A Virtual Learning Environment gets grounded

One of the best things about writing an e-elearning blog is its flexibility of the medium to mould itself to accommodate new events.

These days, I’m regularly interrupting one series of posts to discuss new developments in another e-learning related topic: this is a consequence of the ongoing financial crisis. So, dear reader, I’ll return to Josh Bersin and the emergence of informal learning presently, and today I will discuss another effect of the depression on learning and development.

Now read on…

Strange to tell, Microsoft has been at the forefront of producing popular, immersive learning environments for over 25 years. Sadly, it looks as though their involvement in this domain is about to end.

Is this goodbye, Microsoft Flight Simulator?

Microsoft has decided to close its ACES Studio, which developed the FS_2000_cover simulator series. The ACES Studio was shut and its 150 staff laid off as part of 5,000 planned layoffs to control costs. Since 1982, Microsoft Flight Simulator (FS) has been one of the most popular serious games available. However, in my view, it is less a game and more an immersive virtual environment; it provides the user with a highly sophisticated and realistic human-computer interface (HCI) that enables “players” to learn according to a non-linear constructivist model.

For those who would assert that FS has little or nothing to do with FS_2.0_cover learning and development, remember that early e-learning specifications emerged from the aerospace world: in the late 1980’s the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC)  developed guidelines for the development, delivery, and evaluation of CBT, WBT, and related training technologies. The AICC specifications were designed to be general purpose (not necessarily aviation-specific) so that learning technology vendors could spread their costs across multiple markets and provide products needed by the aviation industry at a lower cost. This has resulted in AICC specifications gaining broad acceptance and relevance to non-aviation and aviation users alike long before IMS, SCORM, and QTI.

In FS, the user “flies” accurately-modeled aircraft in an open microworld. The flying area encompasses the whole of the real world (in varying levels of detail) and even (in FSX) low-earth orbit, fs_sso_6 including over 24,000 airports. Individually-detailed scenery can be found representing an ever-growing number of towns and cities, and geographical major landmarks. The latest versions of FS include complex weather simulation, as well as the ability to download real-time weather data. There is also a air traffic environment with interactive Air Traffic Control, player-flyable fs_23_lg aircraft ranging from the WWI aircraft to the modern Boeing 777. In addition, the two latest versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator have a “kiosk mode”, which allows the application to be run in kiosks. It is the wide availability of upgrades and add-ons, both free and commercial, which give the simulator its great flexibility and scope.

As is the case in good e-learning design, introductory orientation (“flying lessons”) provides the player with a virtual instructor who, fs_21_lg through a modular series of tasks and activities that are understood and responded to by learners within in the game context. This combines the elements of content and display to present the instructional content in a way that promotes learning through organized instructional resources, and a user interface that is not confusing, dissatisfying, or cognitively taxing. As well as interactive lessons, the simulator also provides missions, airport maps, navigation aids / GPS, and even aircraft checklists to enable the advanced user (and this can even include learner pilots with a very reasonable facsimile of the piloting experience.

To create this immersive world that meets the needs of players as learners, several interface attributes are be integrated into the HCI design. Generalizing from usability evaluations of eleven applications and about 250 usability problems Nielsen (1994, pp. 25-62), described these ten heuristics for usable design:

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation

When considering the pedagogic value of microworlds I would agree with Roe, Pratt & Jones (2005) when they assert

We believe that this paradigm has much to teach developers of e-learning platforms and that reflection on the design of our microworlds can help to crystallize what those lessons are.

(Putting the learning back into e-learning, p.3)

The authors of the paper “distil” the characteristics of microworlds as a means of providing context and motivation for engaging with learning content:

Quasi-Concrete ObjectsTurkle and Papert (1991) have referred to the way that the computer offers access to formal ideas in a concrete way, since abstract mathematical ideas, represented in iconic form on the screen, can be manipulated directly by the user.
Using Before KnowingIn our everyday lives, we typically use artefacts for particular purposes. Through that use, we learn about the effectiveness of the tool, its limitations, how well it serves that purpose and sometimes we may gain some understanding of how it works.
In schools, mathematics is a subject where you learn how to generate the object before you use it. In practice, more often than not, the former task proves too difficult, especially when disconnected from purpose. The computer offers the possibility of turning the learning of mathematics round so that use precedes generation (see the Power Principle, Papert, 1996).
Integrating the Informal and the FormaldiSessa has suggested that we incorporate versions of the formal representations of the mathematical objects in such a way that the child may be able to make connections between the various formalisations and their informal use (diSessa, 1988).
Dynamic ExpressionWhen Papert proposed the turtle as a tool for constructing a dynamic notion of angle (and of course much else), he acknowledged that the computer offers a medium which unlike paper and pencil can incorporate dynamic representations of the world. He suggests that the use of systems which are expressive of dynamic and interactive aspects of the world are more engaging to learn than static and abstract formalisms.
BuildingConstructionists base their approach on a tenet that encouraging the building of artefacts is a particularly felicitous way of teaching mathematics. Pratt (2000) has demonstrated how this approach can be modified into related approaches such as mending.
Purpose and UtilityIn so doing, emergent knowledge is imbued with utility (Ainley, Pratt & Hansen, in press), in which the abstractions are seen as useful and the limitations of those abstractions are gradually discriminated.

So powerful is the FS platform that Microsoft turned in into a commercial off-the-shelf simulation platform called ESP. As they say themselves:

Microsoft ESP is a visual simulation platform that brings powerful, high-fidelity simulations to widely available, low-cost Microsoft Windows®-based PCs. Organizations that rely on Microsoft ESP can improve their workforce readiness more efficiently and cost-effectively than with traditional computer-based animation or simulation tools. Combined with its developer-friendly Software Development Kit (SDK), Microsoft ESP provides government and commercial entities and modeling and simulation specialists with an affordable, portable, and highly extensible platform for training and learning, decision support, and research and development modeling.

According to industry analyst James Governor the implications of this are “stunning:”

…once you know what the world actually looks like and behaves, you can begin to model changes to the system. What if we deforested this area? What if we removed all the natural predators from a particular marine ecology? What if we banned all car traffic from a city? What might the alternatives look like?

At the end of the 2006 movie Snakes on a Plane, a passenger whose only aviation training was playing video games successfully lands a jumbo jet. While this is of course a cinematic fantasy, you can be sure in the wake of the recent Hudson Miracle simulations like FS are being used to replicate the situation that the plane, crew, and passengers encountered to provide training that will maximize others’ chances of survival in such a scenario.


I might just fire up my copy of FS9 and take a trip from Newark myself…


Governor, J. (2008) Living In De-material World: On Microsoft, Train SIM and the Virtual Everything. [Internet] Available from: http://www.redmonk.com/jgovernor/2008/09/25/living-in-de-material-world-on-microsoft-train-sim-and-the-virtual-everything/ Accessed 2 February 2009

Nielsen, J. (1994). Heuristic evaluation. In J. Nielsen & R. L. Mack (Eds.), Usability inspection methods. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Roe, C.P., Pratt, D., Jones, I. (2005) Putting the learning back into e-learning. In Proceedings of CERME4, Sant Felix de Guixols, Spain [Internet] Available from: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wie/courses/degrees/docs/who/students/edrfae/publications/roe-pratt-jones_puttingthelearningbackintoelearning.pdf Accessed 2 February 2009

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