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An overview of computer assisted instructional simulation

Phil Wallace
Headquarters Training Command
Pilot Training Design Team, RAAF Pearce

... memory has its roots in sense perception, while experience arises from frequently repeated memories of the same occurrence... Furthermore, experience... provides the starting point of the arts and scientific knowledge... Aristotle from Posterior Analytics, 385-322 BC.


The notion that learning is a product of experience is a fundamental axiom of Western educational philosophy. However, until this century little scientific research was carried out to ascertain just what should constitute "experience" for learning to be effective. The work of modern educational theorists has done much to redress this situation; and must be considered timely, since the advent of inexpensive, and yet sophisticated, computer technology has placed potentially powerful experiential environments within the reach of most educational and training organisations.

Despite this recent research into learning, the practice of providing skill experience by the use of computer technology, or Computer Assisted Instructional Simulation (CAIS), is still in its infancy. This early stage is evidenced by the confusion and disagreement that exists over fundamental issues such as "levels of fidelity".

The purpose of this paper is to provide an appreciation of current views on CAIS through a review of relevant literature. Issues relating to the role of CAIS will firstly be examined in order to describe its desired attributes. This will be followed by discussion of a logical and rigorous approach to CAIS design emerging from the domains of industrial and military training. The scope of this paper is limited to the conflux of computer technologies with the practice of instructional simulation. This interaction of information technology with educational technology gives rise to unique issues which warrant undivided examination.

The role of computer assisted instructional simulations

Historical perspective

The history of CAIS has been dominated by efforts to achieve greater realism with insufficient justification in terms of improved learning. This has been particularly apparent within the multi million dollar climate of American industrial and military training. Simulation based training system development focuses on simulation technology (hardware centered) at the expense of instructional technology and other training system variables. The major problem is that although the goal of training is to improve job performance, the engineering decisions in training system development are often made without that goal in mind (Hays and Singer, 1988, p.19).

However, the high cost of achieving realism is forcing a re-appraisal of this hardware centred approach. There now appears to be a growing realisation that the omission of certain real situation features may have little detrimental effect and, more importantly, that carefully planned omission of such features may result in improved learning. This trend is reflected in a recent RAAF study into the use of synthetic training devices in undergraduate pilot training.

... because (synthetic training devices) are isolated from real world problems and constraints, critical skills which underlie techniques could be reinforced through repetition, or taught in any sequence, according to instructional efficiency rather than practical requirements." (Espeland, Huckstepp, Stade and Wallace, 1988, p.2).
Hence, the predilection towards more and more realism which has characterised the history of CAIS appears to be changing as a more rational perspective is adopted. This trend has resulted from the application of educational technology in place of an overly enthusiastic quest for technical perfection.

Simulation and theories of learning

Plato in Dialogues and Aristotle in Posterior Analytics provided a theoretical basis for instructional simulation in terms of how people learn by association. However, discussion of the modern concept of instructional simulation began with debate on the validity of "the doctrine of formal discipline", ie the belief that the study of classical subjects, such as Latin, prepared learners for unrelated studies by the development of a logical mind. The educational theorist Thorndike, in particular, disagreed with this doctrine and argued that transfer of learning is dependent upon the presence of identical elements (Hays and Singer, 1988, p.25). Thorndike proposed that a learner's perception of identical elements between familiar and new situations enables skills gained in the familiar situation to be applied in the new one, hence at least a psychological similarity is necessary for learning to be transferred.

Thorndike's work laid the theoretical foundations for the practice of instructional simulations. He provided a logical rationale for introducing learners to skills in isolation from the operational environment. Many other theorists have refined the concept of identical elements, however, an extension to this foundation was required to account for the importance of learner perception and participation.

The behavioural theories of learning offered major advances in simulation design by modelling student learning on that of a simple organism whose behaviour will be modified in accordance with externally supplied feedback. This approach implied that desired learning outcomes could be achieved through assessment of a student's entry level skills, identification of differences between entry and target skill levels, and provision of structured practice with feedback until the predefined learning outcomes were achieved (Fosnot, 1984, p.195-197).

Further advances in understanding instructional simulation come from cognitive theories of learning. Cognitivists argue that each student should be considered as possessing unique ways of processing information from the environment and subsequently modifying their behaviour. This approach de-emphasises the importance, and even validity, of strictly defining learning outcomes and focuses instructional design on providing an environment which supports, rather than directs, individual learning.

