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TRANSCRIPT: Tales of Teaching Online ep. 61: Enhancing authentic immersive learning experiences through simulations (feat. Dr Tara Draper and Ashley Quarrell)

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Intro: Digital, student-centred, creative, innovation, imagination, initiative, stories that matter.

Tara Draper: I’m Tara Draper, and this is Tales of Teaching Online brought to you by Deakin Learning Futures. Hi everyone, and welcome to today’s episode, enhancing authentic immersive learning experiences through simulations. Today I’m joined by Ash Quarrell, who joined Deakin earlier this year and is part of the Digital Learning team within Deakin Learning Futures. Ash has a wealth of knowledge and experience around the design and implementation of immersive simulated learning activities and today he’s going to share some of this with us. Hi Ash, and thanks for joining us.  

Ash Quarrell: Hey Tara. Thanks for having me.  

Tara: Ash, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you were doing in the immersive learning space.

Ash: Yeah, I’ve been doing working in the simulation industry for the last ten years. So I started with the Country Fire Authority delivering some simulation products to volunteers. Moving on to Yarra Trams where I did some new driver training using a immersive simulator for that. And then went to work for Master Builders in the Building Leadership Simulation Center, where we ran leadership simulations and safety simulations with groups of actors.  

Tara: Nice. So can you tell us a little bit more about simulation as an authentic and immersive learning experience?  

Ash: So simulations an awesome tool. I really like it because it puts the learner in an active role in the learning and actually allows the teaching staff to take a bit of a backseat in the process and observe and provide feedback. But really allows the learner to take control of what they do and make critical decisions and influence change and how things are going to happen within that space.  

Tara: So in terms of the clients that you’ve worked with in the past, I guess two as great examples. Why do this? What are the key advantages? You’ve mentioned from the student being immersed in the activity, but what are the other advantages of this approach as opposed to them just going out and actually doing the activity?  

Ash: Yeah. So with the clients that I worked with, a lot of them, they really liked to actually participate in it and it was good for them because they actually see a bit of return on investment as well that can actually see their participants taking on the learning and actually developing across the learning. So if we have a course for, say, like two days or something, we would have our clients come in and observe the progression and see where the students were getting to and then also see any other areas that they needed to work on as well. So that would also identify a lot of other learning that needs to happen or certain mentorship that could happen to certain people and so there’s a lot more that could come out of it that was a little bit different to that standard face-to-face learning.  

Tara: I’m guessing there’s a safety aspect as well. So not putting them in like with your CFA volunteers putting them in the line of fire as a crude metaphor.  

Ash: Yeah, definitely. So simulations awesome because you can actually keep the environment very safe. You can actually have full control over how, how safe it is. You don’t have people walking into burning buildings and that sort of stuff. There are risks involved in there because you don’t want to create a false sense of safety for those participants, but you can actually do things and replicate situations there actually could be quite dangerous. So e.g. with the tram drivers, worst thing to do is take inexperienced drivers straight out onto the road and learn how to drive a tram out in the road with real traffic in the middle of Melbourne. By using simulation tools, we’re able to get a base level of understanding and reflexes and responses to certain situations before we actually put them into the vehicles so that they can actually be a lot safer when they were training.

Tara: So I’m guessing there’s those advantages around scalability in that respect as well, that you can train a whole lot of people more efficiently than you could if you would send them out out of the road for example.  

Ash: Yeah, definitely. And even something like the trams every time you have a learner driver out on the road, you’re causing delays. Trams count exactly overtake other times quite easily. So by having these simulator products, you can actually reduce the impact that has on the lines and actually increase the amount of time participants can spend learning and having hands-on on the actual product.  

Tara: In terms of the actual learners, how realistic is the actual simulation experience? How authentic is it for them?  

