Simulation – storyboarding and paper prototyping #activelearning

<img src="" alt="Photo by <a href="">Matt Popovich</a> on <a href="">Unsplash

Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

Educational simulation is an interesting and, in my view, underutilised area of active learning. Often associated with technology-based approaches, educational simulation is in fact a broader field. In this broad sense it creates a space for authentic learning.

In this post I want to capture a few ideas about simulation techniques that I believe are valuable pedagogically and highly usable and accessible.

Paper prototyping

Paper prototyping can be used in educating students in any discipline where learning involves the application of knowledge to a given situation or problem.

This UXPin site provides an introduction to paper prototyping and notes that the benefits to paper prototyping include: rapid iteration of ideas, cost, increased creativity, team building, easy to learn, and documentation can be produced through the prototyping process. Familiar to computer scientists, especially those responsible for HCI (Human Computer Interface) design, paper prototyping aids rapid iterative development and testing of technologies. Why build, at great expense and taking considerable time, when you can achieve a very similar result by building early versions of devices or software using paper?

You can do the same for the design and construction of other tools and products – US design firm Ideo, for example, showed how the design of a shopping trolley, the first computer mouse, or other products could be rapidly progressed by rapidly building and adjusting full-scale workable models using cheap and recycled materials. (Kelley, 2001)

There are two ways (at least) educators can think about using prototyping for learning:

  1. Learn by designing a prototype
  2. Learn by using a prototype

In the latter, learning happens in a simulated environment or situation. In effect, the educator says, “I would like to have a budget of several ¬£1Ks, but I haven’t. I can’t employ a software/media company to build the glossy tool I dream of. But I can design a very similar experience using cheap materials like paper to communicate instructions, options, or quotes to respond, etc).”

There are two reasons not to do this – 1. Because paper wasn’t in your dream, you dreamed your solution was a real phone app (etc). 2. Because you think your students will think this is ‘cheap’.

1. Now I have suggested it, dream it! 2. In fact, design the right experience (not tool) and the student experience will be very rich! I say this second point with confidence because, as with the Ideo approach, its real value is that you can design, evaluate and rapidly iterate based on student input or user feedback. And that can be educative too.

Role play

Role play is a form of simulation in which you ask people to enact and respond to a situation. Such role plays can be very short and create a wonderful stimulus for learning about the application of knowledge, e.g. learning by “demonstrating a process”, exploring possible outcomes in a situation by asking smalls groups to perform “what happens next?”, or asking small groups to generate multiple viable “alternative outcomes”, for example). Role plays can also be longer and more considered productions containing multiple acts in which the actors can be the students and/or the audience can be the students. In this longer Theatre of the Oppressed approach, interludes allow participants to reflect on and interact with the performance. Developed by Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed creates a powerfully immersive experience potentially.


Storyboarding is the technique used by film makers to prototype films. It’s a relatively familiar visual approach to setting out time-based episodes in a comic strip-type approach.

Such storyboard strips are often produced by talented artists who have what it takes to create very stylistic sequences. This is helpful for planning multi-million dollar blockbusters. But it doesn’t have to be so hard or perfect. There are plenty of sites that explain the essential steps of creating storyboards using paper, Powerpoint or photography.

Making or using simulation as a pedagogy

There are so many other ideas for using simulation techniques in education. It is easy to get distracted by preconceptions of what you already know about or have experienced yourself.

Explore the potential for designing learning activities that involve your students as designers or makers of simulations (etc) or the potential of them running simulations (being the performers). Between these two views of how simulation works educationally is the third space: as with Theatre of the Oppressed or scenario-based learning (which offers another set of approaches), consider giving your students enough information to start a performance and allow them to interact by changing ‘variables’. Imagine a role play, for example, in which a teacher or student facilitator pauses the performance to ask the audience questions like “What happens next?”, or “Which of the two options does the protagonist choose and why?”, or “What unexpected disaster happens that the cast should respond to?”

Simulation, paper prototyping, storyboarding and role play can provide rich and rewarding activities for stimulating learning. They can involve problem, design and scenario-based learning strategies that resonate with learners. They can be good fun, stimulating, authentic feeling, and highly immersive. Such activities do not have to be dependent on technology and media, and once you have an idea for using them, they can be great fun for the teacher too.


Kelley, T. (2001). The art of innovation. Currency Publishing.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
This entry was posted in Academic Innovation and Possibilities, Active Learning and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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