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The educational development of computer assisted simulations for distance education

Leonard L. Webster
Monash University Gippsland Campus

This paper discusses the challenges presented to the educational developer in developing interactive multimedia materials, highlighting the scope of the challenge and the process used by one course team. These issues are discussed in the context of the design and development of a computer assisted instructional simulation for a post graduate, distance education course in Human Resources. The use of simulations provides one option for the educational developer in integrating multimedia into distance and open learning materials.

This paper seeks to highlight the developmental climate faced by the educational developer in selecting computer assisted instructional simulations as one instructional strategy for distance education.


In the development of distance and open learning courses there is an increasing expectation to integrate computer assisted technologies into instructional materials. This challenge has emerged from:

The changing bases

Added to the challenges listed above is a changing theoretical base on which instructional materials are planned and developed. In developing interactive multimedia, Reeves (1993) summarised the dimensions as: Although these were presented in the context of a discussion on technological innovations they apply equally to the development of interactive multimedia for distance education courses. These challenges and changing bases are presented here to highlight the complexities of the development process in which the educational developer works, that is, the developmental climate. This paper does not offer a development process that accounts for each challenge or changing theoretical dimension[1]. Rather, it describes the approaches, processes and outcomes that assisted the development of a computer assisted instructional simulation and addressed some of the challenges and changing theoretical bases referred to above.


The combination of approaches including formulation of a specification document, planning the learning environment and the selection of instructional strategy characterised the early development phase of the project.

1. Specifications

A specification document was drafted early in the development phase. The function of this document was to clearly identify software and instructional requirements. Identifying the aims, components, budget, function, objectives, audience, ownership, development team, lesson requirements, scheduling and resources. This document served primary organisational and resource functions. Some guiding principles that arose out of this document were that the product should be updatable, easily distributable, provide a reusable shell, use existing popular computer based tools for the Windows operating environment and allow the direct importing of content from the content experts.

2. Learning environment

This was influenced by the desires of the team to provide an environment in which the users of the completed package would develop an evaluative framework for scenarios that they would be presented with in their role as training managers. Therefore, principles of construction of knowledge and the support of performance in the decision making process guided the team to selection of computer assisted instructional simulations. There was agreement in the team to go beyond the computer based presentation of knowledge to use the power of the computer and seek interaction at a higher level from the user.

3. Instructional strategy

A computer based simulation was selected as an appropriate strategy. A blend of tutorial and simulation components afforded a contemporary scenario for the development of higher order learning skills. A requirement to develop a more time efficient approach to development of the material (Rowntree, 1992) became a project specification. In an educational context, CAIS[2] is a powerful technique that can provide the learner with situations, processes and procedures with which they can interact. Implementation decisions included those identified by Alessi (1988, 1991) on the appropriate level of fidelity for the instructional context. A low level of fidelity was selected for the project. In applying this to distance education and open learning materials students are assisted in the development of useful mental models and are provided the opportunity to test these efficiently and safely.

Recently there has also been a focus on the type of cognitive processes which favour the information processing view of learning (Gagne, 1991) and an emphasis on realistic learning tasks that require active participation on the learner's part. The use of varied forms of learning environments that include realistic and 'real time' simulations is supported by recent learning research by psychologists focussing on the social, emotional and motivational contexts in which learning takes place (Gruneberg, 1987). Literature on developing CAI (Gagne, 1991; Okey, 1991) identifies the appropriateness of using simulations for developing problem solving strategies as they present tasks in which the learner is to determine the relationships among variables through the manipulation of them.


Throughout the development phase the processes of project management, role of the course team and methodological issues were highlighted.

1. Project management

The production of interactive multimedia draws on a variety of specialised skills. The capability to administer and coordinate this skill mix facilitates the attainment of standards and schedules. Further, constant monitoring of the development process identifies those areas that require assistance or further resourcing to achieve project specifications. The use of additional electronic tools and resources that can facilitate the project management processes of budgeting templates, reporting, evaluating, scheduling, licensing, contractual models and lists of specification standards would be a worthwhile feature of future projects.

2. Course team

A team of seven individuals was assembled which included a project manager, instructional design, educational development, content, graphic design, programmer and technical support. Although there was some initial scepticism as to the application of computer based approaches to the content area, the strategy of a simulation and support tutorial structure was readily adopted.