Ash: Yeah, so for the beginner drivers, and it’s quite, quite real for them, it replicates a lot of the things that they will come into contact with and what we’ll do is actually add stuff like vibrating panels and fans and stuff to create it as realistic as possible. Now, this works really well as they are learning to drive and as they are getting experience, but as they get more experienced, the products need to be more high fidelity to match what they’re actually experiencing. So we noticed stuff that we’ve experienced drivers and there’s actually research that backs this up as well. There’ll be less benefit because it would cost a lot of money to create a product that would accurately replicate every little variable that an experienced driver would be used to. But when you teaching basic skills, basic motor skills using certain applications within the tram, and that’s the stuff that fundamental knowledge can definitely be built within the simulator.  

Tara: What you’re talking about with the vibrations and things like that, that’s the high end of the spectrum. What can we do in terms of individual learning designers, and academics, what can we do to create simple simulations that will work for our teaching practice?  

Ash: So the best simulations I’ve been part of a ones that have been quite basic. So there’s, I’ve seen products where there’s been millions of dollars go into it and they’re really cool and generally they do one thing really well. But some of the best products I’ve been involved in have been basic simulations which had been built around using role-players as where you can actually have these fairly effective things for low-cost. Examples, as we were doing leadership training with role-players, at times would use actors, at times would use medical students, depending on what outcomes were. But by using people, we didn’t have to create these huge applications. And by using people that actually had some knowledge around the topic, we’re able to challenge our students in ways that could actually adapt as well. Computers are not very good at adapting to the participants needs – if the participant is really good at that particular simulator, won’t then adapt to challenge them quite often, unless it’s had that built into it, which would be quite expensive, where actors and role-players can actually adapt to challenge, further challenge that participant. You can leverage their knowledge on the topic as well.  

Tara: So in that scenario, are they actually in-person or are they recording and then the students would be asking questions that you’re anticipating? How does that actually work with the actors

Ash: Yeah, So generally I love to do it in person. I really like to do that. So I’d get a team of actors. I would brief them on the scenarios, what we’re about to put the participants through, some potential outcomes, and most importantly, what I want to see the participants achieve. So then the actors have the, the outcomes that we want to get to and the authority to kind of move around in that space, to keep it realistic and keep it immersive. We found that we didn’t have to teach the actors. We taught them a baseline of what the participant would experience in this sort of environment, but we could really leverage on their experiences as well to keep that immersion level up. So that was really cool because the actors would bring in some other elements that we hadn’t even considered or react in a way that would keep up that immersion for the participant. It’s kind of like improv, but kind of not liking improv. I don’t want to be like improvise around our learning objectives. I don’t want to move away from the learning objective and end up building a story that’s very much away from what we’re trying to achieve.  

Tara: So are you using props in that scenario as well, or is it literally just the actors in a room like, how do you make that a truly immersive experience?  

Ash: So props, I definitely try to get any sort of props in there to create an environment to help with the immersion. Stuff that we’d use, this stuff like that, 360 photography to create some context. The other thing is just like soundscapes and all that. I know in the past, I’ve heard of people using stuff like smells, recreating smells of certain environments to help participants immerse. I find you don’t have to do too much. I think the biggest part for the immersion as well is actually removing the observers from the space. So if you can watch without the learners being constantly aware that they’re being observed. So stuff like recording software and stuff or hidden cameras. You want them to be aware of the cameras, but you can actually get the participants to be acting in an authentic way with the role players. And if they’re using role-players that and not known to them, the most awkward part of corporate role-play is trying to become someone else and work with someone that you know is not that person. I think that’s one thing that where a lot of those things fall down. So if it’s someone that they’re not comfortable with or do not know, you can actually create these immersive experiences to be quite effective.  

Tara: Are there ways that a lot of our learners are now dispersed across multiple campuses and they’re also online in the cloud environment, so how do you then take that same concept of role-playing and then bring that into a digital environment?  

