Other Online Learning Environments


Goal: To learn about additional online and electronic learning environments.

Games, highly interactive simulations and other types of learning environments are getting more attention as the technology that supports them, or the means for creating them improves, comes down in price or becomes easier to use. It is likely that some of these will emerge as important in eLearning.
– Brian Newberry

1. Define the terms “Game” and “Simulation” as they relate to eLearning.

“Games and simulations allow learners to practice tasks, apply knowledge, and infer principles – all while having fun.” (Horton, 2012, p.323) In the eLearning environment, games and simulations allow people to learn by playing and/or pretending in virtual worlds. Simulations tend to look realistic and immerse learners in a virtual environment, whereas games usually features scorekeeping of some kind. But in eLearning both serve the same purpose, and that is to teach. As Horton (2012, pg. 327) explains, the learner is the most important factor in a learning game/simulation. A goal is presented, usually via computer, and the learner must perform a task or series of tasks to reach that goal, making choices along the way. The choices made have consequences that provide feedback with further choices or approaches that may cycle on until the goal is reached.

While Horton tends to downplay the semantic difference between the words game and simulation, Sharon Boller posted an excellent article on The Knowledge Guru website that helped me distinguish between games and simulations. She explains that a game is an activity that has an explicit goal or challenge, rules that guide achievement of the goal, interactivity with either other players or the game environment or both, and feedback mechanisms that give clear cues as to how well or poorly you are performing. It results in a quantifiable outcome (you win/you lose, you hit the target, etc). Usually, it generates an emotional reaction in players (Boller, n.d.).

In the educational environment there’s a subset of games that are labeled learning games or serious games. According to Boller, these are games created with the explicit intent of helping someone learn a specific set of knowledge or skills. Learning games can be card games, mobile games, computer games, board games, etc. The goal of learning games is to help people acquire new knowledge or skills or to reinforce knowledge or skills learned by other means (Boller, n.d.).

In education, simulations are a sub-set of learning games. Boller explains that a simulation is a re-creation of a situation you could encounter in the real world that requires you to problem-solve and make decisions that mimic what you would have to do in the real world (Boller, n.d.).

I found this chart that accompanied the Boller article quite helpful:


2. What are the key characteristics of a Simulation?

Learn by doing! A simulation is a replication of reality that enables users to learn through interactive experience. They are experimental, experiential, and often rigorous. They promote creativity amongst the participants. Most importantly, making decisions in a simulated environment has no real-life implications (Simulation and gaming, n.d.).

As Horton (2012, pg. 326) notes, in simulations the learner controls the sequence of events. Learners decide and act, and learning results from repeated practice and authentic feedback. Simulations are useful for educating and training because retention is greater and understanding deeper due to their interactive and repeatable nature.

Simulations provide a safe means of practice when practicing in a real-world situation would be either too costly or harmful. For example, no one starts practicing to fly in a real jet. They learn first in a simulator (Boller, n.d.).

3. What are some of the strengths or advantages of Games and Simulations in eLearning?

eLearning professionals tend to agree that games and simulations are an effective way to learn because they engage the learner. Karl Kapp, Instructional Technology professor, author and speaker, understands the value of games and simulations in learning. “If we could leverage the positive aspects of video games—the instant feedback, the constant interaction, the willingness to practice something until it is right, combined with a little bit fun, then we could have an awesome educational platform for all types of learning and education.” (Malamed, 2009) Kate Salen, Director of Research and Design at the Institute of Play, describes learning games as “dynamic, immersive, and empowering (2015).”

William Horton (2012, pg. 328-330) notes that games and simulations:

  • enable types of learning not practical in classrooms
  • show consequences not normally visible to students because time, space, and distance are not real
  • let learners make mistakes without suffering permanent consequences such as really crashing a plane if you press the wrong button
  • encourage learners to pause, reflect, and revise, an opportunity that might not be possible in real-life situations
  • provide a laboratory where learners can test different options, tactics, strategies, ideas, etc.
  • simplify complex situations by isolating components and variables
  • give opportunities for repetition and practice
  • give opportunities for immediate and abundant feedback
  • extend the motivating effect of learning by play to adults
  • can be used to teach both subtle and complex skill
  • are cost-effective
  • make learning individualized and customizable

Kapp also notes that one of the most powerful cognitive advantages of using games is transferability. He says that “in a well-designed simulation, the learner is put into a realistic situation and he or she must act as they would in the actual situation. This makes the learning highly transferable as opposed to learning about something in the environment of a classroom which is not the typical environment in which the learner needs to apply the learning. So, ironically, an electronic simulation can be more realistic than a lecture because of the visual cues of simulations. They provide a context for the learning that can be highly realistic for knowledge transfer.” (Malamed, 2009)

In addition, there has been research to suggest that using digital games with special-needs children is beneficial. Examples include digital games having a calming effect on a seven-year-old child with autism and adolescents with attention deficit disorder experiencing improvements in grades, sociability, and organizational skills when using educational video games (Coffey, n.d.).

