Classroom Simulations

Get your head in the game when it comes to L&D

Humans learn by sensing, thinking, and doing. These three stages are reflected in the building blocks of the brain: sensory neurons, interneurons, and motor neurons. Integrating elements of games with educational stimuli fits with the sensing-thinking-doing functionality of the nervous system and the natural needs of the brain, which are: 

  • To survive
  • To feel good
  • To play
  • To be rewarded
  • To save energy

Using gamification tactics in learning meets these needs by making the brain feel in control, stimulated by fun and rewards, and addressing the need to save energy by having a congruent story. But a common misconception is that successful gamification requires actually creating a game—which doesn’t work in many business contexts. We’re going to take a look at why gamification works and how it can be applied to authentic, simulated learning environments.

Which is better for business: gamification or game-based learning? 

A quick clarification on gamification vs game-based learning (GBL)

Gamification is the integration of game elements (such as point systems, leaderboards, badges, or other elements related to games) into non-game activities to increase engagement and motivation.

Game-based learning involves designing learning activities that include game characteristics and game principles within the learning activities themselves.

As you can see from these two definitions, there’s a lot of crossover between gamification and game-based learning. Gamification allows learning designers to take advantage of the benefits of game elements without the need to turn the learning itself into a game. 

In the business environment, we’ve found that games are especially good for team building and in many eLearning contexts, but they fall short when building skills. Although game-based learning can be great fun, tying the game back to the business requires an extra step and is not always immediately obvious to participants. At Blueline, we don’t use games to teach (i.e. game-based learning). We use the engaging characteristics of games to help motivate and engage our learners through realistic simulations of real-world work environments (i.e. gamification).

When it comes to work-relevant learning, gamification provides the same incredible benefits while immersing learners in real-world dilemmas. Where appropriate, gamification can be used in learning experiences to bring the dynamics of engagement, competition, and fun to learning—while presenting challenges in real-world contexts and enabling learners to acquire and practice new skills as they would on the job. Gamified learning can be serious and business-appropriate because it doesn’t require the artificial constructs (e.g. a fictional world and characters, made-up storylines, etc.) needed to create a true game.

How does gamification enhance learning objectives?

Although it is becoming increasingly sophisticated and digitalized, gamification in the realm of corporate L&D is nothing new. And for good reason. Not only do game elements meet the brain’s inherent needs, but they also increase cognitive activity by firing up different areas of the brain:

  • The visual brain: evidence supports the attentional benefits resulting from the use of gamification tactics
  • The motivated brain: winning and receiving positive feedback stimulates the reward center of the brain
  • The creative brain: creativity is stimulated by simulations, symbolic thinking, visualization, mentalizing, and curiosity
  • The social brain: cooperation and competition evoke different reactions in the brain
  • The emotional brain: games are emotionally engaging and help us remember events better
  • The cognitive brain: gamification helps with the application of knowledge, and there’s also a positive relationship between adrenaline and memory

From a neuroscientific perspective, the benefits of gamification depend on the design of the learning experience and the individual’s unique neural responses to educational stimuli. According to Jan L. Plass, Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Sciences and Professor at New York University: “Good games aim for the ‘sweet spot’, where players can succeed but only with some struggle.” 

The combination of success with a side of struggle is an inherently engaging experience. And in the field of learning, engagement translates to retention; retention translates into application; and application translates into results. If you want to drive results, you need to focus on learner engagement. Gamifying learning is a surefire way to engage learners.

Here’s how gamification brings extraordinary levels of engagement to learning

Research shows that play is a potent force in learning contexts in all spheres of life. The freedom to experiment and the joy of experience are not merely techniques to enhance the learning process—they are the learning process.

Another element of gamification comes in the form of collaborative competition, which harnesses natural group competitiveness. When it comes to immersive learning experiences, working with a team and competing against other teams takes engagement and commitment to a whole new level. It isn’t about being cutthroat, but about furthering learners’ investment in the overall outcome.

