Leadership development in an electronic frontier: connecting theory to experiential software through supplemental materials.

Author:Standifer, Rhetta L.


Recently, experiential software has emerged as a new pedagogical tool. This technology promotes both an individualized student experience and an opportunity for classwide, instructor-based learning. However, it is often difficult for students to make connections between their technological experiences and concepts taught in class. In this article, the author discuss one response to this issue--development of supplemental materials to accompany a simulation-based product, SimuLearn's vLeader. This pedagogical pairing represents an accompanying text specifically designed to link theoretical concepts potentially introduced across a range of courses to skills practiced in one experiential program. Through this, the authors hope to embrace a new pedagogical frontier while retaining the best of instructor-oriented coaching, resulting in richer learning outcomes for students.


leadership development, experiential software, vLeader, simulation software


If there is one point on which practitioners and most business schools agree, it is that teaching leadership is fundamentally important. Leadership is a topic discussed in corporate training centers and in college classrooms; a chapter on leadership is featured in almost every organizational behavior textbook. However, in many cases, the ways in which these leadership concepts are presented and taught to employees and students has not changed significantly over time. This represents both a challenge and an opportunity to educators, because the environments that leaders confront (and the typical students whom we as educators encounter) demand a new approach. Leaders today are faced with increasing competition and diversity and escalating knowledge demands. As such, these individuals need the ability to communicate effectively, to influence, and to work collaboratively with those they lead to create and implement ideas.

Experiential and simulation-based technology represent one way in which these new challenges are being met. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised by instructors that students may fail to make the cognitive link between theoretical concepts instructors teach in class and the skills and concepts they encounter and practice using this type of technology. Consequently, instructors are faced with the challenge of successfully integrating experiential technology with their other pedagogical activities: the challenge of making clear to students how the technology supports theories presented in their course.

We are in the process of developing a specific response to this issue (in partnership with the company SimuLearn)--a set of supplemental books to accompany SimuLearn's line of vLeader programs. These books are meant to bridge theoretical concepts traditionally presented to students in the classroom and the skills developed in the vLeader simulator. The information presented in these books is intended to clearly and effectively link concepts typically taught in organizational behavior (OB) and leadership courses to what is practiced in the simulator. To the best of our knowledge, this represents a new approach. By creating materials that are general in their theoretical application, but specific to one experiential technology, we can provide links between theory and practice that are applicable across a range of potential courses. With this approach, we hope to embrace a new technology that has empirically proven beneficial to students while retaining the best of instructor-oriented pedagogy. The results we hope to achieve are richer, more effective learning outcomes for students and more effective, better-integrated teaching tools for instructors.

In this article, we discuss how this combination of technology and text is being implemented, including the framework for the materials, the theories that are represented, the instructor-oriented elements that are included, and the ways in which these elements reflect, underpin, and support the framework presented in the software. To accomplish this objective, we first provide a description of the vLeader simulator and outline its purpose and application. We also briefly describe quantitative and qualitative research demonstrating vLeader's effect on student outcomes. Next, we outline the basic format of the supplemental materials and how these materials relate to the vLeader framework. We then delineate the theoretical concepts in the materials that are linked to the simulator's scenarios. Finally, we describe how conceptual links between the theoretical material and the simulator are presented to students in order to strengthen learning outcomes and discuss additional exercises and reflective assignments provided to instructors to aid in these outcomes as well.

vLeader: "Practiceware" for Leaders

Van Velsor and McCauley (2004) define leader development as the expansion of a person's capacity to be effective in leadership roles and processes including setting direction, creating alignment, and maintaining commitment from those they lead. They suggest that three key factors must be present for successful leader development to take place: assessment, challenge, and support. Specifically, a training approach should not only be replicable across individuals to enhance the social and collective learning experience but also be able to generate individualized outcomes and accompanying feedback from the different applications of skills (Stewart, Black, Smith-Gratto, Williams, & Kane, 2007). If appropriately implemented, the vLeader series of computer-based simulations encompass all three factors.

Designed to bridge the gap between concept and real-world experience, the vLeader simulator is a situated learning tool within which students may develop and practice leadership and interpersonal skills. Computer-based simulations such as vLeader provide multiple educational advantages to students, some of which can exceed traditional pedagogies or real-world experiences. For example, the technology used to create these simulators has advanced to the point that students are presented a vibrant, realistic environment within which they can interact with complex, three-dimensional "avatars." These experiential tools encourage students to become more reflective about their experiences because they are presented with a tangible representation of the impact their actions and decisions have on these characters (Stewart et al., 2007). In the case of vLeader, the simulator provides a safe environment for students to experience firsthand the effect of emotions, communication skills, and other aspects of interpersonal style during leader-follower interactions. The students are presented with the same environment, providing a collective learning experience from which to debrief and discuss concepts and outcomes, unlike in a typical internship program. Yet each student's time in the environment will reflect that student's application of skills and approach to leadership yielding an individualized learning experience. In addition, simulations such as vLeader offer a way to both test and assess student knowledge and skills in a richer, more meaningful way than traditional exams (Sawyer, 2003).

vLeader uses game-based technology to create real-time scenarios placing the user in a first person environment that supports and encourages situated, active learning. In the simulator, the student is "Corey," a new midlevel manager at a company called Nortic. Corey (who can be male or female) interacts with individuals above and below him/her in the organization about a variety of topics and issues. During these interactions, students practice and develop their oral and nonverbal communication and interpersonal skills. In addition, students are expected to use different leadership styles, effectively moderate other characters' tension levels, and reach performance benchmarks such as financial performance and employee morale. The student must apply concepts and skills introduced in the simulator (and their course) to accomplish these objectives. Through these interactions, students see an immediate result of their actions and decisions, which change depending on their application of skills. At the end of each scenario practice session, the student also receives feedback on their approach, the extent of their involvement in the scenario's dialogue, and how well they met the performance benchmarks. At a deeper level, however, the simulator also provides instructors with a rich environment in which to discuss OB and leadership topics such as leadership theory, formal and informal influence, crisis leadership, conflict resolution, and group dynamics.

Because of this, we feel it is important to support students' efforts to understand how their experiences in the simulator may relate to concepts being taught in their courses. Learning outcomes are strongest when experiential activities using such technology are clearly and effectively linked to concepts and theories delineated within reading materials and reemphasized in class discussions (online or campus based). To further aid and solidify these links, we are developing supplemental books and instructor resources to accompany the three primary versions of the software; specifically, vLeader Essentials, vLeader Advantage, and vLeader Professional. These materials include concepts and theories students and instructors would typically expect to encounter in leadership and OB courses. What differentiates these materials from a standard textbook is the intentional effort to connect these concepts with the frameworks presented in vLeader. Using the software's scenarios as a springboard, the materials explain how students' interactions in the experiential software underpin and illustrate ideas and concepts they are learning about in their courses.

Another equally important component of the materials is the exercises and assignments instructors may use with students to...

To continue reading