Sometimes, skinny little books manage to distill a great deal of information into highly usable form. When they can do this without over-simplifying the subject matter, you know that you are reading something that is destined to be a classic. Clark Aldrich has produced one of these books in Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds.

On the first page, Aldrich gives us this promise, which the rest of the book delivers:

"This book contains the guidelines for instructors who will be selecting, planning, and implementing curricula using games, simulations, and virtual worlds in a distributed classroom environment (that is, one in which students are not face to face with each other or with the instructor). ... This material focuses on both the front-loaded prep activities necessary for successful use and the instructor's role in a 'learning to do' (as opposed to a 'learning to know') course."

Straight to the heart of the matter

Aldrich begins with a very fundamental question, the one that many traditional designers, instructors, educators, and their managers ask first: “What are games, simulations, and virtual worlds really, and why should I care?”

Answering that question consumes the first third of the book, which may seem like a very long reply. However, in it, Aldrich walks the reader through research findings, and the reasons why games, simulations, and virtual worlds work. He also provides a model for the way all of the various buzzwords and acronyms relate to each other.

Aldrich offers a term for these strategies collectively: HIVE (Highly Interactive Virtual Environments). You may find this useful as a replacement for ILS (Interactive Learning Simulations). However, my guess is that, if you have to explain games, simulations, and virtual worlds to a decision-maker, you will do better to just skip the acronyms. Aldrich does an excellent job of explaining the similarities and differences between the various terms as well, and the nuances of meaning attached to each of them. I also found his discussion of interactivity levels very interesting, and also potentially useful for instructors who design and deliver live online events.

The longest single chapter of the first part of his book is Aldrich’s explanation of Sims (simulations), which he describes as a “new model of content.” I’d object that simulations have been around for a very long time, but he immediately provides what could be one of the most useful single sentences in the book: “We don’t want to just re-create the classroom in a virtual 3-D world.” He suggests putting that on a yellow sticky note and attaching it to your computer display screen. Aldrich breaks the world of Sims down into five specific genres, great background material if you have to explain this concept to others.

Making decisions about HIVEs

Just knowing some definitions isn’t enough, of course. Part Two of Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds addresses knowing when to use highly interactive content. There are some areas where HIVEs fit, and some in which traditional approaches work best.

The factors that count in making this determination include the nature of the content, of course. But they also include costs, which can be considerable. There is a handy table that summarizes budget totals for off-the-shelf and for custom interactive applications in five different formats. These are broad estimates, but they may be the best available for 2009 numbers.

Next is a pretty detailed description of the steps needed to prepare for using highly interactive environments, including how to evaluate your options and how to prepare the support material. For designers who have little or no experience with simulations and virtual worlds, Aldrich explains where to find free examples and how to use Second Life, as a means of getting familiar with these environments.

The bulk of Part Two involves explaining how to organize content, how to provide technical support, and how to pilot a HIVE. This is all excellent, solid advice, and Aldrich provides an example of a HIVE deployment to illustrate the points. The concluding chapter of the second part shows ways in which a HIVE can be evaluated – you do want to know if your design worked, don’t you?

The rest of the job

It is true that just knowing what a HIVE is and how to put one together is not enough. You still have to be able to convince the boss, your colleagues, and the learners. The concluding chapter in Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds addresses the concerns that your stakeholders will have. Aldrich suggests a number of specific actions to take in order to achieve this very important task.

Do you need this book?

There are three situations in which Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds would be a good investment. You will have to decide for yourself if you are in one of these.

First, if you are new to the entire concept of games, simulations, and virtual worlds, I think Aldrich has done a great job of summarizing it. And, I might add, he points out the challenges that HIVEs present – they are not a universal answer to instructional problems. You can read this entire book in an afternoon and come away with a really good idea of what is involved.

Second, perhaps you are already familiar with the concept, but are just about to propose using a HIVE as part of a curriculum. This book will help you pitch the idea to those who must be convinced. You will be able to anticipate their concerns, and will have solid information with which to back up your proposal.

Finally, suppose you are about to be involved for your very first time in a project to develop a HIVE. Perhaps this was your idea, or perhaps you were “tapped” as a Subject Matter Expert. Maybe your boss thought this would be a good professional development experience. Whatever the reason, Clark Aldrich has put together a primer that will help you hit the ground running, and will also give you support for making solid contributions during the design and development of the application.

Bibliographic information

Aldrich, Clark. (2009) Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds: Strategies for Online Instruction. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco. 134 pages. ISBN 978-0-470-43834-3 

List price: $28.00 (Guild members receive a 20% discount when buying direct from Wiley – see the Discount Programs tab on our Web site for details)

Amazon price: $25.20 new (+ S&H)

Kindle price: $15.40