Ideas while travelling on the way….

Archive for December, 2011

Advanced Learning Strategies and Designing Sims

Setup for the Live Presentation:

Another web conference was held with Collaborate.  Initially there were no glitches, but before long there were some brief audio problems with echoes while Aldrich spoke.  They seem to be related to multiple microphones open at the same time.  Fortunately, the problems did not last long.


Clark Aldrich is nothing if not organized.  His introductory blog post, his freely downloadable book and his slides were all clearly enumerated and presented.  The first Collaborate session on Wednesday consisted of the first part of his presentation, while the Friday session picked right up where he left off.  The second half of Friday’s session moved in Q and A.

Aldrich presented a five phase outline for the development of educational simulations and serious games:

Phase 1: Concept
This phase is a combination of consultation and marketing with a potential client.  A major selling point in the success of simulations is in promoting competence and conviction.  (Conviction is understood to mean that participants are more likely to apply automatically and intentionally the lessons learned.  One of the first things that the consultant needs to understand from the client are the specific areas of need.  Early personnel roles in concept development should include at least a project lead, a designer and a project manager.

Phase 2: Create and Design
Aldrich spent the bulk on his time on time section, which reflects his area of specialization.  He makes the interesting point that simulations tend to be used in areas where the cost of failure is too great to bear. Several factors need to be considered: Engagement (activitites be fun enough), Relevance and Convenience (well chunked), all of which needs to be produced at an acceptable cost within a reasonable time frame.

This is also the place to talk of budgeting.  Features like multi-player and artificial intelligence can greatly increase the cost of production.  He made the fascinating point that the preliminary budget should be open to adjustment depending on the number of overseers that need to sign off.  Less than four signatories could reduce costs by 25%; while having ten or more to sign off may double the cost!

Learning objectives should start with the high level best practices for the area. Then there practices filter down through influencing the choice of genre and the core of the simulation.  Early walkthroughs help get the client on board.  Once approval is granted the simulation model truly gets underway with the inclusion of programmers and artists.  This stage culminates with the production of a full design document which serves as the blueprint for detailed development.

Phase 3: Code
This is the place where the “grunt work” of the programmers and coders is done.  Resources are gathered and shaped to fulfill the plan in the design document.  Usually one complete level is completed first.  Once that is satisfactorily completed, then the emphasis shifts to the production and integrate of all the small components.

Phase 4: Calibrate
Pilot tests are important to ensure that the project delivers what was promised.  Areas that need revision are addressed.  Careful attention needs to be paid to the user experience.  There needs to be a cycle of frustration, when participants cannot yet figure out exactly what needs to the done, followed by a resolution as goals are completed.  Maintaining a proper balance between frustration and resolution is difficult, but vital to success.

Phase 5: Deploy
This area received little emphasis besides being mentioned as the final step.  Little is accomplished by all the effort expended in making the simulation until people actually use it.


While the slides were not available via a link, I learned that you can use the file menu within Collaborate to download slides.  Very, very handy.

While Aldrich went through the material quickly, his clear outline made him easy to follow.  His expertise as a presenter was obvious.  He seamlessly incorporated comments from the chat window.

Take away points: I think that teaching procedures are where simulations excel.  On the other hand I was left with this question: When are simulations not the best way to learn?


Soft stuff, hard stuff, and invisible elephants

Setup for the Live Presentation:

The live session in Elluminate with Jon Dron had some initial sound problems, but these were quickly corrected.  The technology is not transparent as yet, but things do seem to be getting better.


The humble screwdriver serves as Dron’s opening example.  It is a single tool that can have many technologies (uses).  What but exactly is a technology?  According to W. Brian Arthur, it is the “orchestration or phenomena for some use.”  Pedagogies are also technologies.

Central to Dron’s discussion is the distinction between soft and hard technologies.  An example of a soft technology is a pair of knitting needles.  The user has to actively provide all the “orchestration.”  This requires a lot of skill to produce a particular outcome, but many outcomes are possible.  An example of a hard technology is a knitting machine.  It has the advantage of being faster and easier to use, but the disadvantage of being less versatile and more brittle.  Designating a technology as soft or hard depends to a certain extent on the user and is never entirely one or the other, but a continuum.  The tendency is for technology to add more features.

What does hard and soft technology have to do with learning?  Using technology in learning is inevitable.  Some kind of technology will be used.  The choice of technology should be based on the Goldilocks principle: not too hard or too soft.  It must be easy enough to use, without putting too many restraints on users.

What about the invisible elephants mentioned in the topic title?  Technology will only be as good as the people using it.  A well-implemented soft technology is much better than a poorly implemented hard technology.  It is far too easy to concentrate on the technology itself rather than the skills and talents needed to use it well.


Defining terms may not be the most interesting of activities, but is vital to avoid misunderstanding.  Dron used Arthur’s definition of technology (“orchestration of phenomena for some use”) and also claimed that pedagogies are technologies.  I need to reflect more on Arthur’s definition, but I have difficulties with the second claim.  There is a difference between a technology, which requires some kind of object, (perhaps even designed for a specific purpose), from a technique which is a process.  While the line may occasionally get fuzzy, it is important to try to keep a distinction between the two.

After quibbling over such definitions, I found the hard and soft designations very intriguing: Hard emphasizing the ease of use, at the cost of confining and brittle; while soft being harder to use, but very flexible.

Can a technology be both hard and soft?  I think the answer is yes.  Take for example the software I am using to write this, Microsoft Word.  Word 2007 adopted the Ribbon bar, a huge shift from the previous drop down menu system.  Yes, I did complain loudly then and still do on some occasions about some of the changes, but I have to admit that for the average use (especially the beginner) the program is easier to use.   Most common features are easier to see and change.  In Dron’s sense it is hard technology.  The Ribbon bar itself is not at all flexible for the end user. If you do not like it, too bad.  On the other hand, more obscure but still useful things are now softer and require more skill to access.  For example, the ability to work with templates is much softer in Dron’s sense.  The nitty, gritty of applying a template requires more skill.  Instead of a couple of clicks it now may take half a dozen and that is when you know where is look!  Because this is not something the average user does frequently, it now takes much more time and effort to use them.  The philosophy seems to be something like this: make the common tasks more visible (hard in Dron’s sense), while delegating the less common to being less visible (soft in Dron’s sense).  Does this mean Goldilocks is happy?  You will have to ask her, because I am not Goldilocks.

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