In a review of behavioural and cognitive approaches to enhancing the transfer of learning, Clark and Voogel have suggested that both have an important role to play. They cite evidence that the transfer of procedural skills into known contexts, near transfer, is suited to the behaviourist approach, while the transfer of general abilities into unfamiliar contexts, far transfer, is suited to the cognitive approach (Clark & Voogel, 1985). Clark and Voogel blame over emphasis on the behaviourist approach for some instances of the failure of modern instructional programmes to facilitate the transfer of skills from learning to operational environments (Clark and Voogel, 1585, p.113). Thus, a greater emphasis on cognitive approaches to learning may be fruitful.

Many cognitive instructional models now exist which pay due regard to the integral role of the learner. Constructivism is one which illustrates the concept well. "Learning is the construction of knowledge not the absorption of it ... The learner must be active and must be relating new knowledge to existing knowledge" (Burton, 1988, p.110). While being learner centred, constructivism does not imply that instructional staff are unnecessary. Evidence that "learners benefit from guidance in their perception of the learning task" is well documented (Fleming and Levie, 1978, p.188). Indeed, without proper guidance the vagaries of an individual's perception could lead to unintended and undesired learning outcomes.

A sound basis in learning theory has developed for the practice of instructional simulation. The cornerstones of this field are the need to replicate certain aspects of the real situation (within the world perceived by the learner), the need to involve learners as active participants, and the need to guide learners' perceptions.

Instructional opportunities available through CAIS

Knowledge of sound principles on which to base CAIS allows potential instructional opportunities to be identified with confidence. The following is a list of some potential advantages of instructional simulation over learning in the real situation. Two more opportunities, in comparison with learning in the real situation, come from the RAAF study mentioned earlier. Furthermore, a review of modern research in the behavioural sciences by Fleming and Levie highlight two applications to which CAIS may be well suited by virtue of its manipulable nature. In relation to the development of problem solving skills, they point out that learners should be provided with ''...situational support (which) is initially high and then gradually removed as the learner finds effective strategies..." (Fleming and Levie, 1978, p.188). Also, in relation to developing creativity, they state, "... stimuli for creative behaviour should be chosen so as to allow or cause perception to diverge or to escape from restrictive sets" (Fleming and Levie, 1978, p.189).

While these opportunities are appealing in terms of instructional effectiveness, an assessment of practical opportunities is necessary to fully appreciate the usefulness of CAIS.

Practical opportunities available through CAIS

CAIS provides instructional systems with potential efficiencies because of its ability to teach skills away from operational environments. This has led Hays and Singer (1988) to identify the following practical opportunities The RAAF report mentioned earlier also noted the opportunity for simulation to provide certain unique training which cannot be otherwise performed for reasons of economy or safety (Espeland et al, 1988, p.11).

Thus, in practical terms, CAIS may be able to fulfil a role in improving the efficiency of training organisations. The importance of such a role is reflected in a recent Australian Government report on the need for change in industrial training, "There is wide agreement on ... the importance of quality training to meet the needs of structural readjustment and ongoing technological change." (Department of Employment, Education and Training, 1988).

Learner perception of the simulation

While CAIS may provide a powerful tool for adapting the learning environment to the needs of the learner, it may also confuse or mislead due to the intrinsically subjective nature of perception. Factors affecting an individual's perception include age, past experiences, physiological characteristics and cognitive style (Coren, Porac and Ward, 1978, p.403). In striving toward the goal of meeting the learner's needs, CAIS must cope with varying perceptual styles.

This need to allow for varying perceptions of the same stimulus is well illustrated by the sex difference which exists in visual spatial abilities. Research has shown a consistent difference, favouring males, in ability to identify a shape or pattern against a similar background (Coren, Porac and Ward, 1978, p.410). Hence, different learning outcomes for males and females, may occur when an activity involves discrimination of a pattern against a confusing background on a computer monitor.

Occupational experience is another possible source of differences in perception. An experienced pilot will perceive a simulated display of cockpit navigation instruments quite differently from a novice pilot. In such a case, the simulation may need to initiate the student into the skill of instrument interpretation as well as the longer term and broader skill of air navigation. Thus, the task of accurately guiding learner perception is central to the role of CAIS.

Characteristics of effective CAIS

The above discussion has attempted to outline the broad role of CAIS. In summary, to be effective a CAIS should While definition of the role of CAIS may help to clarify and demystify this instructional activity, the use of logical and systematic design principles is necessary for successful implementation.

Principles of CAIS design

Identification of the need for CAIS

CAIS provides instructional designers with an additional and sophisticated means of creating an effective learning environment. It is sophisticated because it offers opportunities to influence learner perception, and therefore experience, through personally challenging and stimulating activities. The two major prerequisites to determination of a need for such activities are A decision to provide instruction away from the real situation may be based on grounds of improved instructional effectiveness, eg by reducing the complexity of the learning environment, or practical considerations, such as safety. Both of these were discussed in the first section of this paper.

