Tom answers a page from his client, who yells at Tom about a system error. What steps must Tom take to solve this problem efficiently and effectively?

This is the beginning of a Web-based role-play. During a role-play in a traditional classroom, students act out the parts of characters in job-related situations. A Web-based role-play places students in computer-generated scenarios where their characters must work with computer-generated correspondents, such as customers, managers, or colleagues. The best-crafted scenarios provide multiple, realistic consequences of job-related decisions.

In the real world, our actions usually reflect whether we are doing our jobs well. We get feedback that is positive or negative, and we remember that experience so that we can learn from our mistakes and then improve our behavior and decision-making. Role-playing is a type of interactive training that can simulate real-life situations with the use of rich content and complex interactions. Through role-plays, we build on our related memories and add to our working knowledge for the future.

Creating online role-plays
To design a computer-generated role-play, you need a relevant and realistic story line. Questions to ask when you’re creating the scenario include:

  • What are some of the problems occurring at work?
  • How would those problems best be solved?
  • What types of interactions should be taking place with clients, customers, managers, or peers?

Once you have thought through the story, map out the various ways to approach the situation and the consequences of each approach. Consider the variety of actions that Tom (from the example above) could take. Depending on whether Tom chooses approach a, b, c, or d, his actions will lead to different results. This is probably the trickiest and most time-consuming part of this task because each choice can take you in numerous directions.

Plan to spend at least eight to 10 hours to write a good draft of a 15-minute Web-based role-play. Working with a partner can generate even more creative ideas. Another option is to base your role-play on the real-life experiences of a technician or a manager. Or, an expert on a particular subject might be willing to share a personal war story if he knows it may help someone else avoid the same mistakes.

It’s a good idea to provide online resources that students can use to look up standard information, such as policies, codes, or abbreviations, to help them make informed choices during the role-play. These resources can help students after training as well.

Automatic and helpful feedback
As soon as a student makes a choice in a role-play, feedback should be relevant and immediate and may be given by another character in the scenario, like a customer, manager, or colleague. This character’s dialogue should explain the consequences of each decision or offer advice. Graphics can be used to show the character’s different facial expressions as he or she responds to student interactions. Some Web-based developers work with still photos, while some have set up animated 3-D characters within a computer-generated office scene.

A helpful learning tool for varying skills
Online role-plays can be helpful in teaching a variety of training subjects. Whether you are using computer-based or Web-based training for soft skills such as decision-making, or for technical skills such as networking or server management, role-plays can provide valuable experience and information for the learner. This training tool is flexible as well, because you can edit the scenarios over time to account for new policies or training needs. Creating this kind of training will require a significant time investment, but the results of the exercise will be well worth the effort.

Laura Summers is the managing partner of instructional design at Alva Learning Systems. She is also completing her doctorate in instructional technology.

How do you like this technique? Have you been successful using it? What do students say about it? Send us an e-mail or post a comment below and share your experiences with role-playing in technical training.

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