Leadership simulations

A practical approach to leadership, learning and teamwork

11/19/2010  |  TIMOTHY SHIELDS, Ed.D. and Mary Clisbee, Ed.D.

In 2007, Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Fischler School of Education and Human Services (FSEHS) in concert with TATA Interactive Systems of India and Topsim-Simulations of Germany, embarked on a multi-phasic, multi-year project to bring problem-based learning through simulated experiences, to students. Designed for three distinct groupings, namely: undergraduate (B.S.), master’s (M.S.), and doctoral groups (Ed.D.), the simulations merged both theoretical constructs with practical application in a shared learning environment. Each degree level carried a different theme, namely diversity at the undergraduate level, ethical decision making at the masters level, and leadership at the doctoral level.

Nova Southeastern University’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), a developmental response to recommendations from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS) visit, allowed NSU’s Fischler School to focus on the QEP goal of fostering increased dialogue and discussion among faculty and students. The Leadership Simulation met this goal in addition to threefold objectives.:

  1. To present students with the opportunity to experience real world problems in a virtual setting.
  2. To accomplish learning outcomes of the Ed. D. program in the areas of leadership skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and communication.
  3. To provide participants and faculty with a new and innovative vehicle to increase academic dialogue and discussion.

Implementation and Training Details

A three phase process of training was employed following the various stages of development. First, potential faculty to teach the simulation had to be identified and trained. All faculty who had taught the related leadership theory course were invited to participate in the beta test of the simulation, as a way to also familiarize these faculty with the simulation. Once the beta test was complete, the team asked the faculty who were interested in pursuing further training to teach the simulation to identify themselves. We found that there were varying degrees of reluctance on the part of faculty to teach the simulation for the following reasons:

  • Teaching the simulation required a skill set that was different than that needed to teach the leadership theory course; not only did the professors need to have a solid background in leadership theory, they also had to be comfortable reading and interpreting functional diagrams and multivariate indexes.
  • It was a new, high profile initiative and the faculty were concerned that if the technology failed, they would be seen as responsible for the initiative failure.
  • The time sensitive, periodic data analysis phase of the simulation cycle proved challenging and labor-intensive.

Face-to-face training was held for full-time and adjunct faculty who were chosen to teach the simulation course. Adjunct faculty were flown in from around the country to attend the training, and attendance was strong.

Second, the staff associated with recruiting, counseling, and advising students had to be trained. Since many staff in this category lived at a distance, this training was delivered via conference call.

Third, the student introduction training was developed. The faculty decided that one comprehensive introductory student training process would be used by all faculty. Materials were developed and shared. After the first semester, a volunteer team of students worked with faculty in an advisory capacity to further improve this student introduction training.

Impact to the Institution

We believe that although simulation is being used frequently in other fields such as medicine and engineering as a way to link theory and practice and provide students the opportunity to engage in their practice in a risk-free environment, our simulation is one of the first simulation specifically targeting the practice of leadership. Furthermore, the FSEHS leadership simulation is delivered online, which is unique. As we have demonstrated, the simulation to other faculty and staff throughout NSU, other colleges and schools are beginning to look at ways to build simulations for their fields of study, based on our platform. Additionally, faculty who have been involved with the project have gone on to develop their own smaller course-embedded simulation-like experiences or “Digital Case Studies” to further the use of this technology and bring increased academic dialogue into our curriculum.

Student Reception and Interaction

Anecdotal, survey and focus group evaluation data was collected for each semester in which the simulation has been offered. The evaluation data revealed that the students who were engaged in the simulation in the third through eighth semesters reported more positive feelings toward the experience than students the first two semesters. The simulation deployment team attributed this to two causes:

a) the requirement to take the simulation class as a core class was added in after the first and second group of simulation students entered the program. These students did not have knowledge of this as a requirement when they made the decision to enter the FSEHS Ed.D. program., and

b) the professors teaching the simulation became more proficient over time, resulting in greater student satisfaction.

The intent of the project was to increase academic dialog, and it is worth noting that faculty involved in the simulation course have expressed that in their personal experience, they spend twice as much time communicating directly with students in the simulation class as they had in prior classes they taught. Overall, students are extremely satisfied with the content and the experience of the simulation course. Group dynamics and student/professor interaction are often identified as strengths of the simulation course. The greatest noted weaknesses are the amount of time that this course requires and the challenges posed by time-zone differences. These issues, though, tie to the intended goal of increasing academic dialog.

Continuous Improvement Based on User Feedback

A professional learning community of professors was quickly established upon the launch of the doctoral simulation in January of 2007. Professors reached out to one another informally to solve both technologic and pedagogical issues. Formal, ongoing training and a sharing of best teaching practices were instituted. To date, these sessions continue, with professors meeting regularly in an online classroom to share with one another the strategies they are using to teach the simulation course.

Overall Impact on Student Learning

The doctoral simulation project was a success at the Fischler school for three reasons. First, it met the FSEHS QEP objective “to increase academic dialogue and discussion among faculty and students.” Second, it provided students an interesting, successful environment within which to practice leadership. Third, it helped FSEHS to meet the learning objectives of the Ed.D. program in a new and creative manner.

Overall, this project represents the merging of various departments and expertise and allows students to leverage their interest in collaborative, online projects that have a theoretical foundation as well as a practical application with a strong social and group dynamic. The project helped to forge strong ties and camaraderie among the participants: professor-to-student as well as student-to-student. Though this project may have a relationship to social media and to social networks, it contrasts their weak connections and affinity groupings with strong groupings and class cohesion through shared experience and decision-making.

Timothy Shields, Ed.D., is Dean of E-Teaching/Program Professor at Nova Southeastern University. Mary Clisbee Ed.D., is Director of Academic and Faculty Support/Program Professor at Nova Southeastern University. For more information, visit www.fischlerschool.com.

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