Simulated Learning in Higher Education (HE): Hydra By Dr Elaine Brown


Simulated Learning in Higher Education (HE): Hydra


Psychologically, adults learn best by applying information to current, real world needs. HE is increasingly under demand to develop learning activities that go well beyond the safety of reading and writing papers. Training and education must develop methods which include the learners applying the information which they are learning in theory, to practice in real-life ‘workplace’ environments. We all must learn to work in the ‘real’ world, and apply context specific knowledge to problem solve. On-the-job training can be very powerful when complemented with reflection on decision making and situational awareness. This is best facilitated by on-going feedback on their experience and the processes by which they are applying their experience, knowledge and problem solving. The result of ‘simulating a safe place’ for students to explore decision making in practice, is encouragement to consider; what they thought would happen, what actually happened and why, and what the learner gained from the experience.


Canterbury Christ Church University has been in co-operation with the Hydra Foundation for several years in order to provide cutting edge simulated learning environments to students. This has generated interest from Departments broadly, namely, Policing and Crime, Forensic Investigation, Criminology, Law, Social Work, Nursing and Paramedics, Performing Arts and Media, Journalism Studies, have all been involved, or are interested in Hydra (in one way or another). Over twenty members of staffs have Hydra induction training and the project has developed five scenarios thus far for student use. To be addressed here: a) what Hydra is, b) how Hydra works in practice, and c) the pedagogic benefits for simulated learning in Higher Education (HE). For more information contact the author Dr Elaine Brown (




  1. What is Hydra?


The Hydra technology has for twenty years typically been employed as a professional training tool for police, emergency services and other stakeholders. Traditionally, it has been a tool to ‘practice’ team functioning and decision making in dynamic environments. Natural decision making processes emerged as the focus of academic debate in the field of applied psychology in the 1990s (e.g., Salas, Dickinson, Converse, & Tannenbaum, 1992), seeking to examine human factors in professional decision making in critical environments. Models of how and under what circumstances teams make effective decisions has thrived in various contexts, and the science of training and education has emerged as a discipline (for a review see: Salas & Cannon-Bowers, 2001). Knowledge of Hydra is dependent on sector knowledge so it is worth making the distinction early on between what Hydra ‘is’ and what it does.


Logistically, Hydra is; 1) a preparation phase in which the module co-ordinator creates a scenario which is constructively aligned to a module, and 2) the technology and geographical space which allows the students to enter the ‘scenario’ in real time. Importantly, the scenario not only develops on what decisions are made, but also how and why people make choices they do in an emerging situation. Hydra is a technology system which allows a high level of immersion into a ‘constructed reality’ i.e., technology, cameras, microphones and inserts. The construction of the high fidelity reality and the technology are the vehicles through which learning takes place.




  1. What does Hydra do?


What Hydra ‘does’ is multi-factorial, the issues to be explored here are; 1) the reflective decision making processes and rationales in ‘real life’ context, and 2) experience of decision making context in a meaningful environment (i.e., stressors, multi-agency co-operation, policy and law, team working and effective team dynamics).  This project seeks to identify multi-agency norms, goals and values in relation to responding to a high fidelity, socially contextual reality. Decision makers are required to make decisions in the ‘constructed reality’ and then discuss. Traditionally, researchers and teachers used studies which involved people making artificial decisions, generally on the basis of money or gains value (i.e., a kind of gambling situation), where the environment was controlled, there was limited/no real time impact of their decisions on their lives. However, the reality of decision making in the real world is often characterised by; 1) time pressure, 2) uncertainty, and 3) high stakes.


The learning principles underpinning Hydra are founded around facilitating situational awareness (SA) in decision makers. SA is “an up-to-date understanding of the world around them [decision maker], forms a critical cornerstone of expertise in most disciplines” (Endsley, 2006, p. 633). Experience, reflection and practice are the key to acquisition of SA and thus, being recognition primed to respond in uncertain situations (see: Klein, 1993). SA can be considered metaphorically as ‘hanging experiences on a mental coat hanger’. They are then ready to pick up when needed; rather than being unfamiliar with the situation were one must pick up each proverbial ‘mental coat hanger’ one by one and figure out which ‘fits best; to the situation. The Hydra simulation prepares students to take a position and make decisions on what can be complex theoretical or practical issues relevant to the subject area. With an absence of ‘coat hanger experiences’, the decision making then relies on a ‘story-making’ were the worst best fit is imagined and the decision based on the outcome of this (Klein, Orasanu, Calderwood, & Zsambok, 1993).