Common to most gamification techniques is the ability to access immediate and constant assessment of where one stands in the learning process. Gamification offers a number of ways this can be accomplished, such as badges, leaderboards, and other point-based mechanisms. When feedback comes from a publicly visible leaderboard, it is both engaging and motivating to the learners. As an analogy, consider your level of effort working out at home in front of a video, and then going to a class at the gym and doing the same workout with a group of people. Being in an environment with other people naturally raises the stakes, even when they’re all equal participants in a shared activity. Now turn it into a competition—say you could see who is pedaling fastest out of a group of people in a spin class. Wouldn’t you push yourself even harder to beat the other people in the room? That’s the power of a live leaderboard, and it translates extremely well from athletics to many other activities.

These elements can all be included in a complex simulation that still maintains verisimilitude with the work environment. While game-based learning is a form of escapism that takes learners out of the workplace, gamified simulations keep learners immersed in their very real daily challenges while still providing an engaging and fail-safe environment for practicing new skills.

Blueline is no stranger to the learning game

We have been perfecting the use of gamification techniques to increase learner engagement for the past two decades. Blueline’s ExperienceBUILDER™ digital design platform synthesizes the most powerful of these gamification elements in one tool. The synchronous, customized simulations designed and delivered through ExperienceBUILDER incorporate teamwork, live leaderboards, peer challenges, real-world application, and feedback mechanisms to leverage the benefits of gamification; the most important of which are learner engagement, knowledge retention, and concept application. 

At Blueline Simulations, we combine the elements of play, competition, and feedback to enrich our designs and support learners in achieving better outcomes—but no one is playing around here. We have perfected the use of immersion techniques like simulation, gamification, and storytelling to design synchronous, team-driven discovery learning that drives business transformation. We are also breaking new ground with hybrid learning designs that are just as effective as live classroom experiences. Get in touch with the Blueline Simulations team if your organization is ready for this next chapter.

Making decisions that go beyond the black and white

From the smallest family businesses to the largest blue-chip companies, all organizations live or die based on the effectiveness and quality of daily decisions. Because decision-making and problem-solving processes are not always straightforward, it’s critical to develop employees’ capacity to maximize the impact of decisions that don’t have a single right answer. 

Employees at all levels are regularly called upon to make decisions and solve problems. This process involves identifying issues and/or evaluating situations, considering alternatives, making choices, and following up with the necessary actions. 

There’s greatness in the gray 

Sometimes, there is an obvious choice that will result in a favorable outcome; other times, when there are multiple options with a range of pros and cons, the process requires more information-gathering and mental reflection. Learning to evaluate and select from these different alternatives is a vital business skill that demands high levels of emotional intelligence. Selecting the best answers often requires meaningful dialog that incorporates feelings, ideas, and different perspectives. Successfully navigating these conversations demands empathy.

making decisions

Self-discovery opens the door to see beyond bias

Our personal experiences, the people in our lives, cultural conditioning, and the media we consume are all factors (along with many others) that affect our biases. The problem with bias is that it can negatively impact our ability to empathize. 

Effective leaders tend to be good listeners and readers of people—put another way, they are emotionally intelligent. They have empathy and the ability to hear what people actually mean, forming patterns and connections that others do not. As they process information, they draw on diverse perspectives and their own self-awareness to understand and address their own biases.

But acknowledging biases doesn’t happen without effort. Biases are often deeply rooted, which means that a process of self-discovery must take place in order to help learners overcome them. Teaching empathy in the workplace starts by encouraging robust dialog in a team environment that helps learners to see past their existing beliefs. 

Training simulations can create safe, collaborative environments that enable learners to become aware of possible biases and see situations from multiple points of view. Exploring a wide range of “gray” possibilities within a group environment encourages learners to debate, self-edit, and come up with the best possible outcome. Sometimes that outcome can have both positive and negative consequences—just as our business decisions in the real world can have wide-ranging ripple effects across the organization and its external customers.

