Friday, 22 March 2013

Professional simulation through quizzes

One of the challenges in teaching a work-related subject through distance learning is to get students to think in a professional way. It's easy enough to give them theory, case studies and exemplars, practical tips and suggestions; but what you really need to give them is practice in thinking on their feet and feedback on their efforts so that they can improve.

Here is a neat example of how to do this in a technically simple and pedagogically powerful way. Taken from an OU course on technology management, this exercise drops you into the scenario of investigating a serious accident which resulted in loss of life - based on Richard Feynman's investigation of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. As in Feynman's case, this scenario includes many people who have an interest in hindering your investigation, and a series of questions ask you what you would do in one difficult situation after another. For each question, there are a number of possible responses, and for each response you get feedback.

There are no wrong responses, and no responses which are indisputably right; even the least favoured courses of action might work out under certain circumstances, and even the most favoured carry some degree of risk. So although the simulation takes the form of a multiple-choice quiz, there's no scoring: the learning comes in your thinking through the pros and cons of the possible courses of action and in checking your thinking against the model analysis provided in the feedback.

The only weakness in the quiz format is that the response options, by being given explicitly, may prompt you to consider possible courses of action which you wouldn't have thought of for yourself - but that it seems to me is a small price to pay for the simplicity and elegance of the delivery. As I commented in my review of the varieties of simulation, it's never possible to simulate every aspect of a scenario: the learning design challenge is to focus on those aspects which are relevant to the training: which allow learners to exercise their relevant abilities, and to make mistakes. In this case, the aim of the learning is not about the creative generation of possible actions in difficult situations, but the practical and ethical thinking through of their consequences. And in that, I think this exercise succeeds brilliantly, using very simply online technology, but with a well-realised scenario and very well-written feedback .

The exercise was promoted as a tie-in with the BBC/OU co-produced docu-drama on the Challenger investigation, with William Hurt as Richard Feynman, broadcast on 18 March 2013. The programme is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer until 10:30 pm on Monday 25 March.

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