Virtual training labs vs. simulations

Both provide hands-on learning experiences and practice to build job-ready skills, but how are these tools different?  And when do you choose one over the other?

Simulations and virtual training labs are among the most impactful tools for developing technical and digital skills today. Both are valuable training tools that provide learners opportunities to take what’s learned in the classroom or course and safely practice applying it within the context of their job. While the technologies may seem similar at first glance, they are not. We’ve been helping organizations create both for over 20 years. Here are some key differences between them and examples of why organizations choose one over the other.

What are virtual training labs?

Also called virtual IT labs or hands-on labs, virtual training labs are non-production environments that provide people with hands-on, interactive learning experiences. Each lab is designed in a real environment (e.g., of your software) where learners complete real-world scenarios with tools/applications they’ll use while on the job.

For example, organizations can train users how to use their CRM system by having them complete common CRM tasks. Or how to troubleshoot and resolve a security issue within a scenario-based network attack (e.g., cybersecurity virtual labs). All this is experienced via hands-on practice.

What are training simulations?

Simulations are a replication of a digital environment. The technology relies on algorithms and equations to create apparent, but unreal, tools and objects. Within the simulation, users can complete objectives or achieve goals by interacting with selective parts of the simulated environment.

Think of training simulations as a screenshot of technology/software that users can interact with. Through these interactions, users gain context to support what they’ve learned and a high-level glimpse into the tools/platforms they’ll be using on the job as well as the type of tasks they’ll be doing. But at the end of the day, it’s not the real environment.

For example, developers or builders can replicate their business email platform. They can then create a simulation of a phishing attempt or cybersecurity attack and walk users through how to defend against them using replicated tools. Another example is high-fidelity simulations. The technology uses life-like manikins to replicate healthcare or surgical procedures that nursing students practice prior to seeing actual patients.

What are some differences between simulations and virtual labs?

The biggest difference between simulations and hands-on labs is that simulations are a replication of a specific use case or existing technology or software. Virtual labs, on the other hand, are real, non-production environments of the technology or software where users can freely explore and complete objectives.

Virtual labs

  • Learners actively practice applying what they’ve learned.
  • Outcome-based tasks so learners can arrive at the correct solution in multiple ways or safely “fail forward”.
  • Enables intentional learning experiences with integrated instruction sets that enable as little or as much structure as you desire.
  • Can easily update and manage the environment as software changes.
  • Capable of automatic grading via scored labs to remove manual checking a learner’s performance.


  • Limited or not really hands-on. Simulations may contain objectives but are usually met by clicking through instructions or checking boxes.
  • Reliant on manually programming prescriptive instructions of how a user can correctly arrive at the solution.
  • Learning environments are less structured and may require additional learning materials to provide an organized learning experience.
  • Harder to update as software changes.
  • Limited scoring or assessment capabilities that fail to provide in-depth learning insights.
Customer spotlight

Why did Quest choose virtual labs over simulations?

Training simulations are not robust enough to handle scenarios where there’s more than one right way to do the job. Nor is it scalable when simulations require that you program the different branching possibilities or click paths. And if Quest told partners which path to take, that removed the critical thinking and the purpose of their training.

Learn more about how Quest Software uses virtual labs with scoring and automated skill validation to validate job readiness and decrease operating costs.

Quest Software uses virtual labs instead of simulations because of virtual labs ability to be outcome based and handle multiple branching paths.

What is required to update labs and simulations?

Another primary difference between labs and simulations is the effort it takes to update both. For example, say you’ve created an Azure lab that teaches users how to complete real-world situations using the platform, but Azure just released changes such as a new user interface or updated documentation that then requires you update your training materials and documentation.

If you use virtual labs:
  1. Lab Developers or authors may* need to update instructions or screens to satisfy those interface or procedural changes in the lab development platform. Depending on the severity of the changes, there may need to be additional instructional design (ID) considerations and/or changes.
  2. QA review to ensure the instructions work for a learner to complete the necessary Azure tasks.
  3. Updated labs are available to learners immediately upon saving.


*We say “may” because with a true challenge-centric learning design you rarely have specific procedures or screen references to update!

If you use simulations:
  1. Developers or IT stakeholders are required to update the click paths or branches a learner can take to arrive at a solution and provide that documentation, instructions or screens to the ID team.
  2. Create a new recording of how the simulation should work with the new updates or features.
  3.  The ID team then builds the simulation based on the updated lab recording by adding in highlighted cues for the learner to follow.
  4. QA the simulation and confirm all the different paths to success are working.
  5. Upload simulation to your LMS or wherever training material is hosted.
  6. Learners can access content again.
The difference in updating the training tools boils down to this: updating a virtual lab typically only requires updating instructions and performing an ID and QA check. A simulation requires creating an entirely new simulation as developers need to capture new screenshots or videos that reflect the new changes.

When to use simulations and virtual IT labs as training tools.

Both simulations and virtual training labs are important training tools; however, the type of learning/training you’re looking to provide will ultimately decide which tool is best.

In situations where all that’s needed is to provide initial context into a subject and the environment doesn’t frequently change, simulations may be right for you. Users can click-through information, interact with tools and gain a basic understanding of how the technology/software works.

When more in-depth learning is needed or the environment is constantly changing, virtual labs are the better path. Virtual labs provide learners with more hands-on practice which increases learning retention, engagement and confidence.

For example, Skillable’s hands-on experiences not only provide hands-on practice, but they also provide validated skills development. As learners complete labs, they, as well as L&D stakeholders, receive scored lab reports that show where they’re excelling and where more instruction is needed. Labs can help automate and scale feedback while also be designed to provide training recommendations based an individual’s performance in a lab.

Spend more time building courses to close skills gaps—less time managing training materials. With Skillable, you can.

Even if you’ve long relied on simulations to provide training, Skillable can help you improve your learning by giving you more. More time to develop new training materials. More opportunities for your learners to practice and be hands-on. More workforce skill data specific to your organization. Now’s your chance to stop being mired in a perpetual backlog of out-of-date training content.

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