Ash: Everything that we did with the Building Leadership Simulation Center was all face-to-face with actors. And through COVID, we didn’t think that the leap to digital would work effectively. So we did a heap of trials of how it could work and we’re actually really surprised with the results. And we got a product that works really well. With Zoom we were able to create an environment which was somewhat immersive. With our briefings, were able to get all of our observers to turn off their cameras and actually hide them from the screen. So the participants weren’t aware of who was actually in that space or not being constantly reminded that they were being observed. We had the ability to have the sessions recorded and then easily distribute those sessions out. But our actors were able to create the same sort of immersion that they were getting, not to the same level as we were getting in these bespoke environments, but to a high enough level to have the participants immersed in the content. That’s a product that once we went back to face-to-face learning, some clients actually preferred to keep that because it was so flexible they were able to then get people from different states into the same training session and have them work together. So that was something that was a lot more effective than we thought it would be.  

Tara: And how did you actually evaluate the outcomes like the clients, you said, were liked it and wanted to keep it. How did they learners actually, what was their feedback?  

Ash: So one thing that we were quiet, diligent with, who’s getting feedback from the learners about the experience. And because it’s all very centred on the learners, we want them to have a really fun experience and get as much out of it as they can. And if we can get them into that space, they’re going to do really well and they’re going to try really hard. So we constantly, we’re checking back with learners to see, is this working? And also you can measure the immersion levels with the actors as you progress through. So you can actually check in with the actors, are the participants feeling immersed? As you’re watching are they asking questions of observers that are not quite there or are they confused? Or I think the biggest telling part is when that first actor joins the call to see how well the participants then snap into reality. So anytime I’ve done a simulation with your initial briefing, people are gonna be not know what to expect. They’re all going to be noticed. And that’s okay. Anytime they’re in that state, they’re in the perfect state for what’s to come next. When that first actor comes into the room and they all snap to that immersion, that’s when you can really tell if it’s working or not.  

Tara: How do you bring the ones that just hate role-playing scenarios? How do you bring those learners with you in that kind of context?  

Ash: Some people are always gonna be a struggle with these types of learning. And what we do is really acknowledge that some people are not going to get there straightaway. So my actors were very persistent about maintaining their characters, linking back to the learning objectives, but particularly in the construction environment, some people were not willing or ready the first session to jump into that immersion. Some people would fight it. So we would respect that and we would work with them. When we did our group feedback sessions, at the end, they would see all their peers engaging and realised that they’ve actually missed out on some experiences. We noticed that quite often in the next session they were trying to make up for everything that they missed out in the first session, they were really trying to get in. So it’s measuring people against their peers and seeing that their peers are actually immersing and actually getting value out of it and now they wanted to get value in as well. Very rarely do we have people not want to participate or find it very difficult to engage.  

Tara: So I guess that you building that confidence that this is all good and I’m going to embrace it and just keep going with each iteration that we run so that sounds really good.  

Ash: Exactly.  

Tara: So you’ve talked about a whole lot of variation in simulation from that, that very realistic in the room with actors to the more complex stuff that is really kind of cost-prohibitive in some respects. But what’s the general advice that you would give for those of us thinking about incorporating stimulation into our practice?  

Ash: Yeah, So the big pitfall for a lot of people is that technology equals simulation. It’s always remind yourself that pedagogy before technology, It’s always finding what you’re learning objectives are and building around those learning objectives. So it’s very easy to get a massive budget or get talked into a product by some consultant selling technology and building that those learning objectives around what that technology can do. And that’s a trap that I see. Most, most simulation products follow that trap. By understanding what you’re trying to achieve and what you want to see your participants doing and students doing, that’s the best way to make sure that you’ve got a great product and a product if you can adapt as well, like you want a product that you can create and then adapt quite easily as participants get more experienced and as the landscape changes, you don’t want to be going back to a developer every couple of years and spending another, however much and often with simulation products, people are getting a set amount to buy a product. So maintenance is not often considered within that as well. So by keeping it to the learning objectives and what you’re trying to achieve you’re always going to have a product that works for you.  

Tara: Excellent. Thanks so much Ash, that was really entertaining to listen to and I’m now trying to work at how to find myself some actors. Thank you so much for joining us today.  

Ash: No problems Tara, anytime.  

Tara: Thank you. 

6 December 2022

Last modified: 29 May 2023 at 11:39 am

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