Can simulations fill the gap in 21st century ed?

While plenty of schools offer solid computer science training and certification programs, this can be resource intensive and costly in terms of both the necessary hardware instructional expertise required...can simulation software fill the gap?

Whether students live in rural areas, are home-schooled, are exceeding what their schools can offer for coursework, or their schools simply lack technical education resources, a majority of young people struggle to find relevant courses in technology education. While plenty of schools offer solid computer science training and certification programs, this can be resource intensive and costly in terms of both the necessary hardware instructional expertise required.

One rural high school in Walla Walla, Washington (yes, it's really called Walla Walla, Washington; I've been there and it may have a funny name, but there's nothing like a Walla Walla sweet onion), turned to simulation software to fill the gap in the courses they were able to offer and the skills they were able to impart. Using LabSim software (available both online and locally installed), the school was immediately able to begin running certification programs in A+, Network+, Security+, CCNA and MCSA.

In a town where graduation rates are low, college placement is lower, and unemployment is relatively high, relevant, rigorous vocational programs are a must. Distance learning and "virtual high school" programs, dual enrollment with local community colleges, apprenticeships, and internships can all supplement limited resources. However, LabSim does provide an interesting alternative that can address needs both at the high school, trade school, and community college/post-secondary level.

According to their website,

Learning is doing, and the only way to master a skill is through practical application. The online labs in LabSim give your students the tools they need to truly master essential skills. And learning correctly means allowing them to make mistakes; which is why we developed online labs that allow students to experience a virtual environment where they can explore all the functionality of the application they're learning.

Course materials include instructional videos, tests and evaluations, as well as simulations ranging from virtual computer repair to sandboxed Linux OS simulations for teaching systems administration skills. As the instructors in Walla Walla found, a hybrid approach of in-class teaching and LabSim work allowed them to reduce their hardware and system needs substantially since much more of the work was simulated.

While the technology and simulations are fairly impressive (and would be a great choice for schools and students who might not otherwise have ready access to full labs or experienced instructors with IT certification backgrounds), they don't come cheap. You can download a free trial of the Windows-only software here (most courses are now available online, as well). However, courses run on the order of $500 for a single-user license. A single user is literally a single user: once a student has completed the course, the software can't be used for another student.

The company does offer multi-user licensing for schools including 3-year licensing deals that allow re-use of the software. They will assemble custom quotes, but even with expected savings of up to 50% with multi-user options, costs can still add up quickly.

Update as of 6:45, October 16th: The PR folks who originally contacted me about LabSim clarified pricing structures. Higher education students are eligible for up to 80% discounts over the list price on single user courseware. Thus, students in post-secondary education can access these courses for around $50 a piece, increasing the value proposition significantly. In high schools, LabSim offers site licensing that allows full classes to use the courseware. For the cost of that option, schools will need to contact the company directly. The 50% savings noted above, by the way, is the savings that organizations can realize by offering training for multiple staff members; these costs are outside of their educational pricing.

Schools will need to evaluate whether simulations can meet their needs at lower costs than certified staff and full lab implementations. I'm inclined to believe that's the case. I'm also inclined to believe that simulations like these are useful as one-offs for students who want to explore coursework that their schools can't support due to limited funding or interest. In the case of vocational technical schools, though, where well-qualified staff are easier to find and funding for true hands-on, experiential learning is a priority, LabSims will be a harder sell.

Based on the updated pricing above, have my thoughts on LabSims changed? A little bit. As I noted (even at the higher prices), the cost of these programs drastically undercuts staff with significant technical expertise. I also still believe that LabSims can bridge important gaps in public education and even some post-secondary settings where human and physical resources are lacking. However, in vocational-technical settings, these should probably be limited to supplemental materials used in conjunction with hands-on, lab-based learning. When they are supplements, then school IT decision-makers still need to carefully weigh their value, regardless of cost, just as they would any classroom materials they supply to students and teachers.

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