Vocational skills are often seen as essentially 'hands-on'. But what if you could teach them through computer simulation? Geoff Rebbeck, who will be presenting at the British Council's E-Learning and Innovation seminar in London later this month, explains how one UK college is using virtual simulation software to teach students welding skills.
Digital simulation is a new trend in vocational education
Simulating activities digitally is a useful way to get learners to develop new skills. Doing the real thing is, of course the most important learning experience, but what if the real thing is expensive, dangerous, or deals with the lives of real people?
In the world of technology, simulation is already well understood - the massive computer games industry is one obvious example. However, and crucially, games are not the real world. Authentic learning is always best, but where it is too dangerous or expensive, there are now viable alternatives.
How students are learning to weld metal through a simulator
One example of this new trend is at MidKent College in Gillingham, which has bought a simulation welder to teach students metal welding techniques. Debra Wilson, the programme manager in engineering who brought the software to MidKent, first saw it being demonstrated at a skills fair last year in London. Manufactured by Lincoln Electrics in the US, it was originally designed to train US Marines to weld, and is one of only five to be made.
Debra estimates that 150 new students use the simulation welder each year, with most of the students using it many times over. As well as electrical engineering students, the college's art and design students can also use it when they learn welding techniques as part of their course.
Simulation makes it less dangerous to learn potentially hazardous skills
The simulation welder is used in 'taster sessions' for prospective students, and to engage 14- to 17-year-old engineering students who would otherwise be excluded from using a real welding torch on health and safety grounds. Real welding equipment is potentially very dangerous. Using a virtual welder hugely reduces inexperienced students' capacity to do damage, and gives them more frequent opportunities to practise their skills. At the moment, a teacher is in attendance when the simulator is used, but this is just to make sure it is used properly. It has radically increased the time students can spend practising welding, as it allows the students to master the skill through repetition, without reliance on others or resources.
The machine has introduced an element of competition between students to see who is the best. The view that the person using the welder has through the mask is also projected to the wall, so other students can follow the progress of classmates and learn from each other's techniques. Teachers say that because using the simulator feels like a game, it's made classes more fun and socially cohesive.
The value of simulation software as an educational tool
Real-world welding is expensive and limits the amount of welding students can do on the course. Using the simulation software accounts for four to six weeks of welding that was previously done in the workshop - but not all of that time was spent welding because of the cost of materials, particularly metal, which is no cheaper for being 'scrap'. Although simulation software can be expensive, it's still good value as more students can use it, and it is more environmentally friendly as it uses less energy.
Teaching with simulation software has not led to fewer teacher hours, but it has changed how the teachers' time is spent. They see the simulator as a huge improvement on the amount of hours students can spend honing their welding skills, without extra time requirements or costs. It's easier to give feedback, and students are passing tests more quickly as a result.
Geoff Rebbeck is a qualified teacher in the learning and skills sectors and a fellow of The Institue of Learning. He won a National Teaching Award for Innovation in 2008 and a Future Learning Award in 2009 and lives in East Kent.