In this unit, we provide a brief introduction to simulations and their educational applications. We introduce key concepts and terminology related to simulations/playful simulations, and examples of their use in formal and/or informal education and training environments. We also discuss the theoretical underpinnings underlying playful simulations for learning.




SEE ONE – KNOWLEDGE ABOUT using simulations in teaching  (WHAT)

What is a simulation?

  • Defining simulations
  • Types of simulations
  • Game & non-game simulations
  • Playfulness in simulations

Theoretical underpinning of simulations as pedagogy

  • Videos to differentiate the various types and focus on playfulness
  • Readings on pedagogical theory and didactic methods
  • Reflections - Learning journal entry
  • Identify/ Differentiate games for learning, serious games, simulations, playful simulations
  • Be familiarized with the theoretical underpinnings of simulations as pedagogy

What is a simulation?

Defining Simulations

In the above video, Dr. Richard Gran, a member of the Apollo Lunar Module Digital Autopilot design team, defines simulation as “the creation of a model that can be manipulated to decide how the physical world works”.

Ellington and colleagues (1982) define a simulation as "an operating representation of central features of reality" (p.10). According to this definition, a simulation has the following characteristics:

  • It represents something in the “real world” - either a situation drawn directly from real life, or an imaginary situation that is conceivably real (e.g. invasion by extraterrestrial beings, dungeons & dragons, etc.)
  • It represents the "central features of reality" - as it cannot depict every aspect of reality, one has to choose a very small subset of key characteristics around which to build its representation.
  • It is an operational type of representation, i.e., it constitutes an ongoing process, rather than being a static analogue of reality like a photograph, a map, or graph.
  • It is systemic in nature - A dynamic system made of a set of parts that interrelate to form a whole.

A simulation is thus a procedural representation achieved through an ongoing process. One can, therefore, view a simulation as the imitation of the operation of a real (or imaginary) world process or system over time. To run a simulation, one first needs to build a model that represents the key characteristics or behaviors/functions of the selected physical or abstract system or process. The model represents the system itself, whereas the simulation represents the operation of the system over time (watch the following video for more details).

Types of Simulation

Live, Virtual, and Constructive (LVC) Simulation is a broadly used taxonomy for classifying Models and Simulation (M&S) into the following three categories:

  • Live - A simulation which involves real people operating real systems (e.g. soldiers simulating military events).
  • Virtual: A simulation where real people operate simulated systems (e.g. driving simulators).
  • Constructive - A simulation where simulated people operate simulated systems. Real people stimulate (make inputs to) constructive simulations by building a computer program which simulates a system (e.g. traffic, weather, an explosion), and the simulation itself determines the outcome (i.e. it tells us what might happen).

In this module, we concentrate on computer simulations (which could be either virtual or constructive), i.e. simulations that are run on a single computer, or a network of computers, to reproduce the behavior of a system. As explained in the following video, computer simulations vary in complexity from modeling of very simple social interactions (e.g. making eye contact) to attempts to duplicate complex social processes (e.g. legislature).

Computer simulations have been routinely used for several decades in a variety of professions (e.g. healthcare, aviation, military, law enforcement) to better educate and prepare people for the real-life situations they are likely to encounter (Myers & Frick, 2009). As an example, watch the ViSTIS® – Simulation-based training video which describes Virtual Ship Training and Information System (ViSTIS®), a simulation-based program that allows top-quality team training without need of the original hardware or the ship itself – on board a "virtual ship".

In recent years, computer simulations have also been brought into classrooms at all levels of instruction, and in many different disciplines, to capture students' interest and facilitate their learning. The following videos provide a glimpse into some of the ways in which simulations are being used in different disciplines to enhance students’ learning experience.

Making Educational-Virtual-Simulations Accessible and Available: George Takahashi at TEDxPurdueU

Press Play - Gaming, Simulation & Achievement in the Classroom: Jonathon Best at TEDxDenverTeachers

Simulation as a powerful tool in medical education and learning

3D Web-Based training Simulation - Emergency Room Scenario Training

Algodoo - Science education for a new generation

This virtual lab will revolutionize science class

Game and Non-Game Simulations

In the digital game industry, there is a genre of games called simulation video games, or “sims” for short. Games falling into this category are designed to closely simulate real-world activities (e.g. historical processes, natural ecosystems, wars, etc.). A classic example of a “sim” is SimCity, an open-ended city-building video game, which is a complex depiction of the process of urban planning, city economics, and evolution of a human community. In SimCity, the player develops a city from a patch of undeveloped land, controlling where to place development zones, infrastructure and public services, but also determining the tax rate, budget and social policy of this fictitious city which is populated by simulated persons, the"Sims".

Sims is not the only type of games that can be considered simulations. In fact, as argued by Salen, Tekinbaş & Zimmerman (2004) in their book chapter "Games as the Play of Simulation", all games can, in fact, be considered simulations, including very abstract games or games which simulate phenomena not found in the real world.

A special case of digital games that has gained lots of attention in recent years are “serious games”. Serious games are developed with game technology and design principles, and thus have the look and feel of a digital game and an entertainment dimension. However, they are not confined to entertainment, but also have the potential to enhance the player’s experience in a specific context (e.g. education, training, health, interpersonal communication, etc.) through providing an environment that conveys some message or input, “be it knowledge, skill, or in general some content” (Laamarti, Eid & Saddik, 2014).

Serious games have penetrated into education and training in its various forms, as a means of providing motivating learning environments. They have attracted lots of attention among educators in different subjects and fields due to the fact that they deviate from traditional approaches and combine entertainment with situated learning, thus making the process more creative and appealing, and often more effective.

In the following websites, you can find many examples of serious games, as well as a comprehensive review of the literature on serious games in education:

Playfulness in simulations

Of course, the general concept of a simulation is certainly not restricted to games (“serious” or not), as there are clearly many simulations that are not games (e.g. simulations designed for scientific research purposes). What we aim at in this module is to provide you with the skills required to select or even create instructional simulations that are characterized by a playful design.

In order to get familiarized with the core concepts underlying playful education, and to understand how playful design goes beyond gamification (i.e. the employment of techniques typical of games such as points, levels, and prizes in non-game situations), you can read an illuminating presentation  on the Principles - Patterns - Processes - Pedagogy for Playful Education, by Morn and Nørgård.

Theoretical underpinning of simulations as pedagogy

Simulations have a long history of use in education and training. In fact, simulation as a pedagogical approach derives its foundation from as far back as the “writings of Aristotle and the practices of Socrates” (Ruben, 1999, p.500). In modern times, the advent of microcomputing, in parallel with the wide adoption of constructivist, experiential learning theories and pedagogical approaches, has led to the widespread worldwide use of computer simulations as a didactical tool. In the United States, the use of computer simulations as a teaching tool in higher education dates back to the mid-1950s. Advances in technologies eventually led to a wide adoption of computer simulations by educational institutions across the world, as an instructional tool that allows students to experience and learn from a variety of realistic situations.

You can find more about the history of use of computer simulations in instructional settings, and about ways in which they are currently being used as a teaching method in different subjects by watching the following videos:

History of Marketplace Simulations

Simulation Teaching

Teaching Strategy: Simulation

Stanford MBA Teaching Methods Simulation

The following manuscripts provide useful information on the theoretical underpinnings of simulations as a pedagogy:

Let's reflect on what we have learned...

It is easier to remember concepts graphically...

The following graphics refer to key ideas and concepts presented above.