Active learning sits at the heart of the SimCase experience for students. From our own student experiences, we knew that engagement, participation and application (all core to Active Learning) differentiated the good classes from the great ones. To make sure our team and professor partners are designing the right kind of experience, it was important to establish a guidepost definition that would become a core design principle (link to learn more about those).
Beginning our quest for this definition, we did what any intrepid learner would do: research. Along the way we reviewed papers spanning military exercises, flight simulations and humanitarian relief. Yet in the end, we felt that Michael Prince’s 2004 definition worked for us since it was both simple and relevant:
“Active learning is generally defined as any instructional method that engages students in the learning process. In short, active learning requires students to do meaningful learning activities and think about what they are doing.”
Prince elaborated upon this idea by outlining general characteristics shared by a spectrum of active learning methods. This built upon the 1991 work of Bonwell and Eison who outlined general characteristics shared by active learning strategies and. As we continued reading, it became pretty clear that Prince’s research resonated with us so we adopted his framework for our designers:
With that structure in place, we wanted to add a final layer of examples to further guide our design process. To do so, we built upon the spectrum of active learning examples published by the University of Michigan’s Center for Teaching and Learning, a thought leader in enhancing teaching and learning and the first dedicated center of its kind in the US.
In their spectrum, popular active learning strategies are arranged by complexity along the x-axis. As is, we felt that a measure of Engagement was missing. As a result we added Engagement to the y-axis to reflect the direct relationship between complexity and engagement voiced by instructors we spoke to. The result is a simple landscape that outlines a variety of strategies that can be defined as active learning, as well as the benefits and challenges that that underlie the approach that is at the core of what we do.
Where Games and Simulations land on this spectrum puts SimCase in a unique position. If built thoughtfully we deeply engage students to improve learning. Otherwise we risk overcomplicating the experience, losing students and instructors along the way. But we know this hard path is the right path and are excited for the challenge ahead.
Reflecting on our time as students, we found one thing in common: recounting details of our experience with business cases and simulations was easy, even years after graduation. Curious, we found a vast amount of research on the subject (here’s a link to that rabbit hole). Without getting too wonkish with details, here are some highlights from that research:
Having met with hundreds of students in my time as a university administrator, these figures ring true. Students repeatedly remarked about their preference for case-exercises over passive lectures, and how much fun they had in courses that had a digital or analog game component. Plus, when overlayed with the qualitative and quantitative feedback from school-wide student surveys, it became clear that active learning was not only popular, but also increasingly expected by each incoming generation of students.
The deeper we explored active learning strategies, the more reassured we were about the promise and potential of this approach. Yet in spite of this potential, the reality on the ground suggested that something limited the role of active learning exercises in post-secondary education. In spite of its popularity with students and the tremendous amount of research supporting its efficacy, active learning strategies remained outliers on higher education campuses.
So we set out to find out why, and what we learned ended up guiding the design of the product we build today.
It turns out, post-secondary education was the wrong rock to look under to start our search. In many K-12 classrooms, active learning is the baseline experience. What we’ve read is that the challenges posed by the vastly more heterogeneous student body (in learning styles, learning pace, attention span, etc.) increases the need for students to actively engage in order to learn. For K-12 active learning isn’t viewed as a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Indeed, as the prevalence of PCs, tablets, and phones increases in the classroom, so too does the ease of delivery active learning. You can see this reflected in the businesses surrounding K-12 education where companies like Nearpod have found success in transforming active learning strategies from analog to digital.
Ultimately, this means that each year a new generation of students arrives at postsecondary institutions with active learning experience, and heightened expectations regarding what teaching and learning should be like.
Interestingly, some segments of post-secondary education have been employing active learning strategies for generations. Labs are by definition opportunities for students to learn by doing, so students studying the sciences or engineering have long benefitted from this approach. Plus, arts courses structured around small sections curating lively discussions tap into some of the active learning benefits outlined above. Beyond college, many Law schools across the country employ the socratic method, an active learning strategy high on the continuum for both its impact and its complexity. Likewise, teaching hospitals provide environments that allow medical students to apply their knowledge, first-hand and learn from those experiences. . It quickly became clear that If we looked beyond our world of business education, the adoption of active learning strategies actually represented a fair degree of buy-in regarding the benefits described above.
