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  Online Role Play








In collaboration with other Roles, the student must Research, React, Resolve, and Reflect on a scenario

  • Online role-play provides a scenario and a set of roles that students adopt in order to solve a problem, create something, explore an issue, etc. Role-plays are not simulations of physical systems. Role-play simulations are for modelling human interactions.
  • “Participants assume roles in a hypothesized social group and experience the complexity of establishing and implementing particular goals within the fabric established by the system. The differences and potential conflicts among the roles set in motion the dynamics of the simulation.” (Gredler, 1994).
  • The learning activity involves more than one learner interacting with other learners. A role-play needs about 8 – 12 roles to be effective. It involves several "stakeholders" and these stakeholders have different points of view. None of the points of view are black and white. The participation is NOT "acting" out as in drama or play in which part of the message is embedded in the body movement, nor is it therapy, but more cognitive.
  • The learning setting involves 4 tasks which generally follow in sequence.

    1. In the first task, students are required to research a role and understand the scenario in which the role is immersed.

    2. In the second task, students are required to interact with other roles, react to their varying viewpoints, and respond to news/events which might be inserted by the moderator to further the scenario.

    3. In the third task, students are required to resolve the issues via negotiation with the other roles and the moderator brings the role-play to a close via an event such as a peace conference, or student publication of a position paper.

    4. The fourth and final task is debriefing and reflection about what occurred in the role-play in order to outline findings of both a personal and general nature. This can be done either as a presentation, discussion or paper, individually or as a team.

There may be many variations to the implementation of each task and emphasis on each task may also vary depending on the intended outcomes for the role-play. Some of these variations can be explored in the Comparison Matrix (PDF) which compares and contrasts the characteristics of seven exemplar role-plays.

What is significant about the activities?

  1. Research a role and scenario: The focus of the task is the development of empathy with the role, i.e. understanding the events that have brought this person or organization to where they are now in the scenario; their values and political stances; their public (and maybe private) goals in this role-play and their probable strategies for achieving those goals; their allies, enemies and network; delineating the differences between this role and the student’s own stance.
  2. React: The aim of this task is to better understand the positioning of their own role, to better understand the arguments on each side of the issues presented in the scenario and to forge alliances with those who may contribute to their role’s goals.
  3. Resolve: This task provides direct practice in the generic skills of communication and collaboration as well as presentation and justification of an argument based on evidence or the art of persuasion. Like debating, the significance of the format of this task is that the student must present a compelling argument even if their own personal viewpoint differs from that put forward by their role. However, in contrast to debating, they must convincingly step into someone else’s shoes.
  4. Reflect: Many role-play designers would claim that if handled well then this is where the real learning occurs. After playing a character for two weeks or more, the student will be thinking and behaving in a role in the online role-play. Key objectives of this activity are to help the students disengage and re-engage in the real world and then to translate the specific things learnt in this scenario into general principles that can be applied in similar scenarios.

How to design the activity?

The scenario is the driving context for the learning to happen. It is made up of:

  • a story;
  • stakeholders and roles;
  • events.

Story: The story that sets the roles in context must contain sufficient conflict to spark debate among the stakeholders but the scenario must be manageable and the conflicting issues to some extent resolvable. There should be some possible resolutions in mind in case students are not forthcoming with their own resolutions.

Basing your role-play on an existing story saves a lot of work as long as copyright permits and if the existing story is available to the learners. The characters, the time and the environment are described in the story but you can adapt the characters and put them in different circumstances to create the role-play. Although it is useful to model role-plays on real situations there is an argument for keeping them slightly divorced from particular examples because irrelevant facts may be introduced; defensive behaviour may occur if the main characters can be identified; participants may want to duck out of responsibility and maintain that the faults lie outside the role-play situation (van Ments, 1999).

Stakeholders and roles: Stakeholders are not the same as roles as there may be more than one role allocated per stakeholder. Start designing stakeholder positions first. The danger of starting role-play design by working on characters first is that an over-emphasis on characters may develop and the generalized lessons to be drawn from the problem situations may be lost (van Ments, 1999). Depending on the learning outcomes, it may be sufficient for your role-play to go no further than stakeholder positions rather than fleshed out human characters. Usually the stakeholders in that case are organizations or countries rather than people.

