Thursday, August 9, 2012

Synchronous E-Learning: Simulation, Video or Animation?

As synchronous and a–synchronous learning become more entrenched in transferring knowledge from one source to the other, ideally through such tools as E-Learning, a number of complex issues begin to emerge in setting the bar for comprehension.

How to effectively delve into the content and communicate it in a meaningful and cost effective way is essential to understanding what tools offer the greatest efficacy. The later part of that statement is key since up to this point E-Learning has grown at snail’s pace, largely due to cost.

Often in Learning in general and E-Learning in particular, these methods of communicating knowledge are designed to inform us about the correct or preferred way to do something. They help us understand the decision making process that support a best practices and allow us to think through a process. If it is truly interactive it allows us to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes by visualizing what might occur and how we might handle unique situations or barriers to completing a task.

The current pantheon of tools has grown in ease of use, cost of deployment, penetration in the marketplace and feasibility in general. Let’s have a quick look at each to better understand their strengths and weaknesses. The first we can review is simulation. 

While simulations can take many forms they generally include still images, coupled with audio. These can include illustrated characters, or drawn figures, as well as real people that are animated to some degree. Using such imagery and motion helps us break down a process and are often more generic in nature so as not to skew the learning process with gender, age or ethnic biases. A simulation helps us control the environment down to the smallest detail and can be cost efficient. Its weakness is its strength, it can appear very simplistic to a well educated audience and appear to be “taking down” to learners while the technology that controls these figures often introduce slight delays. I must also say that in many professional environments, given the wide range of opinions, there will be some very positive and some very negative reactions. Simulations can be very effective when using inanimate objects and illustrating a process.

Video has been around for awhile and of course it is often the preferred means of illustrating a scenario.  Its strengths are that it shows real people undertaking specific processes that most of your audience can relate to. It often employs the willing suspension of disbelief in that its displays scenarios that may not have been experienced by the learner.  Its strengths are that audiences have become accustomed to video and recently in reality TV and now accept working professionals portraying their day-to-day roles much more so than actors. This allows us to cut costs by using real people doing their jobs, but it introduces complexity by demanding more careful planning, places more responsibility on the client as participant in developing the scenarios. Costs have some down dramatically for videotaping and editing as low cost, high definition technology is now readily available with a skilled workforce to support it. Since the decisions around using real people relate to availability, cost and knowledge we have to remain vigilant about stereotyping.

Animation remains a fairly high cost alternative since it utilizes more specific software and hardware and there are fewer skilled technicians to undertake production. Animation can offer some very dramatic and effective illustration of scenarios and it excels when trying to demonstrate three-dimensional images.  Its weaknesses are that it is still relatively costly to deliver on a consistent basis  and like the simulation it can over-simplify a scenario.

My experience suggests that each of these technologies has a place in the development of synchronous learning but the parameters of any given assignment will dictate which technology to use. The three main parameters used to determine which technology is most appropriate to illustrate protocols and techniques are cost, available resources and comprehension. More often than not comprehension is the least considered parameter for supporting the choice and cost is the most important.  

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