Empowering your employees to embrace the gray

Every company has a clear need to develop their employees’ ability to make good decisions. Issues such as managing teams, balancing business goals with values, and dealing with interpersonal dilemmas rarely come with clear-cut, one-size-fits-all solutions. Traditionally, most big companies would seek to develop these skills in an in-person classroom setting. Today’s business world of remote and hybrid work arrangements has led many businesses to explore alternative delivery methods. 

Blueline’s ExperienceBUILDERTM digital learning design platform delivers training simulations in a team-driven format, without learners having to physically be in the same room to collaborate on the problems presented. But the design platform is just one piece; much of the magic is created by Blueline’s team of front-end alignment consultants, simulation designers, and digital producers.

The simulations produced in ExperienceBUILDER foster emotional intelligence and improve decision-making capabilities by presenting learners with realistic, challenging dilemmas that don’t have a single right answer. Potential solutions weave together a combination of good and bad practices. This format forces learners to engage with one another, dig into the content, chew on it, share experiences, and tease out best practices and common mistakes. Such encounters are where learning really happens and behavior change begins. 

Each simulation is scored on select meters that represent real-world metrics. For example, the metrics for a given scenario might be profitability, employee engagement, and productivity. 

Team-based decisions may have a positive impact on some meters and a negative impact on others—with very real consequences. It’s a rich instructional design approach that maximizes retention and application precisely because learners are engaging with one another other about how best to resolve these complex problems.

Organizations are a product of their people’s decisions

That’s why it’s vital to help your employees develop emotional intelligence and empower them to make better decisions when there aren’t clear “right” or “wrong” answers. Reach out to Blueline to learn more about how we can help you achieve better outcomes by developing your team’s decision-making practices. 

What is a learning simulation?

Learning simulations are a valuable tool for organizations looking to develop their teams. Simulations allow learners to advance their skills in a controlled environment with the use of fictitious scenarios. Using simulations increases the engagement of learners, and also promotes critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities. Simulations can be used in various types of industries, across all departments, in order to provide people with the opportunity to learn and practice a wide variety of skills. 

What is a simulation?

Simulations place learners in lifelike scenarios that often lack clear-cut answers and enable the opportunity to experience the outcomes of choices without invoking real-world consequences. Flight simulations are a classic example, in which pilots can react to various weather, takeoff, and landing challenges. They can discover the consequences of a broad range of actions without literally crashing a plane. The simulation is programmed to react to pilots’ mistakes, allowing them to learn the appropriate and safest solutions to challenges that they are faced with in flight. When they’re later flying real planes, they’re better equipped to make split-second decisions and arrive safely at their destinations. Flight simulations give pilots the opportunity to gain confidence, experience, and knowledge without the cost or possible negative consequences of a real flight. 

Simulations are also commonly known for being used in medical practice, as well as armed forces and police departments. However, they can be applied more broadly than these high-profile examples. The same techniques used to simulate a medical emergency or hostage crisis can also be adapted to interpersonal conflict, leadership skills, and just about any other situation that involves critical thinking and decision making. Sometimes referred to as experiential learning, simulations can take many forms, such as role-play, games, and team-based experiences. A simulation can be equally effective in an in-person learning environment or remote. 

When can a simulation be used?

Organizations have been using simulations as a part of their training programs for decades. They can be a great opportunity for team-based learning across every department. Learning organizations find simulations to be very fitting for developing interpersonal and customer-focused skills. They’re often applied to leadership development, management, sales and marketing, and customer service. While a simulation can be used to teach a consistent process, they’re commonly used for situations with a lot of gray area, lacking clear-cut answers. Simulations can also be very powerful when a decision may have both positive and negative consequences, and they can show the ways that one choice with multiple facets has a wide-ranging impact.