Providing a role with both a public agenda and a private agenda can give the role compelling reasons to act. Such actions should allow the role to experience the kind of situation referred to in your learning objectives. Your instructions to the role should encourage them to think about these agendas themselves as part of the learning process, to publish the public agenda and to send the private agenda to the moderator. If your aim is to emphasise co-operation and collaboration then suggest in the private agenda some possible points for negotiation. Another technique for creating a need for authentic communication is to create information gaps between the roles.

Events: A role-play, like any other human activity, develops in stages. The obvious stages are: formation, development, closure.

During formation, players get to know the system, the characteristics of their roles, understand the goals of the role-play (not necessarily the same as the learning objectives) and start the communication process.

The development stage may consist of several episodes, each triggered by some events either created from communication in the previous stage or injected into the role-play by the moderator (and designer). As a designer you should try to create in advance a number of “kick start” events that you and/or your moderator can choose from depending on which direction the participants are taking the role-play. We call these events “kick start” because sometimes discussion in the role-play flags or peters out and a controversial event can serve to kick start discussion again. A lot of learning occurs at this stage. Usually, this is the longest-running stage.

The closure stage (or debriefing stage) is equally important. Closure here does not mean an end to the activities in a role-play. In fact, most role-plays never end. But at some point, the moderator has to ask the learners to stop, step out of the role-play, reflect upon the experiences in the role-play to draw conclusions, and compare the outcomes with academic theories and conceptual frameworks. It is true that the students will routinely reflect upon their actions during the role-play in all stages but it is the closure stage that formally consolidates the experience into concrete understanding.

A fuller description of how to design an online role-play, including examples from our Online Role-Play Expert Reference Group can be found in the Online Role-Play Designer's Guide and Online Role-Play Designer's Template (RTF).

Examples of tasks


Collaboratively propose solutions to the twin related problems of starvation and thieving in the newly established colony of Port Jackson.

  • Read role description. Research more about the role and about the camp in which your role sits, i.e. Convict Camp or Officers Mess. Understand the role’s strategic goals (including both public and private agendas).
  • Publish a public role description (could be an optional activity but most students comment that this assessment task really gets them into the role firmly).
  • Read other learners' public role descriptions (if the above task is not done by the students then the teacher/designer will need to ensure that public role descriptions are available to all).
  • Make contact via email with other roles that may be useful to furthering the role’s strategic goals.
  • Read, research and understand the kick-off scenario. React to any kick-start scenarios that the moderator might release.
  • Convicts as a group negotiate to publish a petition to the Governor and officers negotiate to publish a resolution.
  • If any students are in Governor’s role, they publish a decision or arbitrate further.
  • Moderator declares role-play finished and students participate in a collective online debrief with moderator.
  • Individual written reflection.


Political Science 102

Represent your assigned country on the United Nations Security Council.

Write Position Paper

Each student is expected to write a short paper in the form of a speech that will address the set of questions identified.

Attend First Security Council Meeting

Secret Diplomacy

Based on the position paper discussion, the participants are required to contact states they think they can negotiate with, and prepare draft resolution(s) that need to be presented to the next meeting of the UN Security Council. The participants can contact more than one state and explore options of submitting more than one draft resolution. These negotiations [hereafter identified as secret diplomacy] must be conducted through the web site.

Attend Second Security Council Meeting

Attend Third Security Council Meeting

Write Group Report for each tutorial group




Education (PDF)

The development of a school IT plan which will integrate a series of management and leadership strategies to form an integrated development strategy for the school.

  • Either individual students or groups of students research their role and collect useful documents related to their role and the scenario.
  • Students put a public description of their role on the website for everyone to review. Students also submit a private description to the instructor about particular motivations that they think are important for their role.
  • Role-play proper starts and is held in a discussion forum space. Should small groups rather than individuals play a role then closed discussion spaces for that group will be provided and when a response is agreed it will be posted to the main discussion site.
  • During the play Press Releases from the Minister for Education are fed into the information available. Several interventions might happen during the play. Play might extend over two weeks if the topic and scenario are sufficient.
  • Students meet for a debriefing session about what they thought and what had been accomplished.
  • Students assessment task is to discuss the processes through which a plan was formed and what they thought were the pressures on the production of a working and generally useful IT plan.




What resources are needed?

Mandatory resources for running a role-play include:

  • kick off scenario;
  • role descriptions;
  • background readings, including possibly databases and case studies;
  • news releases or kick-start scenarios which might be released by the moderator depending on direction of discussion.

