All Simulations are Educational????

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

I’ve had more than one educator tell me that they thought all simulations were educational. If you are looking at simulations designed to be educational, then, sure – it’s a tautology. But coming from CS and having some experience with computer simulations, I see a much bigger landscape when I hear the word ‘simulation’ than I suspect most educators see (Wikipedia has a passable description of computer simulation). Simulation was actually one of the main motivations for the development of the computer in the first place (ballistics, code breaking and the like).

Not all learning is education, nor are all things that are informative also educational. I think you would get an argument about all sims being educational from the computer simulation community. I took a number of simulation courses as an undergrad and grad student when I was in CS, and educational simulations weren’t mentioned. Certainly, all simulations are intended to be informative (i.e. answer some question or set of questions), but I would go so far as to say most simulations that are implemented have little if anything to do with education.

Simulation is a huge field and one most people only experience indirectly. Manufacturing plants are simulated before they are built, as are buildings, bridges, and so on. There are simulations to study the effects of different drug dosages, heart valve designs, queuing systems (like airport check-ins, and bank tellers), traffic flow, population studies, computer memory systems, databases, ….. These may seem unrelated, but the software that drives these is the same as the software that drives digital educational simulations and is the same as the software that drives games – ALL digital games. Underneath, they are the same. Simulations

Part of the problem (for me at least) is that the term ‘educational simulation’ already has a specific meaning, namely those in-class exercises done live, often without a computer at all. That leaves a terminological void: what to call a computer simulation designed to be educational in order to distinguish it from the non-digital kind? Simply using ‘simulation’ is problematic, especially since that word already has a specific meaning to a very large population which includes groups like computer science, the manufacturing sector, economics, the health industry and the military. To them  ‘simulation’ either has a general meaning relating the re-creating of some other thing (i.e. simulated flavour), or the more specific meaning of computer simulations. And of the latter, only a tiny portion are educational.

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