For example, in a customer-focused training simulation, learners can see how their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions affect their outcomes in customer interactions. What happens when you greet a customer with a friendly smile and welcoming tone of voice, as opposed to folded arms and a negative tone of voice? Rather than telling people to smile and be welcoming, the simulation gives them the opportunity to explore the possibilities and come to the desired conclusion without any real-world consequences of alienated customers. While this example seems like a black-and-white decision, the power of the simulation is that the learners must deal with the consequences of their choices. Can they rescue the customer interaction after a rude greeting? Might there be situations where an over-the-top greeting is actually off-putting to the customer? Simulations enable explorations of many possibilities.

Why use a simulation?

Simulations are used for a variety of purposes and have many benefits. They promote the use of critical thinking and problem-solving skills, both independently and as a team. Simulations force learners to think deeper, have thoughtful conversations, and be open to listening to others’ ideas and points of view because there are often no clear answers. In many cases, learners will be faced with issues that directly concern themselves, but also involve those around them and the organization as a whole. Learners need to be able to think for themselves, but also to be open to working through issues that arise with the help of others. 

Simulations have become a popular learning tool for organizations due to the fact that they allow people to learn from experience without the risk of wasted resources or lost customers. Working through complicated scenarios reduces the need to spend time in real-life situations figuring it out on the spot and learning from (costly) mistakes. These learning experiences can be done in a controlled environment, custom-designed specifically for the organization, desired outcomes, and learning department. 

Our ExperienceBUILDER™ simulation learning platform enables an equally effective experience whether teams are co-located, remote, or both. ExperienceBUILDER sims are custom-built or tailored to suit the needs of the organization, and the platform itself meets the needs of a hybrid workforce by facilitating team collaboration from anywhere. Learners work together on teams to impact such metrics as resolving conflict, allocating resources, increasing engagement, and developing their staff. Multiple teams can go head-to-head, seeing their performance against one another on a live leaderboard.

We welcome the opportunity to discuss how simulations could benefit your organization and the way in which your learners develop their skills. Our custom-designed learning programs have been producing notable business results from some of the leading worldwide organizations for over a decade. Contact us today to schedule a meeting. 

Five classic signs your training lacks empathy

Stepping into someone else’s shoes to see things from their perspective can have maximum impact in both personal and professional situations. We have discussed empathetic learning design, and how to teach empathy, but how do you know if your learning initiatives need an empathy makeover? Below are some signs your training lacks empathy. If you’re noticing these, you may be in need of an empathetic learning approach to take your organization to the next level.

1. Your actual learner population isn’t reflected in the course visuals. 

If your staff comprises more than one gender, culture, or background, yet all of the visuals represent a single category, you may need to change things up. Corporate training frequently makes heavy use of stock photos, which isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s when those images lack diversity that the whole program can come across as generic and not applicable to individual learners. Your course visuals should represent the learner population in all its diversity. If they don’t, learners will have a harder time picturing themselves in the scenarios, and may even feel excluded and undervalued. 

Ideas for representing your learners in course visuals

There are a few ways to take a more inclusive approach with your visuals. First, if you’re going to use stock photos, choose images that represent the learner population. Sites like iStock and Shutterstock have come a long way in offering photos of people in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Even royalty-free stock photo sites offer cultural diversity that has come a long way over the past few years. Alternatively, consider using photos of actual employees in your company. Although it’ll require more effort to shoot or collect photos, the payoff of learners seeing themselves represented will make the work worthwhile.

Another work-around is to avoid using photorealistic visuals at all. There are many other visual art styles that can be effective without looking cartoonish. Sometimes it can be an effective design technique to help learners step away from interpersonal situations by representing them in an entirely different way. Even colors, animals, and textures can add visual interest while side-stepping the need for photos of people. Alternate images can also help learners through situations that have no clear answer by eliminating the bias that many images with humans can represent.