These may be on a website and or in hard copy.

For most university level role-plays it will be important to provide access to primary source materials in the background readings, some of which may come from the teacher’s own research. Resources that might be provided to assist learning include:

  • examples of real life documents and materials relating to the subject;
  • policy documents;
  • ‘grey literature’, i.e. unpublished reports;
  • organisational charts;
  • access to people (opinions and advice) solving these problems as part of their occupation;
  • varying viewpoints on the subject/topic from different stakeholders;
  • theoretical treatises, e.g. journal papers, textbooks on the subject.

Since generic skills form a large part of the learning outcomes, the teacher may also wish to provide resources to assist students to understand collaboration, negotiation, communication and research skills.

What is important about resource choice?

  • Whilst students need to be encouraged to do their own research, provision of ready-made resources can save them a lot of time and free them to focus on engaging in the role-play itself. Depending on the subject area, real-world primary source material may not be publicly available but only accessible via the teacher and their research team.
  • Resources need to support not only the content of the role-play but also its process. Support for the generic skills needs to be integrated into the subject.
  • Students should be provided with more resources than they need so that they can choose those of greatest relevance, although care should be taken not to overwhelm them which might de-motivate them from participation.
  • The resources must provide multiple perspectives supporting different solutions to the issues in the scenario.

For examples of learning resources and tips from designers see Online Role-Play Designer's Guide, section 5.




What kind of support is needed?

  • Other students.
  • Moderator/s.
  • Previous students.
  • Depending on the discipline area of the role-play, access to real world professionals.

What are the critical forms of support?

There are two critical forms of support: other students and the moderator. Other students are of course essential. A role-play is a collaborative learning design. It cannot be done by a lone student. It is the interaction with other roles that forms the basis of the role-play and unless all roles are active the online role-play cannot fulfil its learning objectives. Some role-play designers publish a “participant obligation” to ensure that students understand the need to be fully engaged. It is usually set as a “hurdle” requirement and describes the requirement for students to participate with regular frequency and involvement. Support is also provided by other students playing the same role if a team approach is adopted.

The role of moderator in an online role-play is crucial. The moderator might be the original designer of the role-play and the subject teacher or it might be another subject teacher or tutor. There might be more than one moderator depending upon the number of students and the number of teams. For example, a moderator may be assigned to each country team in a UN Security Council role-play, or in the First Fleet role-play a moderator may be assigned to the Convict Camp, a moderator to the Officers' Mess, and a moderator to the Governor's Table.

See our Checklist for Moderators of Online Role-Plays (PDF) for hints on moderating.

What is the significance of the support strategies?

In this learning design students are proposing solutions to ill-defined and open-ended problems as in the real world. Support from the moderator and from the other students is necessary to ensure that:

  • the students' portrayal of the role is within the bounds of reality;
  • the negotiating strategy being applied will enable the role-play as a whole to come to some resolution;
  • the students' understanding of the complexities in the scenario is adequate to enable them to engage with other roles;
  • the proposed solutions are sensible and meaningful and are in accord with practices and processes in the area;
  • the student is not stifled by obstacles such as lack of participation by other roles, or by other team members if teams are used, or by unacceptable behaviour from others.

The role of moderator is therefore more than just as an Administrator and can also be described as Guardian Angel, Teaching/learning Resource, Manipulative Devil and Improvising Storyteller. Students need for example:

  • guidance to understand what happens in a role-play;
  • ice breaker activities to encourage what may be their first nervous engagement in email conversation;
  • assistance in the development of strategies for their role;
  • arbitration in the event of unwanted behaviours in the role-play;
  • timely interventions to prevent the debate stalling;
  • motivation to engage to the best of their abilities;
  • help with disengaging from the roles;
  • reminders of timelines so that the role-play is brought to a logical endpoint.

The role of moderator is therefore complex and varied. See our Guidelines for Moderators of Online Role-Plays for more information.

Depending on the role-play there may be some capacity to seek information from experts who can guide and provide advice, for example one student in the Securities Markets Regulation Role-Play contacted the well-known financial journalist whose role he was playing. This support brings real credibility and meaning to the learning activity. Previous students collating tips, comments and FAQs has proven to be an informative and motivational support for current students. Examples can be seen in our Guidelines for Moderators of Online Role-Plays section 3.


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