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The five levels of software simulation for e-learning

There are various tools available to create simulations of IT systems. Deborah Limb looks at five levels of software simulation and recommends when to use them in e-learning.

What makes software simulation an effective way to learn? There are a number of good tools available to create simulations of IT systems and they are broadly similar in their output.

A successful software simulation should:

  • Provide context and clarity; explaining the why as well as the how
  • Recognise that learners may wish to be prompted to have another go before being told the correct answer
  • Give the learner more control as they build their level of expertise and confidence
  • Feel and behave like the real environment
  • Use realistic dummy data and relevant examples and scenarios
  • Be broken down into short learning cycles, with opportunities to go back and review steps at any time

A useful model of software simulations is provided by Karrer, Laser and Martin (2001).

Level 1: Screen Capture

Screen capture is the simplest type of software simulation.

It displays screens captured from the real software, perhaps with accompanying voice-over.

  • Such simulations follow a set script and are self-running.
  • The learner moves through the screens at their own pace using a ‘Next’ button.
  • They should be designed to allow the learner to go backwards as well as forwards to enable them to review the information provided.

Recommended use

Level 1 software simulations are useful when demonstrating a very simple process such as logging on to a system or showing the functionality of just a couple of screens.

They can also be used when providing an overview of a system for learners (perhaps managers or supervisors) who are not directly responsible for entering data but who may need to view data for other purposes.

They are of limited use for developing in-depth understanding of navigation and data entry.

Level 2:  Point and Click

Point and click provides the most basic interactive software simulation.

Unlike at level 1, learners are invited to click on different parts of the screen capture for further information.

Information may appear in the form of a pop up box superimposed over the screen, or as a result of a simple action such as dropping down a menu from a tool bar.

Recommended use

Level 2 software simulations are useful for illustrating simple points, for example providing information about a series of drop down menus on a single screen, where no data entry is required.

They are of limited use for developing in-depth understanding of navigation and data entry.

Level 3:  Data Input

Data input software simulations provide robust application-style interactivity.

They simulate input elements, such as menus, drop-down areas, check boxes and data entry fields.Although data input simulations don’t mimic all the behaviours of the application, they do enable the learner to enter data in a realistic format and thus enhance knowledge retention.

  • The learner can be provided with step-by-step guidance, and contextual explanation on each screen in the form of a Learning Guide (audio and transcript).
  • They can be supported with prompts should they initially enter data in a wrong field, perhaps in the form of a flashing highlight.
  • The learner can be prevented from continuing with the simulation until they accurately complete the action for that screen.

Recommended use

Data input software simulations are arguably the most useful and practical tool for developing skills and knowledge about how to use a piece of software in a structured and controlled way.

They are useful for taking learners step by step through the core routines they will need to follow to use the software effectively for specific tasks related to their role.

They are most effective where real data is used as part of realistic and appropriate scenarios, recognisable to the learner group.

Level 4: Multiple Input Paths

These more complex style software simulations allow the learner a choice of routes for completion of a simulation and allow for greater complexity and sophistication of user interaction.

They are able therefore to mimic more accurately the functionality of a software programme, demonstrating its full range of design features.

They are more complicated and time-consuming to develop and test as there are a greater number of potential routes, and therefore feedback, that needs to be provided to the learner.

Recommended use

Multiple input path software simulations are useful for learners who may already know the basics of a program but now need to develop their skills further, perhaps to understand short cut routes, or to understand the full functionality available.

This type of simulation however can have the drawback of confusing a learner at an early stage in their understanding of a new system, by providing them with too many options and too much complexity.

Level 5: Full Simulation

A full software simulation covers all possible interactions available within the software programme.

The most effective way to deliver this type of simulation is to utilise the real system and provide a help feature or tutorial to run alongside or integrated within it. Learners are free to follow any path through the software and access any feature or function.

Recommended use

This type of software simulation is suitable where learners need access to the full range of features and functionality of the software.

It is best used for practice and confidence building once the software is being used for real.

This just in time support is an excellent follow up to an initial structured Level 3 Data input set of simulations and will enable learners to quickly become proficient in using the software with ongoing support as and when they require it.

This type of simulation however is not suitable where a learner is new to the software and needs more structured guidance and explanation.

The benefits of software simulations

Whichever level of software simulation you use can help increase the effectiveness of learning by embedding learning in a realistic context.  Software simulations improve the application of learning in a fail-safe environment.

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