- Arthur Conan Doyle
Students in Mark Carnes’ classroom reenact key moments from historical crises and controversies. In his book Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College (reviewed here), he argues that student engagement and motivation to learn are increased through what he calls “subversive play.” In this approach, the instructor takes on the role of “gamemaster” and controls the action of the experience, forcing students to act and react within the confines of their role in the game. This approach has gained quite a following from other professors hoping to capitalize on students’ interest in the popular online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. This approach has developed into a movement implemented at more than 300 universities. The passion and excitement demonstrated by Carnes can be leveraged through the use of role-play and simulation in the classroom.
Key features of the strategy
When students engage in a role-playing or simulation activity, they have an opportunity to engage with a realistic and/or hypothetical situation connected with a course topic. In many cases, students play particular roles within the scenario to work through the situation either individually or in small groups. These activities can be paper-based or either supported or done completely with digital resources. Medical and business schools have used these types of learning activities for decades. There are many other possibilities for integrating these kinds of experiences in many different disciplines, however. Both Carleton College and the POD Network provide helpful general tips for using role play and simulations in your teaching.
Examples and Variations
The Molecular Workbench is a free, open-source modeling tool developed by the Concord Consortium that allows faculty to develop computational simulations and experiments covering a range of topics in science. The project site includes a number of existing simulations and experiments to use, along with supporting curriculum materials. This provides an easy entry point to creating interactive experiences on topics ranging from gas laws, to states of matter, to chemical reactions. The tool also provides the necessary tools and resources to create your own learning experiences yourself.
TeachLivE is a Web-based, mixed-reality teaching environment that enables rich, emergent simulations of teaching practice. Developed at the University of Central Florida, TeachLivE is currently being implemented at 42 campuses in the United States alone. TeachLivE connects the student with a virtual “class” of students that she can interact with to practice classroom management and teaching skills in a rich, simulated environment. The student interacts in real-time with a small group of students who respond to their teaching and management techniques. In this safe, virtual environment, students can begin to hone their teaching skills.
Students in Jeffrey Park’s Economics of Science and Technology course at Reed College become virtual entrepreneurs in the technology arena in this rich simulation experience. In the Innovation Experiment, students participate over several weeks, in and out of class, making strategic decisions as they compete with others in developing their virtual widgets. Students track their performance in a spreadsheet over time and adjust a number of variables from week to week to improve their company’s performance. Along the way, students engage in research and development experiences to help them to determine how they can change their approach. Dr. Park offers detailed instructions for the simulation on his course Web site.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Both role play and simulation activities provide excellent opportunities to engage your students in real world problem solving experiences, an important element of 21st century skills. In fact, these kinds of simulated and classroom-based experiences often provide more realistic ways to draw students into problem solving experiences than relying solely on authentic experiences. These kinds of activities are particularly useful in those disciplines where engaging in real field experiences may be either cost-prohibitive or too dangerous for classroom experience. When students work in pairs or small groups, you can also leverage the development of collaboration skills as well.
In some cases the simulations themselves rely on digital technologies. For example, the Molecular Workbench relies on Web-based simulations and modeling opportunities that would not be possible in analog form, thus facilitating more robust collaboration opportunities. The use of a common collaborative word processing tool like Google Docs or Microsoft Word Online can help students develop their written responses to a particular activity together. Even for more media-rich student products like presentations or video, collaborative tools exist as well (e.g., WeVideo and Prezi). For more complex collaboration efforts, a group wiki or Basecamp space can work well.
How have you leveraged role-play or simulation activities in your courses?
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