The high unemployment rates of the past few years have prompted many adults to return to school, to earn degrees or certificates, or simply to learn or refresh their computing skills. Many who are enrolled in degree or certificate programs also need training in basic computing skills in order to keep up with their classmates in campus-based or online courses. This need is especially acute among older adults in low income brackets, displaced workers, age 50 or older, who do not have access to the internet at home. For these learners, who may need to do homework from a public library or a community college computing center, it is particularly important that the resources used for training, assessment, and feedback be as efficient as possible and enable online access to the resources. Non-traditional students are not the only ones who need to improve their computer skills. College-age students often over-estimate their computer skills and find that they need additional training in order to ensure success at the college level.

Online resources for skills-based courses, like those focused on teaching Microsoft® Office applications, originally consisted of slides with voice-overs and video-based tutorials. The learner would watch the slideshows or videos and then launch the software, hoping to remember the steps presented in the video. In addition to the challenges associated with the time and space “disconnect” between watching the demonstration and practicing the concepts, this approach offered no built-in channel for feedback. Students had no way to immediately apply the concepts that they were learning, in place, within the Microsoft Office application itself.

It has long been recognized that experiential learning is particularly effective when teaching skills-based courses or when teaching adults. So, when teaching skills-based courses to adult students, the importance of in-place practice and immediate feedback increases in terms of their potential impact on the success of the student. The recognition of this set of needs drove the development of the first simulation-based resources for basic computing courses over a decade ago, but they were not fully connected to the grading process.

Fortunately, training and homework solutions for computer skills courses have come a long way from the old demonstration-based model. According to Kathleen Gowdey of Berkshire Community College, who uses many of these resources in Cengage Learning’s SAM product, “Students can go through training at their own pace, at the levels that suit them best.” Instructors and students are able to benefit from a range of resources that that provide full technical support for the courses — simulations with built-in assessments, automatic grading and feedback on homework and projects, integration with the institution’s learning management system (LMS), and built-in support for online courses. All of these features save time for the instructor, enabling her to provide individualized attention to those who need it and to focus on helping students apply the concepts they have learned to real-world projects and activities.

Authors Beverly Amer, Corinne Hoisington, Ken Baldauf, and Jeff Butterfield, have developed online resources for beginning and advanced computer courses that help students gain real-life, hands-on experience with software and technology tools, see the relevance of what they’re learning, and increase skills in areas that will enhance their personal and professional lives. Watch our videos to hear these authors discuss the set of needs that inspired the development of these resources.

Do you use simulations or other online environments that enable students to obtain immediate feedback when practicing new skills? We would love to hear from you. Please share your experiences using the comments section below.