How are simulations changing the way we teach and learn?

Immersive simulations have been used for centuries to foster experiential learning. Over the last two decades, there has been increasing interest and commercialization of computer-based simulations used in primary and higher education. Research has shown that these simulations are perfect for ill-defined problems in a realistic setting requiring consideration, judgement, and the use of strategies.1,2

Content providers such as Harvard Business Publishing are becoming increasingly involved in the “gamification of learning” and are working on gaming simulations to teach business principles. A very popular short simulation they offer is The Food Truck Challenge, which teaches the benefits of inexpensive prototyping and validation. They wanted a simulation for innovation, which was a subject they were interested in offering. Over the course of a year, my research colleague, Sebastian Fixson of Babson College, and I worked with the team at Harvard to develop Innovation: Breaking News!

How does your innovation simulator work?

The mission of the simulator is to expose students to the variety of ways that we can get ideas today, underscoring the fact that innovation is not limited to one methodology. There is a really expansive landscape of ways to source ideas and source new knowledge.

This simulator is constructed to mimic a fictitious medium-sized newspaper that is experiencing declining subscriptions. Players are asked to determine a plan to address the current decline. They are given a mandate from the CEO to either be highly innovative or not; a choice that can change the dynamics for how they approach sources for innovation in the simulation. They are also given a time frame and budget. Players can see potential benefits of open innovation, like online contests, which are low cost, efficient ways to gain input. Or they could hire experts, which is a potential way to receive high-quality ideas; but will limit the quantity of ideas and may prove costly in time and money. The players must balance these considerations and different approaches to sourcing ideas. And since innovation is stochastic in nature, there is a random element built into the game to increase realism.

There are different rounds to test what would be the best strategy, and the game is played till there is a final list of winners and those who sourced the best idea. The simulator can be played by individuals or by teams. The game play is about 20 minutes. This can be played in-class or outside of class, making it available for large-scale online classes. The simulation is cloud-based and is mobile device friendly.

In the debrief, the different strategies are discussed, as are the challenges and opportunities of deploying different modes of sourcing ideas and solutions in the innovation process. This leads to a deeper discussion on the innovation process.

Where do you think the future of teaching innovation is heading?

Different simulations have been used in education for a long time in finance, supply chain, negotiation, etc. They bring a competitive and energizing aspect to the classroom that really get students actively engaged. And that's what we want.

I think you will start to see even more of these concepts being developed and incorporated into higher education curriculum. If you look at students in graduate school now, we are getting to the point where in just a few years many of them will have lived all of their lives in the 21st Century. These students will have grown up with Minecraft, Lexia, and other online tools to help with math, spelling, etc. They are digital natives in life and learning. As business faculty, we should be at the forefront of developing teaching that meets students where they naturally and optimally learn.

Why is it so important to learn how to innovate?

Given the fact that the need for innovation exists across industries, we tried to convey through our simulator that the landscape has expanded—due to breakthroughs in digital knowledge creation and a shift in collaboration and the sharing of innovation ecosystems. Communities have formed to provide ideas and solutions, while innovation hubs continue to form and develop as we are seeing in Boston.

The business world demands that the innovation process, missions given from management, and time and money factors are all balanced in the pursuit of uncovering the best idea and most competitive strategy. Being able to innovate means capitalizing on the number of initiatives that exist to source those ideas.

When was the simulator launched and who is using it?

It just came out in September 2017 and is starting to be adopted by top schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is currently being used at Northeastern University in the Masters of Science in Innovation course and has been used for executive education clients of the business school, as well. This spring, it was used for the first time in our foundation innovation course. This summer, we will be featuring the simulation in a fourth Professional Development Workshop on teaching innovation at the Academy of Management Annual Meeting.

1Silvia, C. (2012). The impact of simulations on higher-level learning. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 397-422.

2Huba, M. E., & Freed, J. E. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses: Shifting the focus from teaching to learning. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tucker Marion

Associate Professor, Technological Entrepreneurship