2. Difficult interpersonal situations are treated as having clear-cut answers.

When conducting training that involves challenging situations between people or teams, evaluate whether clear-cut answers are truly representative of the real-world situation. In most cases, navigating situations that require emotional intelligence can’t be boiled down to right vs. wrong. The gray area is what leads learners into thoughtful conversations, discussions of ideas, feelings, and perspectives. If you remove the gray area and limit learners to a right or wrong answer, you will have missed the opportunity to develop empathy. 

How to embrace the gray in learning simulations

It is possible to design training that encourages exploration of topics without a hard right or wrong answer. Traditionally these types of initiatives took place in classroom workshops, or may have required a high-end gamified scenario. New learning modalities adapted to the hybrid workforce are enabling companies to provide safe environments for teams to grapple with complex problems. That need is exactly what led to the development of our ExperienceBUILDER platform. In brief, we create space for learners to assess non-absolute questions by creating multiple scoring parameters for each decision. The real magic happens as teams interact to solve these problems together, competing against other teams using metrics that reflect real-world constraints.

3. You aren’t using accessible design principles.

Organizations need to understand accessible design principles, not only for their customers’ needs but also for their employees. Just like your customers, learners also need to have content that is accessible. If you’re avoiding these design principles for your learners, you could be completely excluding certain individuals or making it harder for them to learn. 

Having empathy toward learners means ensuring that everyone is equally included, regardless of any disabilities. Imagine if you were color blind, and your training was designed in colors that make it impossible for you to see. Chances are you would feel discouraged and would struggle to fully immerse yourself in the learning. Meeting learners where they are increases buy-in, leading to higher adoption and enhanced learning rates.

How to design online training with accessibility in mind

This is a huge topic of ongoing importance for all of us, and too much to address here in a brief blog post. There are many resources online that can help you navigate the basics of accessible design. Two we recommend are Sheryl Burgstahler’s 20 Tips for Teaching an Accessible Online Course and 10 Tips for Creating Accessible Course Content from Iowa State. To continue to exercise empathy in this area, evaluate the needs of the people in your learning audience. Are there specific concerns or needs that require more than the most basic accommodations? To get started exploring this area of the workforce, talk with your partners in HR.

4. People aren’t given adequate support to grapple with complex problems and implement changes back on the job

If you’ve launched a training program and expect to see results on day one, you may want to reevaluate your expectations. In order to help learners make improvements and implement desired change back into their jobs, you must give them grace, encouragement, and provide ongoing support. Learners will then feel comfortable implementing what they have learned where they see fit and when they feel it is right.

Build post-event support right into the training

What this looks like will really depend on the topic of the training itself. For example, many leadership development initiatives are now paired with ongoing coaching and mentorship programs. In other cases, a follow-up training event is appropriate. Considering what learners need after they’ve completed the initial program will go a long way toward adoption and overall impact.

5. You’ve assumed you understand what people need but have missed the mark

This is oftentimes one of the greatest challenges facing a leader. You may feel as though you know what people need, how they feel, or what will help them, but in reality you don’t see the whole picture. Lack of empathy and emotional intelligence can lead to missing the mark in all sorts of scenarios, and it’s particularly important for us to be aware of as learning leaders. We’ve all dealt with the classic challenge of being asked to build training for something that is actually a process or management problem; assuming you know exactly what learners need in a complex situation is the other side of the same coin.

How to overcome bias when assessing training need

There are many ways to get to the root of a need or problem when designing training; what they all boil down to is getting outside of your own perspective (i.e., showing empathy for the learner’s perspective). An empathy map is one helpful tool for working through the questions from the perspective of the learner. We also use a process called the Voice of the Business to bring in disparate perspectives. You may know what the organization needs as a whole, but your learners quite possibly know what is needed at their level better than you. Take the time to ask questions, offer anonymous questionnaires, and practice active listening. 

