13 Digital Simulations

Carrie Lewis Miller

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between high-fidelity and digital simulations
  • Describe opportunities to integrate simulations into educational contexts

Digital simulations are computer-based versions of high-fidelity simulations.  Rather than going into a lab and role-playing skills, learners interact in a virtual environment to practice those same skills.  Digital simulations are often used as precursors to high-fidelity simulations, scaffolding the learning environment from relatively low interactivity to higher interactivity.  Digital simulations are often used to train operators of heavy machinery or vehicles, such as tanks, front loaders, and other construction equipment.  Digital simulations are also used to prepare learners in trade programs for using welding and HVAC equipment.  Some digital simulations are used to introduce learners to new software or technology tools in the workplace.

Like high-fidelity simulations, digital simulations promote skill transfer and learner self-efficacy.  In a detailed review of the literature, Gegenfurtner, Quesada-Pallarès, and Knogler (2014) found that when developing digital simulations, instructional designers should focus on the user control aspect of the simulation over elements such as social, narrative, or multimedia.  In other words, unlike a video game, a simulation doesn’t necessarily need a good story, fancy multimedia interactions, or collaboration opportunities with other users. Additionally, these authors found that assessment after training was a vital piece of the success of using digital simulations effectively for learning and increasing the likelihood of skill transfer.

Nestled into a small aspect of digital simulations is education within virtual worlds, such as Second Life.  While Second Life (SL) is not designed specifically for education, some institutions have chosen to purchase “islands” in SL and host online classes within the virtual world.  Some teachers and institutions have created virtual learning environments around their content such as a complete replica of a Mexican village or Macbeth’s castle.  The benefit of learning in the real world, particularly for language instruction, is the authentic interaction that learners can have with the “residents” of SL, who are logged on from all over the globe.  Spanish students can log in to SL and listen to a live flamenco concert or converse with native Spanish speakers.

The popularity of Second Life for educational purposes has waned over the last few years.  The expense of maintaining an island or space in SL is large and concerns about learners’ digital safety were sufficient enough to discourage most educators from continuing the explorations of SL as a learning tool.  However, there is still some educational presence from larger universities.  Further exploration of virtual worlds will appear in Chapter 5:  Virtual Worlds.

Digital simulations can be useful in helping students understand abstract concepts.  For physics students, a simulation like Supercharged! helps learners visualize ion and particle charges and how they work together.  Simulations like Volcano Island allow students to manipulate a geologic environment to determine what forces cause volcanic eruptions.


Questions for Discussion

  1. What type of simulation might be the best choice for your particular organization? Why? What would this simulation be used for?
  2. Reflection: Based on what you’ve learned so far, in your opinion, what is the value of games and simulations in education? How can they be used effectively, if at all?



Gegenfurtner, A., Quesada‐Pallarès, C., & Knogler, M. (2014). Digital simulation‐based training: A meta‐analysis. British Journal of Educational Technology45(6), 1097-1114.


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Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Lewis Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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