The project manager had considerable experience in industry based projects and had developed materials for distance education. The project manager chaired all team meetings and was responsible for their planning and scheduling. This role required advanced interpersonal and communication skills. The content expert was the author of an existing course with little experience in the development of interactive multimedia materials. The programmers had extensive industry experience in computer based training but little experience in the provision of higher education materials or with distance education. Both instructional designers had experience in developing interactive multimedia and distance and open learning materials.

3. Methodology

The instructional material was developed using standard Microsoft Windows products. The methodology is based on CBT material consisting of tutorial or informational screens with less requirement for complex branching, lesson control techniques or interactive simulation of equipment. The lessons were developed under the following guidelines: The advantages of this system are: Efficient production of textual and static graphic elements can be achieved using the Windows Help system which relies on the use of Word For Windows as the development tool. Complex branching and simulation elements were developed using Visual Basic. These two products combined to produce the instructional material. Further processes that assisted the development phase included prototyping, the incremental refinement of the product, structure for importing the content experts editing of text, story boarding approach and the cost effectiveness of the development of the simulations and support systems compared with traditional development cost of computer based instructional materials.

The outcome

The final product comprised of: Although providing a tutorial front end, simulation and support tools, the simulation is of most interest to the team and provided three practice scenarios, a decision support tool and a simple performance support system. The three simulation scenarios consisted of selection of a training package for a phone company, a casino and a high technology aerospace application. The decision support tool was adopted in place of a fourth simulation and allows users to experiment with altering a range of variables and being provided feedback on the consequences of their decisions. The performance support tool has the same knowledge base as the tutorial but accesses a set of search tools. This can be accessed from any point in the simulation activity. Future development of this material will incorporate additional simulated training scenarios.


The processes and approaches described in this paper identify the multi-disciplinary climate that forms the knowledge on which the development of instructional materials for distance education and open learning is based. The use of CAIS in distance and open learning opportunities presents one opportunity for the integration of interactive multimedia into distance education and open learning materials, providing distance students a learning environment that is difficult to replicate in other media. Simulations and other electronic support systems may soon become components of a much broader and powerful set of tools and resources designed for the distance and open learning student.


  1. Parer and Henri (1993) identify that there is no single best way to design a distance course but they do identify the importance of the planning and development phase.

  2. Computer Assisted Instructional Simulations


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Alessi, S. M. & Trollip, S. R. (1991). Computer based instruction: Methods and development. (2nd ed). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Childs, J. W., Gustafson, K. L. & Tillman, M. H. (1991). The future of instructional design. In L. J. Briggs, K. L. Gustafson & M. H. Tillman (Eds), Instructional design: Principles and applications (pp.454-55). Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology.

Gagne, R. M., Wager, W. & Rojas, A. (1991). Planning and authoring computer assisted instruction lessons. In L. J. Briggs, K. L. Gustafson & M. H. Tillman (Eds), Instructional design: Principles and applications (pp.220). Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology.

Gruneberg, M. M., Morris, P. E. & Sykes, E. M. (1987). Practical aspects of memory: Current research issues (Vol. 1). New York: John Wiley.

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Okey, J. R. (1991). Procedures of lesson design. In L. J. Briggs, K. L. Gustafson & M. H. Tillman (Eds), Instructional design: Principles and applications (pp.455). Englewood Cliffs: Educational Technology.

Parer, M. P., & Henri, F. (1993). The contribution of the educational developer in quality distance education and open learning. Paper presented at the ASPESA, Adelaide.

Reeves, T. (1993). The evaluation of interactive multimedia. Presentation to the VCBTA, ASET and NSPI, Melbourne, Australia.

Rowntree, D. (1992). Exploring open and distance learning. London: Kogan Page.

Zhongmin, L., & Merrill, D. M. (1991). ID Expert 2.0: Design theory and process. Educational Technology Research and Development, 39(2), 53-69.

Author: Leonard Webster, Educational Developer, Distance Education Centre - Metropolitan Office, Monash University - Caulfield, PO Box 197, Caulfield East 3145. Ph: 03 903 2339; Fax: 03 903 2833; Email:

Please cite as: Webster, L. (1994). The educational development of computer assisted simulations for distance education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 353-356. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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