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Comparing Experiential Learning Pedagogies – Simulations vs. Industry Integrated

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A special thought leadership piece written by Ray Wang, a featured CapSource Experiential Educator.

As a relatively new university lecturer and researcher (three years of experience), I don’t claim to be an expert on simulation-based learning or industry-integrated learning techniques. I do, however, have experience doing both kinds of activities with my university students.

As a lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, I have experimented and utilized various forms of active learning and flipped classroom approaches to better engage students within the learning process, but more importantly, to help them develop key skills and competencies that enable them to jumpstart their careers.

Out of all the learning methods I have tried over the years, simulation-based learning and industry-integrated learning are two approaches that have demonstrated the most potential to provide students not just with a useful learning experience, but also a transformative one. That being said, both approaches have their challenges and limitations, which we will now explore:

Simulation-Based Learning (SBL)

One thing to clarify about simulation-based learning is that it’s not a standardized learning activity. Simulation-based learning encompasses a whole range of different learning activities that can include classroom role-plays, case studies, computer simulations, and even virtual reality (VR) simulations. While the definition of simulation-based learning (SBL) can be a bit ambiguous, SBL activities generally are ones focused on creating a scenario based on real-life work context and allowing students to role-play as managers of a firm or a supply-chain. Salas (2009) said that the benefit of these simulation-based learning activities is that they enable future managers to practice management in a safe, low (or no?) risk environment, and by the time they become managers, they will already have relevant experience to pull from. This has been a widely reported benefit of simulation-based learning.

With that being said, many SBL activities and the understanding of SBL can sometimes be narrowly focused on computer simulations and technology-driven SBL activities. While this is certainly an exciting development for SBL, various constraints on these computerized simulations have led to a number of valid critiques of SBL learning. It should be noted, however, that these constraints or limitations should not critique the validity for SBL learning in general, but rather should be utilized to better develop SBL activities so that the learning outcomes are substantial.

Of course, SBL is not most impactful if it’s used as a stand-alone learning experience. Simulations are an educational tool that can be utilized as a way to create a healthy learning dynamic between students, their peers, and their educator. In most cases, the teamwork, discussions, consensus decision-making, and presentations that are required throughout the learning experience actually tend to be the most valuable outcome of using the SBL model, which is actually an outcome when using any type of project-based learning approach.

Understanding the Pros & Cons of Different Simulations

One of the first key constraints for computer simulations involves the programming and update aspect. To utilize a computer-based simulation, all outcomes need to be pre-programmed and any updates or changes to the computer simulation need to also be programmed into the computer simulation. Creating a virtual “life-like” setting in a simulation game is not unlike creating a video game, which usually involves substantial expenditures in money and time. Adding in the crucial necessity to update the computer simulation, which naturally requires additional financial expenditures, results in a great deal of outdated computer simulations. With many industries and expectations of their workforce adapting over very short time periods, this is a key limitation.

One other key limitation can be derived from an article written as far back as 1993.  At that time, Schibrowsky and Peltier (1993) wrote about an instance in which many marketing faculty would use a particular business simulation program on a regular basis, resulting in students receiving “insider information” from previous players on “how to win.” Although “gaming” the system is one key issue, another key limitation for computer simulations is when the students complete the simulation. Is it possible to do the same simulation again with the same set of students but have different outcomes? Or, will they know how to play and “win” the simulation, thereby making the SBL activity a one-off activity that cannot be replicated? Moreover, would they even learn anything new from participating in the simulation again? This is another key limitation to consider when using a pre-programmed computer simulation.

The Merits of other Forms of Simulation-Based Learning

It’s worth noting that SBL activities come in many different forms, and while computer simulations are quite frequently used, they are not the only form of SBL. In my classroom, I curate role-play simulations, in which students are given different roles and briefing sheets that explain the context and responsibilities. This SBL approach provides students with a great degree of freedom to experiment and think differently about unique business contexts that have no ideal solution.

