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Review of "Learning by Doing: A Comprehensive Guide to Simulations, Computer Games and Pedagogy in E-learning and Other Educational Experiences by Clark Aldrich"

By Karl Kapp / September 2005

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We are at a time in the history of education when everything can change. Our minds can be as well-developed and nurtured as our bodies... the work of a few people will echo through the ages, changing the very wealth of nations."
---Clark Aldrich


Simulations and online educational games are swimming in a sea of hype, hyperbole, and half-truths. Every e-learning vendor is scrambling to sell online games and every academic is dreaming of a fully immersive simulation focused specifically on his or her content area. There is a pervasive fear among trainers, instructional designers, academics and others that if we don't have games and simulations in our learning toolkit, we will be labeled as "so late 1990s."

Clark Aldrich, in Learning by Doing, is here to simultaneously slap us in the face with the reality of simulations and tease us with a vision of future.

Goals of Book

Aldrich's primary goal is to help readers understand the tapestry of simulations currently available. He wants to cut through the hype, overstatements, and misinformation that surround simulations. He provides definitions, examples, and stories helping any e-learning developer and/or purchaser to understand when, where, and why games and simulations make sense.

This comprehensive book summarizes critical elements of games and simulations, including an examination of the fundamental pedagogy that underlies effective games and simulations. Although the book focuses on games and simulations, it describes techniques and tools that can be used by all types of online learning events and even stand-up events. Aldrich paints a broad picture of simulations and fills in the pieces with types and categories to help frame the often confusing dialogue about educational games and simulations.

The second goal of the book is to present a vision of the future of simulations. This involves a look at, as Aldrich states, "maybe one-and-a-half data points:" ideas and applications so innovative that only one or two examples exist. Aldrich calls these new simulations, "Next Generation Simulations." As Aldrich points out, any discussion of the next generation simulations involves straddling the line between theory and innovation and between reality and hype. However, at this early point, Aldrich makes some interesting assertions about the future of simulations.

Style of Book

Learning by Doing is simultaneously a casual and heavy read. Aldrich employs a dry, off-center sense of humor throughout the book. He ends one of the chapters with a review in the form of a word search and adds "asides" throughout. And, after writing about a rather complex process for reacting to a pilot's reaction in a flight simulator, Aldrich adds in parentheses, "if you are taking notes, please do not highlight that sentence; it's not that important in the scheme of things and I don't really know what it means either. It won't be on the test." At another point he writes that "computer games differ from a simulation, in part by their attitude." He then adds, "That would be 'tude, if you are under 27 but over 20." This humor is well done and helps to provide you with a break from some of the heavy concepts he discusses.

On the other hand, you should carefully analyze and study what is being said to gain the insights described within the text. Don't miss the insights because of the humor. Aldrich carefully details concepts and ideas to help you understand the techniques and tools needed to successfully deploy or develop a simulation or game as only a reformed analyst or academic can. The best approach to the work is to read it in stages or sections. This allows you to fully grasp and understand the topics being discussed prior to reading to another section.

Sure you could read the book quickly, be amused and even entertained, but without a degree of care, you will miss the fundamental ideas contained in the chapters. Carefully read the book and digest what is being described and discussed. The insights, if you take the time to think about them, will positively shape and form any simulation development processes you can imagine.

Author's Experience

Aldrich knows simulations. He has been embroiled in the development of a highly interactive leadership simulation called "Virtual Leader" for a number of years. The Virtual Leader development process and revelations discovered during that process became the inspirational material for Simulations and the Future of Learning, his first book on this topic.

Since that time, Aldrich has worked with a few dozen simulation projects, consulted on hundreds others and spoken with thousands of designers, implementers, customers, and associates concerning the field of simulations and computer games. In fact, the book opens with a fascinating interview with three game designers. The remainder of the interview is contained in an appendix of the book---material worth reading if that was the only stuff in the book.

The experience of talking to many experts in the field and of Aldrich's own experiences is evidenced in the stories and in the varied resources he draws upon. You get the feeling that ideas from many different areas and disciplines are brought together in a single voice to describe the current state of simulations. A single voice is needed in the current simulation and e-learning marketplace.

Types of Simulations

While Simulations and the Future of Learning was a deep dive into the topic of developing an educational simulation, Learning by Doing is a 10,000-foot view of the field.

As mentioned before, Learning by Doing defines simulation types and provides definitions and a common language in which to carry on a productive conversation about simulations. Four types of online learning environments commonly referenced as "simulations" are discussed. Here is a brief definition and example of each.

Branching Stories
These are stories or scenarios that engage the learner in a highly defined scenario where, at defined intervals, he or she makes multiple-choice decisions that branch the story down different paths. Aldrich provides an example from a story-based sales simulation.

You are now sitting in front of a direct report to the key decision maker. What do you say?

A) Is your boss available? I really need to talk with her.
B) What do you think of our proposal?
C) Do you have any suggestions for me?

Based on the answer, the learner will be branched to one section of the instruction or another. These are relatively linear but provide a novice learner with an appropriate simulation experience for learning.

Interactive Spreadsheets
These are spreadsheets that allow the learner, across a number of turns, to decide how to allocate resources. After each decision, the simulation generates a graph or other information that shows the results. The goal in an interactive spreadsheet is often to reach a certain high point in one or more variables within a given time frame. You want to reach a certain volume of customers or revenues.

Game-based Models
In this type of simulation, learners engage in an entertaining game complete with competition. These include games based on well-known game shows like "Wheel of Fortune," and "Jeopardy!" It also includes games from one's childhood place online such as Hangman, Word Jumble, Word Searches and even Adventure Games.

Virtual Products and Virtual Labs
These are on-screen representations of objects and software that allow significant interaction, mimicking many of the physical characteristics of the real-life counter part (e.g., a simulated ventilator or airplane radio control box.)

The definition and understanding of the four types of simulations provide a common language for the field of simulations. The definitions also provide a foundation for Aldrich's discussion of Next Generation Simulations.

Focus on the Present

One of the most utilitarian parts of the book is when Aldrich spells out when to use certain simulation types. This question is constantly on the mind of those attempting to purchase simulations or online games for a corporate or academic purpose. How do we know what type of game or simulation is most appropriate for what content or audience.

Aldrich takes the time to describe what type of learning to use with what type of simulation. In fact, the academic in me would have loved to have seen a table listing the types of learning on one side and the types of simulations on the other and check marks on the appropriate intersection. Short of that quick and easy visual, Aldrich does provide a listing of simulations and when they are most appropriate. Part of that list is shared below.

  • New Employees and High Turnover is a good candidate for Branching Stories.
  • Learning to use Complicated Equipment can be helped along substantially with the use of Virtual Products and/or Virtual Labs.
  • New Consultant Team Building can be enhanced with role plays using Virtual Experience Spaces.
  • Shared Understanding of Complex Systems especially with cross-functional implications can be helped with Interactive Spreadsheets.
  • Sales training works with Branching Stories.
  • Exposure to New Perspectives can be helped with Branching Stories and Interactive Spreadsheets.


If you are a developer or manager currently designing a learning program, you need to read Learning by Doing. You will go back, scrap your work, and start over. The discussion of the Next Generation Simulations is provocative and just the screen captures alone will give you new ideas and concepts to consider as you begin to develop games and simulations to prevent you from being labeled as a "1990s old timer."


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