Keeping Engagement High and Bandwidth Low

Effective, compelling simulations don't necessarily require large file sizes.

COMPUTER-based simulation of work experience has proven extremely effective in helping learners achieve their training goals. Simulation increases the learner's involvement and interest in online learning; however, bandwidth limits the forms it can take. Web-based training (WBT) developers must create designs that balance file size with the need for actively and creatively involving learners.

It has been said that, "The success of simulations depends upon their ability to replicate workplace tasks." (Mike Flannigan, Online Learning Magazine, 2002). Rather than focusing on replication of workplace tasks, it is more useful in occupational safety and health training to say, "Successful simulations cause learners to engage in real workplace decision processes." This realization unleashes the true potential of simulations in Web-based courses.

Online training is not conducive to teaching complex physical tasks, and because of this, OSHA restricts some training activities to face-to-face settings. Rather than attempt to teach someone to drive a forklift, for instance, the Web-based training designer's job is to create simulations that isolate a discrete set of decisions forklift operators need to make in order to lift a load safely. Similarly, an online course should not attempt to teach someone to drive a truck carrying hazardous materials. Instead, an online course should focus on the thought processes and decisions necessary to determine the nature of the hazardous materials, such as understanding marking and labeling. Bodies cannot be trained online, but the mind can be trained to make decisions that will keep the body safe.

The WBT developer must take a step-by-step approach to designing a course that minimizes file size while attaining the learning goal. He/she must first look at the content of the course and determine its complexity. The content is then broken down into sets of information to be absorbed by the learner. Finally, simulation is applied to the parts that are most crucial to reaching the learning objectives of the course. Simulations can be broken down into four types that are increasingly more interactive.

At the beginning stages of interactivity, simulations demonstrate steps in a process. Decision-making is not required, although the learner may be asked to click through the process being described. Why the clicking? Performing this simple action reinforces the fact that steps must be followed in a particular order. This type of exercise may serve as a review of skills learned in a classroom, such as performing CPR.

Slightly more involved is the approach of guided decision-making. Again, actual decision-making is not taking place on the part of the learner; the learner is being guided through the correct decisions. In a typical example, the learner witnesses the process an expert goes through to determine whether a waste product is "hazardous" according to EPA regulations. Learners are provided with a visual demonstration as well as with audio that acts as "the voice inside their heads" and further stresses the objective.

The third type of simulation is a simple branching process that allows learners to see the consequences of their choices. At its simplest, the simulation may present a scenario, two choices, and feedback on each of those choices. Instructionally, the key is feedback for each choice, right or wrong, at each cusp in the decision process. For example, in our "Hoisting and Rigging" course, the learner selects the angle at which a crane lifts a heavy load and then is shown what will happen. Even if the correct angle, 0º, is selected, he/she is asked to try it at 10º and 20º to get a better understanding of the consequences involved in each instance.

The complex branching scenario involves the highest degree of interactivity. Here, feedback is more extensive than in the simple branching process. This simulation may be used to practice putting steps in the correct order. The branches can include dead ends after any number of choice cusps to demonstrate that some decisions may appear correct even if the learner is moving down the wrong path. The scenario may include other variables, such as the occurrence of random events or other factors that imitate obstacles that possibly could affect the decision-making process in the real world.

Complexity and Effectiveness
Simulations can get as complex, in terms of both production costs and bandwidth, as budgets allow. The complexity of a course, however, doesn't always determine how effective it is in achieving its purpose. One course, "Proactive Approaches to Chemical and Biological Threats," simplifies graphical elements to create a game with a file size of 300KB. The same code was used for an application in which bandwidth was not a concern and this version weighed in at 11MB, making it 35 times as large.

While the two games have the same functionality, the latter version makes use of sound effects, high-resolution photographs, recordkeeping, and other bandwidth-intensive functions, whereas the former contains vector graphics rather than jpegs, no sound effects, and minimized voiceover.

Learners appreciate online learning for its interactive approach, but slow downloads of material can cause a learner to abandon technology in favor of the traditional book. "Delays in a self-paced, interactive learning program cause student frustration and present roadblocks to high retention rates," says Jacqueline Beck, vice president of e-learning for Brookwood Media Arts. "Keeping students motivated on a WBT program is difficult enough. If you add delays on each page, you will certainly lose the students' attention." (eLearning Magazine, 2001).

Broadband and DSL Internet connections allow for more information to be transmitted in a given amount of time, but while they are becoming more widely used, they are still not the norm. The burden is on designers of WBT to create compelling media that work at the standard 56K connection to avoid learner frustration.

In general, as the level of interactivity, the number of choices, and amount of flexibility in simulations increase, so do file size and cost of development. Designers who minimize file size while maximizing learner involvement and understanding are most likely to achieve the tremendous potential of simulation in online learning.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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