That being said, it is still an ongoing challenge to adapt and change my simulations to match current working conditions. This will always be a key challenge and limitation of SBL, as the parameters and context in which learners work can be vital to the learning outcomes, and this is what simulation designers need to be primarily concerned with when creating any kind of SBL activity. From my own experience doing a simulation in business as well as a simulation based on political communication with the same group of media students, this contextual change actually led to very different perceptions of the learning experience and learning outcomes. Understanding what your students are like, how they might respond to an SBL activity, and how to subsequently prepare your students for participating in a SBL activity, are all essential to achieving positive educational outcomes.

Lastly, it’s key to ramp-up students and manage their expectations before beginning SBL activities, especially since it’s typically very different from other forms of education most students have experienced to-date (which is unfortunate). You should never just proverbially throw a student into the “deep end” by simply asking them to participate in SBL activity with no prior preparation or briefing; how you prepare your students and intend to measure outcomes is just as critical as the simulation experience itself.

Industry-Integrated Learning

One particular type of learning that has been growing increasingly popular over the past few decades is industry-integrated project-based experiential learning, the educational approach that CapSource makes possible through their Software and Services. Is there a better way for students to apply what they have learned and show what they can do then by working with actual companies on realistic projects that have real-world implications?

This educational approach is a very powerful form of learning that has been utilized in different ways all throughout history. While internships are one way of enabling students to gain practical knowledge and skills, integrating real-world challenges into the curriculum through coursework is another great way to provide students opportunities to apply what they have learned throughout their educational tenure.

That being said, industry-integrated learning must be designed just-in-time and ideally needs to align teaching goals with industry objectives so that the collaborative relationship can be successful. Any project with outside parties must take into account students’ experience level and resourcefulness. Students need to have a solid foundation in key skills like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity in order to be successful in any project-based learning experience, especially ones that involve third-parties.

In all cases, it is imperative for the educator to understand who they are working with and establish a clear roadmap including clear expectations so that those industry partners can provide as much context and value throughout the learning experience as possible.

The external partners I work with are fully committed to collaborating with my students throughout the experiential learning opportunity, and thus is a key stakeholder that is actively involved in the implementation of my course.

Combining both practices!

To further our analysis, it’s worth highlighting forms of SBL that incorporate elements of industry-integrated learning. For example, in my class on Communication for Development, I utilize client-based projects where students take on the role as consulting agency executives planning and creating a digital campaign for a network of NGOs. The clients that students work on are real (like UNESCO and A21) who provide challenges that are related to the current work that they are doing throughout their organization. However, the stakes are low and the expected outcomes from these campaigns are not overly ambitious, which enables students to experiment with different tools and techniques.

The real question then is… is this lower stakes, less interactive version of industry-integrated learning simulation-based learning? Since students are doing work that is not necessarily real, high-stakes projects, I would say it certainly looks and feels a lot like a simulation from an educational perspective. The fact that the context is current and the projects are just-in-time certainly confirms that they look and feel just like industry-integrated learning experiences. The neat thing is that this lower stakes model, ideal for younger students, contains features of both and may be approached similarly from an educator perspective. The added benefit of building simulated challenges around real organizations is that you’re able to integrate Q&A with project mentors from industry to ensure the course content is up-to-date, engaging, and interactive. Plus, if all goes well, students can make a real impact on a real organization, even if it’s from doing great research and highlighting key resources and follow-on opportunities as opposed to “real, valuable solutions.”

Earlier this year, CapSource launched #OpenCases, open innovation challenges based on projects that have previously been completed successfully by students and educators throughout their network. These cases are also a unique combination of industry-integrated learning and SBL since the context and challenge are sourced from real organizations but the stakes are low. These “OpenCases” compared to the traditional industry-integrated learning model is more like an open-ended case study and less like a consulting project since the industry parties are not involved at all throughout the engagement. Educators can use these cases as discussion topics, role play exercises, group projects, or homework assignments (and they’re free!). They can really be a great tool for educators that want to add up-to-date challenges to their curriculum without letting projects and external stakeholders that expect reasonable and valuable outcomes take over the learning experience.

