In today’s world of work, it is simply impossible to avoid knowledge acquisition. For employees, the need for knowledge has become a constant throughout their professional lifetime. Yet employees also have increasingly less time to spend on learning and maintaining their knowledge, skills, and interpersonal skills. Moreover, it is often difficult to get hold of the materials needed for training and practice, either because this is costly or simply unavailable to employers. In this context, simulation can be seen as an alternative worth exploring. But to be beneficial, simulation technology must be used adequately and at the best moment during the learning pathway.
What knowledge and when?
Several different types of knowledge can be acquired for practicing a task. Each knowledge type corresponds to a specific step in the learning pathway.
- Conceptual knowledge during education. The learning pathway starts with training, to gain knowledge which is conceptual, otherwise known as knowledge sets or skillsets. This knowledge includes describing what is to be learned, either in theory or practice. We dissect this knowledge to understand how it functions, and to discover concepts. To do so, we can work directly with the study subject, or with documents, models, or even virtual representations we can interact with.
- Procedural knowledge during training. Once the subject of the study has been determined, then the time comes to learn how to use it. After the education period comes the training. We acquire procedural knowledge, know-how and skills. We are bringing together a set of sequential steps that can be reproduced, with a view to making a system work. By repeating the routine over and over, we will learn to integrate applied knowledge, mechanisms, and reflexes. If, however, learning is carried out in the wrong conditions, we run the risk of teaching incorrect actions which could have harmful consequences during real situational practice. This is known as negative training. Training must, then, be carried out in the real conditions of the task at hand, putting the real subject of the learning exercise into practice. Or, we could use a simulation system which faithfully reproduces real conditions. Training always starts with a period of adjustment, where the duration differs according to the level of difficulty of the skill being implemented.
- Contextual knowledge and preparation before projection. After theory and practical, and before applying the knowledge to the professional environment, comes the warm-up stage before application. This is where we acquire contextual knowledge. Here, we are dealing with skills directly linked to the upcoming task at hand. The skills and knowledge are specific to the environment or the nature of the work. Following this step, the trainee will have a better understanding of his or her set task. The risks associated with negative training and the need for realism which have been adapted to the task are the same as for training.
Let us take the following example. To become the pilot of a specific aircraft (let’s call it A), a person will follow a learning pathway made up of three stages: training, training, and a warm-up before application. The trainee starts by gaining conceptual knowledge, for instance: every aircraft has a cabin, wings or propellers, a yoke or control wheel, wheels, and an engine, all which work from different mechanisms. Next, the trainee will use procedural knowledge and the appropriate actions needed for flying a generic plane: inspecting the aircraft, going over the checklist, touching base with radio control, pressing this or that button, etc. Lastly, we have the contextual knowledge, specific to aircraft A. The pilot is then ready to start his or her missions with this specific aircraft.
- The warm-up training, a mid-step. Sometimes, the conditions needed for successfully completing the learning journey are lacking. For example, the equipment required may not be available or it may be too expensive. It might, then, be possible to imagine a mid-step between the acquisition of conceptual and procedural knowledge, meaning, between the education and training. This is the warm-up training. This is a sort of warming up exercise, with simplified methods compared to the real ones, whose aim is to set up and optimise the training programme by minimising the adjustment period. It also means that we can get around the employees’ lack of time and resources. We will come back to this later.
Which simulations are needed for which knowledge type?
At each and every step of the learning journey, we can use simulation systems. There are several different simulation types, and here we will put forward one that is directly linked to the different steps of the training pathway.
- Transparent vs. conscious. The use of a simulation system can either be transparent (unaware) or conscious (aware) for the user. In this first instance, the simulation system is used like the real system, with the user forgetting that he or she is using a simulation. Conversely, if the simulation system used is, evidently, different from the real system, the user will be aware of its use. This is the case with immersive glasses used with virtual reality. Being aware that it is a simulation is advantageous, as its use puts the real situation into perspective and allows us to gain the hindsight necessary for avoiding negative training, which is one of the risks of transparent simulations. These are used for training or warm-ups, whereas for education or the warm-up training the user must be conscious (aware) of the simulation.
