Getting things wrong in the real world can be costly, especially in the construction industry. But a few mistakes in a virtual world are all part of the learning - and sometimes there are more than a few.
"We've heard of some students taking 30 attempts to get a procedure into their heads," says Jackie Mullen, projects manager at Learn Direct and Build, a multi-partner e-learning initiative based at Glasgow Metropolitan College. "That's not possible in the workshop.
"That is the major feedback from the e-learning packs we've trialled, and now launched: students can keep on trying until they get it right and have it firmly in their minds."
A culmination of two years' development work, the construction skills packages assist in delivery of a range of Scottish Qualifications Authority units, and cover topics from brickwork and plasterwork to principles of conservation. One of their most appealing features, say students, are the games technologies that provide 3D simulations.
"You've a lot of things to do in the workshop and using this gives you a good idea of how to do them," says student Robert Geddes. "Straightening out walls, for example, it shows you how to put up timber billets and screeds, how to level it, then plumb it. You watch it on screen first, then do it using the mouse to pick out points and tools. So when you did it later in the workshop, you knew what you were doing."
Introducing students to a new procedure, getting them to practise in the virtual world, and then letting them loose on real-world materials is how the new resources were designed to be used.
"If they do it first on the computer, they know every step when they go to the workshop," says construction lecturer Ian Reid. "They can't skip anything. They have to do it all in a methodical manner. You can see the difference."
But the developers have been pleasantly surprised by the variety of other ways that lecturers and students have been using the e-learning resources, says games technologist Andrew Shaw. "Students can go on at home, through the VLE (virutal learning environment). So a lecturer might ask them to take a look at a new topic at the weekend before introducing it. He could use it as a refresher at assessment time. A student might try it, not use it for a year, then come back to refresh skills before going out to the workplace."
Bringing subject knowledge and computer games expertise together wasn't as hard as might be expected, says Mr Reid. "For instance, they came to the workshop and filmed me building an arch. They loaded the different stages the students have to go through on the computer. I went to check it and said, `That's not quite right' or `that should be called this'. It was fairly straightforward."
Lack of inside knowledge was a virtue, says Mr Shaw. "We came to it having no assumptions on my part or Ian's. He had to go through the whole process of how it's taught with us. If we didn't understand something, we'd go back and ask him to explain it all again."
Speeding up slow processes is another useful application built into the new resources, says Tom Wilson, principal of Glasgow Metropolitan College and chair of Learn Direct and Build. "There are lots of those in construction. Take absorption of water by wood, for example. You can soak a plank and wait weeks to see what happens. That's boring. There isn't much for students to see or talk about - or to do. That is important.
"We're no longer in the business of feeding them information while they just sit and take it in. They have to be involved. They need to have some control of their learning. We have plenty of evidence that what we are doing works.
"There is a wider context. Big players like Historic Scotland are now using our resources to bring their services to public attention, as well as to help students understand how to work with older buildings."
Input from the construction industry is at the heart of the new developments, says Ed Monaghan, managing director of builders Mactaggart amp; Mickel, and former Glasgow Metropolitan student. "We've been trying out the packages on health and safety, project management, running a business. Youngsters take to it immediately - faster than the lecturers, in fact. This is cutting-edge stuff."
Every college in Scotland has been given access to the new e-learning resources, says Learn Direct and Build director Jennie Kellie. "We have nearly 600 users already. So we've been going out and working with colleges on how to make best use of them."
A major focus for the future at Learn Direct and Build is climate change, she says. "There are passive houses in Germany and Sweden, if you're building from scratch, that don't need any heating. There's also a need for e-learning for people who retro-fit existing houses to reduce their carbon footprint.
"The right devices and techniques can improve historic buildings without compromising architectural integrity. It is challenging for the people doing the work - and for us to develop e-learning for them. But it is also very exciting."