In summary, games and simulations can plug many gaps which conventional methods of instruction are unable to fill and they can round out the learning experience (Simulation and gaming, n.d.).

NOTE: For more information on the effectiveness of educational games, see Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless by Richard Van Eck, Director of the Instructional Design & Technology Program at the University of North Dakota.

4. What are some of the weaknesses or disadvantages of Games and Simulations in eLearning?

Throughout Chapter Seven, Horton (2012) points out some of the weaknesses and drawbacks of games in eLearning. These include:

  • developing effective games is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive
  • getting games to work over the web can be difficult
  • there may be software or hardware issues for the learner
  • some games require high skill levels; students may not be able to keep up and may give up
  • if games are too easy students will become bored
  • most games can’t teach large amounts of detailed information
  • excessive competitiveness can get in the way of effective learning; students might spend too much time playing the game and not internalize the intended content.

Educator Heather Coffey also warns “that games may be more distracting than a typical learning tool and that the goals of the games do not necessarily always align with the learning goals of the classroom. Teachers must determine whether the content of the game is appropriate for specific age groups and whether the games are suitable for the standards-based accountability movement. Teachers must also take into account the amount of technology available to them in the school setting. If there is not enough technology to support a digital game-based learning program, some students may not have equal access to this type of instructional tool.” (Coffey, n.d.)

In general, games and simulations should not take the place of teaching. In eLearning, particularly in the academic setting, games alone won’t lead to learning outcomes. However, they can be used quite effectively to supplement and enhance the learning process.

5. Explain the term, “Gamification” and explain how this concept might apply to eLearning.

Professor Newberry provided a Wikipedia article which states that “Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ contributions.” (Gamification, 2015).

The Gamification Wiki further explains that “Gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. Gamification taps into the basic desires and needs of the users impulses which revolve around the idea of Status and Achievement.” The article goes on to explain that “Game Mechanics” refers to the components of a game, aka the mechanisms utilized by game designers to reward activity among users. The five most commonly used mechanics in gamification are: points, badges, levels, leaderboards, and challenges (Gamification, n.d.)

The gamification of learning is “an educational approach to motivate students to learn by using video game design and game elements in learning environments. The goal is to maximize enjoyment and engagement through capturing the interest of learners and inspiring them to continue learning.” (Gamification of learning, 2015)

There has been much research on gamification in education and most scholars agree that gamification is an effective way to engage and motivate students and thus promote learning. The five common mechanics in gamification (points, badges, levels, leaderboards, challenges) can be used quite successfully in eLearning.

6. Pick a topic and describe a game or a simulation or gamification concept that would be effective.

I can imagine quite a few games that would be effective in an academic library:

  • An online orientation to the library can be a gamified quite effectively. Students can travel through virtual rooms and stack areas learning about resources and services as they go. Badges or points can be awarded to motivate them to continue exploring.
  • A game that allows library patrons to earn points and badges through their usual library transactions and to display their badges in their social networks.
  • An online or mobile scavenger hunt that challenges patrons to find information or artifacts for points and offers varying levels of difficulty.
  • A game that challenges patrons to arrange books in call number order and assigns points based on the time to complete that task and accuracy.


Boller, S. (n.d.) Games vs simulations: Choosing the right approach for learning. The Knowledge Guru. Retrieved from http://elearningfeeds.com/games-vs-simulations-choosing-the-right-approach-for-learning/

Coffey, H. (n.d.) Digital game-based learning. Learn NC. Retrieved from http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4970

Gamification. (2015). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification

Gamification. (n.d.). Gamification Wiki. Retrieved from https://badgeville.com/wiki/Gamification

Gamification of learning. (2015). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification_of_learning

Horton, W. (2012). E-learning by design. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Malamed, C. (2009). Games and simulations. The eLearning Coach. Retrieved from http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/games-and-simulations/

Salen, K. (2015) Why games & learning. Institute of Play. Retrieved from http://www.instituteofplay.org/about/context/why-games-learning/

Simulation and gaming. (n.d.) EduTech Wiki. Retrieved from http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Simulation_and_gaming

Van Ecyk, R. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE Review. 41/2: 16–30. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/digital-game-based-learning-its-not-just-digital-natives-who-are-restless