics and the kinds of issues it involves can certainly be achieved by a variety of means. What kind of behavior that produces depends on one's values, not on one's understanding of principles or even consequences. My proposal wasn't to use Wall Street as a case study in ethical/unethical behavior, but only as the starting point of an exploration that would look at our perception of ethics.

By the way, I very much liked your review of the issues and I do think a good sim could achieve something. But the hardest thing to do is to define -- within the realm of ethics -- what that something is. Even harder than that is understanding why one wants it! One can start by asking oneself, what is the ethical motivation of bosses who want their employees to learn ethics?

Anonymous said...

There is of course the added complication that globalisation bumps up against the fact that ethics are not universal.

As just one example: My husband's company owns concerns in Italy, France, Hong Kong and the USA as well as the UK. In his dealings with some of the non-UK offices (I won't say which) there has been some puzzlement that the Head Office does not budget for (ahem) negotiating with officials.

Clark Aldrich said...

Great point, Karyn.

Peter Isackson said...

You're absolutely right to point this out. Ethics is the result of a variety of normative pressures and each culture generates them in a different way, with a different effect. The classic instance is the overriding importance of guan-xi (relationships, networks) in China, which generally trumps rules and laws. Personal loyalty is stronger than abstract duty to society in general. But things are actually more complex than some of the intercultural manuals suggest, precisely because the sense of rule, law and relationship in all societies is never fixed and always subject to multiple influences. (Graham Greene's "The Third Man" is a wonderful -- and in many ways frightening -- illustration of this).

That is why I think ethics is something that can only be "discovered" or revealed through communities, though the principles and stakes can be learned or even taught in various ways.

By the way, if you look through the contemporary philosophical literature on ethics (its definition, its field of application, its social status) you'll find that even within our somewhat homogeneous western cultures, the degree of disagreement about the principles is very pronounced. And yet ethics is a necessary part of our reality which needs to be understood. The only thing is that that understanding -- if it is to be achieved -- can only be both progressive and shared. This is true even where disagreement and difference of appreciation remain real, since they are part and parcel of ethical awareness.

This is clearly beyond the scope of a text, a program or a sim. Which of course doesn't mean that each of them -- conceived so as to be complementary (and therefore suitably incomplete) -- may not have a role to play in the learning process.

Anonymous said...

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