It’s important to develop empathetic learning practices, and also to help your learners develop empathy as a key skill for emotional intelligence. Nobody overtly tries to create training that lacks empathy, which is why it’s so important to look out for the signs. If you’re guilty of any of the above-mentioned items and unsure of the way forward, reach out to us. We can create a plan customized for your business needs that will help to incorporate empathy into the organization. 

Empathetic learning design enables relevant and maximally effective training

Individuals want to feel heard and understood, at home, at work, and when learning new skills. When designing training, it is vital to understand learner pain points, past experiences, and motivations. By taking an empathetic approach from the beginning of the instructional design process, you can generate higher adoption rates, encourage thoughtful conversations, and facilitate open communication. 

While it may sound simple in theory, in practice, empathetic learning design isn’t always a straightforward process. It involves meeting all of the needs of your learners—even needs learners have not openly expressed or personally acknowledged. 

Empathetic learning considers the needs of a specific group of learners; the organization’s culture and diversity; and recent challenges. Empathetic designs often take an immersive approach that use stories/scenarios to create opportunities for problem solving with a nuanced treatment of content that demands inclusive discussions.

When dealing with sensitive content, it’s rare to get any learning program completely right without input from your target audience. Ask your learners for their honest thoughts and feedback, and show you value their input by responding accordingly. 

What tools can help with empathetic learning design?

Using an empathy map provides a helpful framework for going beyond learning objectives and delving into the learner’s point of view. Empathy maps have long been in use by user experience designers and can be a powerful tool for helping to understand your learners’ needs. 

The empathy mapping process uses a series of questions to put you in the position of the learner as you are designing training. You begin by identifying who you’re empathizing with and what he or she needs to do. While this part is straightforward for instructional designers because we’re used to defining our audience and stating learning objectives, we don’t often delve into next-level questions that are typically included on an empathy map: 

1. What does the learner see…

  • In the work environment?
  • In the learning experience?
  • When he or she is looking for information or otherwise consuming content?

Take a step back and try to see things as they would.

2. What does the learner say…

  • In work-related interactions with peers and leaders?
  • When communicating with customers?
  • Outside of work?

And perhaps even more enlightening: what doesn’t the learner say? Is there tension in what’s left unsaid? 

3. What does the learner hear…

  • From colleagues and leaders?
  • From customers?
  • In a learning environment?
  • Outside of work?

Are you truly listening to what the individual is saying? If so, are you responding in an empathetic manner? Are you strictly sticking to business regardless of what may be going on?

4. What does the learner do…

  • Within a learning simulation?
  • On the job when faced with a situation like the one you’re simulating?
  • When approaching a difficult decision?

What may be the root cause of the gaps between the learner’s current actions and the desired behavior? Are there reasons for that behavior that may not be immediately obvious?

5. What does the learner think and feel?

This is probably the most difficult component of the empathy map to get right, and simultaneously the easiest to get very wrong. While we may think we understand what our learners are thinking and feeling, the exercise of working through the questions above may reveal otherwise. 

  • Does each individual feel included and valued? 
  • Do they feel something should be changed? 
  • What do they worry about?
  • What do they wish could happen? 

In some cultures, you may not even be able to get learners’ true thoughts by asking outright. Anonymous surveys and opportunities for feedback can offer an opportunity to get to the bottom of hidden thoughts and feelings.

Empathy in the workplace is becoming a top priority for organizations that are looking for ways to retain current employees and attract new talent. When employees feel as though they are seen, understood, and valued, they perform at their best. Demonstrating that you understand them through an immersive learning experience can be transformative. 

Struggling with the foundational work required to create empathetic learning designs?

Our time-tested Voice of the Business process is a proven alternative to traditional needs assessment (and a client favorite). It involves employees in a way that secures their buy-in while getting to the root of what people really need to be successful. You gain insights to help you create an authentic learning experience while integrating empathetic learning design. Contact us to schedule a consultation and learn how we can support you.