Complaints about Simulations

One complaint against simulation-based approaches is that they can never be as rich as the real world. Simulations are necessarily abstractions of reality; they cannot capture all of its intricacies. This is a valid criticism against simulations. When a student moves from doing a task in a simulator to doing that task in the real world, he is going to have to map his experience over from the simulation to the real world. The better the simulation, the easier this mapping task. In a really good simulation, the mapping task is so simple that the simulation feels transparent. It feels like the experience in the simulation applies directly to experience in the real world.

I can tell you from experience that simulators can be quite realistic indeed. When I piloted the United Airlines' flight simulator, I really had the sensation that I was flying. It may be difficult, but we can build realistic simulators. Over time, many simulations have been built on computers of one sort or another. Some of these have been very good simulations of various physical objects and their use and effects. There are also simulations of various types of social behavior that tend to be based on statistical models of the effects of decisions. Often, one finds simulations of voting behavior, or games, or other basically statistical events. On occasion these simulations are interesting to work with, but for the most part they are not especially useful in education.

The reason is that these simulators have usually been designed to be an object of study. The user of such simulations remains "outside" the simulation, setting up its controls and observing its results. In learning by doing, however, simulators are not the object of study but the means of study. Users of learning by doing simulations live inside the simulated world. And this simulated world must react to user in ways which traditional simulations do not. In particular, lessons need to be designed that ensure that a student falls into well known traps, and thus needs to reason his way out of them. If a simulation does not have this aspect to it, it may well be fun to play with, but it will not have a profound effect on the student.

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