Learning Technologies: Simulation based learning with UCL
When Lynsie Chew, Senior Teaching Fellow - UCL School of Management, was asked if they would now use a simulation on another course her answer was unequivocal. Lynsie and her colleague Alan Parkinson, Deputy Director (Education) - UCL School of Management, were presenting at the Learning Technologies Conference on Wednesday (31 January) after the simulation we produced with them and LAS won Gold at the prestigious Learning Technologies Awards in November.
That award was for ‘Best use of simulations or virtual environments for learning’ and the simulation, called ICARUS and based on an airport model, was a part of UCL’s new distance learning MSc in Professional Accountancy. At Learning Technologies, Lynsie and Alan provided an overview as to why they wanted a simulation, how the project was delivered and its impact. But, if you weren’t able to make their session, we thought it was only fair to give away a few of the secrets here.
Waiting at the gate
The MSc is an international programme, providing global access for qualified accountants to gain their Masters. Launched in 2016, it was the first of its kind. Student engagement with an audience that spanned 160 countries in Year 1 would be critical to the programme’s success. As Alan discussed “the loneliness of the long distance learner” was a real issue.
The target audience was busy full-time professionals, many of whom had families. Without a close support network of fellow students and staff to motivate and encourage each other, dropping the MSc when the pressure was on in other areas of their lives would have been the easy option. UCL wanted to avoid that.
“If you don’t engage with them, you’re stuffed from the outset,” was how Alan summed it up.
UCL needed part of the MSc programme to engineer such a network. But how could they create an environment where there was interaction between what students already knew, connect them with new ideas and provide a setting for them to understand and make sense of it all to progress their learning? A simulation, it was felt, could provide the solution.
Over 25 years, Unicorn has developed world-class learning simulations – primarily as classroom-based exercises – using tools such as Excel and Visual Basic. UCL were keen to find a way to leverage these for their international MSc cohort. To bring this knowledge and experience to a geographically dispersed audience via a new online platform, we partnered with LAS to design and build a ‘portal’ website to run, administer and manage the simulation. This was linked to the University of London’s Moodle platform, including single-sign on and automatic data exchange.
The premise of the simulation was to manage an airport in real world context. The airport business provided a variety of challenges relevant to the MSc syllabus, including major capital investment decisions, strategic financing, environmental concerns, competitive pressures and strategic pricing. Based on time zones, students were placed in teams of five and over five weeks – each week representing one year – they managed all the financials of the airport, from considering what concessions to include in the terminal – to encourage passenger dwell time and generate income – to deciding on a new runway.
The groups decided how they wanted to communicate – discussion forums were built into the platform while many created WhatsApp and, in China, WeChat, groups and used email. Some, who were close enough, even met up! As a team they carried out what-if analysis, produced forecasts and targeted KPIs, before at the end of every ‘year’ the tutors hit the ‘real world’ simulation button to show how they performed (+/-) against actual financial results. Tutors could even throw in curveballs such as market discontinuities, air disasters and strikes, all of which students had to factor into their strategic planning.
Leaderboards were published at the end of each ‘year’, which worked as further motivation and engagement as the teams got competitive with each other. The whole simulation was underpinned by a complex macro-enabled Excel model, and although ICARUS is fully interactive - you can even click on passengers and hear their gripes – it’s not a graphics-led project. Rather the presentation of the financial data in a way that was relatable to accountants in their daily job was paramount.
At the end of the five weeks, each student had to produce a final report, which applied the learning from ICARUS, and makes sense of the challenges they faced and decisions they made. It’s impact surpassed even UCL’s expectations.
“One of the most common responses we got was ‘we didn’t think it would be like this, it’s been really good,’” Lynsie revealed to the Learning Technologies audience. ICARUS went live with 135 student registrations on 10 January 2016. By the end of Year 1, there were 1,300. By Year 2, more than 1,600.
The simulation isn’t a formal requirement for this part of the Masters. But as students recognised its value and embraced the challenge, participation is now at 95% of the cohort (130+ students this year). In terms of retention, 90% complete the five weeks and the module pass rate is now upwards of 89%. Because this was a new programme there is no reference point of comparison. But if student engagement was ICARUS’ major ambition, it’s been achieved.
The Excel model is now being developed as an application for laptop and tablet - not currently for mobile as with the amount of financial data the screen is too small – complete with a new in-built chat function to further aid communication. Meanwhile, at the MSc’s first graduation ceremony in November, there were three babies whose mothers had studied while pregnant, proving to other and prospective MSc students just what is achievable.
“Getting students engaged has worked,” concluded Lynsie. “They’ve transferred the learning from the activity to the assessment and the pass rates reflect this. “If we didn’t have something going to hook them in, to really engage them, it would have been more of a struggle.” Hence the unequivocal ‘yes’.