Simulator-Based Courses

November 26, 2021
Michael Taylor

In 1945, when Stanislaw Ulam was wrapping up his work on the Manhattan Project, contracted viral encephalitis and slipped into a coma. Thankfully he eventually made a full recovery, playing Solitaire to pass the time in the hospital. Playing game after game, he wondered if it would be possible to derive a function that predicted his chances of winning... 

Despite being one of the World’s pre-eminent thermo-nuclear scientists, he failed, and resigned himself to just playing 100 games and crudely calculating his percentage win rate. Then it hit him – a computer could simulate thousands, even millions of games and calculate the odds in an instant! He contacted John Von Neumann, also of Manhattan Project fame, and the Monte-Carlo method was born.

In 1989 the University of Phoenix launched the first online degree, and three decades later online education still functionally resembles what you’d get in an (offline) college campus. We still haven’t had our ‘Monte-Carlo’ moment – online courses are still just endless lecture videos teaching you theory. We could be using the unique power of computers to generate thousands of simulations and apply what we learn in practice.

The innovation in online education has all been around access – it’s amazing that anyone with a mobile phone and shaky internet access can watch MIT Computer Science courses for free. Now everyone can learn from the best teachers in the World (or just whatever teacher you personally prefer), without being physically co-located with them. But most online courses have abysmal dropout rates, and there’s shaky evidence on outcomes.

The latest wave of ‘Cohort-Based Courses’ show promise in terms of improving both completion rates and outcomes, but they’re resource intensive and less scalable than a truly online native solution. Remote or not, forcing students (and the teacher) to all attend class at the same time is always going to be a limiting factor. Therefore the necessarily high cost excludes the vast majority of students and all but the most famous teachers.

What we need is something closer to how a pilot learns to fly – endless runs of any plausible scenario in the safe environment of a simulator. Where if you mess things up you just restart the simulator – nothing gets broken and nobody gets hurt. Many of the latest generation of business leaders credit their success to spending hours playing video games. The trial and error with instant feedback and entertainment you get in a gaming environment, is exactly how we should be learning later in life too.

We learn best by doing the work, but on the job training is the most expensive form of education, because by definition you’re taking up time from someone who costs more to employ. Yet how do you get enough experience to do the job, if you need to get the job in order to get the necessary experience?

The answer is simulator-based courses. Taking best practices from game design and applying them to realistic work scenarios, gives you access to on the job training without distracting your manager or coworkers. Imagine being able to see what the job is actually like, before risking your financial wellbeing on a career change. You could war-game any scenario you’re worried about, so when you get that dreaded email from the CEO, see the numbers going south or hear that competitor announcement, you already know what to do.

In the future, creating an online course is going to be closer to game design than lecturing, and a new generation of educators will be needed to make these scenarios as realistic and entertaining as possible. We’ll also need new technology, designed to emulate these real world scenarios, so you can be confident the skills are transferable to the job. We have the opportunity to completely change the way we work: with new business strategies and tactics being tested in the simulator to make the business case for real life implementation.

This is the vision of what we're building at Vexpower. Our master plan is simple. We’re tackling marketing first, because that’s where I have a competitive advantage, having co-founded and built a 50 person marketing agency called Specifically I’m starting with Marketing Attribution and Mix Modeling, because that’s a hot topic right now thanks to Apple’s iOS14 update trashing everyone’s ability to report on performance. The courses will be available as a subscription, the value of which will just get better as we add content.

Once we prove the value of the simulator-based course format and expand outside of attribution, we’ll start to build emulators of the major marketing platforms, so people can effectively ‘play’ Facebook ads, SEO or Mailchimp. This will let people get the practice in before they even get a job where they can access these tools. Finally we’ll expand outside of marketing to other types of work, and even skills and hobbies that people want to learn – the simulator format lends itself to anything you might want to learn. It’d also be cool to make our equivalent of a ‘game engine’ available for others to create their own innovative content.

So in short, here’s the plan:

  1. Launch a marketing mix modeling simulator
  2. Expand to other simulator-based marketing courses
  3. Build realistic emulators of the major marketing platforms
  4. Expand to other work-related simulator-based courses
  5. Open up to any other topics people want to learn

And along the way, offer our software to others who want to build simulator-based courses.
We have a long way to go, but if you want to talk about how we get there, then get in touch.