Experiential learning can seem like a panacea, but there are a few reasons to step carefully when considering it for your training needs.
Marc Prensky has long been a thought leader and pioneer in game-based learning, simulations and other types of experiential learning. Prensky is the CEO and chief creative officer of New York-based Games2Train, a provider of game-based learning, and he has been touting the benefits of games and simulations in training for years. Still, he contends that the usefulness of simulations has its limitations.
Simulations are useful and effective when used to teach mechanical behaviors, says Prensky. For example, because a flight simulator so closely replicates the cockpit of an airplane, it's a good way to teach a pilot how to fly. However, Prensky says that when teaching more complex scenarios, the use of simulations isn't necessarily a good idea. He points out that people are much more complex than machines—and much less predictable. "I'm not against any of this stuff, but I want people to understand what it can do," he says. "The weather is much less complex than people, but the most powerful supercomputers can't predict the weather except very narrowly."
This unpredictability limits the ability of simulations to re-create reality and to teach participants useful knowledge. In his 2002 article, "Why NOT Simulation," Prensky points out that many simulations compel participants to choose among given alternatives. "In real life, a limited set of choices is rarely, if ever, presented," Prensky writes.
Still, companies can find ways to use simulations if they're willing to experiment, Prensky says. "If they find a limited domain, where the stuff they want people to learn isn't terribly deep or involving the complexity of human behavior, it can work."
Jan Hammond, the Jesse Philips Professor of Manufacturing at Harvard Business School, Cambridge, Mass., is also an enthusiastic proponent of simulations. Hammond uses simulations in MBA classes, corporate universities and executive education. But she also believes that only certain training situations call for them. Simulations are an excellent way to analyze and understand cross-functional relationships, Hammond says. But it can be important to lay the groundwork first, because these simulations aren't as good at giving detailed, in-depth information about how individual functions work.
"I think I would want to have some more focused sessions that were outside of a simulation so that people could get more in-depth analysis and exposure," Hammond says. "Then what the simulation can do is really pull it all together."
Chris Musselwhite says that participants in experiential learning may initially treat it as "just a game." But the president and CEO of Discovery Learning, a developer of training assessments, simulations and programs based in Greensboro, N.C., warns that participants can become serious about it very quickly—and they bring their issues with them. Intact teams or groups who have a history of working together can often have conflict in that history, Musselwhite says, and it can come out in the simulation. He recommends learning ahead of time about the personalities and issues that might cause trouble. "I've had a couple of situations where things got really out of hand," he says. "You can spend all your time trying to get the worms back in the can rather than being able to do the learning piece that you wanted to do." —H.D.