The past few years have seen a strong movement toward blended learning curricula aimed at cost-effective skill building via e-learning and classroom learning. Typically, organizations supplement classroom learning with e-learning targeted at knowledge acquisition to create a baseline level of understanding before participants attend classroom programs. While the focus has been on developing these e-learning capabilities, it is time to revisit how classroom learning is conducted to ensure that maximum benefits are realized.
With the wide acceptance of technology usage over the past 10 to 15 years, many classroom programs have evolved into presentation-based formats driven by PowerPoint slides. Research has indicated that this is not an effective way to learn, build skills or, more importantly, retain knowledge. The negative impact is even greater from a business perspective, due to the cost of bringing people into a central location to passively listen to presentations they most likely will not remember.
How do you craft an engaging classroom learning experience that will increase the retention of knowledge and maximize limited learning dollars? The key is to create a situation in the classroom that simulates a real-life experience. Simulating reality provides a context for learners to retain the information and develop skills. It is similar to an apprenticeship employment model or on-the job training. It is important to emphasize that simulations are not case studies. A case study encourages participants to take an external view to the problem by neatly summarizing salient information in a concise package. A simulation requires the participant to become intrinsically involved in the situation by completing a task or deliverable using data and inputs as they would appear in a real work environment. Developing this real-life context is the key to skill development and retention.
There are three primary design components to a classroom-based simulation: task, data and time. The first step is to identify the skills participants should develop during the program and then decompose those skills into specific tasks to be completed. The second step is to identify the data needed to support the completion of those tasks and the format that data is most likely to take (e-mail, system reports, articles, interviews). Realistic data is the key to learning development during a simulation because it requires participants to distill the relevant pieces of information from different sources and then interpret the data. The third step is to evaluate whether there is enough data to support the task required in the allotted time. This component helps to create a realistic atmosphere by introducing enough time pressure to make the task manageable, yet challenging.
After the design phase, developing realistic data is critical to the effectiveness of the simulation and often consumes a significant portion of the development cycle. There are three approaches to data creation: dynamic, static and fabricated. Dynamic data is perhaps the easiest to develop because it requires participants to gather their own data. For example, participants asked to perform an external market analysis for a specific organization can turn to the Internet and gather current market data. Static data development involves gathering real-life data and “freezing” it at a point in time. For example, if the task is to revise the sales budget, the learning team would gather the data at a specific point in time, freeze it and then distribute the data during the learning session. Fabricated data development is the most time-intensive and requires the most creativity and imagination because it requires the learning team to create an entire set of fictitious data to support each task. For example, if participants are asked to evaluate the organization’s annual operational performance in the call center, the data required would involve fabricating call queue statistics, operational reports and so on. Creating each piece of data is relatively straightforward. The challenge is to make sure the different data pieces are in sync and create the story with the problem areas you want participants to address.
There are many other design and development considerations that go into making a robust simulation that can withstand the scrutiny of many participants. These simulations can be created for individuals or teams, and can be scaled up to roll out to hundreds of participants simultaneously using a team-based format. It is important to emphasize that the main objective of a learning event is to enhance employee performance. Simulations are the most effective means of developing employee skills that will be retained after the learning event and ultimately, help enhance the overall performance of the business.
Nick van Dam is Deloitte’s global chief learning officer and learning consultant in the Human Capital Practice. Mary Andrade is a senior learning manager within Deloitte and is an expert in designing classroom-based simulations. For more information, e-mail Nick at email@example.com.