Go Experiential!

These kinds of experiences have highlighted to me not just the merits of both learning practices, but also the benefits they can provide to emerging young professionals. There is no better way to prepare students for challenges they may face in the real-world than by giving them that experience in small, controlled doses. Of course, it’s crucial to keep these environments as safe and low-risk as possible. Raising the stakes and giving students real work from actual companies is an interesting idea and very worthwhile for certain students, especially as they get further into their educational tenure and closer to the work environment, but it must be done with some degree of care.

The key point to consider when offering experiential learning activities is not just to develop the relevant skills for the students, but to nurture students and allow them to find their passion, chase their curiosity, and garner greater interest in a professional discipline that interests them. Experiential learning should never become so intimidating for the students that they feel they cannot measure up, thus feeling discouraged, leading them to go another direction. Experiential learning is at its best when it resembles real-life, but that certainly doesn’t mean it has to completely mirror real-life and feature real-life consequences.

Let’s Study Outcomes and Improve the Model

To conclude, experiential learning is a very powerful tool, but not one that has a lot of empirical data behind it. Several studies have indicated that the evidence supporting the effectiveness of experiential learning activities such as simulation-based learning are anecdotal and unsystematic, meaning that one simulation may not have the same general effect on different participants.

There is certainly an opportunity for all of us that engage in experiential education to dive deeper into analyzing the short and long-term impact that these high-fidelity learning activities can have on our students. With the relatively long history behind it, we should no longer be asking a question of whether experiential learning works (it does), but how can we further improve and refine the learning activities that we offer.

We must study what our students gain from these activities, not just through surveys, but through pre-test/post-tests, and as a community, we must not be afraid to share experiences where experiential learning activities or simulations don’t quite go according to plan. Some of the most interesting articles out there focus on learning experiences that didn’t quite work as intended. Sometimes, such is life, the best lessons are learned from failure and not from success.

As 21st century educators, it is crucial that we continue to embrace and practice all forms of experiential learning for the benefit of our students and the academy of as a whole.

I’ve included my personal contact information below and would encourage you to share your comments and feedback based on the interesting experiences and outcomes you’ve derived from conducting experiential learning activities in your classrooms.

Further Reading:

  1. Lohmann, R. (2019). Effects of Simulation-Based Learning and One Way to Analyze Them. Journal of Political Science Education, 1-17.

  2. Mayer, I. S., van Bueren, E. M., Bots, P. W., van der Voort, H., & Seijdel, R. (2005). Collaborative decisionmaking for sustainable urban renewal projects: a simulation–gaming approach. Environment and Planning B: planning and design, 32(3), 403-423.

  3. Salas, E., Wildman, J. L., & Piccolo, R. F. (2009). Using simulation-based training to enhance management education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 8(4), 559-573.

  4. Schibrowsky, J. A., & Peltier, J. W. (1995). The dark side of experiential learning activities. Journal of Marketing Education, 17(1), 13-24.

Ray Wang is a lecturer in the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at Thammasat University in Thailand. His interest in experiential learning first began when he started teaching a media business management course several years ago. Realizing that lecture and exam-based learning might not be sufficient to help students better understand issues of managing media content and companies, he designed his first business simulation based off a few academic articles and his own experience freelancing and producing media content for various media companies and organizations. Since that time, he has continued to refine this business simulation, but has also focused more on industry-integrated learning, partnering with a few NGOs to provide students with real-world opportunities to communicate about sustainability and other important social issues.

Currently studying his PhD in Sustainable Leadership at the College of Management at Mahidol University, Ray has co-authored several articles on simulation-based learning and serious games, and looks forward to learning more about how experiential learning can lead to transformative learning experiences for his students.

CONTACT:
[email protected]