Business schools have adapted as well, with more programs marketing their use of a case-based approach to teaching, a variation on the socratic method developed at Harvard over a hundred years ago. Harvard’s business school has actually helped build its brand through the commercialization of its business cases, and they remain an excellent active learning strategy for instructors who learn how to deploy them effectively. Unfortunately, the case method isn’t as widespread as its hundred year history might suggest, and in the next section we’ll dive into what we learned about what’s kept active learning strategies from spreading.
We set out to interview business school professors about the teaching strategies they deployed in their courses. Grossly simplified, professors who utilized case studies believed that the learning outcomes merited the additional preparation time required to successfully guide the discussion. Similarly, professors who had incorporated digital or analog games felt the upfront time investment required to adapt their syllabus paid off over subsequent semesters since their day-of preparation time was reduced. While this seemed like a rational trade off, many of the professors we talked to felt that the switching costs associated with making any change to their syllabus was simply too great.
This made us pause to ask: if active learning provided so many agreed upon benefits, what was the hold up? And then we realized, we overlooked a crucial factor: TIME. At any research institution and especially In the ivy-league, there is a zero-sum trade off between time spent on research and time spent teaching. Community college and online instructors communicated a similar time-driven trade off between their career and the classroom. Despite an instructor’s desire to use active learning, they didn’t have enough time to do it.
Compounding this market need is a growing reliance on part-time professors at universities in fast-growing emerging markets – the exact people who have even less time to devote to active learning. Through our discussions it became clear that f deploying active learning in the context of post-secondary education had to be time-effective and easy. The ideal scenario would incorporate active learning into existing courses and materials to reap its benefits without incurring substantial costs.
Generally we found a willingness to explore games alongside existing lectures. Many lecture-only professors were well-aware of the benefits of incorporating active learning, but they lacked tools that could deliver outcomes without disrupting their schedules. Set-up had to be quick, obviously. Seat-time had to be much less than the options currently on the market. And breaking down what happened had to be automatic and structured around value-added insights. Plus it had to fit into a lecture break, within the commotion common at the beginning of class, or in the windows of time online students can find to engage with course content. If we could build active learning that met these needs, they would pilot it. Enough said, so we got to work.
We go into greater depth about our product in a different post (link), but in a nutshell we went with simple. Each game tackles a single concept. Each context is broken down to bullet points. And each experience takes only minutes to play.
Taking lessons from what helped short-from games (aka casual games) expand the gaming genre to a much wider audience, we built straightforward game dynamics that you didn’t need instructions to understand; you can just pick up and play. And throughout the process we remained focused on the teaching takeaways. Together these design principles helped us create games that sit above the active learning continuum, and based on our early traction appear to solve for the issues that limited the spread of active learning before.
We have another post about about our initial experiences adding active learning to existing lectures you can check out here (link). Not surprisingly, as we worked to create a solution for lecture-first classrooms, the rest of the educational landscape has continued to evolve. Two tangential developments caught our attention:.
The first development is the steady march towards hybrid learning utilizing flipped classrooms. We’ve always believed in the power of a lecture well delivered, which is why we’ve positioned our solution as a complementary tool. Plus, empowering the students to speed up, rewind, and rewatch lectures makes a one-size-fits-all piece of content a bit more personalized. All of this becomes relevant to our work on the day of class, where professors now have a gap to fill. On more than one occasion we witnessed these instructors fall back on assigning practice problems or homework review as an in-class filler. Instead, they can now use our games to interact around the concept and quickly get personalized feedback regarding what lecture concepts were absorbed and what areas to discuss in greater detail.
The increasing role of online education in the panorama of accredited and non-accredited higher education is another development we are tracking closely. While students who learn online have long had access to video lectures, our research has found that the other components of the online learning dynamic leave a lot to chance. Classroom chat boards solve for the basic Q&A dynamic, but that depends on student willingness to post. Recent efforts to integrate quiz software has made student responses more likely but we don’t think assessment is the right path to increased engagement. And while advances in telepresence have made it possible to conduct a case discussion online, it requires synchronous participation which is in direct opposition to the core benefit of studying online: flexibility. Here too, we believe that short-format games can make a positive impact. Playing against a leaderboard or an artificial intelligence bot allows online students to participate on their own time, while the quick seat-time aligns well with the micro-lectures that have become increasingly popular. In that way, we believe that online education can also profit from our efforts to create a new active learning strategy, and bring the benefits of active learning to an even broader spectrum of adults looking to learn about business.