White Paper: Harnessing Computer Simulation for Professional Learning in Human Services

Evidence-based interventions, such as family-centered practice and trauma-informed care, represent advances in the field of youth and family development; however, they are only as effective as the individuals who deploy them. Often, underlying staff power dynamics at play are not addressed, and consequently staff may not fully implement practices. While staff may intellectually adopt a practice, in the face of resistance or confrontation, they return to ingrained patterns of behavior – especially in crisis situations, when emotions run high. Negative interactions may result in lost opportunities for youth and their families, or even worse: harm.

However, technology advances in computer simulation allow us new opportunities to create simulated scenarios when stakes are high and lives are at risk. Currently, computer simulation is used in the military, healthcare, and education industries to deliver staff professional development for high-risk situations. Mixed-reality simulation has its origins in role-playing, dating back to the 1800s (Brown, 1999). However, with role-play there are limitations to the authenticity of the learning, based on the participants’ acting capabilities. Further, power structures between role-play participants do not change when the role play commences: a supervisor still retains ultimate authority over employees, even when role-playing the part of a youth.

Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) posed a theory of situated cognition, contending “what is learned cannot be separated from how it is learned and used” (p. 88). Their situated cognition theory provides a framework for training in simulators. In traditional professional development classroom learning, staff members learn practices removed from context, resulting in knowledge that must be applied, generalized, or transferred to authentic environments in order to be learned. However, with simulation-based learning, learners are engaged in contextualized learning activities.  New technologies are being adopted which situate learning and capitalize on the power of computer simulation. A mixed-reality virtual environment (MRVE), created with computer modeling and simulation, immerses the user in an artificial environment. MRVEs have context-driven scenarios, bringing a sense of reality and level of emotion which situates learning in an authentic context.

While the field of human services has yet to harness the power of computer simulation for staff training, it is widely used in aviation, military, and healthcare fields as a safe and effective method for training staff in high-stress and high-risk situations. Simulations allow individuals to have repeated trials involving high stakes situations without risk of loss of valuable resources (e.g. money, time, and people) and varying levels of simulators are currently being used in the military, healthcare, and education (Hayes, Straub, Dieker, Hughes, & Hynes, 2013). Simulator systems have features that allow users to play with reality without experiencing long-term, negative consequences. Exploratory choices can be made that allow the user to try on different scenarios and determine the best outcome.

While the field of human services has been slow to adopt MRVEs for training staff, the field should harness the power of mixed reality, immersive virtual environments to provide a safe practice ground, allowing staff to improve skills without harming youth and families. A professional development framework for staff working in group settings should have at its core a highly immersive, mixed-reality computer simulation using state-of-the art avatar technology. Applicable to many fields, but created specifically to meet the needs of those who work with youth and families, MRVEs for human services would allow users to learn from mistakes and improve performance in a safe environment, without harming real children or family members in the process.


Brown, A. H. (1999). Simulated classrooms and artificial students: The potential effects of new technologies on teacher education. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 32(2), 307–18.

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-42.

Hayes, A., Straub, C., Dieker, L., Hughes, C., & Hynes, M. (2013). Ludic learning: exploration of TLE TeachLivE™ and effective teacher training. International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, 5(2), 20-33.