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How live actor simulations are going virtual in the pandemic

‘Despite being remote, students are responsive, active and engaged’
By: Emily Graham
May 21, 2020
Man sitting at a desk working on a computer.

Live actor simulations are often one of the core experiential components in many courses, such as in the School of Social Work, at Ryerson. Photo Credit: Unsplash.

From placements at community organizations to Zone Learning, experiential learning is deeply embedded in Ryerson’s DNA. Since the university’s founding as a polytechnic in 1948, the experiential opportunities available have often made the difference to students choosing Ryerson. However in the age of physical distancing, how do experiential learning opportunities continue?

Pivoting to a virtual reality 

One team taking a unique approach to remote learning and teaching is the Live Actor Simulation at Ryerson (LAS@R). It’s a team that augments classroom learning by engaging students in workplace scenarios. Live actor simulations are created collaboratively with faculty to meet specific learning outcomes and help students develop a real time understanding of the dynamics of  face-to-face interactions in the workplace.

Highly skilled actors (in these contexts called simulators) trained to portray the history, personality, and physical and emotional state of a particular character, interact with students in a realistic atmosphere with low risk. Many instructors for courses such as social work, nutrition, and human resources include live actor simulations as critical components of their curriculum. 

Though simulations are typically held in person, LAS@R has quickly adapted to the university’s new reality of remote teaching thanks to a strong background in hosting virtual simulations. For the past six years, LAS@R has worked with Ryerson’s unique Law Practice Program, facilitating simulations remotely for students as part of an alternative to articling on their path to law licensing. Thanks to past experience, quick development of resources for instructors and simulators, and the facilitation of video conference training sessions, business for this team during the COVID-19 pandemic has continued as usual. The department has done 33 live actor simulations using Zoom since March 16, 2020. 

Zoom’s features have helped to replace some of the aspects of live simulation, says Katherine Turner, LAS@R trainer, writer and facilitator. “Instructors are taking extra time to brief students before the simulation about what they can expect, as well as establish connections between what theory is used in the classroom versus what the application itself is,” she says. “Despite being remote, students are responsive, active and engaged, and are having glimpses into those same interactions they would have in a classroom.” 

Further, actors have the ability to enter a simulation on Zoom using their character’s name, making the experience even more authentic. Through web conferencing they have also been able to provide more in depth feedback for students, as they now can discreetly take notes during simulations, without disrupting any character interactions. “Though we’ve lost the personal and human connection of live interaction, Zoom recreates this exceptionally well,” says Turner. “Honouring the simulations and curriculum itself has in turn gained students’ trust in the institution, as well as in their instructors.” 

Benefits for both sides

Karen Arthurton, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, says the simulations that are crucial to her curriculum couldn’t have continued if it wasn’t for the LAS@R team. “There wasn’t a second thought about if we could make these simulations happen or not. It was always, how can we make this happen,” she says. 

The virtual simulations have also proven to be beneficial for students and herself. “In line with the pandemic, more and more counselling support is being provided virtually, so this was a phenomenal opportunity to see what it’s like to support people with a trauma informed lens through a virtual platform. It adds something new to their repertoire,” she says. “I had also never taught virtually, so I had to learn how to bring energy and make it an engaging experience for them. It raised my confidence in terms of [video conferencing] being an option for the future.” 

Achieving outcomes through resilience 

LAS@R’s success as a service comes from within Ryerson’s Experiential Learning hub, which is part of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. Since going remote, Experiential Learning’s goal has been to be as supportive as possible to students, faculty and staff. 

Anita Abraham, director of Experiential Learning, says that a collaborative and flexible approach has been key in supporting learning outcomes. “Students are being asked to engage with their experience in the same way everyone in their industry is currently being asked to engage,” says Abraham. “It’s a mental and physical shift, but we are driven by outcome, not just by process. We’re asking if we are offering quality academic opportunities in the midst of this uncertainty,  where students understand the environment they were working in, their contributions  to that professional space, and develop critical thinking and communication skills  while there.” 

The live actor simulation program adaptation is an example of Ryerson community resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This is a future we couldn’t have foreseen, but we need to continue to educate students to understand what it is to be resilient and empathetic problem solvers and collaborators,” says Abraham. “These are necessary skills, no matter what discipline you’re in and those are the things we’ll continue to fall back on in the midst of a crisis, no matter where we land.”

This is one in a series of stories about the new Ryerson Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, the centre is dedicated to big thinking about curriculum, pedagogy and creative ways to develop inclusive teaching practices that enrich the student learning experience.

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