Adaptive expertise is developed by trainees as active participants in the learning process, in a meaningful environment (Bell, et al., 2008). The ‘meaningful environment’ can consist of theory, or practice considerations of the subject area in a stimulation of the real life practical environment the students can relate too. It presents the opportunity to demonstrate the reality of the subject specific practical environment. Team functions and how teams work together is of critical importance in all contexts. This is important at the individual level of introspection and in terms of group dynamics in practically ‘meaningful’ environments related to the area of study. Hydra provides a platform to create adaptive expertise in artificial realties.




  1.  Pedagogic Advantages


The conventional view is that education largely takes place in through activities which support intellectual debate and embrace more than just vocational learning. Understanding simulation pedagogy assists academics to create technology based simulated learning environments. Institutional Management in HE (2012) report those fostering quality teaching can be achieved by (amongst other things), supporting innovative pedagogy, developing communities of teaching and learning practices and support to foster student achievement and career development in practice. Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) is an innovative arena to advance pedagogic practice in HE. Key concepts of simulated and immersive learning will be explored generally and then in the context of police studies.


There are various theoretical frameworks for learning which are supported by simulations in HE. Pedagogically, simulated TEL can facilitate: transformative learning, experiential learning, situated learning, motor learning, embodied learning and peer learning. Many, but not all of these values are embedded in introspective benefits. The foundational work of Dewey and Lewin on experiential learning provide foundations for a contemporary model of teaching and education, which aligns with both experiential learning theories is transformative learning. Yolb & Yolb (2005) explore experiential learning and how this approach can enhance learning specifically in HE.


Transformative Learning is founded on the premise that a defining condition of being human is that we have to understand the meaning of our experience. For some, any uncritically assimilated explanation by an authority figure will suffice. But in contemporary societies we must learn to make our own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgments, and feelings of others. Facilitating such understanding is the cardinal goal of HE education in the development of autonomous thinking.


The sophistication and vast enterprise of cognitive learning and behaviour has offered much insight to the field of learning and education. Understanding cognitions and the hardwired pathways by which our brains process, store and retrieve memory and information allows the facilitator to optimise the learning by applying these principles in practice. Dror, Schmidt & O’Connor (2011) caution over allowing the technology (or task, per say) to drive the learning, rather than the learner and the learner needs taking priority. If the technology is the stringer driving force of the two, the technology is not likely to enhance the learning (and perhaps even detrimental to the process). For example, the ‘Stroop Effect’ is often used to demonstrate this cognitive limitation. The task is to try to name the colour of the ink in which the words are written (rather than what the written word actuals says). The task is clear, simple and straight forward on face value: but performing the task will illustrate that as a result of the interaction between multiple modes of stimuli and the limitations of cognitive processing executing the task is very difficult, and energy expensive (MacLeod, 1991). The Stroop Effect, characterises the significance of understanding the limits of cognitive processing when utilising technology in HE.


Interactive videos, gaming, role play and simulations are all amongst the vast number of strategies a teacher can employ to ‘simulate’ a learning experience. The use of technology to enhance learning at HE level has begun to emerge in a number of disciplines e.g., Business Management (e.f., Greasley, 2004), Nursing (c.f., National Council of the State Boards of Nursing (2009), Law (c.f., Hughes, Gould, McKeller, Maharg & Nicol, 2008), Health Care (c.f., Alinier, Harwood, Harwood, Montague, Huish, & Ruparelia, 2008); see Damassa & Sitko (2010) for a review of uses and trends in professional simulations in HE. The learning ‘platforms’ can be used vary between the disciplines but the practical purpose, challenges and advantages are relatively consistent across arenas of study.


‘Gamification’ of education (presenting the course content in a game-like context in order to motivate learners), is thriving (Pappas, 2013; Huang & Soman, 2013). It is suggested this mode of learning is more fun, appealing and learner centred than traditional lectures which in turn assists in stimulating learning and encouraging student engagement (McGrath & Bayerlein, 2013). LaMartina & Ward-Smith (2014) provide evidence that simulations develop critical thinking skills in undergraduate students. In the context of training in Nursing (National Council of the State Boards of Nursing, 2009), research indicates that simulation can have significant impacts on knowledge and performance of students.


This article was first released on the Hydra Foundation website:


Should you be interested in Hydra at Canterbury Christ Church University please contact School of Law Criminal Justice Studies and Computing, or Dr Elaine Brown.


Dr Elaine Brown M.A. (Hons) St A, Ph.D., FHEA, PGCLT (HE), Senior Lecturer




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