Valid comparisons between CAIS and other forms of instruction require consideration of CAIS's identifying characteristics. The following list is drawn from a definition of CAIS by Willis, Hovey and Hovey (1987). CAIS provides

Consequently, a need for CAIS from an instructional effectiveness perspective may exist if the required characteristics of the learning environment more closely match those drawn from Willis, Hovey and Hovey than those identifying other methods of instruction. Discussion of means for identifying required characteristics of the learning environment are outside of the scope of this paper. However, for illustrative purposes, within typical military training doctrine the relationship between initial learner competencies and the results of task analyses would be employed. The results of task analyses may also be used to guide instructional design after methods and media are selected.

The learning task analysis

The use of task analysis techniques to identify precise learning objectives is common within modern instructional design. Indeed, the notion of instructing students in a range of subskills, identified through exhaustive analysis of the actual skill, accords with the tenets of behavioural psychology. However, simulation is most often intended to prepare students for further training, as opposed to actual skill performance. Consequently, an analysis of the learning task may be more appropriate than an analysis of required graduate performance.

A particular pitfall of using graduate task analysis data is the tendency to seek maximum, and not appropriate, levels of simulation fidelity. The final report of a USAF study into simulation requirements and effectiveness suggested that

... considerable improvement could result if simulator devices and training programs were developed on the basis of a learning task analysis rather than from an operational analysis ... while a fundamental aspect of the rationale for developing simulators is to allow facilitative management of the learning process ... (the) concern is usually with real world fidelity and the operational task, rather than with instructional facility and the learning task. (Prophet, Shelnutt and Spears, 1981, p.25-26).
Hays and Singer (1988) have further suggested that task analysis, for simulator development, should focus on learner information processing requirements. Precise specification of input the learner must receive from the environment and outputs that must be made can provide the basis for specifying the desired fidelity of simulation (p.70-72).

The analysis of fidelity

The issue of fidelity is possibly the most perplexing within the design of CAIS. Although modern technology is capable of remarkably high fidelity simulation, questions of cost effectiveness and instructional validity must be addressed. Hays and Singer (1988) note, "The real issue is how to replicate those parts of the task situation which are necessary for learning to perform the task." (p.49)

The notion that the degree of transfer of learning is proportional to the degree of fidelity is simplistic and misleading. The prime value of a simulation may be to isolate certain aspects of reality so that they may be focused on by learners. Therefore, an analysis of required fidelity must be undertaken for an appropriate learning environment to be defined.

Hays and Singer (1988) have devoted an entire book to the issue of simulation fidelity. While many other researchers have suggested alternative bases for analysing fidelity, that proposed by Hays and Singer appears comprehensive and will be the definition used in this paper. They define fidelity as "the degree of similarity between the training situation and the operational situation ... in terms of: 1. the physical characteristics ... , and 2. the functional characteristics." (Hays and Singer, 1988, p.50).

Physical fidelity is important for motor skills and sensory development as well as for facilitating functional fidelity. However, seemingly high physical fidelity can be counterproductive if even subconsciously perceived differences between the real and simulated environments exist. This problem is illustrated by the phenomenon of "simulator sickness" which may result from perceptual conflict experienced by pilots in high fidelity aircraft simulators (Crowley, 1987).

Furthermore, high physical fidelity which is not valid, eg where the operational environment to which training will be transferred is physically different from that of the simulator, can cause learning problems. Experience with instrument procedures training devices, incorporating some high physical fidelity features modelled on civilian aircraft used at the RAAF's No 1 Flying Training School has shown that more than a brief period of training on the devices results in confusion when students attempt to transfer the skills they have learnt to the training aircraft actually employed (Huckstepp and Wallace, 1989, p.2-12).

Functional fidelity refers to the similarity in perceived operation of the simulated and real situations. The desired level of functional fidelity should be readily obtainable from task analysis data and include specification of learner interaction with the environment.

Instrument flying training devices developed at RMIT for use by trainee pilots at the RAAF's No 2 Flying Training School, provide a good illustration of the benefits to be gained from carefully defined functional fidelity. These devices are specifically designed to isolate the skills of flight instrument interpretation, and compliance with instrument flying procedural requirements. Accordingly, the devices provide high functional fidelity representations of instrument readings and aircraft performance, but low functional fidelity representation of response to flight control operation. High functional fidelity response to control operation would require students to attend to "flying" the device and possibly interfere with learning of the targeted skill.

