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Tech U: Sims on Steroids

What is the model for business education in the 21st century? The answer is at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, whose Alfred P. West Jr. Learning Lab is the birthplace of some two dozen simulations covering scenarios from hedging to competitive bidding to risk-management. With these interactive, "just-in-time" tools, the institution is moving beyond the venerable case-based reading tradition and expanding the use of the Internet well beyond distance-learning applications.

Under the stewardship of Deirdre Woods, associate dean and CIO of The Wharton School, the Learning Labs team of about seven IT professionals make the visions of faculty members come true, to the tune of about five new or updated simulations each year (see wharton.upenn.edu/learning).

"The faculty are our authors, and they are the enabler of the ideas," Woods says. Simulations spring to life using a variety of technologies, including Adobe's (formerly Macromedia's) Flash interactive Web site authoring environment; Flex presentation-tier software for delivering rich Internet applications; and Cold Fusion tool for building database-driven Web sites, rich Internet applications and advanced Web services.

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"The goal of these simulations is to take abstract concepts--theoretical concepts--and apply them, and frankly play with them," Woods says. The "secret sauce" is the rich student and faculty interfaces the technology can deliver. It takes about three or four months of one IT person's time, in conjunction with the faculty member, to create a simulation whose underlying theme always reflects the fact that business education is about making decisions in the face of uncertainty. Just like in the real world.

What technology brings to the equation that paper-and-pencil-based simulations can't is the opportunity for students to repeat actions often enough so that if there's a pattern, they'll see it. For instance, take a simulation that revolves around players in the role of oil-producing countries setting oil prices and production levels. Patterns might be going on among players that can help determine which parties are cooperating and which are competing. Such simulations can collect every click from every student's response, storing the data and providing the instructor fodder for driving the discussion forward, showing students what they did at a particular point, finding out why, and exploring how that impacted negotiations.

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