- Realism vs. pedagogy-based. In this sense, the term realism is employed in relation to the system being simulated. However, pedagogy-based simulations are partial representations and are adapted to the learning goals. By their very nature they are not realistic. They are only used for acquiring conceptual knowledge and skills. The further away from reality we are, the higher the risk of negative training. If we go back to our pilot example, a pedagogy-based simulation might reduce the shape of the aircraft to a simple cuboid with wings attached to a cabin and a set of wheels. This is sufficient for understanding the different mechanisms at work. The representation used is adapted to the goals of the learning. If the pilot is training on a simulator where the control panel is on the dashboard but on the real aircraft it is actually on the ceiling, then the adopted negative training will have to be corrected and it will actually take longer to gain proper command of the real plane.
- For education, we use a pedagogy-based simulation where the user is aware (conscious) of its use;
- Training and the warm-up before application require realistic and transparent (unaware) simulation for the user;
- The test run will require realistic simulation where the user is conscious (aware) of its use;
- Negative training is the adverse consequence resulting from the transparent (unaware) use of pedagogy-based simulation
The benefits of using simulation during a test run
In practice, for several reasons such as the unavailability of equipment or the cost of using it, trainees often find it difficult to spend the time or necessary resources on their training programme.
This is where a test run can come in, the mid-step in between education and training. To put this into context, we will take the example of armies, which frequently use simulations in training: in this instance, army operators have the task of maintaining the shelters used for their IT systems. These are containers, measuring 6 metres long and 3 metres high and wide, filled with computer equipment and endless cables. This equipment is rare and only available for set operations. Training the maintenance operators is, then, largely theoretical, and it may so happen that they only see these shelters for the first time when arriving at the theatre of operations. It is therefore highly important to have a lengthy adjustment period so as to have a good level of command of all the procedures required for their maintenance.
Using a simulated test-run makes sense here, whilst respecting certain conditions.
By its nature, a test run uses simple, cheap resources to set up. This involves a simplified representation of the system where negative training will be avoided if the simulated system conforms to the reality of the situation and also if the user is conscious that he or she is using a simulation. The user can, then, repeat the maintenance procedures and adopt reflexes. Any negative training will have been kept to a minimum and the adjustment period will be reduced when the operator uses the real equipment for the first time.
We could also, for instance, imagine a 3D based simulation system, visualised with augmented reality immersive glasses, and during which the trainee moves around and touches objects using a control pad, allowing him or her to interact with the surrounding environment. This simulation is realistic because it is a faithful reproduction of the shelter, and the trainee is aware of its use, since the immersive glasses and the control pad act as a reminder that he or she is using a simulation tool.
Realism is a crucial aspect for simulation
Reproducing a real system has an associated cost, which varies according to its degree of realism. Not only can this degree of realism be found in the system’s visual aspects, but also in the other senses such as touch, smell, etc. For instance, airplane simulators are so realistic that they can mimic the pilot’s flight. These simulators have 3D visualisations which cover the operator’s’ entire field of vision, placed on hydraulics for replicating sensations during acceleration, etc. We are talking about very costly simulators.
It often happens that the realism in simulators decreases over time because of changes in the real system. Maintaining the level of realism is therefore a major concern if we want to continue using simulators for training exercises. Otherwise, to avoid running the risk of negative training, the simulator is reduced to simple education tasks.
Simulator maintenance requires much attention because it is linked to the sometimes complex configuration management of the real system, particularly if the real system and the simulator are dealt with by different programmes or companies. The maintenance cost is directly linked to the price of the simulator; the more expensive the simulator, the more expensive the maintenance.
The idea of using simulation systems for a test run is worth exploring further as they are simpler systems and usually less costly than realistic simulators whose users are unaware that they are using a simulation. The upkeep is, therefore, less expensive and more economical. The main concern is regarding the ability to preserve a sufficient level of realism to gain procedural knowledge, which is a real skill.
Using simulators as a learning tool is being rolled out across many domains, from the moment the trainee needs to learn procedures, reflexes, and the implementation, nature or composition of a system. In medicine, for instance, trainee doctors are being trained more and more using simulators, allowing them to revisit technical manoeuvres before an operation.
Mainly used for training until now, simulation is discovering new fields of application for training purposes and should gradually (and more frequently) be introduced into the test run step.