Physical and functional fidelity specification, while being necessary, are not sufficient to completely address the requirements of a successful simulation. In the broader consideration of a system, as opposed to a device, fidelity must also be addressed. The way in which a device is employed within the instructional setting is as important as the device's characteristics alone (Hays and Singer, 1988, p.44). This issue leads to the next topic of instructional strategies.

Development of an instructional strategy

The purpose of an instructional strategy is to integrate students, staff, hardware and courseware into a properly functioning training system. The specific strategies employed will provide direction, authority and responsibility within the system. Two issues for consideration, important because of the nature of CAIS, are the introduction of new technology into the training environment, and the existence of agreed goals for the use of simulation.

Clear explanations should be provided with regard to how staff and students may best utilise simulation technology to enrichen the process of learning. By describing appropriate processes as well as expected outcomes, the instructional strategy can form a basis for providing support and professional development to staff. A previously referred to study into simulator requirements and effectiveness, found inadequate staff skills to be a serious problem.

... instructor training is more often oriented toward (simulator) operation than (simulator) use. In particular, improving the ability of the instructor to utilise fully and effectively the capabilities of simulation to manage instructional process functions is crucial to improving the effectiveness of (simulator) instruction (Prophet, Shelnutt and Spears, 1981, p.28).
Thus, a sound instructional strategy should explain techniques by which staff can conduct effective instruction.

Also, the instructional strategy should reflect the common goals of training management and designers with regard to simulation; the precise purpose of introducing CAIS should be explicitly stated to avoid misunderstandings. A review of the management of civilian and military computer based instruction in the USA noted

It is almost a universal finding that where the expectations of the user differ from those of the supplier of the innovative system, the implementation of the system will fail, or at least will only be partially successful. (Seidel and Wagner, 1981, p.215).


The recent advances in educational and computer technologies have made available potentially powerful techniques and means for conducting instructional simulation. However, the successful use of CAIS to facilitate learning requires that its role be clearly defined and its design be based on valid principles.

The role of CAIS is defined by modern principles of educational technology and practical considerations of efficiency. CAIS is an instructional tool by which learners can be introduced to new skills in a controlled and supportive environment. CAIS also enables learning to occur in isolation from possible dangers and resource problems associated with the real situation.

To ensure effective learning, CAIS design should be based on logical and systematic principles and aimed at answering a valid need. CAIS device attributes should be defined in terms of physical and functional requirements to match the real situation. Also, CAIS should be viewed in terms of the overall learning environment, ie staff involvement, student participation and device operation.


Burton, R.R. (1988). The environment module of intelligent tutoring systems. In M.C. Polson and J.J. Richardson (Eds.), Foundations of intelligent tutoring systems. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Clark, R.E. & Voogel, R. (1985). Transfer of training principles. Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 2, 113-123.

Coren, S., Porac, G. and Ward, L.M. (1978). Sensation and perception. New York: Academic Press.

Crowley, J.S. (1987) Simulator sickness: A problem for army aviation. Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, April 1987, 355-357.

Department of Employment, Education and Training. (1988). Industry training in Australia: The need for change. Canberra: AGPS.

Espeland, B.J., Huckstepp, S.G., Stade, M. & Wallace, P.R. (1988). An evaluation of the potential use of synthetic training devices in the RAAF Undergraduate Pilot Training System. Report of the RAAF Command Pilot Training Design Team. RAAF East Sale, Vic: Headquarters Support Command.

Fleming, M. & Levie, W.H. (1978). Instructional message design. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications.

Fosnot, C.T. (1984). Media and technology in education: A constructivist view. Educational Communication and Technology Journal, 32(4), 195-205.

Hays, R.T. & Singer, M.J. (1988). Simulation fidelity in training system design. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Huckstepp, S.G. & Wallace, P.R. (1989). CPTDT evaluation of 151 Pilot Course at No 1 FTS. Report of the RAAF Command Pilot Training Design Team. RAAF Pearce, WA: Headquarters Support Command.

Prophett, W.W., Shelnut, J.B. & Spears, W.D. (1981). Simulator training requirements and effectiveness study (STRES): Future research plans. (Tech. Rep. AFHRL-TR-80-37). Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Arizona: Air Force Human Resources Laboratory.

Seidel, R.S. & Wagner. H. (1981). Management. In H.F. O'Neil (Ed.), Computer based instruction. New York: Academic Press.

Willis, J., Hovey, L. & Hovey, K. (1987). Computer simulations. New York: Garland Publishing.

Author: Squadron Leader Phil Wallace is an Education Officer with the Headquarters Training Command, RAAF Pilot Training Design Team, at Pearce Air Base.

Please cite as: Wallace, P. (1990). An overview of computer assisted instructional simulation. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 314-323. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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