Centering on Crisis Cases in Distance Learning Sessions

Alex Antunes, Assistant Professor, Astronautical Engineering, Capitol College, Laurel MD

Abstract: We discuss early results using student-lead roleplay of crises and disaster scenarios to encourage engagement in distance learning sessions. The disadvantage of distance learning via web interface-- the lack of face-to-face and the ease with which a student can remain quiet-- is balanced by the wealth of internet-accessible media reports of past mission disasters. Capitol College minimizes the lecture component to simply frame each session's open-ended crisis in our Mission Operations engineering course. The students are presented with a historical 'disaster' but not its resolution; they present their course of action, then the lecturer steps in to debrief. With a wealth of past cases available on the web, use of scenarios rather than lectures shows early signs of being viable model for encouraging discussion and interaction within distance learning for a variety of course topics.

This poster and all reference links are online at

Crisis case roleplay is an inquiry based method using student-lead open-ended real world scenarios. We advocate using existing case studies for roleplaying in distance learning. Use of case studies is well established in workshop and traditional high-level teaching. We apply this to distance learning, with suggestions on how existing materials can be adapted to facilitate student-lead decision processes and roleplay in a scenario-based online approach. Often, existing material can be refactored and reworked into a distance-friendly format, reducing the teacher's preparation workload and enabling the teacher to use the copious library of existing case studies.

Scenarios draw from real-world cases and "what ifs" that have high complexity. In contrast with lecture or guided discourse, there is no 'right' or 'best' answer (though some approaches may be certifiably wrong). The process, not the resolution, is key. The teacher is not the decider of correct or incorrect, just a source of information. This method mimics real world situations where an a priori answer is not just unknown, but unknowable, and the merit of any solution is not determinable until the chosen action is taken.

"A case study (or case story) may be understood best as a narrative, based on actual events, that creates an opportunity for conversation, problem analysis, and virtual decision-making... By confronting actual scenarios, participants develop and refine analytical skills for solving similar problems in their own projects. (Rogers, 2008)

The heavy reliance on the original source material and simple refactoring into a condensed and readable timeline-oriented format preserves the material while making it feasible for distance learning usage. It is key to preserve the strengths of the original material. We emphasize this is refactoring, not rewriting, and requires minimal effort to adapt to distance learning.

Or, put simply: Existing Scenario Libraries + Refactoring for Distance Learning = Online Success

Distance Learning & Engagement

(+ = positive factor, - = difficulty, o = neutral)
- Lecture mode insufficient to engage for 90 or 180 minutes.
- Students can 'multitask' to off-course activities very easily, which reduces immersion
- Lower bandwidth than face-to-face
- Is this the best use of the student's time?
+ Polling (up/down votes, calls for ready for proceed) can re-engage students
+ Requires rich media
+ Allows for gamification (for topics that break into small reward-based segments)
+ favors discussion-based inquiry
o Can incorporate deliberate offline exercise

Use of Crisis/Scenarios in contrast with Lecture

+ easy engagement
+ reuse of existing material
+ flips classroom roles
+ self exploration
+ requires student participation
+ focuses on building rather than answer
- assertive students can dominate
- teacher shifts role from lecturer to facilitator
- must be willing to allow silence ('dead air')

The scenario/roleplay approach also encourages use of existing online tools and games into the course. Online scenarios, such as the JWST "Build It Yourself Satellite Game" or the Capitol College "Design a MOC" simulation, serve the role of case study/scenario for distance learning. In this usage, you require the students to create their mission using the web tool as a homework assignment, then have them present their results in the next online class. For both tools, the student is not presented with an open-ended 'sandbox', but instead is given key trades and decision choices that lead to 'reasonable' solution. As with the crisis cases, there is no single 'best' solution and the learning occurs via inquiry. logo Example of "Build It Yourself Satellite" and "Design a MOC", respectively. logo

Course topics that can use it

* Astronautical engineering or any engineering, especially when decisions are made.
* Astronomy 101 or any instrumentation course, questions including why fly a specific detector, why loft telescopes into space, why fix Hubble.
* Space-related concepts like commercial space development, where to put communications satellites or GPS, space weather prediction with incomplete data, how to test a physical law, differentiating the Higgs Boson.
* Anytime there is a choice in what to measure, where to go, or why something was built a specific way.


This short risk/decision scenario is based on this instructor's past used in a Mission Operations course. Note the format of mission summary and framing, issues, and then presentation of the key decision. The instructional goal is to introduce risk analysis and emphasize the primary concept of key trades (that a gain in one property results in a loss of another). There is no single 'right' answer, what is important is how the students reach their conclusion.

The US/Argentina solar observatory SAC-B is a set of 3 instruments for studying solar flares. The Cosmic Unresolved Background Instrument using CCDs (CUBIC) is a secondary payload designed to fit onto the back side of SAC-B (away from the sun) to do spectrographic (not imaging) astronomical measurements. It is also a technology prototype providing the first testing of X-ray CCDs in space (prior to their use in other more expensive missions). SAC-B costs $21.5 million. CUBIC cost $2 million to build. Assume both took 4 years of time to design and build.

logo Situation: CUBIC is sealed during launch then has to open its 'door' to operate. This door only has to open once. If it opens, CUBIC is a success; if it doesn't open, CUBIC fails. There are 3 methods for opening doors in space: motor, spring, and explosive bolts.

Motors: medium reliability; failure = CUBIC full or partial failure, no risk to SAC-B
Spring: medium reliability; failure = CUBIC full failure, no risk to SAC-B
Explosive bolts: very reliable; failure = CUBIC fails and damages entire SAC-B platform.
Discuss whether to use a motor, spring or bolt.


The "effectiveness of online courses depends not upon technology but upon an understanding of the medium and the application of sound pedagogical principles in using the medium" (Dede, 1996)

The majority of faculty see the role of faculty online is more facilitator than instructor. The majority of students see synchronous online classes as more like laboratory + lecture than simply lectures. (Conclusions by Barker & Pittman, 2012)

The conundrum of distance learning is that your task is to teach, but your challenge is to engage the students despite a lossy interface (relative to a live classroom). Student-lead scenarios and crisis cases are a ready resource to drop into your online courses to enhance engagement and learning. We find this strategy effective in Capitol College distance learning and hybrid courses.

Resources and References

To read this poster online or access its reference links, visit

Space Systems Engineering Presentations & Case Studies, logo

Goddard Library Repository NASA Case Studies, logo

Knowledge Management at Goddard - Case Studies, logo

Harvard Law School Library, logo

NASA/GSFC (JWST) "Build It Yourself Satellite Game", logo

Antunes, A., "Engineering Roleplay",, Feb 2012 logo

Barker, H. & Pittman, J, "A Qualitative Analysis of Best Practices in IA Online Synchronous Instruction", CISSE, 2012 logo

Rogers, E., "Creating Case Studies in NASA Project Management: A Methodology for Case Writing and Implementation", NASA, 2008